A rare snow on Mauna Kea

It happens a couple times a year—but not quite this much.

Winter has come early for a number of popular travel destinations around the Western Hemisphere—with out-of-the-ordinary snowstorms this past weekend painting things white.

Perhaps the biggest surprise: accumulation at altitude on Hawaii Island in the South Pacific.

Mind-boggling photos released this week by the National Weather Service show some serious snow covering the summits of Mauna Kea (13,802 feet) and Mauna Loa (13,677), the two highest peaks on Hawaii’s biggest island.

In all, parts of the island received nearly three feet of snow—prompting the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue a winter weather warning. NWS meteorologist Matt Foster told the Los Angeles Times that while snow isn’t unusual for the two mountains, two or three feet in a few short days is “at the higher end of what we’d typically get up there.” 

Foster added that “Mauna Kea” means “White Mountain” in Hawaiian, an overt reference to the fact that the mountain can experience whiteouts from time to time.

To put the weather into perspective, the high temperature on the island this week has been 84 degrees.

Even more context: Although it usually snows annually on Mauna Kea, Manua Loa, and Haleakala, that snow doesn’t last more than a few days. This particular snow has lasted nearly a week. 

Because of this deluge, the unpaved access road to Mauna Kea has been closed and wasn’t scheduled to reopen until another storm passed through. When the road does open, officials expect local winter sports zealots to shred some tropical powder.

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(In case you’re wondering, there is a vibrant ski community on the island, but there has been a push in recent years to discourage skiing and boarding on Mauna Kea, which is considered a cultural site.)

Meanwhile, visitors can enjoy the views wherever they go. Sources on the ground in Hawaii say that the snow-capped peaks in the distance have made Kailua-Kona, Waimea, and the Kohala Coast feel like foothill towns in the Colorado Rockies. Jessica Ferracane, a spokesperson for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, added that the snowy summit of Mauna Loa was visible from some of the most popular spots in her park, too—enabling travelers to see fresh snow and molten lava in the same hour.

If you’re itching to see the snow, act quickly. Forecasts indicate the unsettled weather systems are on their way out, meaning typical (read: sunny with intermittent rain) weather should return to Hawaii soon.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.