Wait, it snows in Hawaii??

Hawaii is one of those magical places that people just have a hard time leaving.  White sand, crystal clear water, amazing mountain ranges and volcanoes are just the beginning of what this beautiful island chain has to offer.

But did you know it also offers the chance to ski and snowboard on top of THE largest mountain in the world??  No??  Me either until about a year ago when Hawaii came into full view for us!
Let me explain because I can almost hear the cries of, "What about Everest?" and "how can it snow in a place that is so tropical?"  Mauna Kea is slightly over 13,000 feet above sea level, that of course makes it smaller than Everest which stands at roughly 29,000 feet.  The catch is where you do the measuring.  Mauna Kea actually begins on the sea floor and when measured from its base it is well over 33,000 feet making it 4000 feet higher than Everest and the largest mountain in the world.

An interesting aside is that coupled with its sister volcano Mauna Loa (which stands only 100 feet below) Mauna Kea is so massive that together they depress the ocean floor by 4 miles!  Think about that for a minute....4 miles!  Amazing!

How many places in the world can you be by the sea in a bathing suit one moment and an hour or 2 later at the top of a summit snowboarding?  Not many at all!   As soon a we realized it was a possibility in Hawaii we knew while living on the Big Island we would have to get up there and see for ourselves.

We missed the snow early in the season because the road just never opened (they close it whenever there is snow or ice as it is so dangerous).  The snow melts fast so timing is really important.  A few weeks ago we had bad weather including snow on the summit but the road was closed for 2 days. I watched the road reports carefully and waited.  Finally, we woke up to the sun and I knew it would be the day to drive up there, sure enough the road was open by 10am. 

I live on the Hilo side of the Big Island.  Mauna Kea is on Saddle Rd basically half way between Kona and Hilo.  From Hilo it takes about 1 hour to get to the turn off for Mauna Kea.  Everyone says you need 4x4 to get up to the summit but we decided to go for it anyway.  I have an old, and I mean old like 1994, minivan with NO 4x4!  I wasn't sure we would make it but figured we would get up to the Viz (visitors center) and take it from there.

Danger around every corner, even invisible kind, ha!
The visitor center is at roughly 9000 feet. The drive up to the viz is paved but very steep in a few spots but not a big deal.  At the viz you can use the bathrooms, watch a great informational video about the area, shop at the gift shop and enjoy a hot chocolate or coffee...it is cold up there!  It makes for a great point to take a break and acclimatize.  We felt no ill effects there.  Climbing from sea level to 14,000 feet in an hour or 2 can be really intense so at a minimum take an hour to rest at the visitor center.

We drove up and decided to wait an hour and a half to acclimatize a little bit.  We had a blast meeting strangers, chatting, watching pick up trucks full of snow head back down the mountain to bring some wintry joy to the neighborhood kids.  It was such an atmosphere of joy and real aloha spirit.  The camaraderie felt very inclusive!

It is suggested that children under 16 (also pregnant women or anyone that has been scuba diving in the last 24 hours) not go to the summit due to the atmospheric changes and altitude sickness probability.  I brought my 15 and 10 year old but decide to leave the 6 year old at home after hearing horror stories about ear drums bursting, vomiting, etc. I usually react badly to altitude changes so I  worried about my reaction as well as the kids.  Pace yourself and be sure to head back down if you start to feel ill.
The view from the viz, no real snow yet!
Just after the viz the road turns to dirt for a few miles before changing back to pavement just before reaching the summit.  At this point all the road signs indicate that you need 4x4, I was a bit nervous but the car did fine and really the road is not that steep.  I could see that some instances there may be more mud on the road so coming down in particular would be nice to have 4x4 but I used a low gear and took my time.  Don't avoid the summit just because you do not have a big truck!

As we approached the snow line our excitement grew.  We passed cross country skiers, snowboarders, and families just playing in the snow.  As we approached the summit we were blown away by the beauty.  You can see both coastlines from the top and there are huge mounded mini craters as well as all the telescopes.  There are several on the summit with another huge one being built soon!

Almost there
As soon as we got out of the car though the altitude reared its ugly head.  Our excitement quickly faded to nausea, dizziness, and an overwhelming sense of illness.  We all felt it!  We stayed on the summit for about 15 minutes marveling at the view, amazed at the snowboarders energy level, and feeling quite sick.

We decided to head down a bit in hopes we would feel better.  Just before the road turns back to dirt again there was a nice parking area (where people hike to the sacred lake).  We got out and could tell we felt better right away.  I would say it was 2000 feet lower than the summit.  Here we were able to build a snow man, sled down the hill on our butts, gather some snow to bring home in coolers for our little guy, and have a huge snowball fight!

It was the first experience in snow for my 10 year old and although he had fun at first it quickly turned to overwhelming coldness and he retreated to the car.  More layers would have helped.  The weather was generally pretty warm up there, I would guess around 50 degrees, but the snow and ice left us freezing anyway.  Bring extra clothes!

After an hour or so we drove back down and again it was no problem for the car even with no 4x4.  I used 1st gear to help save my brakes, I think that is imperative.  The weather changed quickly and the visibility dropped to practically nothing half way down but we just drove slow and all was fine although it was a nice feeling to get back to the visitor's center in tact and not over heating!

This was the "good" visibility on the way down!
It was a great day and I strongly suggest to anyone to head up and experience it if they are here when there is snow on the summit.  You can also go up in the evening for a star watching experience that I would imagine is amazing in the right weather.  As an added treat head to the beach when you come down and build a snowman in the sand, that's what we did and the kids thought it was amazing.

  • Bring lots of layers.  It gets quite cold and wet when you get in the snow.  I wished we had full outfits to change into after our play!
  • If you feel bad head back down.  Altitude sickness is very real and can be extremely dangerous, the nearest hospital is roughly an hour away in Hilo!
  • Bring sunscreen.  It may be cloudy at the visitors center but by the time you reach the summit you will be above the clouds and it is very sunny!
  • Drink lots of water and bring snacks.  There is food at the visitor's center if you forget but up on the summit eating a little bit helped us feel a lot better.
  • Do not try and go around road closures.  I admit some of the signs are a bit overboard, like needing 4x4, but if the road is closed it is definitely for your safety.
  • Mauna Kea is a sacred site to Hawaiians, please do not leave trash, move rocks around, or take anything out of the park.
  • Use a low gear when driving, that will reduce the wear on your brakes.  There are a few spots that are over 15% grade so it is steep.
  • To help your ear pressure, try to equalize often.  The easiest way is the plug your nose, close your mouth and gently blow, you'll feel relief straight away.
  • Don't forget a cooler to bring some snow home.  We had multiple snow ball fights at the beach and at our house because we brought some back with us.

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  1. Great photos! I was so excited you got to see snow in Hawaii. I remember feeling absolutely horrible on Maui when we went from sea level up to the summit of Haleakala due to altitude sickness, so I completely understand. And that Invisible Cow warning is hilarious!

    1. Thanks, we were thrilled too! Now to get that lava flowing so we can see that up close before we leave, lol. Yeah we joke about the invisible cows often, I know what my next excuse will be if I get in an accident...But officer, you see there was an invisible cow.....

  2. It's one of those generally understood things in the astronomical community that you don't really need a 4x4 for Mauna Kea, it's just something told to have extra safety for people who likely aren't working at 100% due to the altitude. (For example, one requirement of going up there to observe is you need to do any calculations you think you might need to do in advance at lower altitude- most people can and will mess up numbers that high up.)


    1. I suppose that is true. I definitely did not feel well up there, cannot believe people go up there and snowboard!

  3. photos are cool. You guys even made a snow man. that is awesome

    1. Yes it really was loads of fun! Who would ever think hey would get to build a snowman in Hawaii??

  4. That's amazing. Having grown up in areas where the only chance of snow has also been getting up mountains fast, I can appreciate the experience. Only our mountains aren't as high.

    My kids, 10 and 7 still haven't seen snow as we live in Namibia. The few chances they've seen it in the distance in Cape Town area, we just couldn't take the time to rush up the mountains.

    1. It's funny because the kids regularly complain about missing out on snow but they found very quickly how cold it is and their tunes changed:)