Driving to the top of the world – The Mauna Kea Summit Road

I don’t know about you, but all of my (far too often) daydreaming of an exciting drive usually contains the same few key ingredients. It’s either sunrise or sunset on a deserted, twisty hills road and the vehicle of choice is usually some kind of under-interiored, over-carburettored mid 70’s sports car. Driving a two-tonne, automatic four wheel drive at 40km/h is usually my idea of automotive hell, however taking a Jeep Wrangler to the 13,796ft summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the definite exception. And what’s more, it’s such a memorable and accessible experience that I’m surprised it’s not a Big Island must-do for more visitors.

Don’t feel geographically challenged if you’ve never heard of Mauna Kea – I hadn’t. You’re more likely to be aware of what sits at its summit. Mauna Kea is famously known as probably the best place on earth to view the heavens from, and as such has several observatories and telescopes operated by organisations from all over the world built on its summit. The big white dome in the background of this shot is one of the world famous Keck observatories, and it’s almost worth going to the summit to see these alone.

You’ll need to get yourself to the Big Island of Hawaii. Flights land in either Hilo or Kona, but for easy access to the summit it’s best to touch down in Hilo which is conveniently the biggest city on the island. Hilo itself has a nice downtown, and plenty of places where you can rent a four wheeler to get to the top for a very reasonable cost. At nighttime you can see the influence the mountain has – in Hilo there’s just the bare minimum of street lighting and all of the businesses turn off their lights after dark to reduce light pollution which may affect the telescopes at the summit.

The amazing thing about this journey is how many climatic zones you pass through, and how quickly the scenery changes. When you begin your journey in Hilo there’s no doubting that you’re on a tropical island – palm trees, lush grasses, white sands and excellent snorkelling compete for your attention. But just an hour and a half’s drive away it’s a different story – if its 27deg C in Hilo, it’s likely to be just 10 or less at the summit.

Leave Hilo on Highway 200, better known as The Saddle Road. It’s wide, straight and smooth, and begins to climb almost as soon as you leave Hilo city limits. There’s no dips and it never levels off, it just continues to ascend. You’ll notice that the scenery changes dramatically – just 10 minutes down this road it’s warm and tropical but here you find yourself in an alien moonscape caused by lava flow centuries ago.

Hilo is known as the third wettest city in the United States – the average rainfall is sometimes up to 200 inches, and it rains on 275 days of the year. But even on a sunny day in Hilo you can never see the summit due to a weather system that blocks it from view. As you drive up Saddle Road you quickly become part of that weather system, and its almost always raining where these photos were taken.

Just past the 28 mile marker you turn onto the well signposted Mauna Kea summit road, and almost instantly the landscape changes. It’s almost as if you enter a steep, uphill prairie as the long grasses blow in the strong wind.

These old bunkers probably had something to do with the nearby military base. You’d have no clue that this photo was taken on a tropical island.

Still the road winds further up as you push through the clouds.

And then all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, you burst through the clouds into a bright sunny day. This photo and the one above were taken within a kilometre of each other.

You can look back and see the weather you’ve just come out of.

At 9,200 feet you reach the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Essentially a visitor centre for the Mauna Kea national park, but don’t let its diminutive size put you off – it contains a goldmine of information about astrology and the summit itself. Not only that, but you need to spend at least half an hour here to acclimatise to the altitude before you can continue to the summit. They don’t actually sell any food here other than water, 2 minute noodles and freeze dried astronaut food (true) so you need to bring snacks with you.

It’s here where the road gets interesting – the tarmac stops at the visitor centre, which is ironically where the road gets seriously steep as it rises nearly 5,000 feet in just 8 miles. Most people visit the summit as part of an organised tour, but that would be missing out on all the fun.

So we organised something that was Trail Rated! Despite what every publication will tell you, you don’t actually need a 4WD to get to the summit. In the summertime a carefully driven passenger car will make it just fine, but you’d most certainly need a 4WD in the winter when it often snows and blizzards come from nowhere. But rental cars are cheap, and a 4WD is a comparable price to a normal car anyway, so you might as well get one.

Other than a few corrugations the road is in good shape, although the loose rocks make it quite slippery. Almost every corner is blind, and the scenery is so beautiful it’s a major distraction. The photos just don’t do justice to how steep the road is and how incredible the view is.

The tour companies almost exclusively use converted 4WD Ford F-650 Super Duty’s. Some of them had twin turbo diesel V10’s – now that’s a man’s tour bus!

It felt good to be out using a Jeep properly. I was a harsh critic of this car when we first got it – the soft top takes literally 10 minutes to put down, it has no boot, the auto trans has no idea about the right time to shift gear, I’ve never driven a new car with steering so vague and its fuel consumption was borderline ridiculous. But the more time I spent behind the wheel, the more it grew on me to the point where I was actually sad to hand back the keys a week later. It became a dependable friend, and I liked the feeling of being able to drive anywhere we pleased. I like it’s retro military looks, it had a great stereo and it was fun to cruise in with the soft top down. It was just a smile inducing car for an entirely different reason than what I’m normally used to.

But the thing I liked the most is that this is a car built for a purpose, and you’re not insulated from that. The ride is crashy and the steering is vague because it’s built to withstand any abuse you can hurl at it off the road. On the few occasions we actually took it off road, it was fantastic. Just like when you take a sports car to the supermarket, the Jeep isn’t built for driving around towns so it’s kind of acceptable that it sucks at it. In a weird way, I kind of liked that.

A little further up the road and whatever vegetation there was is long gone. This area resembles a lunar landscape so much that it was actually used to train the astronauts before the Apollo space missions. And remember, we’re still only less than an hour from tropical rain forests.

About a mile from the summit and the road turns again to tarmac. This isn’t for safety or comfort, it’s to keep the dust down so it doesn’t disturb the observatories.

The road right at the summit is literally perched on the side of the mountain face.

This is really the lazy mans way to climb a mountain – at the summit you don’t even need to get out of your car to enjoy the view. It doesn’t look it but it’s extremely cold. Running around to snap as many frames as I could before the sun began to set and then setting up my tripod literally took my breath away and left me puffing and panting due to the lack of oxygen at such a high altitude.

This just might be the worlds highest altitude carpark. At nearly 14,000ft you’re above more than 40% of the earth’s atmosphere.

The observatory development has caused tension between Hawaiians because Mauna Kea has long been a sacred spiritual site. Some Hawaiians argue that the scientific discoveries the site enables justifies its existence, and native Hawaiians argue that development shouldn’t be allowed in a place where historically a select few communicated with the gods. The native Hawaiians have a point – witnessing a sunset from the summit is a spiritual experience.

But the lessons we learn from the observatories, such as Keck 1 and 2 (middle and right), help us to better understand our place in the universe. It’s a complex argument where both sides have equally valid points.

NASA uses this telescope to track and monitor every satellite in orbit, and makes sure that none of theirs are on a collision course.

You can only stay at the summit until half an hour after sunset at which point you must descend so your headlights don’t disturb the observatories. The trip down is when you realise the true value of having 4WD – putting it into low range means at 30km/h you hardly have to touch the brakes, meaning you’ll actually be able to stop in an emergency.

It’s easy to forget that you’re actually in almost the best place in the world for stargazing, so plan your trip to be there during the nighttime. It’s too cold and windy for stargazing at the summit, and whilst it’s not exactly warm at 10,000 feet it’s bearable at visitor centre level. What you see when you tilt your head back will likely take your breath away. The sky is so clear so you get an untainted view at what lies beyond.

And except for the cost of your rental car and a bit of fuel, this experience is free. Mauna Kea is a popular attraction, but I still  can’t believe how many visitors miss this, instead opting to sit around the resort bar all night. It just proves that the best experiences in life, and certainly the most moving ones, are actually quite cheap.

Note: Most rental car contracts on the Big Island specifically prohibit you from driving to the summit. Some still prohibit you from even driving on Saddle Road, however in our research we found Thrifty to be the most lenient of the major’s as they will allow their cars to be driven as far as the visitor centre. Harper’s allow their Ford Explorers to the summit but you’ll pay for it, almost twice the price of any other company. Plenty of people drive their rental cars to the summit, and in the summertime I don’t think that it’s an unacceptable risk given the good road condition and the reward awaiting you at the top. However I wouldn’t even attempt it in the winter – if the gravel road was muddy, let alone covered in snow or during a sudden blizzard it would be diabolical. An accident up there would be extremely costly – your rental insurance won’t pay out, nor will your travel insurance. You’ll be liable for your rental car, whatever you hit and likely the costs of recovery (if it’s even possible, which it might not be in winter) which could be in the thousands given the way Hawaii works. Weigh up the pro’s and con’s and make your decision, but you have been warned!

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