The ancient Hawaiians thought that the snow capped peak of Mauna Kea was the home of the gods. Today is just the home of the largest astronomical telescopes on Earth. I spent my last day on the Big Island on top of Mauna Kea and got to watch the sun set. It was pretty amazing.
You can’t just go up Mauna Kea willy nilly. For starters, you are going a vertical distance of about 14,000 feet. There are very few places on Earth where you can make this sort of vertical climb that quickly. Even in places that are at a higher elevation, you usually are starting at a higher base elevation, so the difference in elevation wouldn’t be as great. I ended up staying at the visitors center at 9,000 feet for about ninety minutes to acclimate. I really have never had any issues with elevation (granted, I haven’t been above higher than 14,000 feet before) and probably didn’t need to stay that long.
I one of the reasons I rented a Jeep Wrangler was specifically to go up Mauna Kea. They require you to have a four wheel drive to go up Mauna Kea (I’m sure you could make it up without a 4×4 so long as there was no snow). They also make everyone watch a one our video at the visitors center just to acclimate everyone. The video was a big thing about how the scientists are trying to be sensitive to native Hawaiians.
Everyone at the visitors center went up in a caravan and it was pretty slow going. I’m not sure you could really go faster than about 20 mph or would want to.
When we arrived at the top, the first stop was the Keck Telescopes. There are two Keck Telescopes, Keck 1 & 2. We got to go inside of Keck 1.
Inside the Keck 1 Telescope, Mauna Kea
The Kecks are the largest telescopes in the world. The primary mirrors have a diameter of 10 meters and have a unique hexagonal design. In addition to each mirror being the largest in the world, they can work together to form an interfermeter, or one big telescope.
The other telescope we got to go inside of was the University of Hawaii 88 inch telescope.
88 inch telescope on Mauna Kea
The UH 88 is one of the oldest telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. It has been surpassed by the other telescopes on the summit, but it still does a lot of valuable work on finding Kuiper Belt objects and other objects in the solar system. It is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with the Pan-STARRS telescopes which will do constant surveys of the night sky to check for asteroids.
After the showing the insides of the telescopes, we had the rest of the time to sit and wait for the sunset. The neat thing about Mauna Kea is that it’s so high up in elevation that the clouds are almost always below the summit. As it gets dark, the clouds usually go down several thousand feet giving great views at sunset.
From the summit of Mauna Kea, you can see Haleakala, which is on Maui about 96 miles away.
Haleakala as viewed from Mauna Kea, Hawaii
You also get a good view of Mauna Loa.
Mauna Loa viewed from Mauna Kea, Hawaii
One of the neatest things you can see at sunset is the shadow of Mauna Kea on the clouds behind the mountain.
Shadow of Mauna Kea on the Clouds, Hawaii
The views of the sunset itself of course, were just amazing.
Telescopes in the sunset
Sun setting over the clouds
I felt like I was going to get frostbite on my fingertips the last hour or so I was I up at the summit. I left soon after sunset and made the dark drive down the mountain in low gear.
They had a star party at the visitor center, but I passed as I had an early flight the next morning and it was an hour drive back to Hilo.
If you are ever on the Big Island, make the trip to the summit of Mauna Kea. Its probably the the #1 thing you can do on the island and most people never bother to do it. If you go on Saturday and drive yourself, it doesn’t cost anything more than the gas to get you to the summit.