Big Island: Akaka Falls & Mauna Kea Observatory

July 28, 2015  •  18 Comments

-by Vlad-

On the east side of Big Island is the city of Hilo. One of the two main cities - the other being Kona - on the largest Hawaiian island, it is also home to recently inducted UFC Hall of Famer, BJ Penn. Hoping to randomly run into a living legend, we checked out the town's farmer's market for local food and goods. I really enjoyed the musicians' performances while Edyta did a bit of windowless window shopping. We stumbled upon a café and were pleasantly surprised by their bagels. Hawaii is not the first place you'd associate with bagels, especially as a New Yorker, but this little gem was not far off from Murray's and other quality NYC bagel shops. Overall, Hilo provided the cool, laid back vibe that coincides with Hawaiian culture.

From Hilo, we headed north to Akaka Falls for a short hike and to take in some natural beauty. After a short 20 min paved path hike through a rainforest and small bamboo park, we arrived at the Big Island's second largest waterfall by height (420 ft). It's a shame we weren't there a few days earlier, on March 20th to be exact, as we could have run into another celeb with ties to Hawaii: The Rock. Oh well, perhaps next time.

One of the big attractions for me on the Big Island was the Mauna Kea Observatory, an astronomical research facility located atop a dormant volcano. Aside from being 9,200 ft above sea level, a unique phenomenon occurs here to make this an ideal spot for scientists and star gazers. The summit of Mauna Kea is positioned above where water vapor settles, so clouds rarely interrupt astronomers' vision. On top of that, there's very little light pollution as the nearest towns are 1-2h drive away. Imagine crystal clear skies all year long. There's only a handful of places like that on Earth. 

We arrived at Mauna Kea in the late afternoon, so we had the opportunity to take a short hike to one of the nearby peaks and enjoy the sunset. One thing I quickly forgot was how thin the air was this high up. It reminded me of when we hiked Haleakala Crater (10,000 ft) on Maui a few years back. As I was dealing with shortness of breath, and an elevated heart rate, Edyta was trying to stay awake as the low air pressure made her very sleepy. She also thinks her judgement was clouded as we messed up our timing and almost missed the sunset. Once the sun fully set, we got to look through the 8 or so telescopes they set up for visitors to enjoy (free of charge). Because of the alignment of the planets, we were able to see faint images of Venus, Jupiter (including its famous red spot) and an HD image of the moon.

While the telescopes we got to use were smaller and mobile, higher up on the mountain were 12 massive telescopes (owned by Caltech, Subaru, University of Hawaii, as well as some countries like Canada, France etc.) that researchers use to do science stuff. These telescopes have not come without controversy as some locals have protested their existence in favor of the preservation and protection of their sacred land. We saw a handful of peaceful protesters that provided information to visitors. However, protests got a little more heated as recent as April 2015 when hundreds of individuals protested the proposed Thirty Meter (diameter) Telescope. This lead to multiple arrests. Some celebrities with local ties, such as Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones) support this cause.

After about an hour or star gazing, we started to get cold so we made our way down the mountain for the long ride home. Another fun day in Hawaii. 

Our drive for the day.  Welcome to Hilo Farmers MarketWelcome to Hilo Farmers Market Hilo's Farmer's Market was a quick stop where we got some lunch and healthy snacks for the road to Mauna Kea.  Hilo's farmers market vendors. Hilo's farmers market vendors. Lots of delicious goodies were sold there, such as this local honey. 

Beautiful Hawaiian table runners. Hawaiian print table runners.  Flower crown Edyta really loved this lady's flower crown. It inspired her to make her own flower lei a few days later. 

The hike to Akaka Falls is pretty easy and suitable for families and even older people. The whole path is paved and very safe. Akaka Falls trail. Beginning of the Akaka Falls trail which is a big paved loop of a walk. As you can judge from my footwear the hike was not very challenging. Akaka Falls is over 400 feet tall. It's one of the most beautiful waterfalls on earth. Akaka Falls on the Big Island. Akaka Falls in its full glory. This waterfall was tremendous in its size.   Close up of Akaka Falls on the Big Island, Hawaii. Akaka Falls close up. The height of this waterfall is 442 feet which is about 140 feet taller than Hanakapiai on Kauai. I think standing underneath this waterfall would not be a good idea. 

Saddle Road is not what it used to be. The old military road has been rerouted and fixed. It is now very pleasant and scenic to drive on. Saddle Road from Hilo to Mauna Kea. Driving to Mauna Kea via Saddle Road was a very fun and scenic experience. This road was originally built in 1943, for military use, following the Pearl Harbor attack. Since the road was never intended to be used by civilians, up until very recently car rental companies forbid their renters from using it, as it is extremely curvy, bumpy, and not well maintained. This all changed by 2013 when parts of the road got rerouted to a safer path, and now the drive is nothing but a breeze. So if you have a guide from prior to 2013, you may see a warning about driving on this road. Ignore it and enjoy the ride.  Driving on Saddle Road during the rain. We could not believe how quickly the weather has changed. It was rainy, windy and cold. Definitely not what you imagine when you think of Hawaii. Saddle Road can surprise you with quick weather change. Weather conditions changed drastically as we started to gain some elevation. It was rainy and much colder than in Hilo.  Hawaiian rainbow on the way to Mauna Kea. Right before we turned onto Mauna Kea Access Road we stopped to allow our bodies to get used to the elevation change and also to admire a huge and colorful rainbow. Mauna Kea Access Road was steep and once we arrived at the Visitors' Center we were above the clouds. 

Peaceful protesters against Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. Protesters at Mauna Kea. Protesters against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) were gathered here.  Volunteers setting up telescopes for visitors to enjoy at night. Telescopes at Mauna Kea Visitors Center. Before the sun went down, volunteer staff members were setting up the telescopes we would later be using. Once we got to the Visitors Center we felt very tired and sleepy. I believe our judgement was slightly impaired as we did not allow enough time to get to the top of a nearby mountain to see a beautiful sunset over some clouds. Hazardous conditions due to altitude sickness at Mauna Kea. Altitude sickness warning.  We headed on a short 15 min hike to a nearby mountain from which we'd have great views of the sunset.  Beautiful views from the top of the mountain right before sunset. Views from Mauna Kea Visitors Observatory. Experiencing a bit of altitude sickness, we moved slower than usual.  We also picked a mountain that was a steeper and less popular. We found that the other tourists headed the other way. 

SONY DSC It was really cold on top of the mountain.  Once we got to the top we caught the end of the sunset. The sight of sun setting above the clouds was really spectacular.  Viewing the sunset over the clouds was simply spectacular. Those colors lasted long after the sun went down. Sunset at the observatory on the Big Island. These beautiful colors covered the sky long after the sunset. 



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