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Across the Roof of Hawaii

by Donnie MacGowan

This post has been updated and expanded here.

Recent improvements to the Saddle Road make it no longer the grinding, intimidating drive it once was and open hundreds of square miles of unimaginably beautiful, strange and wondrous landscape to the Hawaii Island Visitor.

Approximate minimum time start to finish (to see every site): 12 hours

From Kona take Highway 190 to Highway 200 in 45 minutes of driving. Saddle Road, which cuts between the “saddle” of Mauna Loa on the south and Mauna Kea to the north, passes through ranch lands and the Pohakuloa Military Training Facility, for another 45 minutes, to the turn for Mauna Kea Access Road (John Burns Way). Nearby, Kipuka Huluhulu, or “shaggy hill”, is a 20 minute hike to the top and back. From here it is a 30 minute drive to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center. The small village is home to scientists and astronomers that work in the observatories and an amazing place to learn what their research tells us about our universe. Returning to Hwy 200, drive 45 minutes to the amazing Kaumana Cave lava tube, a short hike and a wonderful exploration. A further 30 minutes down Hwy 200 brings one to downtown Hilo, where there are shops, restaurants, fine museums, gorgeous waterfront beach parks and a fabulous Farmers Market. From Hilo, it is approximately three hours to return to Kailua Kona over Hwy 200; alternately one can take the faster though less scenic Hwy 19 to Waimea and then Hwy 190 into Kailua Kona, about a 2 1/2 hour drive.

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 1) In Kailua Kona, start at Ahu’ena Heiau; take Palani Road east to Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 to jct with Hwy 200, The Saddle Road

Ahu’ena Heiau and Kamakahonu Beach

Centuries ago the inhabitants of this region built a series of sacred temples, or heiau, which were originally used for the purpose of sacrificing human beings to their war god, Kuka’ilimoku. This particular archeological site is called Ahu’ena Heiau, which in Hawaiian means “Hill of Fire”.

Built originally in the 15th century and rededicated by Kamehameha the Great in the early 1800s as the main temple of his capital, the current structures seen at Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built in 1975 under the auspices of the Bishop Museum with financial help from the Hotel King Kamehameha and are constructed to 1/3 the original scale. There are restrooms and showers located on the pier near the beach. Adjacent Old Kailua Town is a treasure of shops, restaurants and aloha.

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 2) Take Hwy 200, The Saddle Road, east to jct with John Burns Way (also called Mauna Kea Access Road).

Looking West from Highway 190 to Haualai Volcano Halfway between Kona and Waimea, Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Looking West from Highway 190 to Hualalai Volcano Halfway between Kona and Waimea, Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Saddle Road

Crossing the spectacular saddle between the towering bulk of the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at about 6600 feet, The Saddle Road runs through brush, grass and forest lands, over lava fields and through some of the wildest and most breath-taking scenery on the Island. From this roadway, four of the 5 principal volcanoes that form The Big Island may be seen: Hualalai, Kohala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Because the western half of the road is in notoriously poor condition and consists, in reality, of only one operable lane for much of its descent from the saddle to the Mamalahoa Highway.

However, this road provides the only road access to the Mauna Kea Summit Area and Visitor Information Center, Mauna Kea State Park, Pohakuloa Training Area, Mauna Kea Astronomical Observatory Complex, Waiki’i Ranch and the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp. The Saddle Road also provides the only access to thousands of acres of public forest and open grass lands. Connecting Hilo from about milepost 7.8 on the Hawai’i Belt Road to the Mamalahoa Highway approximately 6 miles south of Waimea, the Saddle Road is widely used by island residents for cross-island travel, despite its somewhat poor condition and undeserved, evil reputation.

Mauna Kea From Mauna Kea State Park; Note V-Shaped Stream Valleys and Glacial Cirques: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Mauna Kea State Park; Note V-Shaped Stream Valleys and Glacial Cirques: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Saddle Road frequently has perfect weather, but also fairly routine are patches of intense rain, fog and high winds. It’s takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours straight driving time, depending upon weather, to make the full traverse from Kailua Kona to Hilo; however, one should be sure to leave time in the schedule to drive up to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station or hike the Pu’u Huluhulu nature trails.

Along its entire 53 mile length between the turn-off from the highway just 6 miles west of Waimea and where it meets Hawaii Belt Road just north of Hilo, there is no gas and there are no services available; plan accordingly. Some food, water and restrooms may be available at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station which is a 30 minute drive up a side road off the Saddle Road about half way.

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 3) Off a Spur road at the jct of John Burns Way and Hwy 200, on the south side, is Kipuka Huluhulu (“Shaggy Hill”) Nene Sanctuary.

Pu’u Huluhulu Nature Trails/Kipuka Aina Hou

Frequently described as simultaneously the most noticeable and the most overlooked landmark along the Saddle Road, Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu rises more than 200 feet out of the surrounding lava flows. It’s name meaning “furry hill”, this forested cinder cone has multiple trails winding up through rare native koa trees to breathtaking 360° views of Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at the top, where you can also wander a meadow of native Hawaiian plants recently reintroduced in this protected natural habitat. By whatever trail, the summit of Kipuka Huluhulu is only about 20 minutes walk from the car.

Owing to the encapsulated nature of the kipuka, bird watching here is particularly fabulous; the Ā’akepa, Nene and the Ā’akiapola Ā’au, as well as the Kalij pheasants, pueo, i’o and turkeys are among the rare, endangered or just plain beautiful birds you will see here. The numerous roads and trails through the hundreds of square miles of adjacent lava flows makes for interesting, if hot and dry, mountain biking and hiking.

Parking and a unisex pit toilet are the only amenities available at Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu.

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Looking South from Mauna Loa to Mauna Kea from Near Lake Wai'au: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking South from Mauna Loa to Mauna Kea from Near Lake Wai'au: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 4) Go north on John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.


Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Visitor Information Station is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the day there are interactive computer exhibits about Mauna Kea, the observatories and astronomical research, plus there are video presentations and nature trails to hike. Many evenings after dark National Park personnel and astronomers put on public programs and discuss what the latest astronomical findings tell us about the nature of our universe. The souvenir shop has some food items, including hot chocolate, coffee and hot soup, for sale.

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 5) John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Summit

Mauna Kea Summit

Before you decide to go to the summit of Mauna Kea, stop, think, plan. Are you prepared for cold and high altitude? Do you understand the nature and dangers of altitude sickness and UV radiation? Are you experienced at traveling icy dirt roads? Is you car safe for the trip (many car rental agencies on the island forbid you to drive this road)? The Rangers at the Visitor’s center can brief you on altitude sickness, UV radiation preparedness, the condition of the road and all other information you need to decide whether to visit the summit (see a video here).

Lake Wai'au--the Seventh Highest Lake in the US--Whose Name Means "Swirling Water", Perches Near the Summit of Mauna Kea On The Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lake Wai'au--the Seventh Highest Lake in the US--Whose Name Means "Swirling Water", Perches Near the Summit of Mauna Kea On The Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place. Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island, the summit is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians and is home to several, world-class astronomical observatories and their support buildings. Because of the extremity of the altitude and the poor quality of the road above the Visitor’s Center, it is advised that extreme caution be exercised in deciding to visit Mauna Kea’s Summit. From the road’s end very near the summit, a short, 10 minute trail leads up Pu’u Weiku cinder cone to the actual mountain top and a Hawaiian religious shrine. Also near the summit is the 1-mile hike to Lake Waiau, the 7th highest lake in the US, as well as numerous archeological sites. Moving at altitude is strenuous, so conserve energy. Do not over-tax yourself, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and protect yourself from the sun, wind and cold. Leave the summit area and return to the paved road long before you are tired.

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 6) Return John Burns Way to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 east to Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves

A skylight opening to 25-mile long Kaumana Cave is located at the county park near the 4-mile marker on the Hilo side of the Saddle Road. Concrete stairs take you down through the rain forest jungle to the bottom of a collapse pit forming two entrances to the cave. Most people are drawn to the entrance on the right, a large, opening leading to cavernous rooms. In this entrance, graffiti from hundreds of years ago to the present is preserved, scratched into the rocks. The entrance on the left, however, is more interesting, leading through squeezes and low spots to numerous rooms with fascinating speleo-architecture and cave formations. Both caves go to true dark in fewer than 300 feet in either direction. There are more than 2 miles of easily accessible, wild cave to explore here, but if you intend more than just a cursory inspection near the entrances, bring a hard hat, water and at least 3 sources of light. A quick tour of the caves takes fewer than 20 minutes.

Kaumana Cave's Skylight Entrance: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave's Skylight Entrance: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Parking for the caves is located across the highway from the park; extreme care should be taken when crossing he road. Public restrooms, water and picnic tables are available at the park. As you approach Hilo from Kaumana Caves, Hwy 200 becomes variously called Kaumana Drive, then Waianuenue Avenue.

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 7) Take Hwy 200 into Hilo Town.

Hilo Town

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts. In can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Liliuokalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains, or the rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches with lovely beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly, achingly-lovely spots on earth.

Hilo's Charming Bayfront Shops: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hilo's Charming Bayfront Shops: Photo by Donald MacGowan

More laid back and sleepier than bustling Kailua Kona, Hilo is the largest town on the island, and the county seat. The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Tsunami Museum, Lyman House Missionary Museum and the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo are all wonderful places to learn about various aspects of Hawaii. There are numerous shopping districts, two large malls and the Historic Old Hilo downtown shops to browse through, a variety of sprawling green parks, a fabulous tropical arboretum right downtown and a mile-long black-sand beach fronting the bay to explore. Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is a “must see” for any visitor who is spending time on this side of the island.

Mauna Kea's Summit  from Highway 19 Near Waimea Town: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea's Summit from Highway 19 Near Waimea Town: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 8) Return Waianuenue Avenue to Kaumana Drive to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 west to jct with Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 west to Kailua Kona.

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information about the author is available here.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan


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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 Information Station 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 Information Station.  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 Information Station 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 the 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 Information Station for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimate. The rangers there can help you decide if you and your vehicle are fit for the trip to the summit.

A wonderful, easy road trip that includes a visit to the summit of Mauna Kea can be made a memorable part of any visit to the Big Island.  Directions for a 1-day scenic drive from Kailua Kona to the top of Mauna Kea and on to Hilo (with stops along the way) can be found here.  More information on the summit drive and hike is available here; information about the Hawaiian mythology surrounding Mauna Kea can be found here.

Produced by Donnie MacGowan; original musical score written and performed by Donald B. MacGowan; videography by Donnie MacGowan and Frank Burgess.

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general, or touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information about the author can be found here.

THIS POST HAS BEEN SUBSTANTIALLY UPDATED AND EXPANDED…PLEASE GO HERE.

Trip 5: Kona to Mauna Kea, Kaumana Cave and Hilo via the Saddle Road

Approximate minimum time start to finish (to see every site): 12 hours

From Kona take Highway 190 to Highway 200 in 45 minutes of driving. Saddle Road, which cuts between the “saddle” of Mauna Loa on the south and Mauna Kea to the north, passes through ranch lands and the Pohakuloa Military Training Facility, for another 45 minutes, to the turn for Mauna Kea Access Road (John Burns Way). Nearby, Kipuka Huluhulu, or “shaggy hill”, is a 20 minute hike to the top and back. From here it is a 30 minute drive to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center. The small village is home to scientists and astronomers that work in the observatories and an amazing place to learn what their research tells us about our universe. Returning to Hwy 200, drive 45 minutes to the amazing Kaumana Cave lava tube, a short hike and a wonderful exploration.  A further 30 minutes down Hwy 200 brings one to downtown Hilo, where there are shops, restaurants, fine museums, gorgeous waterfront beach parks and a fabulous Farmers Market.  From Hilo, it is approximately three hours to return to Kailua Kona over Hwy 200; alternately one can take the faster though less scenic Hwy 19 to Waimea and then Hwy 190 into Kailua Kona, about a 2 1/2 hour drive.

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 1) In Kailua Kona, start at Ahu’ena Heiau; take Palani Road east to Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 to jct with Hwy 200, The Saddle Road

Ahu’ena Heiau and Kamakahonu Beach

Centuries ago the inhabitants of this region built a series of sacred temples, or heiaus, which were originally used for the purpose of sacrificing human beings to their war god, Kuka’ilimoku.  This particular archeological site is called Ahu’ena Heiau, which in Hawaiian means “Hill of Fire”.

Built originally in the 15th century and rededicated by Kamehameha the Great in the early 1800s as the main temple of his capital, the current structures seen at Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built in 1975 under the auspices of the Bishop Museum with financial help from the Hotel King Kamehameha and are constructed to 1/3 the original scale. There are restrooms and showers located on the pier near the beach. Adjacent Old Kailua Town is a treasure of shops, restaurants and aloha.

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 2) Take Hwy 200, The Saddle Road, east to jct with John Burns Way (also called Mauna Kea Access Road).

Saddle Road

Crossing the spectacular saddle between the towering bulk of the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at about 6600 feet, The Saddle Road runs through brush, grass and forest lands, over lava fields and through some of the wildest and most breath-taking scenery on the Island.   From this roadway, four of the 5 principal volcanoes that form The Big Island may be seen: Hualalai, Kohala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Because the western half of the road is in notoriously poor condition and consists, in reality, of only one operable lane for much of its descent from the saddle to the Mamalahoa Highway.

However, this road provides the only road access to the Mauna Kea Summit Area and Visitor Information Center, Mauna Kea State Park, Pohakuloa Training Area, Mauna Kea Astronomical Observatory Complex, Waikii Ranch and the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp.  The Saddle Road also provides the only access to thousands of acres of public forest and open grass lands.  Connecting Hilo from about milepost 7.8 on the Hawai’i Belt Road to the Mamalahoa Highway approximately 6 miles south of Waimea, the Saddle Road is widely used by island residents for cross-island travel, despite its somewhat poor condition and undeserved, evil reputation.

The Saddle Road frequently has perfect weather, but also fairly routine are patches of intense rain, fog and high winds.  It’s takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours straight driving time, depending upon weather, to make the full traverse from Kailua Kona to Hilo; however, one should be sure to leave time in the schedule to drive up to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station or hike the Pu’u Huluhulu nature trails.

Along its entire 53 mile length between the turn-off from the highway just 6 miles west of Waimea and where it meets Hawaii Belt Road just north of Hilo, there is no gas and there are no services available; plan accordingly.  Some food, water and restrooms may be available at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station which is a 30 minute drive up a side road off the Saddle Road about half way.

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 3) Off a Spur road at the jct of John Burns Way and Hwy 200, on the south side, is Kipuka Huluhulu (“Shaggy Hill”) Nene Sanctuary.

Pu’u Huluhulu Nature Trails/Kipuka Aina Hou

Frequently described as simultaneously the most noticeable and the most overlooked landmark along the Saddle Road, Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu rises more than 200 feet out of the surrounding lava flows.  It’s name meaning “furry hill”, this forested cinder cone has multiple trails winding up through rare native koa trees to breathtaking 360° views of Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at the top, where you can also wander a meadow of native Hawaiian plants recently reintroduced in this protected natural habitat.  By whatever trail, the summit of Kipuka Huluhulu is only about 20 minutes walk from the car.

Owing to the encapsulated nature of the kipuka, bird watching here is particularly fabulous; the Ā’akepa, Nene and the Ā’akiapola Ā’au, as well as the Kalij pheasants, pueo, i’o and turkeys are among the rare, endangered or just plain beautiful birds you will see here. The numerous roads and trails through the hundreds of square miles of adjacent lava flows makes for interesting, if hot and dry, mountain biking and hiking.

Parking and a unisex pit toilet are the only amenities available at Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu.

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 4) Go north on John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.


Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Visitor Information Station is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the day there are interactive computer exhibits about Mauna Kea, the observatories and astronomical research, plus there are video presentations and nature trails to hike. Many evenings after dark National Park personnel and astronomers put on public programs and discuss what the latest astronomical findings tell us about the nature of our universe. The souvenir shop has some food items, including hot chocolate, coffee and hot soup, for sale.

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 5) John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Summit

Mauna Kea Summit

Before you decide to go to the summit of Mauna Kea, stop, think, plan.  Are you prepared for cold and high altitude?  Do you understand the nature and dangers of altitude sickness and UV radiation?  Are you experienced at traveling icy dirt roads?  Is you car safe for the trip (many car rental agencies on the island forbid you to drive this road)? The Rangers at the Visitor’s center can brief you on altitude sickness, UV radiation preparedness, the condition of the road and all other information you need to decide whether to visit the summit (see a video here).

The summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place. Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island, the summit is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians and is home to several, world-class astronomical observatories and their support buildings.  Because of the extremity of the altitude and the poor quality of the road above the Visitor’s Center, it is advised that extreme caution be exercised in deciding to visit Mauna Kea’s Summit.  From the road’s end very near the summit, a short, 10 minute trail leads up Pu’u Weiku cinder cone to the actual mountain top and a Hawaiian religious shrine.  Also near the summit is the 1-mile hike to Lake Waiau, the 7th highest lake in the US, as well as numerous archeological sites.  Moving at altitude is strenuous, so conserve energy. Do not over-tax yourself,  be sure to drink plenty of fluids and protect yourself from the sun, wind and cold. Leave the summit area and return to the paved road long before you are tired.

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 6) Return John Burns Way to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 east to Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves

A skylight opening to 25-mile long Kaumana Cave is located at the county park near the 4-mile marker on the Hilo side of the Saddle Road.  Concrete stairs take you down through the rain forest jungle to the bottom of a collapse pit forming two entrances to the cave.  Most people are drawn to the entrance on the right, a large, opening leading to cavernous rooms.  In this entrance, graffiti from hundreds of years ago to the present is preserved, scratched into the rocks.   The entrance on the left, however, is more interesting, leading through squeezes and low spots to numerous rooms with fascinating speleo-architecture and cave formations.  Both caves go to true dark in fewer than 300 feet in either direction.  There are more than 2 miles of easily accessible, wild cave to explore here, but if you intend more than just a cursory inspection near the entrances, bring a hard hat, water and at least 3 sources of light.  A quick tour of the caves takes fewer than 20 minutes.

Parking for the caves is located across the highway from the park; extreme care should be taken when crossing he road.  Public restrooms, water and picnic tables are available at the park.  As you approach Hilo from Kaumana Caves, Hwy 200 becomes variously called Kaumana Drive, then Wainuenue Avenue.

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 7) Take Hwy 200 into Hilo Town.

Hilo Town

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts. In can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Lilioukalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains, or the rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches with lovely beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly, achingly-lovely spots on earth.

More laid back and sleepier than bustling Kailua Kona, Hilo is the largest town on the island, and the county seat.  The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Tsunami Museum, Lyman House Missionary Museum and the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo are all wonderful places to learn about various aspects of Hawaii. There are numerous shopping districts, two large malls and the Historic Old Hilo downtown shops to browse through, a variety of sprawling green parks, a fabulous tropical arboretum right downtown and a mile-long black-sand beach fronting the bay to explore.  Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is a “must see” for any visitor who is spending time on this side of the island.

Leg 8) Return Wainuenue Avenue to Kaumana Drive to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 west to jct with Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 west to Kailua Kona.

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The view of Mauna Loa from the Shrine at Pu'u Weiku on the Summit of Mauna Kea: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Polynesians encountered the snow goddess, Poliahu, for the first time when they reached the Big Island of Hawaii sometime in the Fourth Century C.E. and beheld the snow-clad summits of the great volcanoes. The eldest daughter of the sky god Kane, Poliahu is said to have created the verdant, tropical beauty of the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island; its lushness, clear, cold streams and lovely waterfalls a perfect playground for her to indulge in her favorite pass-time–cavorting with human men.

Though she regularly visits Haleakala on Maui and Mauna Loa on the Big Island, Mauna Kea–in Hawaiian the “White Mountain”–is rightly considered the home of Poliahu. The prominent surviving myth about the Goddess Poliahu involves her besting the Volcano Goddess, Pele, at the Hawaiian sledding sport of “he’eholua”. So angry was Pele at being defeated that she attacked Poliahu with streams of glowing lava. Poliahu retaliated by bringing down storms of snow to freeze the molten rock in place. The goddesses fought each other to a standstill, although the sledding defeat has always rankled Pele. Even now as she dominates at Kilauea, Pele submits to Poliahu’s rule on Mauna Kea; still, to this day, Pele is said to dispute with Poliahu over Mauna Loa.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hikers on the Summit Ridge of Mauna Kea; Mauna Loa in the Background: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mythology aside, Mauna Kea’s summit is an exciting, fascinating place. A dormant shield volcano which hasn’t erupted for about 4500 years, Mauna Kea is 13,803 feet tall, the highest point in the state of Hawaii. Because the summit rises some 33,476 feet above its base on the sea floor, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth. All this mass, this huge bulk of a mountain has grown in fewer than a million years–geologically the blink of an eye. Glaciers covered the summit of Mauna Kea three times between 200,000 and 13,000 years ago, leaving behind many glacial features and a few remnant rock glaciers near the summit. In addition, the summit area is home to Lake Waiau, the seventh highest lake in the United States. Also on the summit block is the largest, and most modern collection of international astronomical observatories located anywhere on earth.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Summit of Mauna Kea Contains a Small Metropolis of the Most Modern and Sophisticated Astronomical Telescopes and Observatories in the World: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

I love visiting the summit of Mauna Kea–whether I spend the day hiking the six-mile trail to the top or I drive to the end of the road for the 10 minute walk up the summit at Pu’u Weiku. I spend hours and hours watching the clouds, listening to the silence, soaking up the island-wide vistas. I’m not sure what draws me out of the tropical torpor of Kona, time and again, to the summit of Mauna Kea–maybe the exhilaration of altitude and the crisp, clean air, or the opportunities for snow-play, solitude; perhaps unconsciously I hope to see one of the legendary cat-fights between Pele and Poliahu, fire and ice.

Secretly, deep down, I suspect that honestly I am just hoping to become yet another in the long, long line of human men that Poliahu has chosen to, ahem, cavort with.

For more information about traveling to the Hawaii in general and touring the Big ISland in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.  For a video about hiking up Mauna Kea, go here.  For information about the author, please go here.


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 www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.