This was one of the coolest things we did in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano that sits about 14,000 feet above sea level, and has a number of astronomical observatories on it. To go all the way to the top you need to take a tour, but there is a visitor center at about 9,200 ft that is well worth the trip.
We left Wiakaola around 4:00 pm under an overcast sky thinking the trip to the observatory would be a bust. We drove up Hwy 190 and turned right on Saddle Road. The beginning of about 28 miles of rough driving. Saddle Road appears to have been constructed as a one lane road, then someone decided that it should be two lanes, and they added about 2 feet of asphalt to either side of the road. This gives you a road that is in fairly good condition in the middle, but with the outside 1 – 2 feet full of potholes and rough edges. Combine this with a mixture of turns and up and down hills and you have the makings for a head-on collision, or going real slow over the bumps.
About 15 minutes into our drive up Saddle Road, we entered what I initially thought was a fog bank. Nope, it was the clouds that we’d seen earlier when we left the hotel. After about ten minutes of driving through the clouds, we emerged into a bright sunny lava scape. We basically went from sea level at the hotel to about 5000 feet when we got to the base of the road that leads up to the visitors center. On the way you drive through a military exercise area, and by an Air Force airfield.
When we reached the bottom of a road that turned to the left we thought we were are the turn off to go to the Observatory. The guide books and the Visitor Center web site have the road name as the Mauna Kea Access Road. However the road sign has the name of some former governor of Hawaii. But this pretty much seems to be the only road around the 28 mile area, so we take it. This road is well paved and very wide. It does seem to go straight up at times, but you are climbing from around 5,000 feet to 9,200 feet in about six miles. When you look back to the west, you can’t see the rest up the island. You are up so high that you are above the clouds and you’re looking at a carpet of clouds as far as you can see. It is a pretty cool sight.
Up at the Visitors Center, we ate the sandwiches that we brought with us, and watched the DVD program that they have about the mountain and its observatories. After the sun goes down, they get out telescopes and point them around the sky and allow you to look through them. There are a couple of 14 inchers, and a bunch of 8 inchers. There are a group of volunteers that sometimes include the astronomers that are working the observatories to help guide your tour of the star map. I was awe struck at the clarity and view of the stars (actually planets, galaxys, suns and other astronomical objects that I hadn’t heard of since I took Astronomy as a college freshman.) that we got through the scopes on Mauna Kea.
The drive down was uneventful. There was another ten minutes of driving through a cloud, and it was dark this time. The road was actually less scary in the dark. For one you couldn’t see how bad it was, but mostly it was because you could see people coming toward you a long way off since you could see their lights a good ways off.