Most prominently, Mauna Kea is built upon older flows from Kohala to the northwest, and intersects the base of Mauna Loa to the south.

Hilo Ridge, a prominent underwater rift zone structure east of Mauna Kea, was once believed to be a part of the volcano; however, it is now understood to be a rift zone of Kohala that has been affected by younger Mauna Kea flows.

They are covered by the oldest exposed rock strata on Mauna Kea, the post-shield alkali basalts of the Hāmākua Volcanics, which erupted between 250,000 and 70–65,000 years ago.

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In Hawaiian mythology, the peaks of the island of Hawaii are sacred.

An ancient law allowed only high-ranking aliʻi to visit its peak.

The lake is very small and shallow, with a surface area of 0.73 ha (1.80 acres) and a depth of 3 m (10 ft).

Radiocarbon dating of samples at the base of the lake indicates that it was clear of ice 12,600 years ago.

With its high elevation, dry environment, and stable airflow, Mauna Kea's summit is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation.

Since the creation of an access road in 1964, thirteen telescopes funded by eleven countries have been constructed at the summit.

Isotopic composition shows the water present to have been derived from rain coming off Mauna Kea at an elevation higher than 2000 meters above mean sea level.

Its presence is attributed to a freshwater head within Mauna Kea's basal lens.

The Mauna Kea Observatories are used for scientific research across the electromagnetic spectrum and comprise the largest such facility in the world.

Their construction on a landscape considered sacred by Native Hawaiians Mauna Kea does not have a visible summit caldera, but contains a number of small cinder and pumice cones near its summit.

Mauna Kea is about a million years old, and has thus passed the most active shield stage of life hundreds of thousands of years ago.