Towering over the Big Island at over 13,000 feet elevation is the summit of Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in the world. As the island's most prominent volcano, it is home to spectacular panoramic views, multiple observatories occupied by different countries, snow in the winter months and a visitors' center at 9,000 feet elevation. Adventuring to the summit is one of the most amazing things to do on the island, especially at sunset or sunrise.
The mountain's elevation, combined with its relative isolation from air pollution, makes it one of the world's foremost locations for stargazing, a fact not lost on astronomers. Eleven countries - including Japan, France and scores of American universities - have set up ultra-modern telescopes to peer into the vastness of space.
Mauna Kea's observatories — Photo courtesy of Jade Eckardt
The trek up requires a four-wheel drive vehicle, but that's because of the incline rather than pot holes or large rocks. The barren terrain changes as you weave up the mountain, and the views change as you move. It's very important to drive extremely slow when driving up and down the mountain, as sharp turns and gravel roads make it a bit risky. However, scientists and visitors drive the road daily, so it isn't the craziest drive.
Rent a Jeep Wrangler four-wheel drive if you plan to head up, because they're the only true 4X4s offered by rental companies. Although other SUVs are advertised as four-wheel drive, they're actually all-wheel drive, and there's a difference.
In the winter months, usually starting in December, heavy rains turn to snow at the summit. Locals and visitors from all over the world head up the mountain for snowboarding and snowman building. Locals often take snow home in truckloads.
Sunset over the Kona Coast — Photo courtesy of Jade Eckardt
Below the summit at around 9,000 feet elevation is the Onizuka Visitor Center, where a gift shop, coffee, restrooms and an abundance of volcano and geology information is available. Lecture series and nighttime stargazing programs are offered, but schedules vary and it's a good idea to call in advance for dates and times.
Small children aren't allowed up to the top of the mountain because of altitude sickness, but they are allowed at the visitors' center, and adults should acclimate here before going up further. Bring plenty of water for the ascent.
It's a must to remember to dress warmly, because temperatures are chilly during the daylight hours and tend to drop quickly at sundown, no matter what time of year it is. However, sunset on a volcano is one of the best experiences on the island and should not be missed.