As I drove the gradual incline, the car downshifted to a lower gear, jerked and slowly inched up the road; I could feel just how hard it seemed to be working to get up to the Mauna Kea visitor center. Hawaii has the tallest mountain on earth. No, I haven’t lost my mind, and no, Everest hasn’t moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is in fact the tallest mountain; from it’s base (under the sea) it comes in at 33,000 feet which puts it significantly above Mt. Everest! However from sea level it is measured at 13,796 ft – which is certainly tall enough to wreak havoc with your body and provide a hefty headache.
This was one of my most anticipated sites on the Big Island, Mauna Kea, home to the best stargazing and astronomical observation. This is where my Big Island luck had run out. I had tried to go on a astronomy tour to the summit, but thanks to a number of factors, I was unable to go. So I was relegated to the 9,000 foot level at the visitor center only. However I made the drive up to the visitor center as I knew it would be a fascinating area to see that would once again leave me thinking, “I can’t believe this is Hawaii.”
That’s exactly what I thought when I parked the car and stepped outside into the cold air. I quickly kicked off my flip flops, put on my socks and tennis shoes, and put all the layers I could possibly fit on my body. With a two wheel drive car I was unable to go any further up to the summit, but I was able to still go the visitor center which had some interesting videos of the observatories and after the sun sets they bring out telescopes to do some star gazing with students from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.
However the most fascinating thing to me was the drive to Mauna Kea via the saddle road. The road climbed up out of the rain forest and Hilo area and soon I felt as if I was on another planet. There were plants I had never seen before, and the landscape was barren except for complex cloud formations. The drive to the visitor center was stunning, and it’s worth a stop, especially if you time it for sunset as I did that evening.
However, on my next trip, I’m determined to get to the summit and see those laser telescopes in action! You have to leave some things for the ‘second visit’!