Took a Hawaiian Adventures Tour bus. They fed us dinner at about 7000 feet, at an old sheep ranching station. A great way to get acquainted with our guide and with each other, and the food was pretty good too.
The next part of the ride up to the Visitor's Center at 9000 feet is a little windy but on good paved road, and already many decent photo ops. Above the Visitor's Center, the next six miles of road is a real washboard - DO NOT TAKE A NORMAL CAR on this road! Four-wheel drive is a must. If you attempt it with a 2-wheel drive, you'll just have to turn around after a few minutes!
The final two miles is again paved, and gets you up to the peak at almost 14000 feet. It is cold and windy (we had a few spots of residual snow), but the views are exceptional! Our tour was given good warm coats, but you might even want to wear gloves, especially if you are normally from the south.
Sunset at the peak - marvelous! We also had good views over to Mauna Loa's peak, and some serious rain/thunderstorms over the Kona coast. After dark, the starts came out, and we drove back down to about 11,000 feet for some stargazing through our guide's 11" reflecting telescope. He was EXTREMELY knowledgeable, not only about real astronomy, but about the constellations and how to spot them throughout the seasons. We were given wonderful telescopic views of Jupiter and several of its moons, Mars, Saturn & Rings plus a moon (Titan), nearby binary star systems, star clusters, and a far away galaxy! It was just amazing...
Make sure your tour operator gives you the telescopic stargazing as part of the experience - it greatly enhances the value of the trip, as far as I am concerned.
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