Return to Hawaii…The Big Island: Into the Thin Air of Mauna Kea

Observatory on summit of Mauna Kea

Observatory on summit of Mauna Kea

We awoke to yet another day of rain and cold in Volcano, Hawaii. This was our last night in Volcano, so we packed up to head over to Waikaloa on the other side of the island. On the way there, we planned to drive to the summit of Mauna Kea. At 13,796 feet, it’s the highest point in Hawaii.

After having breakfast in Hilo and picking up some stuff for lunch, we headed toward the mountain. The Saddle Road, which connects the two sides of the island, was a narrow gravel road the last time I visited here in 1997. To my surprise, the road is now a wide, paved, two-lane highway. It was still raining when we left Hilo but we had hopes that we’d be above the clouds on the summit of Mauna Kea.

Memorial or burial site on Mauna Kea

Memorial or burial site on Mauna Kea

About half-way across the island, we left the Saddle Road, and began the steep drive up the mountain. We made a brief stop at the visitor’s center (9,000 feet) to get somewhat acclimated to the altitude. We walked around and took photos of something that kind of looked like a burial site or a memorial and an interesting plant called silversword.

Silversword plant

Silversword plant

Waterdrops on silversword plant

Water drops on silversword plant

Center of silversword

Center of silversword

Then we continued our climb to the summit. The road is gravel part-way, then becomes paved near the top. As we climbed, we passed several snow fields, a strange sight to see in Hawaii. The road ended at the summit next to one of the many observatories that dot the mountain top. Still clouded-in at the top, we decided to hang out and eat our lunch while we waited for the clouds to clear.

It’s amazing how your body can feel after driving from sea level to 14,000 feet in a couple of hours. I felt kind of loopy, almost drunk, the whole time we were up there. I’ve been to this altitude many times on climbing trips in Colorado, but when driving to this altitude from sea-level in just a matter of a couple of hours, the body definitely feels it.

Beware of Falling Ice!

Beware of Falling Ice!

We hung out at the top for about 1/2 an hour before it started snowing heavily. It wasn’t sticking to the road, but we decided that the mountain gods were not going to bless us with a view, so we decided to head back down. The park rangers must have also decided that conditions on the mountain were not good; they had closed the road while we were up there. When we returned to the visitor’s center, they had to open up the barricade to let us back through.

Near summit of Mauna Kea

Near summit of Mauna Kea

We continued our journey to Waikaloa with a brief stop for a coffee at the Starbucks in Waimea. The country on the west side of the island is so different from the east side: with much less rainfall, it looks almost like a desert compared to the rainforest on the eastern side. What little vegetation there is, is interspersed among the many lava flows from past volcanic eruptions. We arrived at our villa in Waikaloa around 4:00. We hit the grocery store to stock up on some breakfast foods and had dinner at a nearby locals hangout.

Valerie’s family was supposed to arrive into the Kona airport around 8:00 that evening. Unfortunately, a mechanical delay in San Francisco resulted in their arrival being pushed back to 1:30 am the next morning. They finally got to the villa around 3:00 am, very exhausted, but happy to finally be in Hawaii.

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About Mike

I have a passion for adventure travel that began in 1989 with my first overseas trip: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Having never been to a foreign country, Africa felt like being on another planet; I knew then and there I was hooked on travel. Since that time, I have visited all seven continents and dozens of countries. I’m using the experience I’ve gained in planning my own trips to help my clients plan their own adventures through my adventure travel company (http://www.offtrailtravel.com). After working as a firefighter for the US Forest Service in California and Wyoming for three years, I moved to Durango, Colorado where I graduated from Fort Lewis College with a degree in accounting. After graduation I moved to the Denver area where I worked in a Big Eight accounting firm to obtain my CPA license; soon afterward I began a career as an auditor with the Colorado Department of Education. My background in accounting helped me develop detailed-oriented skills that have been extremely useful in researching and planning my own travel over the years. I think this provides a unique asset to my clients in putting together their adventure travel plans. I currently live in Golden, Colorado with my wife Valerie, who shares my love of adventure travel. I’m an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club where I lead trips for club members and have taught ski lessons in their Telemark Ski School. I enjoy skiing, mountain hiking, trail running, photography, and astronomy. I take any opportunity I can get to explore new places, whether it’s on the other side of the world or just down the road.
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