Trembling in a frigid wind, nearly 14,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean and just a few paces from a multimillion-dollar astronomical observatory, I couldn't hold my camera steady.

The sun was waist deep in a lumpy veil of indigo clouds wreathed around the base of Mauna Kea, the Big Island's tallest volcano, and most of us gathered near the mountain's summit were busy snapping shots of the day's kaleidoscopic finale.

Everybody was bundled in heavy jackets, but I'd pocketed the pair of gloves handed out earlier by our Hawaii Forest & Trail guide, knowing they'd make picture-taking problematic. Without them, though, my fingers were going numb, and I faced a tough choice: capture more shaky images of the jaw-dropping sunset unfolding before me or warm up my suffering hands.

Mauna Kea"I had no idea Hawaii was this cold," a visitor from Oregon said with a laugh. "I should have packed my long underwear."

Unexpected splendor

Hawaii Forest & Trail (HFT) clients don't spend much more than 40 minutes at the top of Mauna Kea, largely because there's significantly less oxygen at 13,796 feet and the average temperature is right around freezing. But combine that with the 45-minute drive up the dormant volcano's austere, cinder cone-laden slopes, framed by matchless views of Mauna Loa -- a still active, 13,678-foot volcano -- and the summit of Maui's 10,033-foot Haleakala, and visitors enjoy great exposure to Hawaii's diversity along with a chance to better understand the destination's geological and natural history.

"I think it's one of the most powerful experiences we can offer people on this island," said Rob Pacheco, HFT founder and president. "I think it's equal to getting them out to see red lava flowing on the ground."

During my recent visit, HFT guide Nate Clark shared an extraordinary range of information about Big Island plants, animals and history, including details about Mauna Kea's importance to the Hawaiian people.

"Hawaiians believed the summit was an upper realm of the gods, and they would hold ceremonies there," he said. "It would take them several days to journey up to the summit, and back then they might stay anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks."

Clark also told us that another eruption could come any time at Mauna Loa, located about 25 miles south of Mauna Kea.

"It could go tomorrow or 30 years from now," he said, noting that Hawaii's volcanic eruptions aren't traditionally explosive but can produce an enormous quantity of oozing, molten material. "During peak activity in its last eruption in 1984, Mauna Loa was putting out enough lava to pave a sidewalk from Honolulu to New York City once an hour."

Starry night

Peering through the eyepiece of an 11-inch telescope, the nighttime sky teeming with sparkling points of light, I had no trouble seeing the rings of Saturn. The gas giant served as the climax to about an hour's worth of stargazing our HFT group enjoyed at 9,000 feet after viewing sunset near the summit.

Renowned for its reliably clear skies, Mauna Kea is home to a collection of observatories operated by 11 countries that feature 13 high-powered telescopes. Strictly off limits to visitors, some observatories reportedly charge up to $40,000 an hour for viewing. HFT's much smaller, portable telescope gave us a glimpse into Mauna Kea's astronomical importance.

"One of the things that makes Mauna Kea so great for astronomy is our location," Clark said. "We're at approximately 19 and half north latitude, which from an astronomy standpoint means we can see 100% of the northern skies and 80% of the southern."

For Karen Valerio, Apple Vacations' senior revenue manager for Hawaii, HFT's Mauna Kea product exceeded expectations.

"I just loved it," she told me after joining a summit tour this June. "Everything from the educational point of view, to the scenery as well as the tour guide and the star show, everything was over the top."

HFT's seven-hour Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure is $192 for clients 16 or older and includes a picnic-style dinner.
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