After an incredible four days on Hawaii’s Big Island, exploring the Kona Coast, the green sand beaches and southern most point of the U.S., Volcano National Park, Hilo and the eastern shore, and the island’s northern cattle country, I took a moment to appreciate how much we had experienced in such a short time.
Seeing first-hand how much the island varies from north to south and east to west was eye-opening, and the realization was even more profound when we ended our trip in the one place we had yet to explore–the middle of the island!
In what couldn’t have been a more fitting end to our time on the Big Island, we spent our last afternoon and evening winding our way up, literally through the clouds, to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center.
At 9,200 feet, the center is the highest elevation I’ve ever experienced, outside of whatever heights I’ve reached in the belly of an airplane.
We began our ascent from the northwest coast, and as we progressed farther away from the lush vegetation of the shoreline, the terrain became otherworldly. The greenery disappeared, we were surrounded by sparse vegetation, and as we emerged from the clouds we were surrounded by vast red dirt marked by mini craters.
It appeared as though we had somehow landed on Mars.
There were a few other cars on the singular road winding through the desert-scape, and eventually we turned left to make the final climb to the visitor information station.
I was afraid the parking would already be full, but we managed to snag a perfect parking place in between the visitor center and the trailhead of the path we were planning to hike to a nearby viewpoint where we could watch the sun set.
There were several groups loading into small vehicles to travel to the observatory at Mauna Kea’s summit, and many other people milling around and taking advantage of the information in the visitor’s center.
We watched the film inside, read information about the surrounding area, asked about accessing our viewpoint, and then set off to stake out our area.
We hiked up to the top of a nearby overlook, carefully navigating the loose soil and rocks and climbing around to the far end where we were able to look out over the surrounding area, including the horizon to the west.
We took some amazing pictures of the landscape and otherwise entertained ourselves until the sun began to sink.
Other people gathered on the overlook, but we basically had our little corner to ourselves. The sunset went on for days—I have never experienced anything like it.
The air was completely clear, the sun was slowly enveloped in the clouds, and the sky was lit with the entire spectrum of colors.
It was fascinating how dark it became behind us as the sunlight continued to fade in front of us. Once the sunlight completely extinguished, the sky became saturated with stars. It was a clear night, and at our elevation, with nothing between us and the night sky, I felt like we were entering outer space.
It was so vast and surreal—I sat on a nearby rock and just stared straight up, soaking it all in and feeling very, very small.
The wind started to pick up, the temperature started to lower, and I finally told Brian we needed to head back to our car and our long drive to Kona. The visitor center was bustling with people waiting in long lines for a momentary glimpse through one of the telescopes while a visitor center employee guided everyone to the different stars and constellations overhead via giant spotlights.
It would have been wonderful to stay and learn more about our solar system, but we had a long drive and an early flight to catch the next morning.
Watching the sunset and star show on Mauna Kea was one of the highlights of our time on Hawaii’s Big Island. If you have the opportunity to experience it, do not hesitate.