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Stargazing atop one of the tallest mountains in the country is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a must-do activity if you’re on the Big Island. Without any light or atmospheric pollution to distract you, you’ll be able to see the night sky filled with stars, galaxies, planets, and so much more.
However, getting to Mauna Kea can be a bit tricky, as it requires a long drive up to a high-altitude climate.
If you would like to do Mauna Kea stargazing during your trip, then you can either drive yourself or book an organized tour. To help you decide what’s best for your group, we’ll share the pros and cons of each so you can plan a memorable and stress-free trip stargazing experience.
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What is Mauna Kea?
Mauna Kea is an inactive volcano on the Big Island. It’s the highest point in the entire state of Hawaii, with a peak that stands over 13,800 feet tall (making it a little over a hundred feet taller than Mauna Loa – one of the largest volcanoes on the planet).
Because of the high elevation, Mauna Kea is an excellent place for stargazing. With a dry, cloudless, and nearly pitch-black sky, Mauna Kea has the perfect conditions for astronomical observation. Not only is it open to visitors, but it’s also used by professionals and scientists, including NASA.
What are the Mauna Kea Observatories?
Perched on the summit of Mauna Kea sits the Mauna Kea Observatories. This 525-acre plot of land is home to 12 different observational facilities and 13 telescopes. The University of Hawaii operates two of them, while the others are governed by other agencies and countries.
As a visitor, you won’t be allowed to go inside the observatories or use the telescopes. The only exception to that is NOIRLab does a limited number of tours at noon to their Gemini North Telescope. You must drive yourself to the summit.
But if you make the trek up to the summit during the day, you might be able to see the astronomers at work. The domes will be open, and the telescopes will be swung into position!
Besides being on the summit, you also have the chance to check out the visitor’s center, The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (VIS for short), which is located further down the slopes of the volcano.
Can You Visit Mauna Kea on Your Own?
Yes! Although many people choose to visit Mauna Kea with an organized tour, it’s possible to go on your own. However, there are some rules and regulations you’ll need to follow if you plan to drive yourself up the volcano.
The visitor center is open from 9 AM to 9 PM, although the road to the summit opens 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes after sunset. You can visit anytime during operational hours, although many people like to come during sunrise or sunset for the view.
2-wheel-drive vehicles are not permitted past the visitor’s center, so be sure you go prepared! We’ll cover more on this below.
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Mauna Kea Stargazing: Visiting on Your Own
Organized tours are expensive and often take up an entire day. While it is great to have a knowledgeable guide with you, some people prefer to go stargazing on their own. If you are planning to head up to Mauna Kea without a tour, there are some things to keep in mind to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.
Tips for Stargazing at Mauna Kea
Beware of Altitude Sickness
As the tallest peak in Hawaii, the high altitude levels on Mauna Kea are no joke. In fact, the air at the summit contains 40% less oxygen than at sea level! If you aren’t adequately prepared, you may get Altitude Motion Sickness (AMS), which can cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and loss of balance among other symptoms.
To prevent getting sick, there are some safety precautions you should take:
- Spend at least 30 minutes adjusting to the altitude change at the Visitor Center (9,200 feet)
- Bring and drink lots of water to stay hydrated
- Don’t drink alcohol before or during your visit
- Don’t do too much strenuous activity at the top. You should save your oxygen!
- Avoid high altitudes if you are pregnant, under the age of 13, or have poor general health
Join the Stargazing Program
Once a month, the Mauna Kea Visitor Center hosts a free stargazing event. As a group, staff members will take you to a private stargazing location where you’ll be able to spend two hours viewing the night sky. They’ll have telescopes set up and can answer any question you may have.
To join, make sure to reserve your place online in advance. You can come a bit early to watch the sunset before returning to the visitor center to start your stargazing experience.
Rent the Right Vehicle
To reach the summit of Mauna Kea, you’ll need to have a 4WD vehicle. The 8-mile drive from the visitor center to the peak is on steep, bumpy terrain, which means it’s not suitable for 2WD cars. If you don’t have an off-roading vehicle, you’ll still be allowed to go to the visitor center, although venturing any further is strictly prohibited.
When renting a car, make sure the rental company allows its vehicles to be driven up Mauna Kea. Some companies have regulations that prohibit this, so double-check before you leave the airport or rental car center.
It’s also important that you have enough gas to make it up to the summit and back. While the drive is doable on ½ a tank, we highly recommend filling up before going to Mauna Kea. You will burn a lot of gas as you make the climb to the summit. There are no gas stations after Waimea, so plan accordingly if you’re driving yourself!
Check out our rental car recommendations before you book!
Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and according to Hawaiian mythology, the summit is home to benevolent spirits and gods, including Poli‘ahu, the Goddess of Snow. Historically, Hawaiian law stated that only high-ranking nobility were allowed up to the peak.
While this has changed over time, it’s still vital that all visitors treat the volcano and the natural surroundings with respect. Make sure you stay on the road at all times and don’t pull over unless instructed.
As you might imagine, the top of Mauna Kea can be very cold. The average temperature at the peak is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (literally freezing!), although the wind chill can make it feel even colder.
For this reason, you’ll want to dress warmly. Make sure you have long pants, closed-toed shoes, and a warm jacket or sweater. You may also think about bringing thick socks, gloves, and a beanie, so be sure to add these to your Hawaii packing list!
Don’t Go Scuba Diving Before or After
Similar to flying, being at a high altitude can pose major risks for scuba divers. The decreased air pressure and build-up of nitrogen in the bloodstream can be extremely dangerous. If you want to go scuba diving after stargazing, you must wait at least 24 hours to adjust back to sea level.
The same applies to diving before your trip up the volcano. Because of the altitude change, you should also wait more than 24 hours to go up Mauna Kea if you’ve been scuba diving.
How to Stargaze at Mauna Kea On Your Own
Now that we’ve gotten the safety information out of the way, let’s walk through what you’ll need to do to have an amazing experience stargazing at Mauna Kea!
One important thing to note is that the road from the visitor center up to the summit is closed 30 minutes after sunset. Therefore, you won’t actually be doing any stargazing at the peak. While you can drive up there for the view (and the bragging rights), you will be doing all your stargazing around the visitor center at a lower elevation.
Arrive Ninety Minutes Before Sunset
As mentioned, the road up to the summit closes 30 minutes after sunset. You’ll need enough time to make the drive and acclimate to the altitude change if you’re planning on watching the sunset from the top.
Therefore, we recommend getting to the visitor center 90 minutes before the scheduled sunset. That gives you 30 minutes to acclimate at the visitor center and another 45 minutes to 1 hour to drive to the summit. If there isn’t traffic, you can usually make the drive in about 30 minutes, although it can be longer if you’re stuck behind a slow driver.
Give Yourself At Least 30 Minutes to Acclimate
We can’t stress this enough! Unless you want to spend your entire evening feeling sick and dizzy, It’s important to acclimate to the change in altitude. You don’t want to just drive straight from the beach up to the peak without stopping to adjust, as this can be extremely dangerous.
The visitor center is located 9,200 feet above sea level, so you need to stop here for at least 30 minutes before heading to the summit. However, the longer you have here, the better. Some visitors even spend several hours here just to make sure.
There’s a lot to see inside, including photos, diagrams, and models. You can also pick up a book or souvenir at the gift shop while you’re waiting!
Drive from the Visitor Center to Mauna Kea Summit
If you have a 4×4 vehicle with an allowance to go up Mauna Kea, then you can head to the summit before sundown. Remember that the road is long (8 miles) and very steep (~5,000 feet), so take your time.
Give yourself at least 45 minutes to an hour to go up the road from the visitor center. While the drive should take just 30 minutes, it will likely take longer due to the number of cars, slow drivers, etc.
If there are high winds, ice, or lots of snow, the road up to the summit might be closed. Before you leave, check the road conditions to see if it’s open to visitors.
Watch the Sunset
Once you’ve reached the peak, bundle up in your warm clothes and go out to watch the sunset. It’s a breathtaking sight to see it descend below the clouds. Make sure to bring your camera (and some sunglasses), as the colors are stunning from this high up.
Drive Back Down to the Visitors Center for Stargazing
Remember, you can only stay up at the peak for about 30 minutes after sunset. The road down to the visitor center can be quite dangerous in the dark, so you won’t be allowed to stay for too long.
But once you arrive back at the visitor center, it’s time to go stargazing!
Why Stargazing is Better at the Visitors Center
Despite what many people think, the visitor center is better than the summit for stargazing! That’s because it’s at a lower altitude, which means there’s more oxygen in the air. Getting less oxygen makes it harder to see the stars, even though you’re technically closer to them!
However, the summit is still the ideal place for astronomers. The telescopes they use aren’t affected by the lack of oxygen, which is why they’re situated at Mauna Kea’s peak, but many astronomers control the telescopes and view the images at lower elevations.
So, don’t be upset that you can’t stay on the summit after dark. The visitor center is still at a high enough elevation to make your stargazing trip a memorable one!
Find even more great things to do on the Big Island:
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32 of the Best Things to Do in Hilo (+nearby)
The 21 Best Things to do in Kona (+ tips to know before you go)
12 Epic Things to Do in Kona with Kids
The 15 Best Things To Do In Waikoloa
The Best Mauna Kea Stargazing Tours
While a DIY drive-up Mauna Kea is doable, it might be easier to go with a tour group. Not to mention, it’s always nice to have a knowledgeable guide with you to answer any questions you may have and help you see even more.
We recommend a tour for stargazing if you’re hesitant about the drive. Driving up or down the mountain at night is difficult – the road is windy, and completely dark, and the change in altitude is significant. Thankfully, there are some great options available if you prefer to go on an organized stargazing tour.
Stargazing Tour with Photos
A lot of stargazing tours last the entire night (10 to 12 hours!), which may not fit your schedule if you’re short on time. However, this stargazing tour is only 2 hours long, so it’s perfect for those who have other activities planned.
The tour is led by James, an analog astronaut and professional astrophotographer. He uses a telescope and laser pointer to show you exactly where to look for the most breathtaking views of the night sky. He’ll also take professional photos of you with the starry backdrop so you can have a unique souvenir to remember your time on the volcano.
Because this tour doesn’t go up to the summit, it’s suitable for kids or those with health issues. And if the weather or stargazing conditions are bad, you’ll get a full refund or opportunity to move your tour to a later date.
If you’re trying to get great photos throughout your vacation, check out our favorite photo spots.
Twilight Volcano and Stargazing Tour
This full-day tour allows you to experience the best of what the Big Island has to offer. You’ll start your morning with a coffee tasting at a local Kona coffee farm before heading to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach (one of the most unique beaches on the island!). From there, you’ll visit Hawaii Volcanos National Park, where you’ll see the Kilauea Iki Lookout, steam vents, and Halema’uma’u Crater.
After dinner at a local restaurant (which is included along with a picnic lunch), you’ll head up to Mauna Kea for an evening of stargazing.
Mauna Kea Summit Tour
If you’re staying in Hilo, this is one of the best stargazing tours you can join. They’ll pick you up at a central location and whisk you up the slopes of Mauna Kea for an unforgettable evening. After a warm picnic dinner, you’ll visit the summit for a spectacular sunset before heading back down to the stargazing spot.
Admire the different constellations and space objects through the telescope while sipping hot chocolate to stay warm. Your guides will also take photographs of the night sky that you’ll get after your tour!
Parkas and gloves are provided, which is a huge perk if you don’t want to pack yours from the mainland. However, stargazing is not guaranteed, as cancellations due to poor or cloudy conditions may occur. Refunds are not offered for unfavorable conditions.
Kohala Coast Stargazing
Getting up to Mauna Kea can be a time-consuming venture. However, there are closer stargazing spots you can visit that don’t require lengthy drives, heavy coats, or acclimatizing to the high altitude.
This stargazing experience takes place at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, which is just 45 minutes from Kailua-Kona. Even though it’s at sea level, you can still enjoy dramatic views of the night sky with their high-tech telescopes! We did this tour and saw the moon, Saturn, and tons of stars, so it’s definitely worth it if you don’t want to make the long journey to Mauna Kea.
We highly recommend this tour for kids as it only lasts for one hour. And if your little ones are under 5, they get to go for free! Honestly, we were a little hesitant about this tour but we all had a great time and learned so much. We took our kids and our parents with us, and it was great for all ages.
Check out more can’t miss Big Island tours and activities:
Tried and Tested: The 5 Best Manta Ray Night Snorkel (or Dive) in Kona
The 10 Best Big Island Farm Tours You Won’t Want to Miss
The 9 Best Big Island Snorkeling Tours
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