Warning: This post contains A LOT of photos... and I added words.
I adore it when areas are not exactly like that mental image I have of them. Thanks to the amazingly different terrain than the typical tropical paradise that I always think of with Hawaii, Mauna Kea was one of the most wonderful surprises of my entire Hawaii vacation!
Initially as we made the ascent it looked like the southwestern area of the US. Everywhere you looked you could see shrubby bushes and dry ground. We also drove through the clouds which was an awesome transition. In the left photo below you can see through the clouds to the area at the bottom of the mountain.
At one point on the way up I had them park for a moment, so I could grab some photos and I ran to where I wanted take the photos. I found out very quickly that high altitude only accentuates how poorly I run.
We stopped at the visitor's center ( around 9,000ft ) to acclimate, as they don't suggest going straight to the top of the mountain (around 14,000 ft). They had a little walk set up that showcased some of the plants that are unique to that climate. I have no clue what this one was, but It reminds me of fuzzy cabbage.
There were some silversword plants as well, which are native to only a few places in Hawaii. Their leaves are silver tipped and there were blooms on two of the large ones!
After we had wandered around enough and acclimated to the altitude at the visitor's center we continued on to wards the top of Mauna Kea. It started to look like mars with the severe lack of vegetation.
Once we broke through the clouds it looked even more foreign. Apparently they do Mars rover training on Mauna Kea.
There are quite a few telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, and the one we were able to visit was the Gemini Observatory! The Gemini Observatory does not have public tours, but we were able to visit it thanks to knowing the amazing Adam, who works there! He was our next door neighbor in college and has since moved out to Hilo to work at the Gemini Observatory. His job makes just about any other job on the planet seem a little less epic.
On a random note, it was soooooo insanely cold. I'm acclimated to Okinawa's weather, so Hawaii in general was a wonderful temperature. Not too hot and not nearly as humid as Okinawa has been this summer. Adam warned us to wear cold weather gear, so I figured I'd be fine with jeans and a few extra layers. When we were up at the summit I was convinced that I was going to freeze to death.
Meet Adam, our guide for Mauna Kea and astronomer-extraordinaire!
Not only were we able to go up and wander around the outside of the observatory, but we got the grand tour inside as well. The view from inside the observatory was phenomenal.
Below in the left image is the huge mirror, which is part of the telescope. Up a at the top of the image on the right is the other mirror part of the telescope.
This should give you a better sense of scale for the telescope. It was a bit bigger than the ones you can buy at a store.
After watching them get the telescope all set up and ready to go we headed outside to watch the sunset into the clouds.
If you ever get a chance to see the sun set from the top of Mauna Kea, I highly recommend taking that opportunity. Just wear approximately ten times as many layers of clothing as you think you'll need. Air is frigid at 14,000 ft.
I hope you've enjoyed seeing these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them!
Thank you again Adam for giving us the opportunity to visit the Gemini Observatory!