We had been on Big Island for a week, enjoying the vibrant blue water and colorful Hawaiian reefs, when our family decided we wanted something more adventurous. Naturally, we decided to visit a volcano — Mauna Kea.
Driving hours through cow fields and lava fields to arrive at the base, we gazed at the shadowed, hulking mass, just spying the observatories glinting at the peak. I felt oddly small next to the volcano—it loomed over me, as if it wanted to step on me.
While there was a hike from the ranger’s station to the observatories at the peak, it took eight to ten hours to complete. Our family, after stopping at the ranger’s station to check out the silver sword preservation, decided to drive. Quick note: If you have any health problems, like heart issues, it’s best not to climb to the top of Mauna Kea. Several signs warned of cerebral edema if exposed to high attitudes—13,678 feet to be exact. Four-wheel drive is also advised – the road isn’t always paved and is rutted with potholes.
Driving up the road, we picked up a hitchhiker on his way up the volcano. He told us he had started the hike at six from the station and had been climbing up the mountain all morning. The hike sounded difficult—as well as being steep, and at a high altitude, it had slopes of gravel that were difficult to scale. We quickly became friends, after a little mishap where he thought my sparkling water was a bottle of champagne—I had wondered why he looked affronted when I began chugging from it.
Framed by the rolling clouds and glinting observatories, the view from the volcano’s peak resembled a scene from a Sci-Fi movie. The rusty vents and wide, craggy plains reminded me of Mars. It took my breath away. All my earlier misgivings about being caught in a fiery eruption melted away, oddly enough.
Our hitchhiker buddy ended up chatting with a maintenance worker near the entrance of the far observatory. He got us all a tour inside after explaining he was a local, though I’m not sure how regular this practice is. Once inside, the employee explained how the high elevation and lack of human activity made the location perfect to collect climate change data from. The telescope used to gather this data, roughly five feet across and suspended in the air by metal beams, reminded me of a ball of aluminum foil. It seemed fantastic that such a compact instrument could gather so much information.
There are a number of trails skipping around the volcano—we decided to take one to visit a small crater lake, accompanied by hitchhiker-guy. The lake, almost completely circular, was breathtaking. When tendrils of clouds rolled over it, it became a smooth jade. In the sun, it resembled a silver disc. Shrines with clay masks and flowers dotted its shores. Our hitchhiker friend explained that some of these were to dedicated to Hawaiian spirits.
Though I had early misgivings about the volcano, I felt my outlook shift as I gazed at the silky green lake and then the rough, tumbled landscape. Hearing hitchhiker-guy explain some of the traditional Hawaiian beliefs, the island itself became less of a tourist trap, and something more…alive.
We drove back down to the ranger station after that. Exchanging numbers and hugs, we parted ways with hitchhiker-guy. As we drove away, I looked back at Mauna Kea, purple and majestic in the sunset. I couldn’t help but think that sometimes, it took something as big as a volcano to change a perspective.
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