Mike CaputoIt happened 400,000 years ago. In an explosion on the seabed by the Mauna Kea volcano, the “Big Island” of Hawaii was born. The indigenous Polynesians had not yet arrived and so no one was there to witness the fiery birth.

Today, Mauna Kea stands 13,803 ft (4,207 m) above sea level. From its oceanic base, its height is 33,100 ft (10,100 m) – more than twice Mount Everest’s base-to-peak height. It is, without question, the highest point of all the islands that make up the Hawaiian state.

We all know Hawaii as a tropical paradise: beaches, sunshine and palm trees abound. Lesser known, however, is the fact that Hawaii has 4 out of the 5 major climate zones in the world, and 8 out of 13 of the sub-zones. During winter months, the summits of both Mauna Kea and neighboring volcano Mauna Loa boast freezing temperatures that extend from night into day. And, believe it or not, it is not uncommon for it to snow.

You read that right. It snows in Hawaii.

When it does, I head up the volcano with my snowboard to experience the beauty and madness of it all. If I don’t have time to grab my snowboard, I’ll remove the fins from my surfboard and use that instead. Snowsurfing! It’s tricky since there are no edges to carve with – I fall and eat snow a lot – but who cares! I’m snowsurfing in Hawaii!

“The mountain can be as dangerous as it is beautiful… Be smart about exploring and heed the warnings park rangers provide.”

The best time to see snow in Hawaii is between the months of December and February, although that’s never a guarantee. The old volcano is not particularly thoughtful about anyone’s schedule. While it can storm tremendously, blanketing the mountain with a few feet of snow, it can all melt within a week.

Some important tips to keep in mind if you do decide to visit Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in the wintertime:

  1. You will need a 4×4 or a local tour company to access the summits. A rental car is not a viable option as companies will often void insurance coverage if you take the car past certain points on the volcanoes.
  2. Be aware of the change in altitude. I often stop at the visitor center on Mauna Kea for a minimum of 30 minutes in order to adjust before making the journey to the summit. The elevation still gets me dizzy and everything is more difficult when the air is thin.
  3. The mountain can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. People have been injured and have died because they were ill-prepared for the weather. This past winter, a man went missing for two days before being rescued by helicopter. He was hiking on Mauna Loa in jeans and a t-shirt; then weather hit hard, snowing 3 feet overnight. He survived by melting snow for drinking water and making a snow cave for warmth.

Be smart about exploring and heed the warnings park rangers provide.

I know what you might be thinking: “Why would I travel to Hawaii to see snow? If I go to Hawaii, it’s because I want to get away from the cold!”

Let me assure you, if it’s cold and snowing at the summit of Mauna Kea, it’s still 80 degrees at the beach. Dip your toes in the ocean, then push yourself to explore the snow-covered peaks.