A Mauna Kea Sunset and Stargazing Adventure with Hawaii Forest & Trail

For our recent 4-day adventure to the Big Island, we decided that wanted to visit the summit of Mauna Kea. To get to the summit, one must drive up the infamous Saddle Road. Many locals will tell you that Saddle Road is a very dangerous road to drive on. In fact, a portion of the 16 mile road, just past the visitor center, is unpaved and very rugged. To aid in our excursion through Saddle Road and to maintain the limited warranty on our rental vehicle, we decided on going with a tour group led by Hawaii Forest & Trail. The last thing that we needed was a flat tire on our Mustang at 13,000 feet with no cellular signal available [1].

Our journey to Mauna Kea began at the lobby of the Waikoloa Beach Marriot & Spa, where we were picked up by Robert, our guide from Hawaii Forest & Trail. We were the last to be picked up and so we muscled our way to the back of the tour van, which, in retrospect was quite luxurious. Hawaii Forest & Trail limits each tour to 14 guests and uses a Mercedes Benz Sprinter MiniBus to “comfortably” get guests to the rough and cold summit of Mauna Kea and back to their 5 star resort hotels in Kona. I put “comfortably” in quotation marks if only because of the aforementioned portion of Saddle Road that could not be travelled comfortably no matter what vehicle you are in, unless, of course, you travel by Hoverboard.

The Long Drive

The drive up to Mauna Kea is a long and winding one. It helped that our tour guide, Robert, was very knowledgeable about the area. I asked him how often he travels up there, and whether he has to endure the long drive up and back down on a daily basis. He laughed and then said “no, I just do this 3-4x a week” he said. Robert, a tall burly man, probably in his mid 50’s, talked about some of the legends associated with Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well as the cultural significance of the area during the long ride up. This made the minutes go by a bit faster. It also helped that we brought along some fish and chips from Island Fish & Chips to munch on.

As we meandered through the winding road that is Saddle Road, we noticed various changes in climate and geology. We also noticed a variety of different animals from cows, goats, and horses. We even passed through a family of nene, which is a species of goose that is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The nene is also the official state bird of Hawaii.

Dinner

At around 10,000 feet (I think), we made our first stop. If I remember correctly, the stop was made at a historic sheep ranch outpost. Here, we spent about an hour or so exploring the ranch buildings and the view. We also had dinner here under a tent. While we explored the premisses, Robert quickly set up our dining area. For dinner, we had hot barbecue chicken with veggies and homemade cornbread. Robert also passed out hot tea, which was a very welcome surprise.

After dinner, Robert had us gather around the van, he then passed out our hooded parkas. Though I did bring my own jacket, I used the provided parka as a second layer. It was freakin’ cold. To accompany the parkas, Robert later handed out warm gloves, that were geniously designed so that you could easily pop your fingers out so that you can easily use your digital devices.

Following dinner, we continued our drive up to the summit. Eventually, the paved road ended at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. Here, Robert made a quick stop to drop off some paperwork at the visitor center. When he returned, we made our final push to the summit along an unbelievably unpaved and bumpy road. This is the point at which a 4-wheel-drive becomes very important. And this portion of Saddle Road was the main reason that we decided to go with a tour group, rather than drive it up there on our own.

Just past the right of the visitor center you will notice the only snow removal equipment in Hawaii. It does snow on Mauna Kea. And when it does, Robert mentioned, locals love to drive up here with their trucks to snowboard, ski, and even collect some snow into the back of their pick up trucks and then transport it down to the beach to have some fun with.

One of the old buildings that was part of the sheep ranch. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

One of the old buildings that was part of the sheep ranch. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Hawaii Forest & Trail transportation. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Hawaii Forest & Trail transportation. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Inside our tent. Super cold, but manageable. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Inside our tent. Super cold, but manageable. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The Summit

I believe that it took us about 50 minutes or so from the visitor center to the summit of Mauna Kea. At the top, you are greeted by a collection of some of the world’s most technologically advanced telescopes. It really does feel as if you are visiting some other worldly place. The view from the summit of Mauna Kea is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. At the top, I did notice that I had a difficult time with my breathing. I also noticed a bit of dizziness. That, however, did not stop me from exploring as much of the grounds as possible. Eventually, I found a spot with Michelle and we both enjoyed the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea. This sunset was a special one, as we learned from Robert, since it indicated the start of the winter solstice. It was special to Michelle and I because on this day, December, 21, 2012, we were able to celebrate our 13th anniversary together, on the summit of Mauna Kea at 13,803 feet above sea level. More importantly, it meant that we had pretty much survived that Mayan apocalypse.

Thanks for snapping this photo, Robert. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Thanks for snapping this photo, Robert. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Brrrrrr, it's cold in here. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Brrrrrr, it’s cold in here. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

That red hill there, to the left, is the true summit of Mauna Kea. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

That red hill there, to the left, is the true summit of Mauna Kea. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The sun sets. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The sun sets. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

One of the stations. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

One of the stations. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Still cold. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Still cold. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Ice. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Ice. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Stargazing

The stargazing bit was when I snuck off to sort of do my own thing. Once we left the summit, we drove back down to the visitor center. When we arrived, Robert announced that he would need some time to set up his telescope gear. While the rest of the group sat in the van, I decided to go out and practice some long exposure sky shots. I quickly got out of the van and set up shop with my tripod and Canon 7D. Eventually, I did make my way back to the group, if only to get my hands on the hot chocolate and brownies that Robert was passing out. I also got to take a peek and the Milky Way, Jupiter, and the Moon, amongst other things. There were a few in the group that were really into stargazing, me, not so much.

Stars. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Stars. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Hot Cocoa and Stargazing. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Hot Cocoa and Stargazing. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I nearly froze my fingers off trying to get these shots. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I nearly froze my fingers off trying to get these shots. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Was It Worth It?

Totally. The price of the tour was $200 per person. However, we ended up paying $340 because of a kamaaina discount. I was happy to pay that price to allow someone else to drive me up Saddle Road and save me the trouble of potentially having to reason with the car rental agency why our non 4WD Ford Mustang was stuck at 13,000 feet. The piece of mind was worth every penny. Also, I got to sleep on the drive back home. The fact that we didn’t need to worry about food (even though we did pack our own) was an added bonus. And the hot cocoa, well, what could possibly beat hot cocoa at 10,000 feet while listening to someone talk about how awesome the Milky Way is?

Explorers: Coty Gonzales and Michelle Sagucio.

Mauna Kea Tips:

  • Hawaii Forest & Trail provides guests with hooded parkas, however, you might want to bring an extra jacket as a second layer.
  • Long pants and thick socks would also be very helpful.
  • If you plan on practicing your photography, then be sure to bring along a tripod.
  • Stargazer? Load some of the Stargazing apps on you iPhone or iPad, like Star Walk HD, so that you can figure out what it is your’re looking at.

Total Distance: 58 miles (From the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa to the summit of Mauna Kea.)

Total Time: 8+ hours (Pick up for us was at 2:20pm at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. We returned at around 10:00pm.)

Directions to Mauna Kea: From Mamalahoa Highway and driving toward Kona, you will make a left on to Honomu Road. Signage will eventually lead you on to Old Mamalahoa Highway, where you will make a right on Stable Camp Road. Continue going straight until you hit Akaka Falls Road. Follow the road to the end and you will reach Akaka Falls State Park. It will take you about 20 minutes or so to reach the falls from Mamalahoa Highway.

More Information from Hawaii Forest & Trail:

  • Schedule: Afternoon trips depart daily from Hawaii Forest and Trail Headquarters, Waikoloa Kings Shops, and the Junction of Highways 190 and 200. 7 – 8 hours round trip.
  • Rated: Easy to Moderate; ages 16 and over.
  • Included in the Tour: Picnic style dinner, assorted teas, hot chocolate, and dessert. Dinner selections are either Barbecue Chicken (served hot) with Homemade Cornbread and Coleslaw; or a Vegetarian Spinach Wrap (served cold) with Glazed Carrots and Tabouleh.
  • Gear Provided: Hooded parkas and warm gloves.
  • Prices: Adult: $192.00, plus tax.
  • Group Size: Tour limited to a maximum of 14 guests.
  • Restrictions: Guests should be able to hike on uneven or rocky terrain. We sometimes encounter cool, wet or muddy conditions. Because of high altitude this tour is not advised for those with respiratory, circulatory or heart conditions, pregnancy or poor health. Scuba divers should be aware of altitude dangers. No children under 16. Other tour restrictions may apply.
  • What to Bring & Wear: Closed toe shoes, long pants and a sweatshirt or sweater.

1. For some reason, I assumed that there would be no cellular signal while on Mauna Kea. I was wrong, as evidenced by my constant stream of Instgram photos posted.

About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii. Adventure, Minimalism, Vinyl, Typography, and Coffee + Matcha. A single space after a period, please.

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