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From Sea Level to 13,796 Feet | Hawaii Vacation #3

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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:

  1. 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 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.

Look closely.

There's no mountain there.

Shadow caster.

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



  1. sk
    sk February 13, 2024

    I hope you got the cool coffee mug at the gift shop

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 14, 2024

      We never even went in! 🤣

    JOHN D MORAN February 14, 2024

    Thanks for more adventure. Nice photos, the mountain shadow is interesting. Yep, I'm NOT a Jeep person, never have been since we used to pull a lot of 4x4 Jeeps out of the desert with our old 2wd pickup trucks. And the cheapie Jeeps Compass, Renegade, etc.) are worthless. I had to laugh at the rules for going up the road but it's Hawaii so I'm not surprised.

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 14, 2024

      Thanks John, glad as always that you enjoyed it. In general, I'm not opposed to Jeeps - my family (Dad, Uncles, etc.) have had them all my life, and we've all enjoyed them. Of course, those were CJs and other "real" Jeeps, which are nothing like the POS that this Renegade was.

      Still, I'm not looking to trade in the Tacoma any time soon!

  3. Heidi
    Heidi February 17, 2024

    Mount shadows are the best! When I camped on Mount Adams in WA we were treated to quite a nice one in the evening. Gorgeous photos as always!

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 17, 2024

      I'd never realized they even existed prior to seeing Mauna Kea. How far were you up Mt. Adams in order to see it there? Did you need to be near the summit, or was it prominent from lower elevations?

      • Heidi
        Heidi February 17, 2024

        Camping at Lunch Counter on Adams, which I think is around 9000 feet, so definitely didn’t need to be on the summit. Mount Hood also gives off some great shadows from what I’ve seen in photos (personally haven’t experience Hood’s).

  4. Jason B
    Jason B February 18, 2024

    We went up over the summer. The views were jaw dropping. During the mandatory acclimation we hiked to the top of Pu’u Kalepeanoa. We were out on the water off of Kona earlier in the day, where it was in the mid 80’s, then in the 30’s at elevation, so that was a bit of a shock for some of the party who had no mountain experience. I was the only one to pack a puffy to Hawaii. I’m surprised to see you had the “Heep”. We saw a number of Gladiators and several Wranglers, but none of the compact Jeep line. That said, it seems the majority of the island is sponsored by the Tacoma, by far the more prominent local owned vehicle we saw in the island.

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 18, 2024

      Hey Jason - that sounds like a great hike - we saw a few folks over there doing that, but when we noticed the dirt road leading the other direction, we couldn't resist!

      We saw plenty of real Jeeps up there as well, but only one Tacoma. In fact, we were surprised how few Tacoma's we saw on the island on our trip. We were expecting it to be like Kauai - and apparently as you experienced the Big Island - where it'd be one of the primary vehicles. We probably only saw a couple each day. Anyway, here was our west side of Kauai experience a few years ago: You Have Entered the Tacoma-Zone. 👍

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