I'd always imagined that Mauna Kea would be inside Volcanoes National Park. Not only is it not, but it's not even part of the park. @mrs.turbodb knew this already.
Having researched and planned all of our volcano visiting in a single sitting - overlooking the Pacific Ocean as it crashed against the shoreline outside our apartment - we'd learned that visiting Mauna Kea wasn't as easy as simply driving from sea level to the top of this 13,796 behemoth. In order to get there, we'd have to abide by the following rules:
- We'd need to stop for 30 minutes at the Visitor Information Center, 9,200 feet above sea level, in order to acclimate to the lack of oxygen (or at least throw up from altitude sickness before getting to the top).
- We'd need to be driving a 4WD vehicle with low gear. This, apparently, is due to the 17-24% grade of the gravel summit road, and the requirement to use engine braking on the way down.
The first of these requirements was no problem, but I was pretty sure that our Kia K5 wasn't sporting 4WD, much less 4-Lo. And, though I was 100% sure that I could navigate the situation with the Kia, @mrs.turbodb was 100% sure that we wouldn't even be allowed to try, even if I showed my business card, because well, tourists do stupid stuff.
I have a stack of homemade business cards; I must know what I'm doing.
And that's how we ended up with a second rental car. Or "sort of" a truck? Whatever it was, it was called a Jeep Renegade, and it was a boxy pile of poo, rivaled only by the Nissan Cube. But, it had 4WD!
This thing was garbage.
Overlanding Mauna Kea
When we got to the Visitor Information Center and had 30 minutes to kill, we could have done what normal people do - hang out in the parking lot or look through the gift shop - and we had every intention to do just that, until we noticed a dirt road exiting the parking area, and red cinder cone in the distance.
Might as well "Jeep it" to the red Pu'u Kole cinder cone. Or, it turns out, try.
As I started down the trail, chuckling at the posted sign that read, "Stop here, engage 4WD," - since it was little more than a gravel road - @mrs.turbodb fired up the Gaia app on her phone and discovered that this was one of the major "Overlanding" routes on the island.
If you are an experienced off-roader and would like to make a full-day off-road adventure of your trip to Mauna Kea, there is an off-road trail that begins just below the visitor center called R-1 Road. This road takes you on an approximately 35 mile loop around the entire back side of Mauna Kea, crossing a variety of fascinating terrain including a Silversword grove, red lava landscapes that look like you're on Mars, and desert washes reminiscent of Utah or Arizona.
It's not a difficult trail, but it is definitely a true 4WD road, with a few rocky climbs and descents that will require careful tire placement to avoid scraping your undercarriage. It would probably rate about a 3 on the usual 1-10 off-road difficulty scale. This trail is not recommended for the average tourist, but if you're an experienced off-road driver willing to take the risk, it's absolutely worth it.
This infrequently maintained, unpaved, four wheel drive hunters' road circles the east, north, and west sides of Mauna Kea between the 7,000' and 9,000' elevations within the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve. It passes through native sub-alpine woodland and over barren lava flows. On clear days dramatic views of the whole northern coast, the Waimea Plain, Kohala Mountains, and the island of Maui may be enjoyed. The route traverses critical habitat of the endangered palila (Loxioides bailleui), a Hawaiian finch found only on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea. Caution, the entire route is open year-round for hunting.
Getting dusty, it was amazing how little traction this thing had, even in 4WD.
At 8,600 feet above sea level, we were just at the level of the clouds that clung to the base of Mauna Loa.
As the Jeep struggled for traction on sections of road that I'm used to ignoring, I wondered if it would even make it to the top. Note: I was still sure the Kia would have been fine.
After making it less than two miles in 30 minutes - during which time we realized that our ground clearance was less than six inches and that the Jeep was more comfortable three-wheeling than four - we headed back to the Visitor Information Center, our bodies fully acclimated to the higher elevation.
Summitting Mauna Kea
Confident that our Jeep would cruise through 4WD inspection and ferry us to the top of the mountain, we were caught by surprise when the ranger balked at how dusty the Jeep was. Apparently, there was a third rule for heading to the summit:
- Our vehicle needed to be clean.
Thinking that this was just a misunderstanding, I mentioned that the dust was from the Kahinahina (R1) Road, right here at our current location, and not some "dust with cooties" from elsewhere on the island. Alas, this apparently did not matter - or more likely the ranger didn't believe that a tourist in such a worthless vehicle could have possibly driven the Kahinahina (R1) Road - but he was totally cool about it and suggested that we go dust off the Jeep "out of sight" and then come back for another inspection.
Luckily, we passed the second inspection with flying colors and - after demonstrating that I knew how to use 4WD and low gear - we headed up!
At 10,832 feet, we were above the clouds that were converging on Mauna Loa from both sides.
At 11,702 feet, we passed Moon Valley, where the NASA tested the lunar lander before flying it ...to the moon!
Also at 11,702 feet, we felt fine, but the Jeep sounded like it was getting altitude sickness.
We reached the top an hour before sunset - barely enough time to check out some of the telescopes that cover the mountain - before looking for the perfect spot to soak in what was sure to be a spectacular show.
The CalTech Submillimeter Telescope (CSO), currently being decommissioned and disassembled.
Four dishes of the Smithsonian Submillimeter Array (left) and the Japanese Subaru Telescope (right).
Even an hour before sunset, the colors reflected in the dish were taking on a warm, pink hue.
Looking for life. Or something.
Keck Observatory (left), NASA Infrared Telescope (right).
The Heep made it to the top!
The actual summit of Mauna Kea is a sacred site, a quarter mile walk from the telescopes.
They have faces!
It turns out, the coolest thing at the summit of Mauna Kea is neither sunset nor the array of telescopes and technology that peer far into the sky. Nope, the coolest thing is a phenomenon called the Mauna Kea Shadow. Way up here, when the sun drops along the western horizon, Mauna Kea looms so large that it casts a mountain-like shadow onto the clouds - and even into the atmosphere - to the east. Not knowing if this was a common occurrence or required just the right conditions, I had no idea if we'd get to see the shadow, and nearly caught my breath when we left the throngs of people looking west to see what there was to see, to the east.
There's no mountain there.
And then, it was sunset.
When the top of the clouds are the horizon.
United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIT).
And then, it was after sunset.
NASA Infrared Telescpe Facility (IRTF).
Watching the Belt of Venus (left). | I really liked this wind blown tree trunk at Gemini North Telescope (right).
And then, with rangers rounding up tourists like the cattle that we surely were, it was time to engage low gear for our descent. Using engine braking most of the way down, we passed our brake temperature inspection with flying colors - unlike the majority of vehicles that actually had 4-Lo - skipping straight to the front of the line for the 90-minute drive back to our apartment.
I still think the Kia would have performed better.
The Whole Story