A Moonlit Hike to Lake Waiau

Sublime… One word in the English language that comes close… A frozen world of snow and ice, dark rock, illuminated by ethereal moonlight. A place more of the arctic than a tropical island. Recent storms have again created such a place on the summit of Mauna Kea. Just need to make a point to get out there and enjoy it.

Moonset Over Lake Waiau
A nearly full Moon setting over lake Waiau near the summit of Mauna Kea

The plan? Set the alarm clock for 2am, out of the house before 2:30am, arrive at the trailhead about 3:45am. I would take a walk with a camera, then drive back down to Hale Pōhaku for breakfast, then join the crew for a normal day working on the summit. A good plan, if somewhat exhausting. A plan that was executed exactly as originally envisioned.

It was the timing that was the factor here. A few things to come together to make this work… A good covering of snow, the summit road open to the public, and good weather with clear, starry skies. Clear skies have been in rare supply lately, a succession of winter storms bringing weeks of clouds.

The road being open to the public is also an important bit. While I could drive past the roadblock, the rangers know me, we are forbidden to engage in non-work activities on the summit if the road is closed to the public.

The needed factors came together this particular morning and I set the plan into action.

3am is a lonley time on the mauna. There was no traffic on the summit access road, the visitor station was dark and quiet. No tourists roamed the summit, no observatory activity. Parking at the intersection below the telescopes I grabbed my pack and tripod, mounted a camera and set off into the night.

Snowy Trail to Lake Waiau
Looking down to the snow covered trail to Lake Waiau

One worry… I feared the icy snow might be difficult or even hazardous to walk on without real snow gear. This hike would have to be aborted if conditions were truly dangerous, too much ice or deep snow. What I did find was perfect. A sunny day had melted the top of the snow just enough to create a solid crust when again frozen in the night. This crust kept me from breaking through and having to slog through the small drifts across the trail.

The crust of snow and ice offered quite good traction, almost no slipping about. I found it easier to stay on the snow and ice than to walk on the bare ground in those places I could choose. In the moonlight any bare ground became pools of inky blackness hiding cobble sized rocks to trip the unwary.

Moonlight on Snow
Moonlight glistens from the snow on Puʻu Poliʻahu

The moonlight offered more than enough light to walk, I put away the flashlight for much of the hike. All the better to enjoy the beauty of the night without the distraction, allowing my eyes to adjust to the light and just seeing everything about me.

While the primary justification for this cold hike was photography, I found the experience enjoyable in just being there. The beauty of this place was simply surreal… The cold wind, the ice and snow, the cool light of the moon illuminating the landscape.

The light was simply beautiful, the ice crusted snow reflecting the moonlight in glittering splashes. Hurricane force winds had sculpted the snow in sinuous drifts around boulders and along the terrain.

The snow completely obscured the trail along much of its length. I had hiked this bit of trail a couple times before and pretty much knew where it was. But that knowledge did not reveal the exact position of a trail under several feet of snow. I followed the general course where I could, satisfied that my passing made no mark on the landscape that would last beyond the melting snow.

One set of footprints preceded me on the trail. They must have hiked a day ago, before the crust formed atop the snow. Deep footprints showed where this previous hiker had slogged through the snow where I crunched atop the drifts without sinking in.

Milky Way over Mauna Loa
The Milky Way over Mauna Loa as seen from the south rim of Puʻu Waiau on Mauna Kea

Hiking alone in such a place is part of the experience, one that is most enjoyable. You are truly alone on a night like this, this time it was just myself and my shadow cast across the snow in the moonlight. You are alone with your thoughts, open to the mauna and the stars. This place has always welcomed me, particularly at night with the stars so bright overhead.

It was cold. Really cold when you consider the warm tropics 12,000 feet below. Warmth came in the form of an insulated shirt, a heavy jacket, an old pair of ski-pants over jeans, boots, knit cap and gloves. With proper armor it was quite comfortable, a little less so on the rim of Puʻu Waiau where a stiff and frigid wind buffeted me and the camera tripod.

Reaching the lake the Moon is setting on the far side where the lake drains and there is a notch in the old crater of the puʻu. A glittering path lies between me and the bright Moon, two days shy of full. The camera is set for fifteen or thirty second exposures, while I wait for the soft click of the shutter closing I just enjoy the scene.

The trails to Lake Waiau on Google Maps

This is not a long hike, the lake is a bit under a mile one-way from the upper trailhead. A mile of slow and careful footing over the drifts of snow. It will seem like three times that when you consider you are hiking at over 13,000 feet in elevation where the air is a bit thin. I like the upper trailhead for the views of the telescopes and less elevation loss and gain.

After visiting the lake I hike up the far side of the puʻu to gaze down on the saddle. In the distance I can see an orange glow in the clouds marking the lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu. Cars wend their way along Saddle Road, marked by a sinuous ribbon of headlights far below. Mauna Loa looms as a dark bulk on the southern horizon.

Above it all is the Milky Way, the setting of the Moon and a darkening sky allowing the clouds of stars to appear. Jupiter is high in the southwest, while just above the teapot of Sagittarius Mars and Saturn draw quite close.

The telescopes of Mauna Kea on a snowy dawn
The telescopes of Mauna Kea on a snowy dawn

High on the southern crater rim there is an ahu, a shrine of piled stone. This ahu is of the old style, roughly piled rocks with a few uprights atop. This style is markedly different than the very neat, square sided and rectangular ahu erected by modern practitioners and protesters atop the mauna.

With brighter colors creeping into the sky I enjoy and photograph the arrival of dawn. The camera sees it first, then I see it, the brighter eastern horizon. The stars slowly fade, leaving only Jupiter to be seen in the blue as I retrace my footprints across the snowdrifts to the trailhead and my vehicle.

Leaving the snow and ice behind, at least for an hour or so, I head down the mauna. A few tardy tourists racing to catch sunrise pass by going the other way, I drive back down the switchbacks to a much anticipated hot breakfast at Hale Pōhaku.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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