The first time I heard of Mauna Kea, I was sitting in an overstuffed Central Line carriage on the London Underground. My quiz app asked for the tallest mountain in the world, and I cockily clicked on ‘Mount Everest.’ A red message flashed on the screen: Wrong!
The app highlighted ‘Mauna Kea’ as the correct answer, a place of which I’d never heard. I Googled it rather indignantly and found that, sure enough, it was indeed the tallest mountain in the world.
Everest is the highest, standing at a staggering 8,848m (29,029ft) above sea level but if you measure from base to peak, it’s Hawaii’s Mauna Kea that takes the title of tallest mountain in the world. This behemoth of Big Island lies largely hidden beneath the ocean surface but is a monumental 10,203m (33,476ft) from base to peak.
Fast forward a few years, and I unexpectedly found myself on Hawaii en-route to the US as part of Atlas & Boots’ trip around the world. We had only eight hours on the island – just enough time to drive across it, visit the summit of Mauna Kea and drive back. We were worried about missing our boat off the island but decided to take the risk. What a payoff!
Mauna Kea is one of those rare natural wonders that are deserving of, yet hidden from, the world stage. The mountain has a quiet stillness rare among such grand attractions. The path to the summit offers panoramic vistas above the cloud line. The sweeping volcanic landscape dotted with silversword, an alien-like plant native to the island of Hawaiʻi, add to the mountain’s surreal quality.
Our first stop was at the Visitor Information Station, where we paused for 30 minutes to acclimate to the altitude. Mauna Kea is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from sea level to over 4,000m (14,000ft) in two hours, so altitude sickness is a very real possibility. A team of researchers actually lives on the mountain because travelling to sea level and back up several times a week would wreak havoc on their bodies.
Our second stop was at one of the mountain’s numerous observatories. Mauna Kea, home to 13 working telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 different countries, is one of the most important land-based astronomy sites in the world. Its location is ideal because of its dark skies, low humidity, clean air, good weather and proximity to the equator.
However, plans to build one of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes – the Thirty Meter Telescope – have caused controversy among environmentalists and Native Hawaiians, to whom the mountain is sacred. We would advise that you check on current proceedings to ensure the best possible visit.
After the observatory, we continued to our third and final stop: the summit. We obtained permission from a ranger to hike from the viewing area to the true summit, a further 20 minutes up. With warnings to take it slow (at 14,000ft, there’s 40% less oxygen in the air!), we headed up.
At the summit of the tallest mountain in the world, we found some of the most incredible views we’ve ever seen. A vivid blue sky blazed bright and boundless above us. Below, a contrast of volcanic earth and pure white snow gave way to the glittering Pacific Ocean.
We had the entire summit to ourselves and spent an hour taking in the views and, naturally, feeling on top of the world.
When the time came, we descended the mountain for our race back across the island. As we drove, we wondered what other undiscovered sights lay ahead of us; how many hidden wonders would dazzle us in years to come. And, then, we decided that we didn’t want to know. After all, the greatest pleasure of travel is the pleasure of true discovery.