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Majestic Peaks: Exploring the Cultural and Geological Significance of Hawaii's Shield Volcano

Author Cameron Wysocky on Haleakala

The Hawaiian islands contain some of the most diverse and otherworldly landscapes in the entire world. Chief among the archipelago’s wonders are the massive shield volcanoes that dominate the islands of Hawaii and Maui. All of the Hawaiian islands have been formed through the process of shield volcanism, however, the three peaks Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakala offer the most impressive example of the phenomena. Each mountain has it’s own cultural and geological significance.

Mauna Kea in background with Oc1 Canoe race

Mauna Kea, the tallest of all Hawaii’s volcanoes at 13,796 feet, holds profound cultural significance for the Native Hawaiian people. Revered as a sacred place deeply intertwined with their spiritual and ancestral beliefs, Mauna Kea stands as a cultural touchstone that connects past, present, and future.

For Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is more than just a geological marvel; it is a sacred realm where deities and ancestors reside. It is believed to be a point of communion between the earthly and the divine. The summit provides a direct connection to the cosmos, making it the most sacred place in the world. For this reason, actually summiting Mauna Kea is not recommended and is deeply disrespectful to the Hawaiian people.

The mountain's slopes are adorned with archaeological sites, heiau (temples), and petroglyphs, all attesting to its historical importance as a place of worship, ritual, and education. The land's unique flora and fauna also hold cultural value, playing roles in indigenous narratives and traditional medicine practices.

Recently, Mauna Kea has become a rallying point for the Native Hawaiian community's efforts to protect their heritage and sacred lands. Advocacy and protest movements against the construction of observatories on the mountain's summit have demonstrated the enduring commitment to safeguarding the cultural integrity of Mauna Kea.

Trail to Mauna Kea

With all of this in mind, I approach every climb up Mauna Kea with reverence and respect. I have never summited the mountain and never will. It brings me great joy to experience such a special place and makes me feel more connected with the culture of the islands that I call home.

Start of hike from Onizuka center at 3 am with starts and Kilauea Lava flow

Any hike up Mauna Kea starts from the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy parking lot, following the Humu’ula Trail. The first thing that you’ll notice is the thin air, the center is located at around 9,000 feet. This makes a huge difference when coming from sea level. Consider spending some time at the center to let your body acclimate to the thin air. Don’t forget to fill out a form indicating when you arrive and when you plan on leaving so that the rangers can account for you. Unfortunately, even if you have become slightly acclimated the the air will continue to thin as you approach the summit cone, be sure to watch for signs of altitude sickness. You will begin the hike by following the signs marked “Humu’ula Trail. At the start be sure to take in the otherworldly scenery and plant life that adorns the mountain's slopes. It’s important to enjoy the scenery at the beginning because life will quickly become less enjoyable as the grade of the trail increases significantly: you will ascend 2,000 vertical feet in the first two miles. Distract yourself from the painful vertical gain with thoughts of Lake Waiau, a sacred alpine lake sitting at 13,020 feet. It is one of the highest lakes in the world and a site that is believed to connect the heavens to the earth. Just as you are discouraged from summiting Mauna Kea, swimming in Lake Waiau is highly frowned upon.


Mauna Loa, the Long Mountain, extends its grandeur over an expanse of approximately 2,035 square miles (5,271 square kilometers), encompassing nearly half of the Big Island of Hawai'i. This colossal shield volcano stands as a paragon of resilience, continuously shaped by a symphony of eruptions and flows that have contributed to its immense mass. Its formation is a testament to the gentle yet relentless power of effusive eruptions, as molten rock journeys from its core to the surface, gradually extending its bulk. Mauna Loa's eruptions, spanning from tranquil oozing to more dramatic pyroclastic displays, have granted scientists invaluable insights into the processes of volcanic activity. This natural laboratory has deepened our understanding of how shield volcanoes evolve and interact with their environment. For the native Hawaiians, Mauna Loa is a revered teacher, symbolizing the profound lessons that can be drawn from the cycles of creation and destruction. Its lava flows, which stretch across the land like a living canvas, bear the marks of nature's artistic hand.


Haleakalā, the House of the Sun, cradles the island of Maui with its stunning crater, a caldera spanning an astonishing seven miles (11 kilometers) in width. This dormant volcano has witnessed the passage of time through its geological history, etching its story in the contours of its landscapes.

Haleakalā's caldera was formed through a series of cataclysmic eruptions and collapses, leaving behind a vast expanse of unique geological features. Its summit, rising to an elevation of 10,023 feet (3,055 meters), has become synonymous with one of the world's most breathtaking spectacles—the sunrise.

As the first rays of dawn pierce through the horizon, the landscape awakens in a symphony of colors, painting a vivid connection between Earth and sky. Haleakalā's geological legacy is written in its lava flows, its vibrant cinder cones, and its eroded valleys. But it is the spiritual narrative that truly sets it apart. Legends of the demigod Maui harnessing the sun from its rim epitomize the intersection of cultural mythology and geological wonder.

In the collective tale of Hawaii, these volcanoes stand as living testaments to the ceaseless dynamism of Earth and the intricate interplay between geological processes and human culture. Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Haleakalā beckon all to contemplate the deep currents of history and spirituality that have shaped the islands, inviting us to uncover the layers of meaning embedded within their peaks and valleys.

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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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