Despite a weak economy, there is one activity on Hawaii's Big Island that is still thriving and, in fact, more popular than ever. That activity is a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea for sunset.
Mauna Kea, which means White Mountain in Hawaiian, is the world's tallest mountain if measured from the bottom of the ocean to its summit. At 13,796 feet above sea level it is the tallest mountain in Hawaii, by just a few feet over its neighbor to the south, Mauna Loa.
The company that I selected for a trip to Mauna Kea was Hawaii Forest and Trail. I had previously taken their Kohala Wai PinzTrek Adventure in North Kohala and was eager to take their Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure as well. When my wife and I were invited to cover the 2008 Kona Coffee Festival, this became one side trip that we wanted to take.
If you have even a passing interest in astronomy or geology this adventure is not to be missed. On the way you'll learn about the remarkable evolution and changes that the Big Island's natural world has experienced. Even if all you want to do is see one of the most amazing sunsets ever, you'll definitely want to make the trip.
The Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure requires a considerable commitment of your valuable vacation time. Depending on whether you check-in at Hawaii Forest and Trail's headquarters in Kailua Kona or at one of the several hotels along the Kona-Kohala Coast where additional pickups are made, the entire trip can take upwards of eight to nine hours.
Departure times vary throughout the year based on sunset times at the summit. Our trip left at 2:00 p.m. from headquarters and returned a little after 10:00 p.m.
We were pleasantly surprised to learn that our interpretive guide was Jon Knight. Jon had been my guide on the Kohala Wai PinzTrek Adventure and I found him to be excellent. A native of Wells River, Vermont, Jon is a real outdoors person. Whether it is guiding a group across the landscape of the Big Island or talking about his experiences as a scuba diving instructor, Jon will keep you interested and involved for the entire trip.
Following our last pickup at the Waikoloa Marriott Resort and Spa our 12-passenger van headed inland through Waikoloa Village to the start of the Saddle Road.
Saddle Road is the much maligned road that literally cuts across the saddle formed by Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa ending just above Hilo on the Big Island's east coast. While once the road was dangerous and somewhat scary to drive, much of it has been rebuilt in recent years. The newer parts of the road are in better shape than most roads in Hawaii. Heading to Mauna Kea, it's only the first section of ten miles or so that are still in poor shape.
Along the Saddle Road you'll see drastic changes in climate and geology. Almost before you can blink your eyes you'll find yourself in a desert-like climate. That's only the beginning of the climate change you'll see, since on the way to the summit you'll traverse most of the earth's 13 climate zones. Keep your eyes open, however. You'll see wild turkey, goats, horses, cattle and many species of birds.
Dinner at Historic Ranch Outpost
The first stop on the trip is a historic ranch outpost located near the foot of the Mauna Kea Summit Access Road. Here you'll have 45 minutes to an hour to explore the deserted ranch buildings, marvel at the views and, most importantly, enjoy a hot, picnic style dinner in a couple of large tents.
Hawaii Forest and Trail does a great job with their dinner. It's a hot dinner which feels great at what is a cool evening location. You'll enjoy hot soup, a choice of hot entrée served with wild rice and grilled vegetables and cookies for dessert.
Drive to the Summit
Following dinner it's time to head up the mountain for sunset. The drive up the mountain is scenic and smooth until you reach the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. From here the road to the summit is unpaved and the 4-wheel-drive feature of Hawaii Forest and Trail's vans becomes a necessity.
If you look to your right as you head past the visitor station you'll see the only snow removal equipment in Hawaii. Yes, it snows on Mauna Kea during the winter and the equipment is needed to keep the road open for the engineers who service the telescopes at the summit. (Most of the astronomers work in warmer locations along the coast from which they can operate the telescopes and view the images!)
Snow drifts can easily exceed 10 feet and several hikers have been lost when caught on the mountain during a sudden snowfall.