I just got back from an eight-day trip to the island of Hawaii with Allison and my family. One of the things that I'd been wanting to do ever since I last visited the Big Island was to climb to the summit of Mauna Kea. The sheer novelty of tromping across snow in Hawaii and the world class astronomical observatory at the summit were the big attractions for me.
The summit trail begins at the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Center, elevation 9200 feet. The road actually continues past the visitor center and ascends all the way to the summit; I'm sure the telescope operators and technicians appreciate this, but I wanted to do the trip on foot. Mauna Kea has the characteristically gentle slopes of a shield volcano, so there's no technical climbing required to get to the summit--one of many reasons that it's a superior site for an observatory than most mountains of similar elevation. The only tough part of the summit hike is the altitude : climb 4600 feet to stand on the 13,796 foot summit less than eight hours after waking up at sea level.
The first part of the climb was quick and quite easy. The dry grasses, bushes, and silversword surrendered to a nearly empty Marsscape of volcanic rock within an hour of leaving the visitor center. I started to see patches of snow just below 11,000 feet. After another thousand feed of elevation gain, bare patches of rock were getting rare. The snow had warmed and gotten slushy; this combined with the thin air forced me to slow my pace quite a bit. Just above 13,000 feet I caught a glimpse of a few of the telescopes on the summit. This was also the point where a side trail to tiny Lake Waiau branched off. Lake Waiau is the seventh highest lake in the US, though that depends on exactly where you draw the line between "lake" and "puddle". I was a little disappointed to see that it was frozen over and blanketed with snow. Still a neat sight though.
Shortly after the Lake Waiau side trip, the trail joins the paved section of the Mauna Kea summit road. While aesthetically disappointing, it was a relief to be hiking on a solid surface: the sun had warmed the top layer of snow, and the combination of altitude and postholing through the soft snow was exhausting. I left the road at its high point, then ascended another 150 feet or so to the top of the cinder cone that is the true summit of Mauna Kea. I waved at my parents, who had managed to arrive at the top of the summit road by car just as I'd gotten to the true summit on foot. My dad was very interested in checking out the observatories on the summit, and meeting up with them meant that I got to go down the mountain the easy way.
View from the true summit:
There's some controversy about all the observatories atop Mauna Kea. The mountain is sacred to native Hawaiians, and even some non-natives complain that the structures distract from the natural beauty of the mountain. While I generally prefer that mountaintops remain in a pristine state, I found the bright white and silver observatory structures somehow appropriate for--almost enhancing--the environment of the summit. Unearthly architecture for an unearthly place. Not to be missed on a trip to the Big Island, whether you visit on foot or wheels.
A few of the telescopes on the summit:
Cinder cones (or pu'u in Hawaiian) on the broad summit region:
I hadn't arranged any sort of tour, but the Keck observatory does have a visitor's center that's open during the day. The Keck is one of the top astronomical facilities anywhere in the world. If you visit the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, you've certainly seen images from the Keck. It was a treat to be able to see one of its twin 10 meter mirrors first-hand: