Skip navigation

Tag Archives: big island. travel

Aloha! I’m Donnie MacGowan and I live on the Big Island of Hawaii. Today, I’d like to take you to the top of Mauna Kea. At 13, 796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea’s summit is the highest point in the State of Hawaii; since its base lies at 19000 feet below sea level, its has a base-to-summit height of 33,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain on earth. It’s also one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mauna Kea began forming on the sea floor about one million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is snowcapped much of the winter, and the summit is covered with permafrost 35 feet deep. During the ice ages, Mauna Kea’s summit was glaciated 3 times, starting about 200000 years ago and ending only 11000 years ago. One can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, striated bedrock, glacial tills covering the summit area and remnants of ice-damned lava flows from those times. There are even the remains of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.

The Visitor’s Center and summit are reached via a road which turns off Saddle Road at about 6600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and tortuously stumbles its way up the south side of Mauna Kea to the Visitor Information Station at about 9300 feet. The road, though steep, is paved to the Visitor’s Center. Above that, the road is graded dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt paving for the final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit road are available at 808.935.6263.

The visitor’s center is open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. 365 days a year. Informational multimedia presentations, souvenirs, and some food items are available here, as well as clean restrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark the center allows visitors to stargaze through several telescopes and informational talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Saturday and Sunday Center staff lead escorted summit field trips, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that summit-bound visitors stop at the Visitor’s Center for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimate.

Above the Visitor Information Station there are no public accommodations, no water or food and no gasoline service; the observatory buildings are closed to the public and usually locked. There are neither public telephones nor restrooms, only port-a-potties. An emergency phone is located in the entrance to the U of H 2.2 meter Telescope building.

Driving the summit road to the very top of Mauna Kea is neither as dangerous as the car rental companies want you to believe, nor as casual as many Big Island residents will tell you. True, the summit road is unpaved most of the way, it is steep and winding with limited view planes; the road is extremely hazardous when wet or icy, which is often, and it’s subject to frequent dense clouds, snow, rain and fog obscuring all vision. Also, balmy summer conditions may turn into lethal winter rages in minutes with little or no warning.

However, the road is generously wide, routinely graded and poses no real threat to the cautious driver. The safe driver can expect to reach the summit in about ½ an hour after leaving the Visitor Information Station. Remember, it’s not the roughness of the road that will impede your car; it’s the elevation that will starve it for oxygen. To be safe, take as much time winding your way back down the mountain as you took coming up, using the lowest gear to save wear on brakes. Check your car rental agreement–many forbid you to drive this road. If you go anyway, your insurance is void, and you do so at considerable financial risk. Remember, people DO crater their cars on occasion.

If the weather turns frightful, simply head down immediately. Relax, be calm and drive carefully; you can be confident that, even if you have to slow to 10 miles per hour in places, you’ll be down to the safety of the Visitor’s Center in a mere 40 minutes or so.

The summit of Mauna Kea, hosting the largest assemblage of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is truly an amazing place; a seductive juxtaposition of icy heights raised up from steaming tropical jungle; the age-old altars of sacred Hawai’ian gods alongside edifices of the most modern of sciences; of frigid landscapes carved during ancient ice-ages alongside fiery volcanic landforms; all wrapped around a fabulous trip with a wee rumor of danger, just for spice! Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island also include the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on clear days. The glow from Kilauea Volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures during the summer can peak in the 60s, it is generally cold-to-frigid, frequently wet and very windy on the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.

The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians, hosting many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry and numerous other archaeological sites. Remember this landscape, and the archeological sites upon them, are sacred; take nothing but photographs, don’t even leave footprints.

Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the actual summit is a must for any who have ventured this far and are in good shape. A stone altar and a USGS survey point mark the actual summit of the mountain, about a 15 minute walk up a cinder trail from the top of the road. A trail leading around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes to trek and traverses some very wild country with amazing views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate frequently to help stave off altitude sickness. Do not leave the safety of the parking lot if you are feeling ill or the weather is at all chancy—in fact, in deteriorating or poor weather, or at the onset of queasiness, one should leave the summit immediately and descend.

Alternately, for those in excellent physical condition, one can hike to the summit from the Visitor’s center. Featuring unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites and more, the hike is about 6 miles in length, gains about 4500 feet in elevation and takes 6 to 10 hours to get up, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the Visitor’s Center, so take enough to get up, and back down. Frankly, many people opt to hitch-hike down the mountain after hiking up. In fact, for folks short on time, or for whom scenery and not summit-conquering are the main goals, catching a ride to the summit and hiking down is a great alterative, and takes only about 3 1/2 hours.

Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit area, one that is accessible to nearly anybody in reasonable condition, is to Lake Wai’au. Park at either the lot at about 12000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or the lot at about 13000 feet, near the 7 mile marker. Needless to say, one hike is uphill in and the other is uphill out; but both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper trail because the view of the summit astronomical complex on the hike out is phenomenal. An absolute jewel of an alpine tarn in its own right, at 13,020 feet Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world…permafrost seals the lake bed in the loose tephra and glacial drift on which it sits. It’s about 300′ by 150′ by 8 feet deep and, yes, I personally can vouch for its having been snorkeled. Not much to see in there, though.

There are a few health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea as well. In brief: children under 16, pregnant women, and people with respiratory, heart, or severe overweight conditions are advised not to go higher than the Visitors Information Station. Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before traveling to the summit.

Acute mountain sickness, resulting from exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Aspirin and lots of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is immediate and rapid descent. Sufferers will notice almost complete cessation of symptoms upon regaining The Saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life threatening, and rapid onset of comatose condition, or even death, may be unexpectedly swift.

Finally, there is severe risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, particularly when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated to at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); wear sunscreen rated to at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce the susceptibility to sunburn. Sun screen and sunglasses, necessary to combat the deceptively severe tropical sun, are so important that I’ve written a separate articles about sun burn and sunscreen in Hawaii and what sunglasses you should bring to Hawaii. Too many visitors drastically underestimate the strength and ferocity of our sun and wind-up with vacation-ruining sunburns.

No trip would be complete without wild life footage; this was the only other living thing on the summit the day I shot this…and just to prove where we are, yup, there’s the summit!

Most visits to Mauna Kea’s summit are extremely pleasant experiences, encompassing easy adventures which may feature mild altitude euphoria, fabulous views and a great sense of relief at reaching the paved road and public restrooms at the Visitor’s Information Station after leaving the summit.

Well…thanks for spending a little time with me in one of my favorite spots…I’ve got to run now…this is Donnie MacGowan sending you a hearty “Aloha!”

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general, or touring the Big Island in particular, please visit and

(Reprinted from the Bishop Museum Website)

Skywatch Article

March 2008
By Carolyn Kaichi, Bishop Museum


March brings in the spring season with the vernal equinox, the moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator on the way up to the northern hemisphere. This is also the beginning of “cross season”, or the time you can view the Southern Cross in the evening sky. The Southern Cross, also known as Crux, is the smallest of the 88 officially recognized constellations.

Here in Hawaii, this constellation is known as Hanaiakamalama, or “cared for by the Moon” and is part of the modern Polynesian navigational “star line” called Ka Iwikuamo’o, “The Backbone”. In Polynesian navigation this is one of the four reference lines of stars that runs from the north sky to the south. The Backbone starts with the North Star, Hokupa’a, through Ursa Major, Hokule’a (the star Arcturus), Hikianalia (Spica) in Virgo, Me’e (the constellation Corvus), finally to the Southern Cross.

You can start looking for the Southern Cross just before midnight looking out over the ocean on the Leeward side. There are four bright stars that make up the kite shape with a smaller fifth star between the second and third bright star (if you count the top star as number 1, then go clockwise). You can see the Southern Cross on the flags of many countries of the southern hemisphere, like Australia, Samoa and Papua New Guinea since this constellation is more prominent in the southern skies.

The Southern Cross was visible at least 5,000 years ago at higher latitudes in North America and Europe. According to one historian the Southern Cross was seen in Jerusalem at the time Christ was crucified. But because of precession, the “wobbling” of the Earth’s axis, the Cross is no longer visible at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere.

Even here in Hawaii at 20 degrees north of the equator, the Southern Cross does not get very high above the horizon. Standing completely upright, the top star (Gacrux) is only a mere 12 degrees. In fact, the distance between the top and bottom stars of the upright Cross is the same distance as the bottom star (Acrux) to the horizon—another navigational feature. In the southern hemisphere, draw an imaginary line between the top and bottom stars and they will point the way to the South Celestial Pole. In the northern hemisphere, the North Star conveniently marks the North Celestial Pole but there is no equivalent star in the south.

Because the Southern Cross is so low in the sky and close to the South Celestial Pole, its path in the sky is short. From the time it rises to the time it begins to set it is only in the sky for around six hours, whereas objects that rise closer to due east and set due west takes approximately 12 hours to traverse the sky. In other words, don’t expect to see the Southern Cross in the sky all evening long!

Earlier in the evening you will still see the signature stars and constellations of the winter—Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Auriga are some of the more famous. Orion’s dog, Canis Major (translated as “Big Dog”, not too original but descriptive) has the distinction of having the brightest star as seen from the Earth. Sirius’ status as the brightest star has more to do with its closer proximity rather than its properties—there are many larger and luminous stars in our skies but they are just farther away. Low in the south under Sirius is Canopus in Carina, the second-brightest star in our sky.

Looking to the east of Canopus, you can see another cross-like shape—surprise, you found the “False Cross”! The False Cross is actually made up of stars from two separate constellations that are low in the southern skies. The stars of Vela the sails, and Carina the keel, comprise the False Cross. Those two constellations along with Pyxis the compass and Puppis the stern make up pieces of the ship Argo that carried Jason and the Argonauts on great adventures in Greek mythology.

The “real” Cross will be visible in the sky until around July, when it will then begin to set by the time darkness falls. To find the real Southern Cross, remember that Orion and pals are low in the west by the time the Cross starts to rise and look for the two “pointer stars” to the east of the constellation that point to the top star of the Cross. These stars are Alpha and Beta Centauri in the constellation Centaurus.

The Planets


The Vernal Equinox falls on March 19 here in Hawaii, 7:49 P.M. HST. This is the earliest spring date since 1896. Also, Daylight Savings Time begins Sunday, March 9. ADD an hour to most times on the mainland.


Mercury and Venus spend the month huddled in the eastern morning sky just before the sunrise. On March 5 a very thin crescent Moon will join the pair. Neptune and eventually Uranus are also in the vicinity (Uranus comes close to Venus in the last half of the month), and Jupiter is also high in the sky at the time. You will need a telescope to view Neptune and Uranus.


Venus rises around 5:30 A.M. at the beginning of March, close to neighbor Mercury. By the end of the month it is getting very close to the sunrise and more difficult to see, rising only around 45 minutes before the sun. Venus is making its way back to the evening sky and will pass in back of the sun (superior conjunction) in June.


As we get closer to the summer months the sky darkens later, so although Mars is high in the sky by 7:00 P.M. it will be hard to spot right away. We are already leaving Mars behind after passing by in December last year, and as the Red Planet recedes it looks smaller and dimmer in our night sky. Throughout March Mars sits above the horns of Taurus next to the legs of the brother Castor in Gemini.


Jupiter rises by 3:45 A.M. in early March right off the handle of the Sagittarius “teapot” asterism. Until Venus rises two hours later, Jupiter commands the sky as the brightest object aside from the Moon.

Saturn was in opposition last month and is already in the eastern sky at dusk. The planet is in Leo the Lion and sits to the east of the lion’s heart, the star called Regulus, which Saturn easily outshines. On March 18 the almost-full Moon (three days short) passes right next to the pair.

For more information, go here.

For information about touring the Big Island, go here and here.