Paradise Peaks: The Highest Mountains in Hawaii

Proving that first impressions are indeed prone to deception, the highest mountains in Hawaii rival the tallest mountains on the planet.

Travel and Exploration
14 December 2023

Over 2,300 miles west of the contiguous United States, Hawaii is the only state in the Union made up entirely of islands. Arcing over some 1,500 miles in the central Pacific Ocean, there are around 137 Hawaiian Islands, of which eight are classified as major ones. From east to west, these are Big Island, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau. Confusingly, Big Island is also called Hawaii.

In seeking out the highest mountains in Hawaii, it’s worth beginning with the fact that all its islands are, in fact, the tops of volcanic mountains. They were formed as the Pacific Plate travelled northwest over a fixed “hotspot.” The hotspot, a plume of magma beneath the earth’s outer crust, punctured holes in the Pacific Plate, before rising to the surface, forming a trail of islands in its wake.

Having occurred over 70 million years or so, this process is still happening, with another island believed to be in the making. As for the ones already present, Hawaii’s highest peaks are found on its youngest member, Big Island. So let’s head there first, shall we?

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (Credit: Grant Kaye via Getty Images)

Most people think of Everest as the tallest mountain on earth. But what if a taller one is hiding among Hawaii’s highest peaks? Take, for example, Mauna Kea. At first glance, this dormant volcano’s height of 13,803 feet above sea level qualifies it as the tallest volcano in Hawaii. But it’s less than half of Everest’s 29,035 feet. And yet, Mauna Kea has hidden depths. Specifically, more than half of its depth, or rather height, is below sea level. When measured from base to summit, Mauna Kea is 33,481 feet tall. Located fairly centrally on the Big Island and the highest point in the Pacific basin, Mauna Kea’s snow-capped summit is topped by the world’s biggest astronomical observatory.

Mauna Loa

An erupting Mauna Loa Volcano, Hawaii. (Credit: Wirestock via Getty Images)

From the highest we move onto the biggest mountain in Hawaii, Mauna Loa. Its elevation, 13,679 feet above sea level, falls 124 feet short of neighbouring Mauna Kea. But just like Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa has startling surprises in store. For one thing, its underwater height to the sea bed is 16,400 feet, bringing its total up to 30,079. But that’s not all. Because the immense weight of Mauna Loa causes a depression in the sea floor of a further 26,200 feet. Adding both these heights to its subaerial, or open air, height, that takes it well beyond the size of Everest and Mauna Loa, to a staggering 55,700 feet. That’s close to 11 miles long. Which makes its name, which translates as “Long Mountain,” eminently apropos. On top of this, Mauna Loa makes up more than half of Big Island. Finally, there’s the fact that Mauna Loa is an active volcano which has been erupting for more than 700,000 years. Indeed, it’s the largest active volcano on earth.


Sliding Sands Trail, Haleakala National Park, Hawaii. (Credit: Ed Freeman via Getty Images)

Making up around three-quarters of the island of Maui, is the third tallest mountain in Hawaii, Haleakala. Its name, Hale-a-ka-la means “house of the sun,” referencing the belief of early Hawaiians that the demigod Maui tamed and slowed the sun from atop the volcano’s summit. Now commonly known as the East Maui Volcano, it’s been erupting for some 10,000 years and, with numerous events in the past millennium, is classified as active. Rising 10,023 feet above sea level, it’s protected within Haleakalā National Park.


Hualalai Volcano, Kona, Hawaii. (Credit: Douglas Peebles via Getty Images)

On the western end of Big Island, the next tallest mountain in Hawaii is Hualāla. Estimated to have risen above sea level around 300,000 years ago, its summit now reaches 8,278 feet high. Older and more rugged than Mauna Loa, it’s considered an active volcano. It’s said to be named after the wife of legendary explorer, Hawaiʻi Loa.

Puʻu Kukui

A view of Waimea Canyon from the Kukui Trail. (Credit: PictureLake via Getty Images)

The highest point in Hawaii’s West Maui Mountains, Puʻu Kukui rises 5,788 feet above sea level. The name, which means Candlenut Hill, refers only to the summit of this extinct volcano. Classed as one of the wettest places on earth, the steep slopes of this jagged, eroded mountain are best known for their incredible biodiversity. Each elevation zone unveils another microclimate and different vegetation, with both rare and endemic plant species present.

Hawaii's Highest Peaks

Sunset over Kalalau Valley, Hawaii. (Credit: HaizhanZheng via Getty Images)

And so we say aloha to the highest mountains in Hawaii, volcanoes with both startling stature and hidden depths.


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