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What is Mauna Kea?
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii known for its world-class observatories. They have a free star-gazing program that will let you see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.
Visiting Mauna Kea is a must for any trip to the Big Island. Read below for important information you need to know before you visit Mauna Kea.
Why visit Mauna Kea?
Tallest mountain in the world: According to Wikipedia, if you consider the portion of the mountain that is under the ocean, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. And standing on the tallest mountain in the world is a pretty amazing thing to check off your bucket list.
Star-gazing program: At the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (located below the summit), they have a free star-gazing program. You can learn about and see thousands of stars. Plus, you can gaze through high-powered telescopes to see galaxies far, far away.
How do you get to Mauna Kea?
Mauna Kea is located about half-way between Waikoloa Village and Hilo on the Big Island. You can stay at either location and easily access Mauna Kea.
To get to Mauna Kea, you’ll take Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea Access Road. Signage isn’t great in the area, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see anything directing you towards Mauna Kea until you get to the Mauna Kea Access Road.
TIP: There’s a “Maunakea Observatories Support Services” located in the town of Hilo. GPS might want to take you there, but this is not Mauna Kea! Make sure GPS is taking you along Saddle Road and up the Mauna Kea Access Road.
You’ll need a rental car to get you to Mauna Kea. If you’re planning on going all the way to the summit, you’ll need a four wheel-drive car. Check with your rental car agency to make sure your contract allows you to drive to the summit.
If you just want to go for the star-gazing program at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (located below the summit), no special car is required.
TIP: Gas up your car before you start driving to Mauna Kea. There aren’t any gas stations along the route.
When should you visit Mauna Kea?
Time of Year to Visit
It can snow year-round on Mauna Kea, so check the road conditions before you go. The access road can be closed during bad weather.
If you visit Mauna Kea around a full moon, the brightness of the moon will make it difficult to see other objects in the sky. That means you won’t get the full benefit of the star-gazing program.
Try to visit Mauna Kea around a new moon (when the moon isn’t as bright in the sky).
If you can’t avoid the new moon, you should still visit Mauna Kea. You’ll still be able to see more stars than you can see in the city. And you can say you stood on the tallest mountain in the world (when you include the part under the sea!).
Time of Week to Visit
The star-gazing program is not held every day. Currently, it’s held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Check out the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station website before your visit to confirm the dates of the star-gazing program.
Time of Day to Visit
When we visited the Big Island, we were warned multiple times that the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station had limited parking and people trying to go to the star-gazing program would be turned away if the parking lot was full.
To avoid getting turned away and missing the star-gazing program, plan on parking in the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station parking lot at least 2 hours before sunset. The sun sets sometime between 5:30 and 7PM, depending on the time of year you visit.
If you’re visiting the summit (which is past the visitor center), plan on arriving at least 3 hours before sunset. If you’re stopping at the visitor center to acclimate yourself to the attitude before proceeding to the summit (see below), you’ll probably want to arrive 3.5 to 4 hours before sunset. That’ll give you plenty of time to acclimate to the altitude, visit the summit, and then be parked in the visitor center parking lot 2 hours before sunset.
Beware of altitude!
If anyone in your group went diving before visiting Mauna Kea, the altitude may cause decompression sickness. If you’re planning on diving, check with the dive shop to find out how long you should wait between diving and visiting Mauna Kea.
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station warns that visiting the summit may be dangerous for pregnant women, kids under 16, and those with medical conditions. However, it still may be possible for these individuals to go to the visitor center below the summit, where the star-gazing program is held. Check with your doctor to find out what’s right for you.
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station encourages people to stop at the visitor center before ascending to the top of the summit to acclimate to the altitude. However, we didn’t see people doing that when we visited. Use caution and do what you think is right for you.
What should you wear?
The ground is covered with crushed volcanic rock of varying sizes. That can make it difficult to walk. The smaller particles will get into your shoes if you have any openings. Closed-toe, sturdy shoes are your best bet.
It’s very windy on Mauna Kea, so leave any hats that could fly away behind.
The wind and the altitude make it pretty chilly on Mauna Kea. Plan for temperatures in the 30s or 40s (Fahrenheit).
Before the sun sets, you’ll probably be fine with just layers. After the sun sets, you’ll want to add gloves, close-fitting hats that won’t fly away, and blankets.
TIP: See if you can borrow a beach towel from your hotel to use as a blanket. That’ll help you cut-down on things you have to pack.
What else should you bring?
Food and water. There are a limited variety of sandwiches and snacks in the visitor center. If you want more options, bring along your own food. You’ll likely be on Mauna Kea for several hours, so plan to eat during that time.
Entertainment. You have to park in the parking lot well before the star-gazing program starts. Bring along something to keep yourself and your group entertained while you wait. Books, magazines, or cards can help pass the time.
What will your visit be like?
Once you arrive at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, you’ll have the option to park and stay there or go on to the summit. Even if you plan to go to the summit, it might be a good idea to wait 1/2 an hour to an hour at the visitor center to acclimate yourself to the altitude.
After you’ve visited the summit, park in the visitor center parking lot. Then ask one of employees in the parking or visitor center where you can watch the sunset. They’ll point you in the direction of a nearby hill to climb.
If you watch the sunset, you’ll likely miss the start of an informational video at the visitor center. The video primarily speaks about the current controversies on the mountain. You can read about the video here.
Watching the sunset also means that the visitor center might be at maximum occupancy before you get back down the hill. This won’t keep you from participating in the star-gazing program (which is outside). But it does mean you’ll be out in the cold a little bit longer. They have warm beverages outside of the visitor center to help you stay warm.
After the informational video ends, the telescopes will be set-up outside for viewing. When we visited, many of the telescopes were broken because visitors had mishandled them. That meant long lines for the working telescopes. If this happens while you’re there, listen to the star-gazing program first and then get in the line for the telescopes. The line for the telescopes will have gone down by the time the star-gazing program is complete.
The star-gazing program is held outside of the visitor center. Through narrative and laser pointers, the program leader will show you points of interest in the sky. The program leaders are incredibly knowledgeable. Take advantage of their expertise and ask plenty of questions.
Visiting Mauna Kea was a great experience for me. I hope the tips above help make your trip equally enjoyable!