Ascent to the Heavens: The Summit of Mauna Kea

The ascent to the top of Mauna Kea shouldn’t be taken lightly. At an elevation of 13,796ft (4,205m), it is inadvisable to do it without first stopping at Onizuka Visitor Information Station to acclimate, about 30-45 minutes. The problem, of course, is that there is a paved road to the summit, providing too carefree and quick a means to reach the top. Only 4WD vehicles are permitted to go all the way up, all others recommended to remain at Onizuka. That hasn’t stopped the intrepid (and stupid) from trying.

We wanted to experience sunset at the summit and see the night sky of millions of stars. Not wanting to drive all the way back to Hilo in the dark, I decided it would be better to take the 4WD van tour that conveniently started from Arnott’s Lodge where we were staying, the only one originating from Hilo. And what a brilliant tour it was, our guide Dino Morrow possibly the best we’ve ever had. Even though he came to the islands 13 years ago from San Diego, for all intents and purposes he is Hawaiian, in his speech, dialect and soul, a bruddah.

The final stretch above Onizuka was highlighted by spectacular views of giant cinder cones, side-lit by the low-hanging sun, and the impressively broad outline of the still active Mauna Loa. It’s easy to see why Mauna Loa, an enormous shield volcano that stretches the length of Hawai’i, is the emblem of the Big Island, for it can be seen from anywhere.

Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa

The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)

The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)

The rarefied air and freedom from cloud cover are the reasons that more astronomical telescopes and observatories (four of them, none open to the public) have been set up here than anywhere in the world. Lots of cars and tour vehicles were already at the summit when we arrived. As we made our way to an overlook, my breathing became labored, though my wife experienced no such thing! Toward the east, we witnessed a phenomenon the likes of which we may never see again. Mauna Kea cast its great triangular shadow on the cloud cover, thousands of feet below, as the Great Pyramid would on the Saharan desert.

Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit

Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit (click to enlarge)

Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea

Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea (click to enlarge)

On the way down, we stopped one more time at the visitor center for a laser light astronomy lesson by Dino. An almost full moon, one night before the super moon, prevented our seeing a true night sky, but the major constellations, Polaris, Mars and Saturn were visible. We arrived back at the lodge past 10pm, agreeing that this evening had been truly memorable.

Surprise Canyon (AZ)

Three years ago, we took the Antelope Canyon tour. As memorable as that tour was, hordes of tourists drawn by the fame of the canyon arrived from all over the world. To make matters worse, everyone was herded through the narrow passageways in numbers so thick that visions of being alone were delusions instead. Photographers were not allowed to bring tripods on the standard tours, but I discovered that by paying a bit more for a photographers’ tour, you got special dispensation.

In researching other tour opportunities in this area only a few weeks ago, I noticed that one company provided a Humvee tour to Canyon X that promised a relatively crowd-free experience to Surprise Canyon. The canyon would rival the beauty of the more famous slot canyon. As it turned out, only one other couple (from the UK) joined our tour on a day that was almost cloud-free, fortunate because of the downpour in the area only the day before. Getting to the canyon was half the fun; the Hummer negotiated rocky terrain, slick rock and sandy stretches, at one point tilting at what seemed like a pitch of 45°. Itself, the canyon is not very long. Nor was there any noticeable place with a hole in the rocks above to showcase a dramatic shaft of light for which Antelope Canyon is famous, maybe because the skies were somewhat cloudy. But the iridescent glow of the pinkish-orange sandstone was on full display. In retrospect, Antelope is the more spectacular because of its size and diversity but the crowds there can be quite the test. For experiencing a little of what these types of slot canyons offer, Surprise will fit the bill nicely.