What: A visit to the 'tallest mountain on earth' Where: Big Island, the most eastern island of the Hawaiian archipelago How long: In total you might need some 3 hours at least, included time for star gazing How much: Visiting is totally free!
Big Island really is a one-of-a-kind island with a wide variety of climates and vegetation. So though you probably wouldn’t have expected it, it’s even possible to see snow on this island! Mauna Kea is considered the tallest mountain on earth, though the counting comes with a little cheating. Most of the mountain is underwater; and therefore when measured from its oceanic base, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 m / 33,000 ft tall and thus the tallest mountain on Earth. Apart from that, the mountain of Mauna Kea is special since it’s considered to be ancestral and sacred to Hawaiian Culture.
Many touroperators offer expensive day trips to the area, but funny enough this top is very easily reached on your own. Save yourself some bucks and drive up to the summit yourself – you do need a 4WD however – especially if you have two or more persons in your vehicle this will make the savings over a guided tour quite substantial.
Firstly you need to drive up to Onizuka Visitor Center at 2,800 m / 9,200 ft first on your way in. It’s a good place to ask for information, drink a cup of hot coco, browse the merchandise of space-oriented displays, books and gifts and get acclimatised to the height for about 45-60 minutes ( as requested by the park ranger). Before you know it an hour has passed and you’re allowed to drive up all the way to the top.
Once you step into your car, the ranger at the entrance takes your situation very seriously. He’ll check if your car is fit to drive to the summit and whether you’re yourself able enough to do so as well. Honestly, if you’ve been a lot in mountainous countries, this kind of attention feels a bit over the top. Especially since the drive isn’t really that difficult. But I’m sure they’ve had their reasons for this screening, plus at the time of our visit the road (beginning of October) was totally dry and their weren’t any slippery slopes.
So, once you’re set and driving to the top you’ll encounter several observatories. Accessing those isn’t possible, though there is a possibility for star gazing at the visitor center at 6PM. The best thing you can do is to cruise around a little, and gaze at the incredible landscapes. They’re so weird. It really feels like you’re standing on another planet, as you can see perhaps on the pictures. We stayed for the sunset from the highest spot and the views all around were gorgeous.
Unfortunately there wasn’t any snow at the time of our visiting. A pity, since rumour has it that you’re able to ski by then as well. Also apparently many islanders can be seen with pickup truck full of fresh snow during the winter season to accent their neighbourhood back at sea level. But this might just be a fairy tale for the stupid tourists. Merry Christmas in the tropics :).
At sunset I’d recommend you to go down a little before it’ll get totally dark. Like that, you’ll be in time for the stargazing at the visitor center. Whether you’re a casual star observer or an avid stargazer, this is a really fun activity – for the whole family. Before your visit you should check the moon phase so you’re not getting a full moon which would blot out the sky.
Usually there are three telescopes set up. Unfortunately it’s often very crowded and the lines are somewhat disorganized. But if you can stand those annoying factors (plus the fact that it’s super cold up there) then you’ll have a very cool view on the galaxies. During our visit it was a clear night and the star gazing was incredible! Since it was freaking cold, I only wanted to see through one of the telescopes – there you go: Saturnus right in the eye.
The staff explains a lot about the stars too during the waiting, which is great. They tell about the origins of the Greek and Roman names for the constellations, together with some Hawaiian mythology and point out the stars using an incredible strong, green laser. So just be sure you bring a ton of sweaters and warm jackets to survive this amazing Hawaiian experience of big on top of the world!