With a lull in travel currently, and little news to write about, I’m trying something different this week. I’m reaching back into the vault to find the highlights of vacations past. This is something I plan to do occasionally when I’m short on material. Though these trips date back several years, I’m selecting things that remain relevant today. In this installment, I recall a trip to Hawai’i that had us breaking out the ski jackets.
For our anniversary in 2010, my wife and I visited the Big Island of Hawai’i for a 4-day getaway. We spent each day visiting a different part of the island. We dedicated one day to volcanoes, and 1 1/2 days exploring the area around our hotel in Kona. The remaining day, though, was perhaps the most memorable – fittingly, our actual anniversary day. We rented a jeep and drove around the north and east sides of the island. Then, we capped things off with a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea. That had us break out out the winter coats – in Hawai’i of all places.
Date of report: October 29, 2010
The Game Plan
Our hotel was on the leeward side of the island, in the town of Kailua-Kona. Our plan for the day first called for a stop at the Waipi’o Valley overlook. We’d then head down the coast to Hilo, chasing waterfalls along the way. Finally, we’d head high into the clouds to the summit of Mauna Kea.
We’d go from desert beaches, to lush tropical rain forest, to alpine tundra, and back to the desert again. All in the span of one single day.
NOTE: we took this trip long before I thought about blogging, so I didn’t keep notes about hotels, etc. While I probably will write a few more installments of this report, I won’t have any hotel or flight reviews. Think of it as a guide to a few days on the Big Island.
The Waipi’o Valley – A Black Sand Beach Paradise
Of course, you can’t visit the Big Island without a visit to a black sand beach. We chose the Waipi’o Valley on the far north of the Big Island for our look at the beach. Nearly 10,000 people once lived in the valley, which was used for taro root farming for a time. Numerous Hawai’ian kings, including Kamehameha the Great, also called the valley home. Today, only about 50 permanent residents remain. Though developers have eyed the valley for some time, its inaccessibility has, so far, left it largely undeveloped.
The drive to the Waipi’o Valley lookout takes about an hour and a half from Kailua-Kona. You can complete this part of the drive in any vehicle. You really should make time to make it up there – the view is simply incredible.
To actually get down into the valley, though, you need a 4WD vehicle if you want to drive yourself. The road, though short, definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. The road is just one lane wide, with an average grade of 25% and a maximum of 40%. Remember, always yield to uphill traffic (stopping going up a grade that steep is a recipe for disaster).
If you don’t have the gumption to drive, you can hike down, or hire a jeep or horseback tour. Either way, head right at the bottom of the hill for your reward. One of the few truly unspoiled Hawai’ian black sand beaches.
Or head straight for a jungle paradise straight out of Jurassic Park.
We drove a mile or two into the valley. But then we came across a large mud puddle in the road, and I chickened out. So we turned around and headed back up.
Rocky Shorelines and Chasing Waterfalls On The Road to Hilo
The drive from Waipi’o Valley to Hilo is about 50 miles, and takes about an hour and a quarter if you drive straight. That, however, would be a big mistake, given all the sightseeing options along Highway 19. Approximately halfway to Hilo, stop at the Laupãhoehoe Beach Park for a great view of the rocky volcanic shoreline. There’s not much of a beach here, but it’s a great spot to observe the waves crashing onto the shore.
And you can gaze at those gorgeous blue Pacific waters.
There is a small picnic area here if you fancy an open-air lunch. Better yet, pick up some malasadas at the Tex Drive-In up the road in Hanaka’a, and munch on them here while watching the crashing waves.
About 10 miles to Hilo, don’t miss the turnoff for ‘Akaka Falls State Park. As the name suggests, the park features a waterfall (actually two to be exact). A 0.4-mile paved trail loops around the park to show off both falls. Go right from the parking lot, and you’ll first see Kahuna Falls. Though only a distant view of the falls, the star of the show here is the lush tropical vegetation.
Keep going, and you’ll find the park’s namesake falls. And it’s not your average, ordinary waterfall, either.
The falls plunge 442 feet into a limestone gorge below. It’s truly breathtaking to see in person.
Though the trail is short, easy, and family friendly, beware that the tropical heat wears you out quickly. Keep a bottle of water with you. There is a $5 park entrance fee, but I think you’ll agree it’s 5 bucks well spent.
After a traditional Hawai’ian plate lunch in Hilo, we spent a few minutes strolling along the waterfront downtown.
Then, we checked out one more waterfall before starting the drive up to Mauna Kea. Rainbow Falls sits on the west side of Hilo, and is best known for the brilliant rainbows it forms as it plunges into its pool. However, the rainbows occur only in the morning, so we missed seeing that. It’s still a pretty spot to take in the tropical paradise before heading back west to the desert.
Up, Up, and Away to an Alien Landscape
Finally, with late afternoon approaching, we made our way west towards Mauna Kea. The summit of Mauna Kea lies just 42 miles west of Hilo via Saddle Road. That means in an hour and 15 minutes, you literally jump from sea level to 13,803 feet. But it’s not just the elevation change that’s remarkable. It’s also the dramatic shift from a tropical beach landscape, to desert, to alpine tundra.
The summit access road begins off Saddle Road, 28 miles west of Hilo. At this point, you’ve already reached an elevation of 6,500 feet. And, the landscape rather abruptly switched from the tropical windward side to the dry leeward side a few miles prior. From here, the road winds another 14 miles up to the summit. The first half of the road is a fairly easy mountain drive. After roughly 6.5 miles, now up to 9,200 feet, stop in at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. Not only is this a good spot for a pit stop, but you’ll want to spend a little time acclimating to the altitude. I suggest spending about half an hour here looking at the exhibits and admiring the high desert landscape. (There is a snack bar in the visitor center if you need to grab a drink or something to munch on.)
Often times, on fair weather days, this elevation sits just below cloud level. That creates a pretty cool illusion of the clouds floating right above you.
Also, up here at 9,200 feet, it is quite noticeably cooler, though not exactly frigid yet. Still, have a sweater ready if you get cold easily. Also be sure to check out the rare Mauna Kea silversword (the plant next to my wife) while up here.
Some advice if you plan to continue up to the top from here. First, a 4WD vehicle is recommended, but not necessary. About half of the remaining 8 miles is dirt road, but it’s well-graded and in decent shape. Where you might find 4WD helpful is when coming back down. The low setting really helps crawl down the steep grade at a controllable speed. Second, ALWAYS check the weather before heading to the top. Weather at the summit can get unpredictable, and you don’t want to get caught up there if 80 mph winds or a freak snowstorm hits. Expect fog between the visitor center and about 12,000 feet as you drive through the cloud deck, even when skies are clear at the summit.
Finally, a note about rental cars and Mauna Kea. Many rental car agencies prohibit taking their vehicles, even jeeps, up the summit road. However, in practice, what that means is if you break down, they won’t send anyone to rescue you. A tow from Mauna Kea might easily cost you four figures. And, if you damage your vehicle, CDW most likely becomes useless because you violated the rental agreement. That being said, we took our rented jeep up and back without incident. Nobody asked if we took the car to Mauna Kea, and we didn’t volunteer that information.
Anyway, once you make it to the top, pull in to the parking lot on the left. Prepare to have your breath taken away. Figuratively, as the sky above the clouds makes you feel like you’re in an airplane. (On a totally clear day, you can supposedly see Kona and the ocean in the distance.)
Across the parking lot, gaze at the almost Martian landscape of red rocks and sand at the true summit of Mauna Kea. A short hiking trail leads up for the fit and brave. For the record, I walked up there, but the view is basically the same. Keep in mind, the altitude makes any physical activity tough for those not used to it. Take it slow and steady.
You can also see the enormous telescopes in all directions. Because of the clear air at this elevation, Mauna Kea is a premier location for astronomical observations. In fact, the visitor center offers stargazing sessions 4 times a week weather permitting.
Look to the south, and see the haunting sight of Mauna Loa, elevation 13,678 feet, peeking through the clouds.
Now, as for the title of this post. Yes, it gets cold up here at the top. The temperature itself isn’t so bad, in the low 40s on this autumn day. But it’s windy AF pretty much all the time, making it feel downright frigid. We both had to break out the heavy coats, especially with sunset approaching. (No, I didn’t see any snow, but it does snow at the summit. So when a local talks about surfing in the morning and snowboarding in the afternoon, they’re not kidding.)
Finally, just before 6, I enjoyed one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the avgeek in me, but there’s just something about the sun setting into the clouds.
After that, we headed back to Kona. The drive took a little less than 2 hours in good weather. Heading down, be VERY careful driving through the cloud deck. It’s easy to get disoriented, and to pick up too much speed – not a good combination. Just take it slow and in low gear, and you’ll make it through just fine.
What a day. Exhausting, yes, but it’s not every day you can drive from zero to 14,000 feet and back down again. In hindsight, a better plan would have allotted one day for Hilo and Mauna Kea to give more time for hiking, and a separate day to explore the windward coast. But I do highly recommend both if you visit the Big Island.