A Mauna Kea Sunset

When all is said and done, and I look back on my life, I think I will remember that evening: watching the sun set over Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s dormant volcano and the highest point in the Pacific Basin.  At over 13,700 feet (4,200 m) above the sea level, we were giddy from altitude and the view. An ocean of clouds lay before us, creamy white at first, then gold, orange, crimson, and, finally, blue.

We are watching sunset on Mauna Kea summit, Hawaii

We shared the view with thirteen of the world’s most remarkable observatories, operated by eleven nations.  I was mesmerized when, as if on cue, thirteen grand domes suddenly awoke. Balletic in their smooth, slow movements, they opened up and prepared for yet another night of stargazing.  Of the thirteen, Japan’s Subaru Telescope is the most accessible to the public (daytime tours are available 15 weekdays each month, advance reservations required) — something to consider when we return.

Seven of thirteen observatories on the Mauna Kea summit, Hawaii

Two of the thirteen telescopes on the Mauna Kea summit, Hawaii

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at sunset, Mauna Kea, Big Island, Hawaii

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the most photogenic of the lot, I think

In August, we were thankful for alpine parkas provided by our tour guide. “Mauna Kea” means the “White Mountain.” It is snowcapped in winter, with the average summit temperatures hovering around freezing year-round. The crown of the mountain is sacred: According to legend, Poli’ahu, the Hawaiian goddess of ice and snow, makes her home here. The peak is left bare as a sign of respect.

The sacred peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

On some nights, a soft glow pierces the clouds to the southeast — the flames of the Kilauea volcano. Native Hawaiians believed that Poli’ahu’s sister, the fiery goddess Pele, resides in Kilauea’s rumbling crater. Incarnations of the two opposites, the two sisters often fought, leaving the landscape between their mountains ravaged and scarred by their wrath.

Desolate landscape at the base of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The marscape at the base of Mauna Kea

To the north, barely visible over the clouds, is the summit of Haleakalā, “House of the Sun,” the volcano that forms most of the island of Maui, over 100 miles away. The scale and the perspective are stunning: You stand on the roof of the Pacific Basin.

View from Mauna Kea summit, Haleakala volcano tip on Maui

Summit of the Haleakalā volcano on the island of Maui

Cinder cones of Mauna Kea summit at sunset, Hawaii

Cinder cones of Mauna Kea

With the last remnants of light, we headed down to 9,200 feet (2,800 m) and the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (VIS). Its free stargazing program is offered nightly. The sky over Mauna Kea is startling. I have never seen the Milky Way quite so bright and obvious. And the stars — there are myriads of them! To keep the skies telescope-friendly, the entire island goes dark (you’ll notice this on your first night here: the dim orange street lights are part of the island’s strict lighting ordinance). Having seen the stars over Mauna Kea, I wish more communities welcomed the dark.

Abandoned Ranch, Big Island Hawaii We did not truly take part in the VIS’s big event. Our trip to the mountain was through Hawaii Forest & Trail tours, an 8-hour group excursion from Kona, at $198 per person. The expense notwithstanding, we were glad we chose it — getting to the Mauna Kea summit is an adventure, and we were eager to let someone else do the driving. You first cut through the island on the Saddle Road. Once infamously dangerous (it was meant for military traffic), it is more hospitable now, but there are twists and bumps on it still that are not for the faint of heart, especially in the dead of night on your way back. The road cuts through Skull on an abandoned farm, Saddle Road, Big Island, Hawaii some of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen: Within 2 hours, you travel through ranchland, sub-alpine dryland, and rainforest, seized by fog and rain as you venture further east. The tour stops for dinner at the foothills of Mauna Kea, a rustic (and vegetarian-friendly) affair on an abandoned farm, which eases the shock of the ascent. Acclimating to the altitude should be your priority.

From there, it took about an hour to scale the mountain. The road to the VIS is steep, but not impossible.

Road up to Mauna Kea summit, Hawaii

Driving up to the summit of Mauna Kea The Visitor Station is a welcome restroom stop, has a nice shop (if you didn’t bring enough warm clothes or snacks), and is the centerpiece of several exciting tours and hiking options.  Most visitors don’t go further, and parking seems a challenge as the evening approaches. To reach the summit from here, you need a four-wheel drive (some rental car companies specifically exclude this stretch in their coverage) and be over 16 years old, in good health, and unpregnant. This VIS video shows just what is involved in braving the ascent yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAhHhGfMbp8&w=560&h=315

As you shake and huff up the (partly) rabble path, clouds are at your side. The slopes are bare alpine tundra. Its only charismatic flora is the endangered ahinahina, or silversword. Without our driver, we’d miss this fascinating creature, every inch of it primed for survival (just not against the grazing animals that the ranches below brought — two centuries of escaped goats and sheep roaming the mountain did their damage).

Ahinahina plant, or silversword, near summit of Mauna Kea, Big Island, Hawaii

The endangered ahinahina (silversword)

Air gets crisper and thinner as you push on. We fared well but were definitely light-headed as we wandered the summit, in slow-motion. Our guide then took us back to the VIS. We parked away from the worst of the skygazing crowds and had our own star show, with a powerful telescope and a narration to match. Parkas, cookies, and hot chocolate that came with the tour certainly helped.  Exhilarated by the immensity of the cosmos, we dozed all the way back through the dark, dark country.

Having paid our respects to the snow goddess, we thought it right to visit Pele next: the Volcanoes National Park was our next adventure.

Kīlauea's fires from the Halema‘uma‘u Overlook

Pele’s home

Read on: 

11 thoughts on “A Mauna Kea Sunset

  1. Great article! I don’t think the observatories are what make the stunning images, it’s the unexpected beauty of the austere environment you are thrust into.

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