Essential Big Island: Making the most of Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea

Essential Big Island is a series of blogs focused on sites or attractions that are a must-see for any visitor to the island.

Visiting the summit of Mauna Kea is spectacular – whether you do so for the sunrise, or the sunset. We recommend the sunset! Make the most of your visit to Mauna Kea with our guide on how to structure your mountain visit.

It’s important to plan out your itinerary carefully. You’ll want to arrive at the Visitor Information Station in good time before sunset. We recommend allowing 30 minutes to drive up from the information station, and about an hour prior to that to acclimatize to the altitude.

For example, if sunset is 7pm and you’re staying in Kona, then you should leave Kona at about 4pm and you’ll arrive at the Visitor Information Station at about 5:30pm. Acclimatize at the information station for about one hour and then leave for the summit at 6:30pm.

It’s always better to allow more time! There are rangers on site who will check to make sure you have enough fuel and are driving a 4WD vehicle before you head up. 

Magnificent Mauna Kea

The summit of the mountain was believed to be the meeting place of the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wākea, and Mauna Kea is considered to be sacred. 

Ancient Hawaiians tracked the position of the stars and understood how this related to navigation. They are thought to have used observation platforms on the summit containing stones that were used to mark the positions of the rising and setting stars.

The summit of Mauna Kea is 13,796 ft. (4,205 mts) high. But the mountain extends about 19,700 ft. (6000 mts.) below the surface of the water, making it the tallest mountain in the world from its base. The Visitor Information Station is at 9,200 ft. (2,804 mts.) and this is where you will need to acclimatize for about an hour before ascending to the summit. 

Mauna Kea telescopes

Mauna Kea telescopes
From left, the 8-meter Subaru (Japan), the twin 10-meter Keck I and II (California) and the 3-meter NASA Infrared Telescope Facility. Photo credit: Babak Tafreshi / National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

The summit of the mountain contains almost perfect conditions for viewing the stars. These include dry clear air, low temperatures, low turbulence, excellent visibility, and almost no light pollution.

Mauna Kea sunset
Mauna Kea at sunset. Photo credit: Horizon Guest House

A Trip to the summit

First, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle. If not, there are some great tours available. Then, check the conditions on the mountain by calling (808) 935 6268. There’s a pre-recorded message of the conditions and any warnings. Then you’re good to go!

Start off your journey to the summit of Mauna Kea like any good road trip – with snacks, or even better, a complete meal. We set off on a weekday after stopping at Safeway for supplies. 

We recommend picking up a light to-go meal that travels well. Take a cooler if you can. Safeway in Kona has a great selection of ready-made meals – including salads, sandwiches and sushi.

You might crave sugar at high altitude – we recommend bringing some dark chocolate!

The road out of Kona. Make sure you’ve packed warm clothes, including jackets. If you think you might struggle at high altitude you can purchase small bottles of oxygen from Longs Drug Store (CVS). We took a couple of bottle just in case.

On the Saddle Road heading to the mountain.

Don’t forget there’s a restroom stop on the way to the mountain. The Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area is located about 15 minutes before the Visitor Information Station (there are often lines at the bathroom at the Information Station, so we recommend stopping here if you need to).

It’s a beautiful scenic drive up to the Visitor Information Station.

The Visitor Information Station with the summit of Mauna Kea in the distance. The station includes information about the mountain and a small gift shop.

Dormitories that house the support staff for the telescopes are located near the information station.

Time to eat our to-go meals. Everything tastes better at altitude – especially chocolate!

You might see some local wildlife like this pheasant.

The bulk of the road from the information station to the summit is unpaved. Hang on, it can get a little bumpy! But the spectacular views of the Mars-like landscape are worth it.

The last section of the road is actually paved. The summit is close!

Just in time for sunset. Take care when you get out of the car – the high altitude affects everyone differently.

Make sure to check out the view in the other direction. The mountain casts an incredible shadow.

You won’t be able to stay up on the mountain much longer than 30 minutes after sunset. The rangers like to get everyone down relatively quickly in order to reduce light pollution from car headlights. It also makes for an easier drive back home if you can avoid the line of traffic back down the mountain.

The summit of Mauna Kea is an absolute must-visit attraction. If you haven’t rented a 4WD vehicle then it is worth booking a tour (they’ll pick you up and drop you back in Kona).

Don’t forget you can spend more time after sunset at the Visitor Information Station (the gift shop stays open until 9pm) to simply gaze at the amazing night sky!

Author: Angus Meek
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