Tall cinder cones atop the summit of Mauna Kea and lava flows that underlie its steep upper flanks have built the volcano a scant 35 m (115 ft) higher than nearby Mauna Loa. Mauna Kea, like Hawai‘i's other older volcanoes, Hualālai and Kohala, has evolved beyond the shield-building stage, as indicated by (1) the very low eruption rates compared to Mauna Loa and Kīlauea; (2) the absence of a summit caldera and elongated fissure vents that radiate its summit; (3) steeper and more irregular topography (for example, the upper flanks of Mauna Kea are twice as steep as those of Mauna Loa); and (4) different chemical compositions of the lava.
These changes in part reflect a low rate magma supply that causes the continuously active summit reservoir and rift zones of the shield stage to give way to small isolated batches of magma that rise episodically into the volcano, erupt briefly, and soon solidify. They also reflect greater viscosity and volatile content of the lava, which result in thick flows that steepen the edifice and explosive eruptions that build large cinder cones.
The Hawaiian name "Mauna Kea" means "White Mountain" but is also known in native traditions and prayers as "Mauna a WAKEA" or "The mountain of WAKEA." Mauna a WAKEA is the first-born mountain son of WAKEA and Papa, the progenitors of the Hawaiian race.