As the roosters crowed and the December sun poked through Kona’s celebrated puffy white clouds, my roommate awakened me: “It’s clear! Let’s go before everyone on the island is at the top of Mauna Kea.” After a few days of unusually copious snowfall atop the world’s tallest volcano, we—like others ready to take on the reduced atmospheric pressure at its nearly 14,000-foot height—had been awaiting the perfect day to drive to the summit and revel in Hawai‘i’s rarest activity: playing in the snow.

View of snowcapped Mauna Loa from the road to Mauna Kea

The snow report confirmed that the summit road was open, so after packing gear and sandwiches, our quartet set off in a four-wheel-drive Jimmy toward the infamously bumpy and weaving Saddle Road. Ours was one of few cars along this 6,600-foot elevation shortcut between Hawai‘i Island’s Kona and Hilo shores, which straddles the valley between the homes of two rival Hawaiian goddesses: Poli‘ahu, whose icy cloak rests on Mauna Kea’s wintry slopes, and Pele, who sometimes alights inside the more fiery volcano Mauna Loa. As we drove past mossy pastureland and then brittle ‘ōhi‘a forests, Mauna Loa’s rounded, snow-dusted peaks beckoned, while Mauna Kea’s spiny profile practically dared us to ascend.

About an hour later, we turned onto Mauna Kea Access Road, easily scaled on a paved slope laid down amid barren rock. Yet even this unforgiving landscape houses hearty flora and fauna. We spotted endangered silversword, māmane trees, diminutive francolins, and endemic ‘ōhelo shrubs and berries, a favorite treat of the nēnē. Just 20 minutes after that, we arrived at the Visitor Information Station and stepped into the brisk air at 9,300 feet.

The station’s website recommended at least a 30-minute stop to acclimate to the high altitude before going up. Visitors without a 4WD vehicle shouldn’t go farther, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. We looked at the interactive displays and watched a film about Mauna Kea. The website has more information about hiking and nightly public stargazing.

We were eager to arrive at the top before the crowds and afternoon clouds, and after donning warmer layers, we soon began the slow drive up the steep and gravelly summit road. During the eight-mile journey, there was plenty of time to photograph breathtaking views around each switchback. At 12,000 feet, a thick blanket of snow covered the site of an ancient Hawaiian adz quarry—the largest primitive quarry in the world—and its ancient heiau, petroglyphs, and hiking trails. From then on, all was white until we began to see parked cars lining the roadside, and we stopped near shiny silver observatory domes bathed in potent sunlight.

My fingers burned with cold and my head ached as if I’d worn a too-small hat, but the island’s highest 360-degree view provided an arresting distraction. Visibility was so clear. I peered down to lush green Waimea pastures, out across a broad moonscape of cinder cones, and across the sea to Maui’s Haleakalā. As we unloaded our sleds and snowboards, watching others throw snowballs or pile snow into truck beds to bring home, I marveled at this otherworldly place. It resounded with an almost tangible spiritual presence that commanded respect, yet it was still so close to home.

Hawaiians believe heaven and earth connect on the summit of Mauna Kea. Standing tall on its snowy peaks that day, it was easy to understand why.

By Christine Thomas
for AAA Hawai‘i Magazine

Drive to the summit: Call first for road conditions (808-935-6268), then take Saddle Road (Highway 200) from Hilo or Kona (via Highway 190) to Mauna Kea Access Road. Stop and acclimate at the Visitor Information Station, open 9 a.m.–10 p.m. daily. From there, continue solo in your 4WD vehicle, or join a Summit Tour 1–4:30 p.m. on weekends. A list of recommended commercial tour operators is available on the website.
When returning to Kona, you won’t regret the ten-minute detour to stop at Kamuela’s Daniel Theibaut’s. French-Asian cuisine is served in the century-old restored Chock In Store, surrounded by antiques, vintage and contemporary Hawaiian art, and local designer Sig Zane fabrics. 808-887-2200, On the other side, Hilo Bay Café promises a range of gourmet island fare that won’t empty your wallet, from kalua pork sandwiches to house-made manicotti. 808-935-4939;
Mauna Kea is accessible from both sides of Hawai‘i Island, so take your pick. Experience the understated elegance of the Kohala Coast’s newly renovated architectural gem, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (rates start at $360; 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, 866-977-4589), and swim in the calm aquamarine waters of Kauna‘oa Bay. In Hilo, be transported back in time at Shipman House Bed & Breakfast (rates start at $209; 131 Ka‘iulani Street, 808-934-8002), a landmark historic home operated by a fourth-generation Hawai‘i family.