Mauna Kea Hawaii
By Susan M. Keenan
Hawaii's tallest mountain, Mauna Kea is one of the five volcanoes that form the big island, Hawaii. Quite notably the tallest sea mountain in the world, Mauna Kea stands at 13,796 above sea level and 32,000 feet from the very bottom. The name translates to the words, white mountain, a name it has earned due to the fact that its top is snow crested during the winter months of the western hemisphere.
During these months, snow falls onto the higher portions of the mountain, reaching a depth of several meters. Although it is quite possible to ski on Mauna Kea if you are an advanced skier, the conditions are a bit too rough for casual skiers. The altitude is very high and the conditions are a bit extreme.
The estimated age of Mauna Kea is one million years old. It is only slightly larger than another of the famous Hawaiian volcanoes, Mauna Loa, the world’s largest or most massive mountain. In fact, Mauna Kea sits north of Mauna Loa.
Mauna Kea is considered a shield volcano. This means that although lava flows for millions of years, the volcano does not explode violently on a regular basis. Currently, Mauna Kea is dormant. Its last eruption was approximately 4,500 years ago.
Originally included in the privately owned Parker Ranch, Mauna Kea is now home to numerous observatories. In fact, the Mauna Kea Observatories comprise the largest and most sophisticated facility in the world for the observation and studying of the infrared, optical, and submillimeter astronomy. Eleven nations, including Canada, France, and Japan, have joined together to create wonderful opportunities for stargazing and more.
Since the summit of Mauna Kea, the location for the observatory, is located high above the inversion layer, it offers at least 300 clear nights of viewing. The inversion layer is that part of the atmosphere where the pollutants are trapped in the cooler air below the clear warm air. Stargazing is excellent due to nights devoid of urban lights and clear skies devoid of pollution. The summit sits above 40% of the earth’s atmosphere and 90% of the water vapor leading to some of the clearest images.
The W.M. Keck Observatory is located on the summit. It is the home of the twin Keck telescopes, which are the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world. The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Center offers free lectures and video presentations as well as the opportunity to gaze through their telescopes or binoculars. Dining facilities are also present.
Mauna Kea Visitor Center is a great stop for acclimating yourself to the altitude before moving on to the summit. The trip itself is a six-mile stretch with an altitude change from 9,000 to almost 14,000 feet. Although your rental car will get you to the visitor center, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle or a mountain bike to continue any further on the narrow, rough road, known as Saddle Road. Exploration of the sites along the way to the summit is filled with incredible scenery, cycling with mountain bikes, and hiking opportunities.
Just below the summit sits the only glacial lake in the mid-Pacific area. Not only is it one of the highest lakes at 13,020 feet above sea level, but also, it never dries out even though it only gets 15 inches of rain annually.
Guided tours offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures entrance guests with interesting facts about the geology, natural history, and geography of the area. Mauna Kea is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals. The Mauna Kea State Recreation Area provides cabins, picnicking areas, and hiking opportunities. It is a national natural landmark site.