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Hawaii Five … Snow?

Earlier this week, visitors to Hawaii’s tallest peak were treated to an island rarity: fluffy white snow. Believe it or not, Mauna Kea is one of three mountains—along with Mauna Loa and Haleakela—that receives snowfall most winters. It’s a surreal experience to gaze down on our famous beaches as snowflakes drift down around you.

While we usually get only a couple of inches of snow a year, Mauna Kea was blanketed with more than 10 inches as recently as 2021. And in 2016, the mountain saw record snowfall of more than two feet. Many surfers leap at these rare opportunities to swap waves for powder, and it’s not uncommon to see makeshift sleds slip-sliding down mountainsides after a fresh snowfall.

a man riding skis down a snow covered slope

Native Hawaiian mythology gives explanations for all kinds of natural phenomena, and snow is no exception. According to legend, the snow on Mauna Kea and our other peaks is the handiwork of Poli’ahu, one of four sister goddesses who rule the Hawaiian mountains. Poli’ahu, the most powerful of the sisters, makes her home at the summit of Mauna Kea and watches over the mountain as its protector.

Poli’ahu is said to have invented snow to defend her mountain home against her archrival, the fire goddess Pele. Pele was sore after Poli’ahu bested her at lava sledding, an indigenous sport that involves barreling down mountainsides at speeds exceeding 50 mph. Determined to get even with Poli’ahu, Pele caused Mauna Kea to erupt with lava, setting

Poli’ahu’s beloved home aflame. But Poli’ahu quickly spread her beautiful white kapa, or cloak, over the mountaintop, quenching the flames and protecting her home. Native Hawaiians believe that it’s due to Poli’ahu’s protection that Mauna Kea hasn’t erupted in about 4,000 years.

If you’re visiting Honolulu expecting a tropical paradise rather than a winter wonderland, not to worry. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Honolulu was a mild 52 degrees Fahrenheit, and that was back in 1969. In fact, we’re one of only a handful of American cities that has never received snow.

On the other hand, if you want to join surfers and sightseers on the snowy slopes of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, or Haleakela, we recommend that you call their visitor information centers ahead of time. The mountain roads can take several days to clear of snow and ice after a storm, so it’s best to plan your visit.

Written by Chris, a local expert guide for Waikiki Crawling. A historian on the lam from the world of academia, Chris enjoys gardening, hiking, and playing at open mic nights after one too many beers. Want to learn more about Honolulu’s hidden history? Join us on an Aloha Pub Crawl!

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