At a height of 4,205 meters (13,796 feet), Mauna Kea is Hawaii's tallest peak. It was formed through volcanic activity thousands of years ago, and although long dormant, it remains one of the Big Island's most visited sites, as home to the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared, and sub-millimeter astronomy.
A typical trip to the Mauna Kea Summit takes about three hours one-way and begins in the mid-afternoon from Hilo, Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa. The mountain is easily reached from Saddle Road (State Route 200), by turning up Mauna Kea Access Road near mile marker #28.
Six miles along this road on the right is the Visitor Information Station (VIS) at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. In addition to providing tourist information about Mauna Kea and its observatory, a bookstore, a sundries shop, and public restrooms are located here.
Mauna Kea may be dormant, but it is by no means desolate. A number of feral animals may be observed along the way. These include wild pigs, goats, sheep, donkey, mongoose, and cats. Some native species make their home here, too, such as the Pueo (Hawaiian owl), Nene (goose), I'o (hawk), Golden Plover and Hoary bat.
The road up the mountain is steep, rising another 4,500 feet from the VIS, and it takes a circular course. Four-wheel drive is a must. The view en route reveals the island's beauty, including the ocean and resort areas on the west side of Hawaii and the city of Hilo to the east. Active volcano Mauna Loa can be seen to the south. At the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour, it takes about half an hour to reach the summit from the VIS.
It is best to arrive at the top about a half hour before sunset. This affords the best views of dusk over the Pacific, the lights coming on in the cities and the stars coming out overhead. It also allows some time to look around at the telescope facilities that dot the peak.
The Mauna Kea Observatories include 13 large research telescopes. Among these is the 8.1-meter Gemini, built and operated by a partnership of seven countries. There are also two 10-meter telescopes operated by Caltech. Some scheduled tours allow viewing of the heavens through these powerful scientific instruments.
It can be quite cold and blustery atop Mauna Kea, so bringing along a parka and some gloves is highly recommended. Also, the air is quite thin up here, with 40% less oxygen and 40% less air pressure than at sea level. For this reason, anyone with lung problems or heart disease may be ill-advised to make the trip.
Star-gazing is, of course, the main attraction at the summit. Mauna Kea is so close to the equator that virtually all of the stars of the Northern Hemisphere plus some 70% of those of the Southern Hemisphere can be seen from this point. For many, it may be their first viewing of the Southern Cross, rising above the horizon to the south as night progresses. Visiting with an experienced local guide provides a wonderful opportunity to learn the names of stars and constellations, not only in Latin and English but in Hawaiian language as well.
Tours to the top of Mauna Kea can be booked through Mauna Kea Summit Adventures at 74-5606 Pawai Place, Kailua Kona, Hawaii 96740. The cost per person, including roundtrip transportation, dinner, all taxes and user fees, is $197. During busy periods, such as summer vacation and year-end holidays, visitors are advised to make reservations at least 30 days in advance.
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