Mauna Kea Summit

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Back to Big Island

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in the center of the Big Island, and is about 14000 feet high. Due to the easy access to the summit, taking about 2 hours from sea level, several observatories are set up at the top. It also attracts scientists and astronomy enthusiasts from around the world.

But before venturing into the wild, precautions are necessary to drive up to the summit –

  1. Altitude sickness can sneak in any time because of quickly changing altitude and thinning oxygen content of the air.
  2. Only 4 wheel drive cars are allowed to travel beyond the Visitor Center (at 9000 feet).
  3. It can be extremely cold with heavy winds. So layers are important. Also staying hydrated and warm are key to enjoy the surreal beauty of the night sky.

We took the Mauna Kea summit adventures tour with stargazing (cost ~$450 for two). Although we hate conduced tours, especially the ones that deal with science and nature. With slightly above average knowledge about the geology and science of volcanoes, this tour seemed a little below par in providing intriguing information.

We were picked up from the Kailua-Kona market area around 2:45PM. The pickup spot was conveniently located, and the driver was on time. We took the longer route to reach the park visitor center to pick up other guests. En route, the driver did give out some information that was interesting but being jetlagged, we got into intermittent slumbers (so it was not that interesting after all. ;-)).

Once up to the top visitor center, we were given out Parkas and gloves. For the ones who bought the dinner, warm lasagna was served here as well in aluminum foils. We did not get the dinner option and instead carried sandwiches (which I’d strongly recommend since we heard the food was not palatable enough).

It gets really windy and starts getting low on oxygen. So it is normal to feel dizzy, and the best way to beat that is the breath slowly and walk/eat at a moderate pace. Staying warm is also important so take opportunity to grab coffee, hot chocolate or tea.

After spending ~45 minutes here, we hopped on to the bus and headed to the peak. The drive up was slow and adventurous. Once up there, just before the sunset, it got dark

quickly, wind picked up, and the cold was borderline unbearable. But having set up the tripod in time, I was able to grab some stunning sunset pictures.

Due the altitude, it was not advisable to stay up there for long. Therefore we headed down in the dark and could slowly see the stars above shining bright. We stopped near the visitor center and parked somewhere empty so that other cars’ headlights don’t spoil the mood.

There was a large telescope setup in the visitor center and there was a long queue for stargazing. Our private tour had two telescopes set up and we could take turns in seeing the Milkyway, Venus, Saturn, Proxima-Century and a supernova. The guides were patient enough to explain what we were seeing. There was hot chocolate/coffee and snacks as well for everyone to stay warm.

We started our descent around 9pm when the stars of interest started going below horizon. After an exhausting day of excursions, we were back to the hotel and ready to hit the couches by midnight.

In conclusion, we do want to state that it is one of the very few places in the world where regular visitors can climb that kind of an altitude, driving. The amount of stars you can see in the darkest of the nights is surreal. Walking in the summit would make you wonder if you are still on Earth or suddenly teleported to Mars or the Moon. Definitely a MUST do in Big Island.

Check out my TRIB review here.

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