Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, the Mauna Kea volcano and observatory offer panoramic views and a breathtaking look at the stars.
But it’s not just the night-time views that blow you away. The sunrise, sunset, and daytime views are pretty amazing, too. how often do we have the chance to stand on top of the tallest mountain in the world below a shimmering tapestry of stars?
Mauna Kea Volcano: The Tallest Mountain
If you are looking for one of the ultimate stargazing adventures, definitely put the Mauna Kea Volcano Summit and Observatory on your list. Soaring 13,802 feet from where its base meets the ocean to its snow-covered peak, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. It’s even taller than Mt. Everest, even though the top of Mount Everest is higher because the base begins at a higher elevation.
As the Explore the Big Island site explains, the Mauna Kea volcano is a shield volcano and, “Shield volcanoes are generally large and wide with broad, gently sloping sides.” Even on a group of volcanic islands, the Mauna Kea Volcano is exceptional. For starters, it’s over a million years old and hasn’t erupted in 4,500 years. Now, it provides some of the best stargazing in the world. So good, that many top astronomers have placed observatories and massive telescopes at its peak so they can watch, study, and research the stars and outer space.
Booking a Tour to the Mauna Kea Summit
We highly recommend booking a tour instead of driving yourself to the Mauna Kea summit because it’s a grueling drive, and on crowded days, there isn’t always enough parking. Plus, the tour companies even provide you with an informative tour guide, meals, and even a parka and gloves.
There are several great Mauna Kea tours that leave from Hilo, Kona, Kohala, and Waikoloa. Whether you take the sunrise, midday summit tour, sunset, or after-dark stargazing tours, you can expect to set aside a full eight hours. Viator lists a few and highly recommends the sunrise and sunset tours, so you can enjoy the spectacular colors before or after taking in the stars.
A good place to start is Hawaii Forest & Trails. They offer sunrise and sunset tours that leave from Kohala, Hilo, Kona, and Waikoloa. Depending on where you’re staying, they may even pick you up from your hotel.
The Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure Tour: It starts with a pre-trip picnic at a historic Hawaiian ranch. The guide then takes you on a scenic drive in a luxury van to the summit, where you’ll take in a sunset view, and stargazing, complete with a telescope, hot chocolate, and dessert. Tip, local taxes, hotel pickup and drop off, and a hooded parka with gloves included. Price: $215 per person.
The Mauna Kea Sunrise Experience: You’ll gather with your tour group in the wee hours before sunrise, stop by the Ellison Onizuza Information Station to enjoy a hot drink and acclimate to the change in altitude. Then you’ll go move on to the summit in time for a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise amid a collection of large telescopes. After that, you’ll drive back down the mountain, enjoy a continental breakfast, and walk amongst the Mauna Kea Volcano’s Silversword Plant enclosure. Price: $189 per person.
If You’re Driving to the Mauna Kea Summit
Some choose to take the DIY approach and drive up to the Mauna Kea summit. If so, you’ll need a car with “true” four-wheel drive to ascend the steeply graded gravel roadway. However, the road is paved all the way up to 9,200 feet, the site of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS). The Love Big island site provides directions and explains the summit and the Mauna Kea Observatory are 64 miles from Kona and 43 miles from Hilo. In the daytime, there are telescopes you can use all day until 30 minutes after sunset … And the sunsets are spectacular.
Instant Hawaii adds getting there is half the fun. For the most scenic drive, they recommend you start at the Hilo bay Front in downtown, take Kamehameha Ave. to the end of the road. You then take a left onto Waianuenue Ave. and take that all the way to Saddle Road, the road that ascends Mauna Kea and leads to the access road. Make sure you fill up your gas tank and get snacks, water, and food at one of the local stores because there are no services as you get towards the mountain. Along the way, you’ll get to see the ‘Ohi’a Lehua forest with lovely trees decorated with bold red flowers. These trees are special because they only grow on the Big Island, and the blossoms are Hawaii’s official flower.
You can also take a brief detour and take a dip in the many swimming holes along the Wailuku River (but not if you have any cuts or scratches, as Hawaii’s rivers carry Leptospirosis and Giardia). There are also various hiking trails, a’a lava flows, the Pu’ualo Ranch, and other natural attractions along the way.
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station
Whether you’re driving yourself or going with a tour group, you’ll need to stop at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200 feet. here, you can get the latest update on the weather, some safety information, while taking a breather so your body can adjust to the change in altitude. As the site explains, “Maunakea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours, so altitude sickness is a high possibility.”
In addition, they warn, “At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain.” They also recommend that you don’t go any higher if the following applies to you: You’re pregnant, in poor health, under 16, have gone scuba diving within the past 24 hours, or have any heart or respiratory issues.
But even if you can go no higher, the Mauna Kea VIS won’t disappoint. In addition to lavish views, they offer free stargazing programs on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm. On the first Saturday of every month, VIS also hosts a special presentation, The Universe Tonight, with the latest updates and discoveries.
On the second Saturday of every month during the school year, college astronomy students run the show. If you can time it right, the fourth Saturday of the month’s a real treat with Culture Night — Malalo o Ka Po Lani with special presenters who give talks about Mauna Kea from a local cultural perspective.
No matter how you plan your trip, make sure to be respectful of your beautiful surroundings. Mauna Kea is said to be the home of Poli‘ahu, a snow goddess.
The Mauna Kea Observatory
The W.M. Keck Observatory, better known as the Mauna Kea Observatory, is located at the Mauna Kea summit. They offer a gallery for visitors with exhibits that explain their research and what they do. They also have two public restrooms and an area with partial views of the Keck I telescope and dome. It’s open from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday. In addition, you can stop by their headquarters in Waimea. Their volunteers greet guests and tell you about the Keck and other Mauna Kea observatories. You can also buy some souvenirs, as their gift shop sells hats, books, T-shirts, and more.
Mauna Kea Weather
According to the Mauna Lea Weather Center (MKWC), “Mauna Kea weather varies widely. A calm sunny day may quickly become treacherous with hurricane-force winds and blizzard conditions. Summit winds above 120 mph are not uncommon. Snowstorms have even occurred during the summer months.” These can affect visibility and road conditions.
The Mauna Kea – From Mountain to Sea website adds, “Temperatures can vary thirty degrees between noon and night. It can reach up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer’s day, and is often just above freezing in the winter. Winter or summer, nighttime temperatures are usually at freezing or below.”
For current weather conditions, click here.
— MaunaKeaBeachHotel (@MaunaKeaHotel) June 14, 2017
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
If you’re flush, you may want to splurge on a stay at the luxurious Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller, the investor and conservationist, in 1965, it was the most expensive hotel ever built at the time. The hotel still has that mid-century vibe, but they modernized it with a major renovation in 2008.
The rooms are airy, colorful, and luxuriously appointed, with lovely views of the beach or the golf course. The spa offers all kinds of pampering, and the hotel boasts a variety of cafes and restaurants. The pool deck is surrounded by lush greenery and palm trees and faces the ocean. Or you can hit the beach — they’ve got rows of comfy chaise lounges all set up for you. the Activities include golf, tennis, tennis, flower lei crafts, snorkeling, stargazing with giant telescopes, and more. Rooms for couples start at $399 a night.
— Daniel. (@danieeldee) January 17, 2016
Can’t Get to Mauna Kea? Escape with a Stargazing App
If you can’t get to Mauna Kea, you can still have your own mini “Enlightened Escape” just by looking at the night sky.
Of course, to get a better view, you may need to go off the beaten track. Darker skies are better for stargazing, and urban and suburban areas have far more light pollution. But even if you live in the middle of a city and can barely see any stars at all, these stargazing apps make it easy for you to educate yourself and become an informed viewer of the night sky.
Which stargazing app should you use when there are so many to choose from? Start with these:
- StarChart: This free stargazing app for both iOS and Android uses your phone’s compass app to find stars and planets near you. You can see them in real time or use the time shift feature to see what the sky looked like 10,000 years ago and what it may look like 10,000 years into the future. Get it for iOS here or Android here.
- Distant Suns: For just $3.99, iOS and Android users can download and run a stargazing app that functions as “your personal guide to the cosmos since 1987. It’s also available on the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and your desktop. iOS here or Android here. For more info, click here.
- NASA: You don’t have to wait for evening stargazing when you’ve got a stream of incredible news, photos and videos from outer space on a daily basis. It’s free and you can download it here for iOS and here for Android.
- SkyPortal: This amazingly realistic star simulator gives you the names of the stars you’re looking at when you hold your phone up to the sky. you can get it here for iOS and here for Android.
While it’s not the same as a trip to Mauna Kea, think of it as a downpayment on your next fabulous vacation.
Featured image: CC 0 Public Domain via Max Pixel.