Sunset brings colors and a prayer for clear skies to astronomers. Mauna Kea is the world's tallest mountain, if one measures from seafloor to summit, some 20,xxx feet. Observatories have been constructed in thin air at the top, 13,6xx feet above sea level.
It's possible to drive from the beach to the summit in the span of only a few hours. A brief stay at the Visitor's Center at the 9,000-foot level is recommended: our bodies need to acclimate to the high altitude. Bring a parka.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii           June 2002
The author is photographed with the shadow of the mountain falling off to the east. The setting sun casts the volcano's enormous shadow upon the airmass above the Pacific Ocean. The setting sun casts the shadow of the photographer's elbow on the author's middle. Tourist photographs tourist.
The candy-cane pole on the left is used to gauge winter snowfalls. Some ski up here, but the bottom is rocky. No lifts either....
Alright. The true, highest, honest-to-God summit is actually a short walk beyond the observatories' parking lot. The clearly defined trail leads down into a ravine and then back up to a lip of compacted volcanic ash. If you want to really say you've been there, then you have to go there.

But remember:
--- The air is thin; maybe you're not.
--- It's easier to go downhill than to hike uphill.
--- Lack of oxygen affects decision-making.
--- Lack of oxygen affects life....
There are a lot of government (Army) roadways around the top of the Big Island, but only one road leads to the summit. To get there you have to travel the notorious Saddle Road. Notorious because most rental car companies prefer that
As you climb toward the Saddle Road you'll find spectacular views. This is looking back toward the Kona Coast. You'll see the spot --- in the far distance --- where you went for your morning snorkel with the Kalaxxxx-xxxx fish.
You're going from "below" the sea level to 13,xxx feet above, through 18xx climate zones in just three hours....
Higher elevations reveal the volcanic origins of the landscape. Ash cones and lava flows dominate your field of vision --- from roadside to the far distance. You may be riding on Michelins, but the Michelins are riding on lava....
Sunrise at the summit.
It's possible to spend the night in your rented SUV, preferably at the Vistor's Center at the 9,000-foot elevation. It's a little warmer there. There's air to breathe. The restrooms are open all night. (They have funny red bulbs in the lamp fixtures --- so as not to disturb the astronomers. Watch where you point your headlights!)
Before dawn, drive back up to the top to watch the sun rise over the Pacific. The shadow it casts seems tangible enough to be another whole island off in the distance. It's not Maui. It's just a shadow....
you not take their
vehicles up there. Some do.
As you can see from these photos, it's not that rough a road. It does usually take four-wheel drive to make it all the way to the top. Some parts are deep in dust. Rent an SUV for $120....
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