Hawaii: The Top of Mauna Kea
January 1, 1970
USA: Mauna Kea, Hawaii
While in Hawaii last year, I was lucky enough to be able to make the drive up Mauna Kea. It is the tallest mountain in Hawaii, nestled in the middle of the Big Island. It is a dormant volcano and considered a sacred place for the native Hawaiians. I met an old guy who has been living in Hawaii for decades and is part of the Mauna Kea protectors told me that if you flattened the mountain, it’s so large that it would cover the entire continental US in four feet of rocks. The base of the mountain starts at the floor of the ocean and rises up 33,ooo ft well into the clouds. What a beautiful place!
The drive up the mountain was winding and slow. About 20 minutes up the the mountain there is a visitor center. The first thing I noticed was that my shorts and tank top were not enough to keep me warm. Note to self: when going up up a mountain, remember the air is thinner and MUCH colder. I bought a long-sleeved shirt at the visitor center to keep me warm while we continued our trek.
I was glad that we had the four wheel drive because the road was steep and windy and the previously paved roadway gave way to a rock path. It took us another 45 minutes to reach the peak. I was not expecting the huge white observatories on the top of the mountain. There were 13 in total, however we didn’t get to see all of them. When we stepped out of the Jeep we were hit with a blast of freezing cold air. It was so quiet at the peak, not a sound could be heard.
Becca, Matt and I walked around for a few minutes, taking in the scenes, taking pictures and enjoying the sights. Below us we could see the clouds! I repeat, THE CLOUDS WERE BELOW US! The wind whipped around blowing our hair all over the place and causing goosebumps to pebble our skin. We climbed on the roof of our Jeep and sat until the cold brought us down. As I stood above the rest of the world I could see volcanoes below us. It was so surreal: the mountain had mountains and volcanoes on top of it.
I realized that the air was so much thinner and my heart was racing after walking after a few moments. The shortness of breath caused by the altitude did little to dampen our moods. It’s moments like this when you realize just how small you are in the grand scheme of things. The sheer grandiosity of this mountain was humbling and I had the sense that if I reached high enough I could touch heaven. So we did what anyone else would do in that moment: yoga! It seemed fitting to ground ourselves in the moment. I love all the different colors of the rocks all around me. There were dark reds, tans, browns and they sounded different as our feet crunched over them.
I think the only thing that takes away from the beauty of the peak of this mountain are the observatories at the top. Hawaii is renowned for it’s clear night skies that are a star gazers dream. All over the state there are measures taken so that there is little light pollution. The street lamps are a dull yellow and there are certain regulations on they type of lights allowed. The observatories themselves are a bright white color and they look like snowballs or scoops of vanilla ice cream that have been dropped on the peak. They looked out of place at the top of the sacred mountain- which is the cause for many debates all over the state. The native Hawaiians want to protect their beloved mountain from any further development. There are talks of creating another 30 meter telescope on the mountain. While we were there, peaceful protestors had set up chairs and signs disagreeing with any further development of the mountain.
As we began our descent down the mountain, the pressure began to change. I had a water bottle that I noticed became deformed from the pressure at top and was trying to get it’s shape back. I opened the top and a loud thunk! came out of the bottle as the pressure equalized. We all agreed that a daytime visit to the mountain was gorgeous but we wanted to return at night to see the stars.
Several nights later we returned to the mountain. It was so cold that we all layered up in every article of clothing we had in the jeep. While it was a comfortable 78 degrees outside that night, on the mountain we could see our breath in the darkness and my lips turned a lovely shade of blue. The visitor center had a star show happening while we were there. We got to learn all about the mountain, constellations, and peered through one of the huge telescopes. An announcer with a special laser pointer and a microphone informed the crowd what we were looking at. I haven’t seen so many stars in my whole life. It was so dark and all the stars appeared to be twinkling. It looked like millions and millions of twinkle lights blanketed throughout the darkest of black skies. Lights from cars descending the mountain were quickly extinguished as people respected the beauty of the darkness.
It was tempting to take our Jeep to the peak again, however, we all decided due to the lack of light and the windy unpaved path, it would be safer to stay at the visitor center. Inside, we bought tea and warmed up with soup as we thawed out from the chilly air. The visitor center has a small theater set up with a projector and bench seating that plays documentaries about Mauna Kea and its history.
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If you are traveling the Big Island of Hawaii and have your own vehicle, I highly recommend going up the mountain. It is breathtaking and photos don’t do it justice. This free activity will provide you with some amazing memories and stories from above the clouds!