You know when someone asks you if you want the good news first or the bad? I always want the bad first. I guess that’s why I’m starting with my biggest disappointment from my trip to The Big Island — watching, or shall I say attempting to watch, the sunset from Mauna Kea.
Don’t get me wrong — watching the sun or moon rise from the famous dormant volcano is meant to be one of the most magical experiences in the entire island chain, made even more spectacular by its reliable conditions. But confusion over logistics combined with bad luck when it came to weather made for a frustrating experience. Perhaps Heather and I should have suspected that visibility would be low when our drive from South Kohala looked like this:
Actually, the trouble started long before the day we decided to ascend Hawaii’s highest peak. Apparently a college degree does not guarantee you the ability to decipher guidebooks, because I read the Mauna Kea section of my Lonely Planet over and over without really understanding the best way to experience this highlight of Hawaii.You see, this is more than just a mountain.
The summit of Mauna Kea is not just one of the most sacred places in traditional Hawaiian spirituality — it’s also the largest collection of astronomical telescopes in the world. For the independent traveler with a 4WD car, there are tons of free activities available — if you can time your visit properly to take advantage of them. There’s a visitor’s center that holds a free nightly stargazing program and weekend tours to the summit, and two of them observatories are open to the public at certain times. When the weather is warm there are short hikes to the summit and a sacred alpine lake, and when the weather is cold intrepid adventurers even ski and snowboard down the slopes!
As would become a pattern for us on The Big Island, we underestimated the distances between locations, and how long it would take us to get there. By the time we turned onto Mauna Kea Access Road, we were shaken by a fog-clouded drive and nervously watching the clock, hoping sunset might come a little later than scheduled. Needing to throw on our warmer clothes and check the conditions of the summit road, we stopped briefly at the Onizuka Visitor Center, where it’s recommended that you acclimatize for an hour or so before ascending. We stayed about ten minutes — we laugh in the face of altitude sickness! Plus we were really super late.
Unfortunately, the volunteer at the Visitor Station did not give us the news we were hoping to hear: it was a rare cloudy day at the summit. Still, heeding the warning that any towing would be at our own expense, we cranked into 4WD and set forth on the 8 mile summit road.
Despite the conditions, we cheered when we reached the top, at 13,796ft above sea level. A small break in the cloud cover revealed the beautiful hot orange sunset we were missing, and was incentive enough to bring about hundreds of camera clicks. Below the peaks, a layer of clouds looking like rolling meadows. It was beautiful. And it was cold.
When packing for Hawaii, one does not necessarily think to bring the clothing required for freezing temperatures. I’m not being facetious — temperatures at the summit of Mauna Kea frequently dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily our hosts had a closet full of coats and sweaters that we threw into the back of our Jeep. I don’t really think this is the look for me, but I’ll never mock someone wearing socks and sandals ever again.
The observatories at the summit are operated by different countries around the world. Their presence added a other-worldly feel to the view, and I so regretted that we weren’t going inside one. The Subaru Telescope offers free tours at 10:30, 11:30 and 1:30 up to fifteen weekdays a month, while the WM Keck Observatory is open from 10am-4pm. We didn’t even bother trying to make it to either as we couldn’t imagine what we would do afterwards at the summit, trying not to freeze. If I could do it again, I would pack warmer clothes, visit the Keck Observatory before closing, and then hiked to the alpine lake or the “true summit” while waiting for sunset.
Those visiting on weekends won’t be able to visit the observatories independently, however on Saturdays and Sundays the Onizuka Visitor Center offers free tours at 1pm which include a video at the center while you acclimatize, a self-drive caravan to the summit, a talk on the history and workings of the telescopes, and a visit to the WM Keck scope. Tours usually descend from the summit around 4:30, but you can wait for the sunset and go down solo. This sounds like the best of all worlds, however unfortunately our visit did not coincide with a weekend.
And every night of the week the Visitor Center holds a free stargazing program — the perfect way to end the night after descending the summit post-sunset. Sadly, we missed out on this too. While we waited around for a while sipping hot chocolate and instant noodles, it was just too cloudy of a night. Our host couldn’t get over the shock — he told us there couldn’t be more than a dozen nights like this a year. We were just unlucky.
What’s the best way to cure travel setbacks? Take silly self-timer jump shots, of course!
There’s no way around it — we were a little disappointed. We had looked forward to photographing a beautiful sunset and enjoying one of the highlights of the Big Island, but we instead we were freezing and stressed and a bit put out. Of course, most of that was my fault for not being able to decipher a guidebook properly and not giving us enough transportation time. And Mother Nature doesn’t always bend to accommodate even the most well-intentioned travel arrangements.
In the end, we didn’t lose much — just half a day, whatever we spent upgrading our rental to a 4WD, and the gray hairs we incurred driving up the steep gravel summit road. And when our trip was over and we looked back on the incredible luck we had viewing manta rays, sea turtles, and dolphins on this trip, we had to conclude that on the whole nature was definitely smiling on us — we certainly couldn’t hold a grudge for just one missed sunset.
Flying away from The Big Island at night, I smiled at this view of the peak of the mountain breaking through the clouds. I’ll be back for you again someday, Mauna Kea.
And in the meantime, all wasn’t lost. I did get to take a picture of this Invisible Cow sign. And that pretty much made everything worth it.
Have you been to the summit of Mauna Kea? How do you deal with travel disappointments?