Mauna Kea, one of 5 shield volcanos located on the Big Island of Hawaii, is of particular interest because it is the tallest mountain on Earth as measured from the ocean floor. Rising over 33,000 feet from the floor, it surpasses even Mount Everest. It is the 13,796 feet above sea level, however, that make it an ideal spot to visit and to view breathtaking vistas, sunsets, and heavenly stargazing. Mauna Kea is unique as an astronomical observing site. The atmosphere above the mountain is extremely dry, cloud/pollutant-free, and exceptionally stable making it an ideal spot for viewing the galaxies. For that reason, it hosts the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with telescopes operated by astronomers from eleven countries operating 13 high-powered telescopes. Luckily, you don’t need to be a trained scientist to visit the summit, but these 5 tips will make your visit much more successful and more enjoyable!
1. Pick the Best Day to Visit
This may seem like a bit of of no-brainer, but there are several things to check before deciding to head to the summit. Don’t plan to make the trek without checking the following:
- Weather – The weather on the Big Island changes very quickly and also is very different based on your location on the island. Surprisingly, it may look cloudy and dreary from your vantage point, but it may actually be clear as a bell above the clouds which often are lower than the summit. Your best bet is to check the weather and driving conditions at HERE at the Mauna Kea Visitors’ Information Center. PRO TIP: The Visitors’ Center is the best source of information for planning your visit as it contains current, up-to-date weather but also provides information about upcoming regular and/or special events that may be of interest.
- Moon Phases –
Although a trip cannot always be planned based on the moon, the stars are best viewed during new moon phases when the sky is darker. Try to avoid full moons because its light will outshine the other visible light in the sky. You can check the Moon Phases 2018- Lunar Calendar for details.
- Stargazing Calendar – Not crucial, but interesting. There are many celestial events throughout any given year, and if your lucky, you might catch one during your visit. Check out this 2018 Stargazing Calendar.
- As noted above, check the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station website before making your visit to make sure there are no unforeseen closures.
2. Decide Mode of Transportation: Self-drive vs. Tour Van
Several things will play into your decision as to how you would like to take the trip to the summit. You can reach the Visitor Station located halfway up the volcano at roughly 9200ft in any car, but you CANNOT proceed past the center unless you are in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.Usually there is a ranger checking as you pass by the center to turn others back. The road is steep, gravel, rutted out in places, and can be covered in ice/snow depending on the time of year. Also, NOTE that many rental car companies will not allow you to take their cars (even 4WD) to the summit, so check before you book. You can stay 30 minutes past sunset at the summit, but the rangers will send you on your descent after that. Also, NOTE that parking at the summit can be tight, so go early. Even more importantly, NOTE there are only 115 spots at the Visitor Station which routinely fill up especially on nights that host the Free Stargazing Program (currently Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday – check visitors center website for more details). The rangers will turn cars away at once the lot is full! Final NOTE make sure to fill the gas tank before you start your adventure to Mauna Kea. The closest gas station is 35 miles from the Saddle Road turn off.
Currently, there are eight tour operators permitted to take people up to the MaunaKea summit. These operators are guaranteed to employ knowledgeable guides and bring their own portable telescopes which means you will get to experience a personal lesson in stargazing from your guide. NOTE you can only visit one observatory at the summit, the Subaru Telescope which has very strict policies for visiting. You can read about them HERE, but NONE allow visitors to view through the telescopes, even the Subaru.
You can check out the options for Summit Tours HERE and decide which offer the best options for your trip.
Remember — if you want to view through a telescope, you can bring your own (or rent one), visit with a guide that provides equipment, or stop at the Visitors’ Center during the Stargazing Program noted above where telescopes are provided (but the line is LONG!).
3. Manage Your Time Wisely
Drive times to the Visitor Station, which is the half-way point up to the summit, are roughly an hour to an hour and a half (from Kona) depending on where you will be driving from on the island. You can find detailed directions on their website. It takes at least another hour past the visitors center, depending on conditions and stops, to make the summit. CLICK HERE for great driving directions along with points of interest! Plan to arrive at the summit at least 30 minutes (or more) before scheduled sunset time. As I said, it can get very crowded at the summit with limited parking, so it’s better to plan a little extra time going up. The summit “closes” 30 minutes after sunset, and the descent is usually slow (in low gear) with a line of cars.
4. Be Aware of Health Risks
At 13,796ft, the summit of Mauna Kea is a high-altitude destination which warrants certain precautions. The atmospheric pressure is 40 percent lower than at sea level which means less oxygen is available, making some people more susceptible to acute mountain sickness. Pregnant women, children under 16, people with respiratory illnesses/conditions, and those who have been scuba diving 24-hours prior are discouraged from traveling to the summit.
Symptoms of mountain sickness include: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. A preventative 30 minute to 1-hour stop at the visitor center halfway up the mountain offers a chance to allow your body to acclimatize, lessening risks of experiencing any of the above symptoms.
High altitudes can also cause the life-threatening conditions pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid on the brain). Descend immediately if any of these symptoms appears:
- severe headaches,
- breathing difficulties,
- blue lips or fingernails,
- extreme drowsiness that may lead to coma.
Further hazards are dehydration, sunburn and eye damage. Take plenty of water and protect your skin and eyes against the intense UV radiation at the summit with sunscreen and sunglasses.
5. Dress Accordingly & Pack Plenty of Water/Snacks
It is very COLD and WINDY at the summit so pack plenty of layers, and don’t forget gloves and a hat! It is truly amazing that you can go from a beautiful warm, sunny day at the beach to frigid, blustery, snowy conditions in less than 2 hours, but you can on the Big Island. Once again, check the weather conditions on the Visitor Station website which provides current information from the summit. Once the sun sets, the temperature plummets as well. Don’t forget your eye protection; always wear UV sunglasses at the summit, and don’t forget your UV sunscreen. It is possible, on clear days, to burn within 15 to 20 minutes of exposure.
Pack plenty of fluids, preferably water, and snacks for your trip. The summit is extremely dry. Avoid dehydration by bringing and drinking plenty of water. Drinking water can also help quicken your adaptation to the summit and can lessen mountain sickness. Important Note – DO NOT drink alcohol as this can worsen dehydration.
**I highly recommend taking a bathroom break at the Visitor Station on the way up and on the way down. If you are drinking enough fluids, you WILL need to make a pit stop, and bathrooms are hard to come by– just saying!
Whether its seeing the cinder cones, the sunset, or the stars, Mauna Kea draws visitors and usually delivers on its promise to be a once-in-a-lifetime sight well worth the drive. Hopefully, these 5 tips will help in planning a safe, successful, enjoyable, and MEMORABLE trip to the summit!