Sunset and Stargazing on Mauna Kea – the Tallest Volcano in Hawaii
As the tallest volcano in the Pacific, standing at 13,795 feet (4205 meters) above sea level, Mauna Kea has attracted world travelers for astronomical observation and scientists for research. Every day, tourists go up to Mauna Kea to learn about astronomy, view the other-worldly landscapes, gaze at the sunset and sunrise, and even hike. Mauna Kea summit provides a clear sky 300 days a year, which makes it a wonderful place for viewing the galaxy.
Part of Mauna Kea is under the sea. If measured from the sea base, Mauna Kea is 10,000 meters tall, which renders it the tallest mountain in the world, as it is taller than Everest.
Mauna Kea last erupted over 4,000 years ago and there has been no noticeable natural activity in this dormant volcano since then, other than the snow falls in the winter time. This makes Mauna Kea a relatively safe and excellent place to visit.
If you plan a trip to Big Island, be sure to put Mauna Kea on your list of places to visit. If you need any information and guides to help you plan your trip, please read on.
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How to get to Mauna Kea
There is no public transport to get to Mauna Kea, so you either need to drive your own vehicle or join a group tour.
From Kona, you will need approximately 1.5 hours to get to Mauna Kea. If you plan to summit Mauna Kea, you need an extra half hour and a true four-wheel vehicle and low gear (or your brakes will burn out), as the road to the summit from the visitor center is unpaved with steep slopes. Make sure to drive slowly and pay attention to the road conditions, and do not drive during the dark. In the winter, you can see the snow on the crater on both sides.
The road to the summit from the visitor center is a restricted area for most car rental companies, which means that if you drive to the summit with your rental car, you will cover all the costs for repairs should there be any damages.
There is a group tour that leaves every day for the sunset and stargazing, and the duration is usually eight hours. I went with Hawaii Forest and Trail for the sunset and stargazing trip. I sat in the van and spent lots of time listening to our guide share information about the history of Mauna Kea and enjoyed the scenery without being exhausted from driving my own vehicle. The tour price included a drive up to the summit, dinner, a snack, a parka, and gloves.
Adventurous seekers can check out the hiking trails from the visitor center, which leads to the summit. The hiking path alternates between the trail and the roadway, and the round trip takes eight hours and longer for experienced hikers. If you attempt to do a hiking trip, be sure to dress warmly and have enough water to keep you hydrated. There is no public transport to the summit, so in case you are exhausted or sick of the altitude, the only way to get down is to hitchhike.
Mauna Kea hours
Mauna Kea Visitor Center opens from 12 pm to 10 pm every day and the summit opens half hour before sunrise until half hour after sunset. As a result of the safety precautions, it is not recommended that you remain at the summit after the sun goes down.
Legal battle over a sacred place
Mauna Kea is a sacred place for native Hawaiians in terms of culture and religion. Back in the day, Polynesians resorted to the starry sky to navigate their routes and circumnavigate the globe. The summit of Mauna Kea is also home to 13 large huge telescopes for educational purposes and economic opportunities.
However, after building telescope after telescope, a thirty-meter telescope was planned to be built on the summit and this project would take 14 years and 1.4 billion to complete.
Days after the project began, protestors set up a road blockage to the summit to force the project to come to a halt, as they thought such establishment had the potential to desecrate the natural environment of the mountain and spoil the existing culture and religions protected by native Hawaiians.
After months of challenges, testimonies, and court processes, a permit was granted under the condition that the telescope workers and scientists must go through “mandatory cultural and natural resources training.” However, the controversy still exists to this day.
Road trip to Mauna Kea
I got picked up from the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa and shortly after we were on Saddle Road, also known as Highway 200. The landscape along the road was interesting as we passed through several microclimate zones and we were welcomed with fog, rain, and a rainbow. We saw lava fields and volcanic landscapes lined up on both sides of the road, and green and yellow vegetation and dry plants, which can only survive in this part of the world.
There are no shops and restaurants to stop at on the road. We picked up food on the way and went to a picnic area for dinner.
If you drive your own vehicle, you can stop at Lake Waiau, the only alpine lake in Hawaii at an elevation of 13,020 feet.
Mauna Kea is also the only place on earth where you can drive from sea level to 4,205 meters high in a short two hours. Part of the trip will take you above the clouds, then you come out of the clouds surrounded by the loose gravel road and the crater, and then you will actually end up on the summit with clouds in front of you.
Sunset at the Summit
Watching the sunset at the Mauna Kea summit is a special experience, as it is amazing to get so close to the clouds and then see the crater and the clouds underneath our feet. Even though it was cold and windy, it made the entire experience magical.
As I waited for the sunset, I took time to walk around, look at the crater, and visit the giant telescopes. When the sun started setting, the sky exploded with a kaleidoscope of warm colors and lit up the crater floor. There, we also saw the world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa, and the dormant volcano Haleakala in the distance.
I loved my visit to the summit, with fresh air and other-worldly scenery. There are no crowds so you can always find a quiet place to appreciate this outstanding vista on your own.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea has been the prime site for watching the stars, owing to the minimum light pollution and the high elevation, and when you stand at 10,000 meters above sea level, you can feel like the Milky Way is just above your head within an arm’s reach, although it is far away in reality.
There are no artificial lights in the area and the night sky above Mauna Kea usually explodes with thousands of stars. Unfortunately, the night I went, there was a full moon so I was not able to see some of the stars as on other nights, but it was still an amazing experience and I saw the star dust and even two shooting stars.
Our tour guide spent time giving us a star and constellation tour, and he pointed out the North Star, Big Dipper, Andromeda, and Southern Cross to name a few. He also brought his own telescopes so we took turns looking at these stars. We saw the detailed surface of the moon, the brilliant orange color of Mars, Neptune, and Saturn and Jupiter with their rings. It was amazing.
Mauna Kea Visitor Center
We went to the visitor center for short ten minutes. There was a screen showcasing some cool information about telescopes and beautiful photographs of the Milky Way and other planets captured by these telescopes. There are also shops for you to purchase souvenirs and you can still view part of the galaxy from there.
The visitor center also offers a free stargazing program four days a week starting at 7 pm. For more information about this program, you can check out their official website here.
What to wear
I recommend that you wear long pants, closed-toe shoes, and a parka. When I visited in September, the summit was very cold, especially after dark. I wore a short-sleeved shirt with a parka over it and I was still cold. Fortunately, our tour guide did not turn off the engine of our van so we could go inside and warm up a bit when we needed to.
If you only plan on visiting Mauna Kea Visitor Center, you do not need to bring a parka—a light jacket is fine.
Where to eat
There are no restaurants and food vendors at the Mauna Kea summit and the visitor center only has cup noodles, water, and snacks. There are no restaurants on the road from Kona and Hilo, so make sure to pack your own food and drinks or eat a big meal before your visit.
Have you been to Mauna Kea? Share your tips and experience below.
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