The Big Island in Hawaii has some memorable places to visit. Among them is the Mauna Kea Summit Observatory. The summit is about 14,000 feet from sea level, and from the bottom of the ocean, it is 32,000 ft high, making it the highest point of any structure on Earth. The summit is about 40% above Earth’s atmosphere and houses the largest astronomical observatory. The combined power of these telescopes is sixty time greater than that of the Hubble and one can read a newspaper headline in Los Angeles from New York city using such a power telescope.
The drive to the summit is not exactly for those faint of heart. First off, you should stop at the Visitor center, about 9000 ft above sea level, for at least 1/2 hour to acclimatize yourself to the lack of oxygen. The effects of such low incidence of oxygen is light headaches, nausea, breathlessness, vomiting, etc.
We had been to the Botanical Gardens in the morning and stopped for lunch at a fabulous road-side sandwich shop called ‘What’s Shaking’ on Rt. 19. The shop is the store-front of a farm. All vegetables used for the food is grown on the farm itself. So you can get the freshest ingredients. We got the avacado-sprout-wraps and a veggie pizza. Both were extraordinary and the Onamea sunrise smoothie, which was a blend of papaya and other fruits, was also excellent. It had no sugar by-the-way, but tasted great. We sat outside the shop overlooking the green yard and a backdrop of palm/coconut trees and was a great way to enjoy the afternoon.
It took us about 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach the Visitor center. The drive up to the center was pretty scenic. When I stopped to grab some photos, a ranger in his truck about 1/4 of a mile away, was honking like mad and I don’t know why. Anyway, we spent 45 minutes to acclimatize ourselves. The air was chilly and thin and I had a slight headache. We had rented an all-wheel-drive SUV as this is highly recommended. I did see a few passenger cars. From the visitor center the road is unpaved. When we started the journey, I was hesitant. As I look up the vast mountain, I saw a couple of cars high up slowly crawling along. Speed limit is a maximum of 25 mph and it is wise to stay within limits. The road was wide enough to let two vehicles through, but you would want to be away from the edge. The views started getting incredible as we drove and rose above the clouds. Seeing the clouds from an airplane is one thing and seeing it while on firm footing is another thing. The mist of the clouds was illuminated by the sun going down and I was pretty sure I would see a spectacular sunset painted mountain-side. As we drove higher and higher, the mountain started baring itself. We dared not to stop though there were some pull-outs. An impatient car passed us by, but for the most part other drivers were staying within limits. The gravel road gets pretty slippery as you start to speed up. The last 1/3 mile to the summit was better paved and it took us about 30 minutes to get there from the visitor center for all the six miles.
Once there, you are welcomed by sights of aluminum topped domes sitting amidst the clouds. I felt as though we were on alien land. I could see other peaks close by and a few people had already trekked to the top. The mountain side was now golden red because of the setting sun and I was enthralled all the time. As we peeked into our vehicle, I saw the chips bag puffed up like a crying baby’s cheek and the earlier opened water bottle had partly collapsed!!
I was thinking of staying back to observe the night sky, but was still unsure if I wanted to stay after dark thinking about the drive down. We decided to drive back as did most of the visitors to the top. We got back well in time before dark. On the way, the setting sun made way for spectacular sights and we got some amazing shots. Don’t miss the summit when you are on Kona! It is the closest to God I could have been physically – that’s how I felt after seeing the sun apparently much nearer than I ever had.