As more visitors fly in to Hawaii and explore the islands, Maunakea Rangers are warning the public to exercise caution and know the risks of driving to the summit of the famous Hawaii island mountain.
The rangers, who work for the University of Hawaii at Hilo Center for Maunakea Stewardship, now inspect visitors’ vehicles at a checkpoint at Halepohaku at the mid-level elevation just past the Visitor Information Station.
With a new set of administrative rules that went into effect last January, there is now a ban on two-wheel drive vehicles above the 9,200-foot elevation. As of May, the rangers have turned away more than 5,500 vehicles.
Maunakea Ranger DuWayne Waipa also wants drivers with four-wheel drive vehicles to know the 8-mile drive to the nearly 14,000-foot elevation summit is dangerous, and over mostly unpaved roads, with steep inclines, blind curves, rocks, and no guardrails.
“We want to make sure that they are safe to and from the summit,” said Waipa in a news release. “This is one of the responsibilities that was put upon us by the University of Hawaii to protect and malama this aina, this mountain.”
Another fact that visitors should be aware of, especially at the summit, according to Waipa, is that it would take at least an hour for the nearest ambulance team to arrive.
Six to 12 accidents have been reported on the road each year, according to the Center for Maunakea Stewardship, ranging from single-car crashes to rollovers.
The rangers in recent years have responded to about four distress calls a month — for everything from flat tires to vehicle breakdowns, altitude sickness and medical emergencies. They are trained as first responders, and are on duty seven days a week, with a minimum of two on patrol during every 14-hour shift.
They also monitor cultural sites, and serve as ambassadors that remind visitors to treat Mauna Kea with respect while answering questions about the mountain’s cultural, scientific and natural resources.
In 2018, before protests and the pandemic closed the road to Mauna Kea, 60,000 vehicles drove to the summit.