I’m not a fan of organized tours, typically I get more out of just wandering and discovering things for myself. However, exceptions proving the rule, the highlight of my trip to the Big Island was a guided tour of the Mauna Kea Summit. You can tour it independently if you like but you’ll need a four wheel drive and keep in mind you will be sharing the rickety dirt road with tour buses much larger and and having less precise turning abilities. Your call.
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii, 14,000 ft. Slightly higher than its sister Mauna Loa which you can see in its entirety from the top of Mauna Kea, along with all of the Big Island and some of the other Hawaiian islands. While both volcanoes are dormant, there’s ample gossip about one or the other destined to erupt in the next 5 years. Who knows how true that is? I like to think this is the same kind of urban legend as when I heard California would break off into the Pacific in 1985. And then again in 1997, 2000, 2005 and 2012. To my knowledge, that hasn’t occurred either.
On the tour we had a lunch / elevation adjustment stop at about 7000 ft at an old, abandoned farm. Its interesting to note the vegetation here, since at 9000 ft, it changed drastically into a brown, black and burnt-red lunar-scape with no vegetation. Around this elevation we learned that Mauna Kea is one of the largest military training grounds around. Tour guide informed us when a big red flag is flying over the base that means training with live ammunition is in progress. The big red flag was up as we made our way up to 10,000 ft.
After bumping and grinding our way up the impossibly twisty and small dirt road we landed on a paved road for the last 2 miles to the top. Once at the top the reality of the summit being ‘a little colder’ bitch-slapped us square in the face. From 80F coast side to 30F summit side. Its worse than it sounds since what they don’t tell you is that the wind is a constant 20 mph.
The Mauna Kea Summit is home to some of the highest-powered telescopes in the country. More than a dozen of these pepper the top of the summit and we were there at sunset to watch them all open and start their rotation to observe whatever they were observing. Big mechanical devices coming to life were the only sounds other than the constant wind. The clouds we were looking up at from the shoreline looked like the sea since they were so far below the summit. It paired well with the rest of the mountain top which at sunset faded into an icy blue cast, the outer islands disappeared and the big island started to shimmer like a distant star. The result left me feeling as though I’d had been dropped into an alternate universe. Then the space shuttle went overhead and I could actually tell it was the space shuttle with naked eyes.
Truly surreal and something you shouldn’t miss.