Hawaii conjures images of blue skies and aqua water, not necessarily visions of a barren landscape, volcanic rock, and breath-gripping altitudes. Mauna Kea, an active volcano and the highest spot in Hawaii at 13,976 feet, is one of the few places where snow falls throughout the year and winter clothes are recommended. This desolate location was the place my husband and I decided to visit on our “tropical” vacation.
Mauna Kea sits central to the Big Island, and from the western coast, it requires a journey along the “Saddle Road,” aptly named because it saddles two volcanoes. Windswept and covered in volcanic rock, the landscape comes straight from a science fiction or fantasy movie. Every bend in the road delivers a new sight – black lava rock left from a previous flow, tall grasses bending in the wind, a bit of cloud cover hanging low. Mysterious and creepy, it’s not a place to be stranded at night. As we journeyed through this stark region in our rented truck, it was often just the two of us meandering along without another car in sight.
Eventually, we left the Saddle Road and started a much steeper ascent up the volcano itself. Plant life became shorter and scrubbier. Trees were non-existent. Cinder cones dotted the landscape, replicas of a previous time when the Earth’s fury was on display. With every mile we gained altitude, and our bodies reacted as we struggled for breath.
We stopped at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, a mid-level observatory and visitor center at 9,200 feet. Visitors are instructed to give their bodies time to acclimate to the altitude, and by this point could we feel it. My chest was tight, and breathing was difficult. We watched as numerous visitors didn’t pause too long; they just forged ahead up the mountain. Several foolish people continued to the top with their young children, even though the scientists at the center warned against it. The lack of oxygen is dangerous for kids whose bodies are still developing. The recommended age is 16 and older.
After a 30-minute break, we hopped back into our trusty truck and put it through a workout as we trundled along the dirt road. We learned why some people never venture to the top of Mauna Kea. The entire adventure was a steep white-knuckle drive with plenty of gravel-throwing and fish-tailing.
The scene at the peak was worth the journey, though. We broke through the clouds to a glorious sight. Gleaming white observatories rose high to the heavens. Sunlight streamed across the surface of the mountain and the clouds, lighting the summit like a jewel of the sky. The dirt was red and the plant life was nil. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed. We had the privilege of literally standing on top of the world.
The world’s largest telescope, the Keck Telescope, stood like a beacon on a hill. It’s joined by 10 other telescopes, all closed to the public, but that didn’t stop us from visiting them from the outside and talking about a million pictures.
Sunset can be viewed from the summit, but we took in the colors of twilight from the visitors’ center. Once darkness arrived, the reward was a breathtaking view of the constellations. Mauna Kea is privileged enough to see the Southern Cross, a rare treat in the northern hemisphere.
Hawaii is often thought of as “the beach,” but a journey to Hawaii’s tallest spot proved that there’s more to Hawaii than sand, surfing, and sun.
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Holly McElwee is a Piqua teacher and Troy resident by day, writer by night and traveler at heart. Contact her at [email protected]