There is only one place on Earth that I know where you can have a snowball fight one minute and be snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean an hour later. Any guess where this is?
We’re at the top of Mount Maunakea, one of the five volcanoes that make Hawaii’s Big Island. A science city has been built on top of the mountain with some of the best telescopes in the world taking advantage of near perfect air quality and temperature levels for astronomy. Among the institutions/countries with scientists at work in observatories on top of Maunakea are CalTech, the Smithsonian, NASA, Canada, France, United Kingdom, University of Hawaii, and Subaru.
I was disappointed recently in my attempt to see the skies through one of these telescopes. After driving about ninety minutes from my Airbnb in the nearby city of Kona (home of Kona coffee), a guard and barrier blocked the final stretch of road due to black ice. I could have walked, but I didn’t have the right gear.
You’ll find snow here throughout the year, despite being in tropical Hawaii, and the road isn’t always open except for essential scientists. You can see the housing for scientists from the visitor center, the furthest point in the road that is not closed. And you can observe the conditions at the summit through one of the many webcams that run continuously up top. You can call ahead for road conditions to 808-935-6368. Bring a jacket. As you ascend, the temperatures plunge.
Rangers patrol 365 days a year. The visitor information center is located at 9,200 feet. Even if the final stretch of road is closed, nice hiking is still available from this point as is the experience of fresh mountain air. Hiking boots are recommended.
Even though the road may be closed to vehicular traffic, an eight-mile trail to the summit is never closed to hikers.
Once on the mountain, cellular phone use is prohibited except for emergencies. So prepare for other communication means in emergencies. Do you know how to do smoke signals?
In addition to a beautiful place to visit, the mountain is a spiritual place of significance to native Hawaiians. Cultural alters, some in the form of man-made rock pilings, are protected by law.
Information exists that the road to the summit is only passable with a four-wheel vehicle. This is not true. An ordinary car can pass, but it may not be a good idea. Ascending isn’t the problem. You can damage your car’s brakes coming down unless you properly downshift during descent. Off-road vehicles are prohibited. An emergency road exists for trucks that lose their brakes, ascending to slow them down.
Although it’s neat to think you can experience the beach and snow so close in time, SCUBA diving within 24 hours of ascending the mountain is dangerous. The top of the mountain is very dry requiring plenty of water to avoid dehydration. The body water replenish rate is two cups per hour.
Rangers warn against ascending if you are under 16 years old, pregnant, have any heart or respiratory condition, or are intoxicated. Altitude sickness may occur due to the drop in atmospheric pressure and decreased oxygen at higher altitudes. Two worst case medical conditions that may result are pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. Adhere to medical advice and let your body acclimate at least thirty minutes at the visitor center before ascending.
Rangers warn that you should immediately descend if you experience thirst, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, impaired judgment, fatigue, drowsiness, loss of balance, or loss of muscle coordination (such as tripping while hiking). More serious medical conditions can manifest themselves in vomiting, blue lips and/or fingernails, confusion, or coma.
Remember sun screen, sunglasses, and a hat. At this altitude the solar radiation is harmful.
All travel here is at your own risk; no nearby medical facilities exist.