A Hawaiian Snow Day: Visiting Mauna Kea

If I told you that we were snowed on while in Hawaii would you believe me?

You should. Because we were.

One of the coolest things about the Big Island (Hawaii) is that it is home to 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. You can literally experience almost every climate in the world on a visit to the Big Island, and I think we may have accomplished that. I can say with absolute certainty that we experienced the Big Island’s coldest climate on a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano that is now home to some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories.

Though anyone is welcome to summit Mauna Kea (so long as they are in a 4WD vehicle), we were treated to an extra-special tour of the volcano. A very good friend of Jeff’s family (with whom they shared a duplex when they lived in Hawaii) runs the visitors center at Mauna Kea, and he gave us a personal tour of the place.

Our tour began in mid-afternoon with a stop at the visitors center, where we went on a short hike and checked out a few exhibits, lingering for about an hour to give our bodies time to adjust to the altitude. We’d come from sea level up to just over 9,000 feet, and we had another 4,000+ feet to climb. The road to the top is a long and windy eight miles that must be driven with proper care (especially because it had snowed three feet (!) the day before). Once at the top, you’re greeted by a rocky red barrenness and a collection of observatories that look like miniature Epcots. It’s what I imagine Mars will look like when we get around to colonizing it. Here, researchers representing eleven different countries operate thirteen uber-high-tech observatories. It’s a pretty cool sight. Even cooler is the fact that you’re just about at the top of the world’s tallest mountain.

Sure, sure. I’ve heard of that place called Everest, but they count differently there. Their mountain is the tallest if you count its height from sea level, but if you count from the actual base of the mountain (way the heck under the ocean), Mauna Kea wins. Which means I can now join the ranks of great mountain climbers, because I have hiked to the summit of Mauna Kea.

The trail to the summit is not long, but it’s not easy.

With the summit at an elevation of 13,796 feet, you get winded pretty easily as you trudge up to the top. It didn’t help that the snow was slippery as heck thanks to the previous day’s snowfall and the snow shower that decided to show up just as we hiked up. It sure felt as cold as Everest up there!

But we all survived the hike and the whiteout that moved in on our way back down and thus lived to see another day’s sun set.

Thanks to the thin atmosphere atop the mountain, sunsets are pretty spectacular. We weren’t sure we were going to actually get to see one, however, due to the crazy cloud cover that had moved in, but it miraculously cleared, treating us to a phenomenal display of vibrant color.

With the sun officially departed, we crawled back down to the visitors center to warm up and have some dinner. We then enjoyed the spectacular show put on by the night sky. The sky (when clear; it went back and forth from crystal clear to clouded over while we were there) was so filled with stars that it’s almost impossible to tell one star from another. It’s as though the sky itself is a blanket of stars. Just standing and staring up at the sky was amazing, but the visitor center ups the ante with a collection of serious telescopes that magnify stars, galaxies, and more. I’m a bit of a stargazing geek, and I have to say that the stargazing at Mauna Kea ranks among the world’s best. (Which might explain those observatories…)

A bit off the beaten visitor path, Mauna Kea offers a really unique experience for Hawaii visitors. The only down side to a Mauna Kea visit it that it’s really, really cold (seriously freezing temperatures). Normal Hawaii attire is not going to cut it. But is it worth it to pack a pair of jeans, your thermal underwear, and a coat for a trip to Hawaii? I’d say definitely.