Experiencing Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 24, 2011

By Derek Miller
For The Salisbury Post
ver since I could remember, I have always had a strong fascination and love for the mountains. And when a mountain is a volcano — well, that just accelerates my fascination even more. Although, Mauna Kea, which I met up close and in person recently, is not considered to be an active volcano, it is nevertheless quite impressive and intimidating.
Mauna Kea is located on the big island of Hawaii, approximately 40 miles west of Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea stands 13,796 feet above sea level and is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. The mountain rises nearly 32,000 feet up from the ocean floor, and when measured from top to bottom, is truly the tallest mountain in the world.
Mauna Kea is also called the White Mountain, as it is frequently covered in a mantle of snow. After a vigorous snowstorm it resembles one of the Cascade peaks in Washington and Oregon. In fact my first attempt of reaching the summit was denied due to a recent storm of eight inches of snow and high winds, which subsequently closed the summit access road.
The summit access road is 14.5 miles in total length. The first part of the drive is on a paved road and can be accomplished easily in a normal passenger car. However, when you reach the visitors center after about 6.5 miles, the pavement ends and the road becomes very steep and rough. In fact, it is required that you travel the remaining 6.5 miles to the summit in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
With its high altitude, dry environment, and stable airflow, Mauna Kea’s summit is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation. The very dark skies resulting from Mauna Kea’s distance from city lights are preserved by legislation that minimizes light pollution from the surrounding area.
Since the construction of the access road in 1964, 13 telescopes funded by 11 countries have been constructed at the summit. The Mauna Kea observatories are used for scientific research across the electromagnetic spectrum from visible light to radio and comprise the largest such facility in the world.
Their construction however, on a “sacred landscape” continues to be a topic of debate. Studies are underway to determine their effect on the summit ecology. In Hawaiian mythology, the peaks of the island of Hawaii are sacred, and Mauna Kea is the most sacred of all.
Traveling up this behemoth of a mountain, I could clearly see the evidence of major volcanic activity. Lava tubes, cinder cones, and lava fields are scattered throughout the valley and along the mighty slopes of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (an active volcano which is directly south of Mauna Kea). Mauna Kea last erupted 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Mauna Kea is about a million years old, and has thus passed the most active shield stage of life hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Before going up the unpaved portion of the road I decided it was best to stop at the visitor center which is about 9,000 feet above sea level to get comfortable with the altitude. The visitor center has a lot of great programs going on and just about any information pertaining to geology, climate, astronomy, stargazing, culture, geography, natural history is all available here — plus souvenirs.
Once I felt comfortable with the altitude (which was about 45 minutes) I decided to head up to the summit. It didn’t take long to figure out why they required four-wheel drive vehicles beyond the visitors center. The next 6.5 miles was certainly not for the faint of heart. There were no guard rails, a lot of twists and hairpin turns, 18 percent grade, narrow road with some major drop-offs as well.
But all of the sweaty palms, biting of fingernails, and death grip on the steering wheel was well worth it as the summit displayed a glorious picture no words could accurately describe. The summit of Mauna Kea revealed to me the most dramatic and stimulating scenery I have ever seen. An additional bonus to the surreal experience was the ability to clearly see Maui to the northwest. The presence of the many observatories and weather stations illustrated an unearthly spectacle. As it turned out, the best was yet to come, as the sun was just about to set.
Growing up as a kid in Southern California I saw many beautiful sunsets, but never have I seen such an amazing splendor as this. Of course all good things come to an end and when the sun goes down only park rangers and employees associated with the observatories and weather stations are allowed to remain on the summit. This policy primarily pertains to the observatories and their need for pure darkness and silence ( headlights from the cars cause problems for the powerful yet sensitive telescopes).
The trip down the mountain revealed a long trail of lights forming a convoy literally descending from the clouds. It looked something like a scene out of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
To save the brakes on the car I decided to stop at the visitors center on the way back down. In addition to saving the brakes, the visitor center is a great place to do some stargazing. There were portable telescopes already set up and a speaker providing astronomy facts as well as pointing out constellations and other objects in the vast beyond. I was able to see the Southern Cross, Polaris, Saturn, Scorpion, Moon, Big and Little Dippers, and much more.
A visit to Mauna Kea is not just a visit to a mountain, it’s a chance to witness surrealistic landforms, strange cloudscapes, and a panorama of the night sky like no other. If you ever get a chance to visit the big island of Hawaii make sure you pay a visit to Mauna Kea, truly one of the most fascinating mountains in the world.
Derek Miller is retired from the U.S. Air Force. He lives in Salisbury with wife Kathie and their children, Brittany and Derek.