MAUNA KEA, Hawaii County — A year after Hawaii County celebrated a $10.3 million renovation to the renamed Mauna Kea Recreation Area, Big Island residents and visitors are still waiting to use the park’s refurbished cabins, bunkhouses, dining hall and concessionaire.
“Of course, the renovation took some time,” Department of Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen said of the park that remains closed to overnight use despite what had been an expected January 2017 opening date.
Much of the delay involved ensuring a new stand-alone water system, comprised of a 50,000-gallon catchment tank and chlorination system, produces safe drinking water, while wheelchair ramps had to be rebuilt to comply with federal specifications.
“The only issue right now is getting everything online and making sure all our T’s are crossed and our I’s dotted,” Waltjen said. “We want to make sure no one gets sick.”
The county Department of Parks and Recreation will continue hauling water to supply park bathrooms and other nonpotable uses, she said.
No municipal water is available at the park located roughly 6,000 feet above sea level and the midpoint of the recently completed 48-mile-long Daniel K. Inouye Highway linking Hilo and West Hawaii. The $316 million road replaced Saddle Road, which was so treacherous rental cars were not allowed along the route and most large commercial trucks didn’t attempt it.
The new road, along with Hawaii Island’s growing population, has brought more people to Mauna Kea Recreational Area. Adding to the park’s popularity are the unique playground, new bathroom, picnic area and other improvements Hawaii County has opened since obtaining control of the former Mauna Kea State Park on July 1, 2014.
But likely the most appealing, and certainly the most expensive, upgrade to the 32-acre Mauna Kea Recreation Area was a complete makeover of all seven cabins, both four-unit bunkhouses and accompanying dining hall.
Since becoming director in late September, Waltjen said she’s received four inquires for overnight stays, including two from Hawaii County departments seeking to use the park for their respective Christmas parties.
“They’re waiting like everybody else,” she said of the county requests.
The wait will partially end Jan. 3, when the bunkhouses will be made available to overnight guests for the first time since the park has been under county control, said Maurice Messina, deputy director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Noting this is the department’s first venture into operating overnight cabins, Messina said different uses will be phased in during the coming months as the capabilities of the new potable water system are verified.
“We’re looking at maybe three to four months down the road for those,” he said regarding when the lower-priced cabins will be made available for rent.
Each cabin can accommodate up to six people and is equipped with a shower, private bedrooms and mini-refrigerator. Cots, linens and eating utensils are not provided. Nightly fees will be $75 for Hawaii residents regardless of which island they call home and $150 for nonresidents, according to the department’s administrative Rule 16, which is available at the department’s website.
Resident fees will be $240 a night ($480 for nonresidents) for each bunkhouse designed to accommodate up to 24 people who will share the dining hall. Bunkhouse use is restricted to groups only, with each stay a maximum of six consecutive nights, according to the rules.
Kailua-Kona resident Marlon Galigo and his family were some of the many patrons who visited Mauna Kea Recreation Area on a recent weekday afternoon.
“We were just talking about that when we pulled in; when is this place going to open (to overnight use)? It would be a nice place to come for the weekend,” he said.
Many people had been unaware of the former state park and even fewer stayed there due to the combination of the formerly rundown condition under state control and remote location accessible only via the old Saddle Road. A new highway running past the entrance and new park improvements have caused some Big Islanders to discover Mauna Kea Recreation Area for the first time.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and never heard about this place,” Galigo said.
To help accommodate the expected heavy use, Hawaii County had the contractor install a commercial-grade kitchen complete with high-end stainless steel refrigerators and gas stoves. The plan was to contract with a vendor that would operate the kitchen and pay the county a royalty.
The Department of Parks and Recreation is drafting a request for proposals that will be sent to prospective vendors desiring to operate a food, drink and possibly sundry concession at Mauna Kea Recreation Area, Waltjen said. The vendor may offer rental jackets, sleeping bags and other items for patrons’ use, she said.
Also in the works is a plan to allow tour companies to use the parking lot for nightly stargazing, Waltjen said, adding it’s hoped that activity can resume in March if not sooner.
The park is often cloud-free, offering dramatic nighttime views for people unable to venture to the upper altitudes and limiting impact on the mountain’s fragile summit.
Disclaimer: The author worked for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation as a contracted employee from 2012 to 2016. His assigned tasks included helping draft the department’s administrative rule governing public use of Mauna Kea Recreation Area.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org