Traversing the Climate Zones of Hawaii

[Keaau, HI]

For the second day in a row we got up and anxiously looked out the window, trying to see if the clouds finally went away. And today, they did!!! The blue Hawaiian sky greeted us for the first time as the sun was rising from behind the trees! We squealed with excitement!

We started off our Christmas day with a wonderful breakfast cooked by our AirBnB hosts, which we enjoyed on their patio. Paula and John have been so much fun to stay with. Paula not only made breakfast for us but also packed a lunch cooler for us with some sandwiches, snacks and lemonade made out of kalpi lemon – a citrus hybrid that’s now one of the most popular lemons on Hawaii. John is a native of Southern California, so we talked to him at length about that and about how he and Paula decided to move here to the Big Island just 8 months ago. Paula is from Venezuela and her Latin roots came through in her vivacious personality and her hospitality. I felt that we gained a lot by staying with them rather than a hotel – our experience was more authentic and heartfelt compared to staying at a hotel in Hilo, which also would have been way more expensive.


Breakfast time

With full bellies, we headed back to Hawaii Volcano National Park for the morning. We traversed the entire Chain of Craters Rd, which heads down the southern slope of the Kilauea volcano all the way to the sea – a 4000-ft elevation drop total over 19 miles. As we descended down to the sea, panoramic coastal views opened before us, revealing slopes covered in blackened lava. It was amazing to me how many portions of the road had clearly been overrun by lava at one point or another. For almost the entire 19 miles, we had lava on both sides of us. Signs told us when that specific lava field had been created. July 1974. November 1979. If it wasn’t for the ocean on our right, I would have thought we were on Mars. Once at sea level, we could see the streaks of hardened lava running down the slope and creating the cliffs we were standing on. At the end of the road, a treat awaited us – Holei Sea Arch. This beautiful arch had been carved into the rock by strong waves, and it made for a great photo opp! Had it been a few months back, we would have continued a little bit further down this road until we got to a dead end that had been covered by lava multiple times in the last few decades. Alas, that portion of the road was closed as emergency crews were building a temporary bypass for the town of Pahoa, which is just on the other side. A sign that indicated the road closure was weighed down by a couple of lava rocks, presumably to keep the thing from getting picked up by the wind. A few years back, this end-of-the-road would have been the place where people would come for tours of live lava flowing into the ocean.

On the way back up, we took the 9-mile Hilina Pail Rd. Amazingly devoid of tourists, this one-lane paved road twists and winds through expanses of shrubs and volcanic rock beneath a big sky, offering magnificent views of Mauna Loa – one of the 5 volcanoes on this island. Mauna Loa is only 20 feet shorter than Mauna Kea and just as big; if it wasn’t, we would have been able to see Mauna Kea behind it. The road ended at the Hilina Pali overlook, where we could see over the grassy coastal plain into the ocean. The road is popular for bikers, and we saw a few of them having a picnic at this overlook.

By the time we finished all this driving, it was time for lunch. We stopped by the Volcano House just across the street from the Visitor Center. Perched on the rim of the Kilauea caldera, Volcano House is the only hotel in the park, and we had lunch in the restaurant overlooking the crater. The food left something to be desired but where else would you have lunch overlooking a steaming volcano?


Last view of the Kilauea Volcano

Finally, it was time for us to head out to Mauna Kea. With a summit 13,796 ft above sea level, Mauna Kea is the tallest volcano in the world’s oceans. Measured from its base on the sea floor, it is even more impressive, edging out Mauna Loa to be the world’s tallest mountain at 33,500 ft.It is a massive shield volcano, so it lacks the distinctive shape of a classic volcanic cone. From a few miles away, it looks more like an enormous wall in the sky.

At Mauna Kea, science, spirituality and nature converge and sometimes conflict. Polynesians and white settlers both introduced invasive species and cattle here, which threatened the native plants and birds. The entire mountain and the summit in particular are considered sacred in Hawaiian culture, but it is also a shrine of modern science – 13 telescopes grace the summit of this mountain, where the dry smooth air, clear skies, and visibility of 100% of the northern hemisphere and 85% of the southern hemisphere make for some of the best star gazing in the world. The first telescope went up in the 1960s, and in 1968 The University of Hawaii was granted a 65-year lease to the summit area, now called the Mauna Kea Science reserve.There are more telescopes on this mountain than on any other, including 3 of the world’s largest.


Getting close to Mauna Kea!

Visiting Mauna Kea requires some logistics. Most rental cars can make it to the Visitor Information Station at 9,000 ft, but from there to the summit a 4-wheel drive is required not so much for traction on the gravel road but for the gearing. The lack of oxygen and the steep ascent mean engines can easily overheat on the way up and brakes can to the same on the way down. For this reason, we booked a tour with Arnott’s Lodging and Adventures in Hilo. We met up with them at the Mauna Kea access road turn-off off of Highway 200. Climbing on Highway 200 we had already gone through the cloud cover, which was visible below us to our right. We thought we’d be in the clear to go all the way to the summit but when our tour guide arrived in his 4-wheel drive van, we found out that winds at the summit were 80 miles per hour, with wind gusts up to 100. So, we only made it to the Visitor Information Station, which was 6 miles up the mountain from where we’d met up with the tour group. Even here it was cold and windy, and we marveled at the fact that we were at sea level earlier where it was 80 degrees and humid, and now we were bundled up under 2 layers of clothes. The wide variation in elevations is what allows 8 of the 13 climate zones to exist on this island.


At the Mauna Kea visitor center, we were marveled at this plant called silversword.

We did not get to see the telescopes or check the summit off of our list, but we were treated to an amazing sunset nonetheless. We went up a nearby hill and could now see clouds below us both East and West, with the Mauna Kea Summit to the north of us. The sun set into the clouds with the Helakala summit on the neighboring island of Maui visible to the right. The clouds on the east side and the sky started turning purple. The small volcanic cones on the side of Mauna Kea lit up as well. Anywhere you turned, it was beautiful.

Once the sun set, our tour guide treated us with some hot chocolate and we ate the sandwiches and other goodies Paula had prepared for us. Once it was completely dark, we went up a side road to a little overlook where we could do some star gazing. The sky was absolutely amazing. The Milky way could be easily seen, and the constellations of Orion, Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Capricorn as well as Mars, the Northern Star and Sirus were all visible. The moon was still fairly small but it still drowned out a good bit of the sky. We could also see some light pollution from Hilo even though there are regulations in place to keep it under check, such as the use of yellow street lights (instead of white). In addition, Mauna Kea is a no-fly zone in order to keep the sky pristine. We saw a satellite briefly – distinguishable from stars by the fact that it doesn’t blink and it moves.

Our Mauna Kea visit was an amazing way to end our adventures here on the East side of the island. Tomorrow we head back to Kona via the North side, where more adventures await! Aloha!

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