Updated: May 15
This dormant volcano located on Big Island is a 1hr and 15 minute drive from the Hilo area. It's known for stargazing and unforgettable sunsets! Not only is Mauna Kea the highest point in Hawaii, it's the highest point in the entire Pacific Basin at 14,000ft elevation. At the summit, more than a dozen telescopes from all over the world reside making Mauna Kea the largest observatory of its kind on the planet!
How to Drive to Mauna Kea Summit Yourself | 7 Things to Know
You do not have to book a tour to experience Mauna Kea! Being a part of a group tour or doing things on your own is a definitely a personal preference. As for me, I love going at my own pace and saving some money by not purchasing tours.
1. It will take you about 2 hrs to drive from sea level to the summit at 14,000ft. If you plan to visit Mauna Kea yourself it is required to have a 4WD vehicle to drive to the summit.
2. It is recommended to stop at the Visitor Center at 9,200ft elevation for 30mins to help reduce the risk of elevation sickness.
3. The summit is open to visit during the daytime and you can stay up to 30mins after sunset.
4. Keep in mind that sunset is a very popular time to visit the volcano. Parking availability is first come, first serve and you will be turned away if the lot is full, so be sure to arrive early.
5. Be aware of road closures. Since the elevation is so high the weather is very different than the rest of the island.
6. Make sure to dress warm, temperatures can drop to 30-40 degrees after sunset.
7. Unfortunately, you will not be able to go inside the telescopes or buildings at sunset. The Subaru Telescope does allow visitors during the day. You must make a reservation.
Warning: Wait at least 24hrs to visit Mauna Kea if you have been scuba diving! Snorkeling is not an issue. Children under the ages of 13 should not visit the summit. It is also not advised to go to the summit if you are pregnant or have a heart condition.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
The summit is not accessible after sunset unless you book a summit and stargazing tour. They are quite expensive, so if you're looking to experience the stars yourself you can drive up to the visitor center at 9,200ft elevation (not to the summit). From the visitor information center you can actually see more stars even though you are at lower elevation. At the summit the lack of oxygen changes what the naked eye can see.
Looking from a telescope at higher elevation is obviously the best for scientific research, but for just witnessing a starry sky on a clear night, the visitor center is more than amazing! The Visitor Information Center used to offer a free stargazing program on select days. Due to Covid the program has been suspended until further notice and is no longer offered to the public. Hopefully the program returns soon!
For the best views at night pay attention to the moon phases and weather conditions. A full moon lights up the night sky taking away from the stars and will flood your photos with light. Going 4 days before or after a new moon is best for viewing and photography.
I can't wait to hear about your upcoming plans to Big Island. Leave a comment below and fill me in on your thoughts on Mauna Kea!