Flying into Hilo, we could see the red tinge of the sunrise sweeping into the black sky as a new day began. The winds were light and the skies were clear—the promise of a beautiful day ahead. I hadn’t been to the Big Island in over 8 years, so as we exited the airport heading for our first adventure, I rolled down the window and took a deep breath of the damp Hilo air, full of the chirps of birds and smell of the forest. Our first mission was to tackle Mauna Kea—the magnificent mountain at the core of native Hawaiian mythology and culture.
As we headed for the hills, Hilo town fell away behind us, and we began the gentle climb through Ohia Lehua forests, punctuated with barren lava fields—decades old reminders of the volatile nature of this mountainous island. We bare right and begin the ascent—higher and higher through grazing shrub land, until we enter into the foggy dreamland of the thick morning clouds. Surprised pheasants scatter away from the road as we break through the cloud cover and see the peaks of Mauna Kea for the first time today. Looking back, a sea of clouds encircles the base of the mountain and the air outside becomes quiet and still.
When we reach the Mauna Kea visitor’s center, we stop to acclimatize to the 9,200 foot elevation, and prepare for the further elevation change ahead of us. It’s also time to pull on a jacket: the temperature is dropping rapidly as we ascend. We round a bend and start the 4-mile journey up a tightly packed gravel road, winding through gigantic volcanic cinder cones. I feel like we might be on a journey to the moon—except for the sporadic patches of ice leftover from a recent snow.
When we near the top and round the final bend, we come face to face with a gigantic white telescope dome—one of the 13 telescopes clustered around the high peaks of Mauna Kea, due to its ideal atmosphere for astronomical observation. We hop out of the car into the dizzyingly cold, clear air, having traveled from sea level up to 14,000 feet in just an hour and forty-five minutes. All around us we are surrounded by a rolling sea of volcanic cinder fragments, hundreds of thousands of years old, crunching quietly beneath our feet.
The air is still and quiet, muffling our movement as we ascend on foot to the final summit. My heart pounds from the altitude and exhilaration as we reach the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands. I look around me at the kingdom of clouds below, and feel a light waft of breeze pass over the summit, emphasizing the mystical energy of this otherworldly location. The deafening silence settles in from all sides.
When we return to the car, we take a few more minutes to explore and absorb the atmosphere, before setting off down the mountain towards our next adventure: the ocean.
Makani grew up in Hilo, so he knows the Big Island roads like the back of his hand. Leading the way back down Mauna Kea and through his old stomping grounds, he points out places where he went to school, good stores to buy fishing gear, and the site of the famous Naha stone, which according to Hawaiian legend was lifted by a young King Kamehameha, signaling his fate to one day unite the Hawaiian Islands. But the crown jewel in his Hilo tour is the beach: Honoli’i, the place where he learned how to surf.
Nearing the coast, we turn off the main road and park along a steep hill and staircase leading down to the ocean. A small, cliff-lined bay opens up in front of us, where a mountain stream meets the ocean, and a peeling wave breaks off the point. The black sand and pebble beach is bordered with picnic tables and shade trees, and is a great place to spend the afternoon surfing and enjoying a clear day in Hilo. But after a couple hours of enjoying the warm waters and watching turtles flounder around in the shallow shore break, it’s time for us to move on: our time on the Big Island is dwindling and we still have lots to see!
We cross back through town, this time skirting along the coast to see Hilo Bay and Harbor, which I remember well from a school trip to the Big Island in my canoe-paddling days back in high school. We pass an 18-foot statue of King Kamehameha on the right (one of two large Big Island statues of Hawaii’s first king), before again climbing up through the forests, this time towards Kilauea and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
As we get nearer to Hawaii’s active volcano district, we drive through neighborhoods and see rows of houses built on top of the remnants of old lava flows. Although the Big Island emanates an ancient wisdom, this island is actually quite new in geological terms—and it’s the youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands. We cross through the guard shack into the National Park, and the air is heavy with the haze of a sleeping dragon. The silky red blossoms of the Ohia Lehua trees decorate the mossy undergrowth as we make our way through the dense forest.
The first signs of the volcano come into view: steam vents on either side of the road. The steam vents are sunken holes in the earth—windows into the volcanic core, with smoke drifting lazily up through their ferns, cautioning us to what lies beneath the surface. We continue along the road to the Jagger Museum, for a better understanding of volcanic activity and Hawaii geology, and also for our first view of the Kilauea caldera. Through the haze we can see the gigantic sunken crater of Halemaumau, home of Hawaii’s most legendary goddess: Pele, the goddess of fire.
Backtracking along the caldera rim, we come to the historic Volcano House hotel, open to visitors since 1846. Strolling through the lobby, I stop at the picture windows and sit in a rocking chair to enjoy another view over the sweeping caldera. Kilauea has been actively erupting since 1983, with thick smoke drifting toward the heavens, hinting at the bubbling lava boiling beneath the surface of the crater. In the evening, hotel and dinner guests will be treated to views of the red flickering glow of the volcano by night.
Next we head to Kilauea Iki crater, the scene of a smooth sunken lava lake, left over from an eruption in 1959. I take a short hike along the crater rim trail, catching glimpses through the trees of the massive black lake of lava far below. The sound of native birds chirping echoes through the giant hapu’u ferns like a symphony. I close my eyes and feel as though I have transported centuries back in time.
Continuing along the forest trail, I come to another highlight of the national park—the Thurston Lava Tube. Hiking down a switchback path into a lush gully, we see the entrance to the large tunnel ahead, vines and ferns hanging down over the misty darkness. Walking through the cold, damp air, I feel like I am in a real life Jurassic park movie. The sounds of dripping water follow us through the tunnel, as we duck to avoid the narrow lava ceiling. Soon a pinprick of light shines visible at the end of the tunnel, growing larger and larger as we get closer to the dazzling daylight.
On the way back up to the parking lot, I am slowly shaken out of my journey in time and back into the present. We begin our slow descent back into Hilo, ears popping from the altitude change yet again. When we arrive back at the airport after an exciting and adventure filled journey, it’s hard to believe that less than one day has gone by. As we take off into the horizon heading east towards Oahu, we see the peaks of Mauna Kea standing tall above the clouds.
The Big Island earns its nickname well: it’s larger than life, and there are dozens of towns and spectacular natural wonders to explore. I know I’ll be back someday to continue the journey where I left off, but after a full day in Hilo with Keawe Adventures, I’d say we made a pretty good start!