The Volcanoes of Hawai’i: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Kilauea

  • Karen E. Bail
  • 04/8/22

You’ve probably heard that Hawai’i is pretty synonymous with volcanoes. Comprised of over 137 volcano chains, the Aloha State is the result of eons of volcanic activity from the Hawaiian Emperor-seamount chain within the Pacific. But did you know that the Big Island itself—the island chain’s youngest member, at less than one million years old—is actually comprised of no less than 5 volcanoes in all? Today we’d like to share some facts and features around three of the Big Island’s mightiest geographical formations: Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Kilauea! 

Mauna Loa is an active shield (broad, rounded) volcano and the largest active volcano on planet Earth. It comprises over half of the Big Island in mass, standing 13,681 feet above sea level. If you think that’s tall, then consider this: Mauna Loa also rises an unbelievable 30,000 feet from the bottom of the ocean itself—a greater distance than the height of Mount Everest! 

On the whole, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times in the past 170-plus years, for an average of one every six years or so. Interestingly enough, we are actually in the volcano’s longest period of silence since records have been established, with no eruptions noted since 1984—though the volcano is still very much considered to be active. 

While visitors to the mountain are able to travel to the top, it’s also good to note that this is not an easy trek: the summit area is accessible via two trailheads that feature jagged terrain and occasionally-low visibility, so hikers are encouraged to bring plenty of provisions and be of an adequate fitness level in order to do so. 

Mauna Kea, on the other hand, is a dormant volcano and the highest peak in the entire islands—and the second-highest peak of any island on Earth, at around 125 feet taller than Mauna Loa at 13,803 feet. More than half of Mauna Kea’s height lies below the ocean, with its base reaching an astonishing 18,900 feet to the ocean floor. Its most recent eruption is estimated to have taken place between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, 

It is possible to travel to the summit of Mauna Kea but be forewarned: many rental cars are not contracted for the rough terrain and possible damage this can incur! Fortunately, there are a number of companies who specialize in making the summit should you be interested. 

Finally, Kilauea is another shield volcano located on the southeastern shore of the Big Island. While its above-sea elevation pales in comparison to both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, coming in at 4,009 feet, this still-active volcano has erupted multiple times since 1952 and is considered to be the most active of all five Big Island volcanoes.

The historic home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, Kilauea is also the home of world-famous Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, making it a must-see on your next island adventure (the park also encompasses the summit of Mauna Loa as well). Check out their webpage to learn more about potential volcanic activity, historical facts, and guided tours available. 

Although we’ve focused on these towering volcanoes, let’s make sure to show the other regions of the island a bit of love, too: Kohala is the oldest volcano on the island and now extinct, whereas Hualalai last erupted all the way back in 1801 and is also dormant. Aloha!

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