The Big Island of Hawaii has some of the most unique terrain to explore on any of the islands. I mean, lava and green and black sand beaches? And not to mention the jungles and waterfalls. But on my last trip to the Big Island, I got to experience something truly special.
Sunset and stargazing at the summit of Mauna Kea is something you shouldn’t miss on your trip. Once you’re up above the clouds, you’ll feel more like you’re on Mars or the moon than Hawaii.
The summit of Mauna Kea (one of the Big Island’s five volcanoes-it’s dormant) sits at 14,000 feet above sea level. Its height and location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (almost no light pollution) have made it an ideal place for viewing sunset above the clouds and for stargazing. Actually, Mauna Kea is considered one of the most ideal spots in the world for astronomical observation. As a result, it’s home to over a dozen of the world’s best observatories.
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But getting to Mauna Kea summit isn’t that easy. The road up to the visitor’s center is curvy, but completely paved and doable, cut once you pass the visitors center, the road up to the summit requires 4WD.
In this post, I’m going to break down your options for exploring Mauna Kea summit beginning with a guided tour and wrapping up with tips for doing it yourself.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures
There are only a handful of outfits that offer guided tours up to the summit of Mauna Kea and I chose to travel with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures . We were staying in Waikoloa and we met our guide, Maka, at the Queens’ Marketplace where we loaded up into a luxury van. There were 14 of us on the tour with Maka. It was about an hour and 15 minute drive from Waikoloa to our first stop at the Mauna Kea visitor information center, but the time flew by as we made our introductions an listened to Maka tell us about the topography of the island including a breakdown of the five volcanoes that make up the island (Mauna Kea is the second oldest and after its last eruption it’s considered dormant).
Nearby Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on the island by far although its summit is 100 feet shorter from sea level than Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa makes up 2/3 of the size of the Big Island and is the largest volcano on the planet (although second to Mt. Olympus on Mars). It last erupted in 1984 and is long overdue for an eruption that will make Kilauea look like an infant volcano.
Before we knew it, we arrived at the visitor’s center (9280 feet in elevation) for dinner and to acclimate. It was actually pretty crowded since most of the tour groups seem to stop here for dinner. We had dinner (homemade veggie lasagna) and brownies and had plenty of time to use the restroom, fill up our water bottles, skim the gift shop and take a few pictures. It was chilly enough for me to wear my sweatshirt at the visitor’s center, but I didn’t need my parka yet (Maka passed them out when we go there).
After about 45 minutes at the visitor’s center, we loaded back up and headed up towards the summit. This is where the road to turns to gravel and 4WD is required. I think it’s required as much for the incline as the terrain. We drove for a while and saw the most magnificent views (we were up above the cloud line) before pulling over for a quick photo stop.
Just as we were about to get back on the van to continue to the summit, we noticed a plume of dark grey smoke rising through the clouds. We were seeing a steam explosion from Kilauea!! None of the guides had ever seen it before (the recent steam explosions from the crater are very rare and the timing was incredible!) and it felt very special.
It didn’t take too long to get to the summit after that, and when we got out of the van it was cooooold so we quickly donned our parkas and mittens. I can’t even begin to describe how magical the summit was so I’ll defer to the photos, but safe to say I’ve never seen anything like it before.
The other Mauna Kea Summit Adventures tour guide (who was in a separate van with another 14 guests) gave a brief talk about the observatories at the summit (including pointing out which one was responsible for deleting Pluto as a planet) and then we were free to wander around a bit and watch sunset.
It was surreal! We loaded back into the van just as the sun fully set since all vehicles have to leave the summit at sunset (headlights can disturb the evening’s observations) and descended a bit to a special spot where the guides set up two telescopes for some stargazing. We looked at about 5 or so planets/stars through the telescope including Venus, Jupiter (amazing!!), and the moon (incredible!!). I had never looked through a high powered telescope before so that was pretty neat but I also enjoyed listening to Maka explain how to orient yourself in the night sky and was actually able to recognize several constellations that he showed us with his laser pointer (I’m terrible at spotting constellations). I’m not going to lie…even with a parka (hood up!) and gloves I was pretty cold, but I’m a wimp. I looked at the temperature once we got back in the van and it was only 42 degrees (Fahrenheit) but it felt way colder! We did take a break for hot chocolate (there was also coffee and hot tea) and biscotti so that helped.
After stargazing, we got back in the van and started to make our descent. This is where I was really glad I wasn’t driving. I slept most of the way back to Waikoloa, but I know we did make a quick bathroom stop somewhere, and we got dropped off at Queens’ Center about 10:30.
I honestly can’t recommend this tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures enough! It really was the highlight of my trip. Not only was it nice being shuttled around and not having to worry about the logistics of where/when and driving, but having Maka’s narration really made it worthwhile.
Just a few tips if you do this tour:
Dress warm! Long pants, long sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, thick socks, and closed toe shoes.
Drink more water than you think you really need. The altitude is no joke.
Take it easy at the summit. Up there you’re above 40% of the atmosphere and 90% of moisture so it’s dry and you’ll likely have shortness of breath if you’re moving around a lot or talking too much.
Mauna Kea Summit on Your Own
If upward of $200/person is just too steep or you don’t want to devote the 6.5-7 hours to the guided tour, it is possible to do parts of it on your own. Here are some tips:
It’s easy enough to at least get to the visitor’s center on your own. The road is a little windy but completely paved.
There is a stargazing program held for the public at the Visitor’s Center on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 7PM-10PM. You can get more information here. It’s free to attend, although space is limited.
To get to the summit from the Visitor’s Center, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle, but most rental car companies won’t allow their vehicles up there.
The drive isn’t particularly challenging terrain (it’s fairly smooth gravel), but it’s pretty steep so you’re going to need good breaks and be comfortable downshifting. There have been fatalities on this road with drivers losing control of their vehicle. If you’re not comfortable with extreme mountain driving, I wouldn’t attempt it.
If you do make a go of it (or even just go to the Visitor’s Center), make sure you have a full tank of gas. There’s no gas on Mauna Kea.
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A Note About Cultural Sensitivity
The last thing I’ll mention whether you take a guided tour or go at it on your own, is that visitors to Mauna Kea should be respectful and courteous of its significance to the Hawaiian people. The summit of Mauna Kea is considered sacred in part because of its role in the birth story of the Hawaiian Islands and because it is the home of Poli’ahu, the snow goddess. Because of this, development of Mauna Kea (both tourism and building observatories) is controversial. Major protests (including roadblocks and many arrests) happened in 2014 regarding a proposed observatory and you’ll still see signs expressing local’s frustrations as you head up towards the Visitor’s Center.