Mauna Kea, Hawaii (Big Island)
Plan a day at Mauna Kea! We drove the Saddle Road, a BIG no-no. The rental companies won't allow you to drive it. If you get in an accident, you aren't covered. So why take the road? Well it is a LONG, windy (twisty), very scenic road and your only way to Mauna Kea. Now don't think you are going skiing. You're going to observe! As you drive up the road to the observatory, you first reach the 9,000 elevation mark at the Onizuka visitors center. We only rented a car, so we had to stop there anyway. ONLY 4 wheel drives are permitted to drive the last STEEP, 1/2 hour climb to the 13,000+ mark up to the observatory. I was not prepared for the cold. I was still in shorts, as we had just left 90 degree weather down below. We stayed until dark so we could look through the huge telescopes. Saw the Milky Way, Saturn, Mars, and many stars. It was fantastic. The road is a little intimidating- straight down. But you've got to do this. I wish I had taken pictures, but all you could see is clouds and lots of lava rock. Friends of mine did drive up to the observatory. Enjoyed it very much. I highly recommend you drive to Mauna Kea.
I love going all the way up to the Mauna Kea Observatories. The warnings abound trying to convince you NOT to make this trip in your rental car. Or tell you how RISKY it is to your health. Truth: you can get light headed... but more than likely if you are in normal to average health, and don't spend too much time up there, you will be fine. (Stop at base camp for 30 minutes if possible...) Go on up! Enjoy the HIGHEST point in the world (if you count from ocean floor up, it's higher than Mt Everest!)
Mauna Kea is the highest mountain on the island, and it takes awhile to drive there, so not many people do it. It's an inactive volcano. When we drove up there we felt so high above everything else, way above the clouds, that it felt very surreal, like being on another planet. It's rather desolate that high up (almost 14,000 ft.), with lots of red rock, with amazing views of sister mountain Mauna Loa. There's an observatory that's not open to the public, but for me it was worth the drive for the one-of-a-kind view. Many months out of the year there's snow up here.
A Little Warning: you do need to be cautious about getting light-headed at this altitude! And about getting altitude sickness. Don't think that if you're in good shape you'll be okay - it has nothing to do with your physical fitness. You've probably just gone from sea-level to 14,000 ft. in about two hours, so have some respect for your body's ability to adapt to that. Stop at the Visitor Information Center at 9,200 ft. on your way up and stay there for at least half an hour - it will help you acclimate. They have books and food and stuff for sale as well as informative information and restrooms, but check the expiration date on any food before you buy it - lots of it was well past the date when we were there.
Also be prepared for nearly five miles of rough, unpaved road after the visitor center. If you prefer, you can find a star-gazing tour where they'll drive you up here for sunset and then let you look through the telescopes they bring. I'm sure with the very thin air up here the sky must be brilliant, but we prefered to see the view from the top in the daylight. Even the drive, which starts out along Saddle Road (which is rather infamous for being very poorly maintained) going through the heart of the island, was very enjoyable, with all kinds of different landscapes that you'll never know about if you stick to the coasts.
It is quite an experience to go to Mauna Kea for a sunset! I went on one of the tours, as we were just tourists and the tour companies have experienced drivers who take those roads all the time. Also, I don't believe our car rental company covered us to go on Saddle Road, let alone to take it further up towards the summit, so we felt it would be preferable to take one of the tours up to the summit, and I was very impressed. Besides the incredible sunset we witnessed, there was an interesting star viewing after the sun went down thanks to the informative tour guides and perfect conditions due to the high elevation and lack of light pollution.
From atop Mauna Kea, you can watch her shadow grow on the clouds below as the sun settles. After sunset, return to the Visitor's Center and view the heavens with the telescopes that the staff will bring outside (if it's clear). Just looking at the skies with your naked eye will reveal so many stars that you usually do not get to see. Why is that? You are above most of the atmosphere that causes interference and because it is so dark up here.
Have you ever wondered what is inside those white, domed buildings at the top of Mauna Kea? Well, I'm sure you know what's inside them. But, have you ever wanted to see inside and up close?
Now you can! AND, it is FREE!
However, there are several drawbacks. Here they are in no particular order:
The tour is offered up to 15 weekdays per month.
Reservations required at least one week in advance.
No children under the age of 16.
No pregnant women.
If you have respiratory or other serious physical conditions or limitations; please stay at sea level.
The road is just gravel towards the top and steep. If you drive yourself, you will need a strong understanding of driving mountainous roads and their asscoiated dangers, especially as it applies to your descent.
Does it sound like fun?
Click on the link below. Then find their "Visiting Subaru" link on the homepage.
You will not find much to do on the top of Mauna Kea. If you came here yourself, you had better have rented a four-wheel drive vehicle for your descent. You will need to lock it into 4WD-low range so you can use the drivegears to slow your travel down the mountain as opposed to dragging your brakes. Dragging brakes cause heat build-up and, eventually, brake failure. You may just end up making a straight path at the next turn in the road. Besides, every car rental contract I have signed while on this island forbid the vehicle to be operated even on Saddle Road (the way you get to the observatory access road).
On top of that, the peak is almost at 14,000 feet. The air is thin and you may suffer oxygen deprivation. So be sure to stop at the turn-off from Saddle Road for about 30 minutes. Then stop at the visitor's center for about the same. You may climatize. If you cannot acclimate at this altitude, do not attempt to go further.
The tour companies that come up here bring oxygen just in case. Since it takes about two hours for emergency response to this remote area, it is better to go with one of them. On your own? Be careful.
The Keck Observatory has twin domes that house twin 10 meter optical telescopes. These scopes have scanned the heavens and have been instrumental in locating planets revolving around other stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Because of distance and atmoshere interference, they are only able to discern planets as small as 4x the diameter of the Earth. And with 200 billion neighboring stars in our home galaxy, there are plenty of places to make discoveries.
Although us common folks cannot tour the Keck Observatory, you can tour the Subaru Telescope. Just view the tip below.
You can see the product of Keck's work at the Onizuka Visitor's Center and in the lobby of the Keck observatory headquarters in Waimea.
Cont'd in next tip...