Hawai'i High Country Overview
The Web's Only Mountaineering Guide for Hawai'i
Kulia i ka nu'u. (Strive for the summit).
The area I’m calling the High Country has no real name and no established towns. This part of the island is accessed by what’s called the Saddle Road (also known locally as the lower road in contrast to the upper road, Hwy. 19). The Saddle Road has a notorious reputation for danger, but I think it’s completely overblown. Some car rental companies still prohibit driving on the Saddle Road, so check your insurance and car rental options before driving here. In reality, the road is mostly a well-paved two-lane highway with some sections where the road is in worse shape and a few one-lane bridges where one direction of traffic must yield for the other. I personally have no issue at all driving the Saddle Road, but I live in the mountains. Use your judgment and check your rental car agreement. Many locals drive it every day for work.
The Saddle Road, as its name implies, crosses the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. There isn’t much to do along the road because a lot of this land is taken up by an Army training area. It’s well-marked, and you should obviously keep out of it. There may be unexploded ordinance in this area from as long ago as WWII. If you find anything of military origin, try to remember the spot and contact the Army. Never touch unexploded military ordinance (UXO). Call the Army Environmental hotline at 800-327-3845 to report the location, and be as precise as possible.
If you’re visiting this part of the island, you’re not really in Hawai’i anymore, at least according to the weather. If you plan to travel to the highest parts of the island, you’re going to a place where you can routinely encounter arctic weather. Bring your coat, gloves, winter hat, boots with Gore-Tex, etc. These are big mountains with big mountain weather.
The map below shows the hikes available in the High Country, which you can find in the drop down menu above. You can also click the links below the map to find the hikes.
View Big Island Hikes in a larger map
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): Speaking of not really being in Hawai’i anymore, when you travel to the highest reaches of this island, you need to consider AMS. Acute Mountain Sickness is serious and can be potentially fatal. AMS has nothing to do with fitness level, age, or diet. It’s only a function of your subjective ability to deal with changing altitude. Starting at a higher elevation is very helpful, but most visitors to Hawai’i stay along the coasts. If you live in a mountain setting in America, you might consider climbing Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea on one of your first days on the island. Despite many old wives’ tales, the only cure for AMS is to descend in altitude. No other action relieves the symptoms of AMS.
Symptoms of mild AMS include: mild to severe headache; nausea; vomiting; lack of appetite; lack of energy; altered balance and coordination; dizziness. Symptoms of extreme AMS include: loss of mental awareness; extreme shortness of breath even at rest; swelling of the hands and face; loss of consciousness.
Even more serious are two conditions of AMS known as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). HAPE symptoms include: headache; nausea; anxiety; inability to catch breath even at rest; gurgling sound in the lungs; very rapid respiration rate; dry cough becoming wetter; incoherence and possibly hallucinations; blue coloration in lips and fingertips. HACE symptoms include: headache that does not respond to aspirin; nausea and vomiting; loss of balance; altered mental state; decreased mental ability; confusion; hallucinations; inability to talk; coma-like state.
As stated above, the only cure for AMS is to descend. I always experience a bit of lightheadedness and slight nausea when climbing to high altitudes, and mild symptoms of AMS are normal when climbing high mountains and are just part of the experience. However, more severe symptoms of AMS could be fatal. In general, fluid in your lungs or severe mental issues might be HAPE or HACE, which are very severe conditions. AMS is fickle and affects people differently. Divers should take special caution to avoid these higher areas at least until 24 hours after a dive, as they would a plane flight.
Ascending gradually and with controlled stops is the key skill here. The greater danger is actually when driving because you can rapidly ascend altitude more rapidly than on foot. Case-in-point: the Mauna Loa trailhead is a bit over 11,000 feet. Rapidly ascending from sea level to this altitude is nearly sure to trigger symptoms of AMS. A good idea would be to drive leisurely to where the Mauna Loa observatory road begins at about 6500’ and stop for a while. Then, continue to about 8,000 feet and stop again. Then, drive to the trailhead at 11,000 feet and spend a considerable amount of time just waiting there. Work these considerations into your trip planning for the day and commit to what we mountain people call an “alpine start:” a nice-sounding phrase that masks the horrid reality of waking up hours before the sun rises.
Take another look at Ed Viesturs’ quote at the beginning of this chapter: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” If you experience severe AMS symptoms or even persistent mild AMS symptoms, descend immediately and save the mountain for another day. If symptoms persist once you’ve descended to sea level, obtain medical attention immediately. This is a matter of life and death.
Weather in high elevations is variable and constantly-changing. Not too make too much of this cliché, but when you’re up in the high country, you’re not in Hawai’i anymore. There’s no real pattern to daily weather patterns, but you’re probably better off in the morning than the afternoon on the average day because the trade winds can sometimes blow clouds and fog later in the afternoon. Getting an early start also has innumerable other benefits on big mountains anyway. The biggest hazards at high altitude will be quickly changing weather for which you are unprepared. Fog can force you to use dead reckoning navigation when you lose the trail (imagine deep fog in a sea of lava with no vegetation). Wintry weather can come upon a hiker quickly, so ensure that you carry appropriate cold-weather, rainproof gear if you get stuck in a storm. Carefully choose your summit day based on weather forecasts, and continually evaluate changing weather as you climb.