The whole experience of driving first to the visitor centre (VIS) at 2.9km elevation, then to the summit at 4.2 km elevation is amazing.
And as we realised, all the hysteria around 4WD, AWD or 2WD vehicles is ABSOLUTELY exaggerated. Paved road ends just after the VIS centre, then for a bit it is a mountain dirt road with some (but not extraordinary) steepness and some shakier parts but nothing terribly concerning. The paved section starts again after while and from there it is a normal drive up to the observatories. We rented an All wheel drive vehicle from only company allowing to drive up to the summit, which is Harper car and truck rentals. Rate is around 150USD/day (without insurances)!!! Great business as there is ABSOLUTELY no need for 4WD or All Wheel drive cars. All the panic around is so unnecessary and probably blown out of proportions for business purposes only. Any car in a good state can make it up to the summit without any problems, some shaking and bouncing on the short dirt section is nothing extraordinary and at slow speeds and low gear it's easy to handle. On the way up, we saw smaller 2WD cars coming down (one of them a beautiful dodge charger). Only thing to watch out is when you coming down. Use low gear (L in automatic, second gear in standard), go slowly and don't overuse the brakes (hence low gear).
Once you up, enjoy one of largest astronomical facilities in the world.
Keck observatory and Subaru telescope observatory has a visitor centre open till 4pm.
Kauna 'oa Beach at Mauna Kea is widely regarded as one of the top ten beaches in the entire state of Hawaii, and it is on the Big Island, on the northwest coast. The golf course at Mauna Kea is also generally rated as one of the top courses in all of Hawaii. The beach is a beautiful white sand crescent so it did not surprise me to find (too often) that the sand traps on the golf course are also amazingly beautiful sand, but it was quite a surprise to learn that the sand for the sand traps was imported. (I was not able, however, to learn where the sand originated.) If you enjoy golf and your spouse prefers wonderful beaches, Mauna Kea may very well be the place for you to peacefully enjoy the Big Island of Hawaii.
There are a number of tours which offer sunset and evening tours of Mauna Kea. I went with Hawaii Forest and Trail Adventures.
Buck, our tour guide, clearly loved what he did and provided a very informative and enjoyable tour. We piled into the van and drove up towards the summit, stopping along the way to minimize altitude sickness, as well as to have dinner. We then stayed at the summit for about an hour to watch the spectacular sunset. We then retreated to the Visitor's Center at 9000 feet altitude for the star-gazing tour. The stars were absolutely incredible and barely twinkled at all, which goes to show how little atmosphere remained between us and the stars. Through Buck's 8-inch reflecting telescope, we all had turns looking at Venus, the moon, galaxies, and double stars. Admiring the rings of Saturn were the grand finale.
The cost for this trip is $169 plus tax. Good quality picnic dinner is included. Advance reservations are necessary and are non-refundable within 24 hours of tour departure.
So let me tell you how it is. First of you have to drive up saddle road, slow and steady you will make you way up to the visitor center. The visitor center is located at 9,000 feet of elevation. This station has bathrooms, and a drinking fountain. As you continue up the mountain there are warning sigh telling you that you are not allowed to continue unless you have 4-wheel drive. We had 6 people in a front wheel drive minni van and made it up. We even passed the ranger truck twice, they didn’t seem to care. Once you leave the ranger station you will be on a dirt road that is windy and curvy and steep. I could see why a 4-wheel drive is highly recommended. The only problem we had been keeping the engine temperature down so the car wouldn’t over heat. It was a rental so we revved it pretty hot. J This dirt road continues for like 4 to 5 miles, and then the road becomes paved again, and just steep. Ok, so you are at the top. Here you will see the NASA look out center, and some other star looking at thingies. It is cold and you may see snow. If there is now then don’t try and go up without 4-wheel drive. You will see a moon like terrain. It is very unique. I didn’t notice any vegetation at all. You may be able to see the terrain below or you may actually be above the clouds level. I recommend seeing a sunrise. It pretty sweet.
cost is free!
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From its base at the bottom of the Pacific to its peak almost 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. Add that to the fact that its clear skies have attracted a variety of massive telescopes and you can see why it's worth going to the top. Unfortunately, unless you have your own four-wheel drive vehicle, getting there will take some work -- most rental companies will void your contract if you're caught driving on this road and your standard rental wouldn't make it up the rough gravel anyway.
For us, this meant taking a tour. While there are several choices from Kailua-Kona, we were staying on the Hilo side and could only take Arnott's Lodge Tour. Luckily for us, it was competitivly-priced and well-done. We departed sea-level Hilo at 1:30 p.m., stopped briefly at Rainbow Falls, then headed up to the visitor's center to acclimatize with a short hike to see rare silversword plants and a few exhibits. That rest prevented altitude sickness and still gave us enough time to get to the peak by sunset.
The colors from the top of Mauna Kea were breathtaking. Most of the people on tours stayed by the telescopes just below the summit, watching the sun plunge beneath the multi-hued clouds perferated by the likes of Haleakala and Mauna Loa. A few hardy souls donned parkas and headed up the half-mile trail to the real summit, where we watched Mauna Kea's shadow disappear from the ocean below.
The other thing that was breathtaking was the altitude! If you're going to make the climb to the real summit, you better be in shape as there's only 33% of the oxygen available as there was in Hilo. You will be breathing real hard!
After sunset, we descended to the visitor center for a star show presented by our guide* using a laser pointer. We were then "allowed" to wander over and peer through the telescopes set up on the vistor center lanai. I got to see a supernova and four moons of Jupiter.
*actually, nature presented it -- our guide just helped us understand it.
You can go on a trip to the top of Mauna Kea. You can do this on your own if you like, however, the road to get there is pretty crazy and most rental car companies don't allow you to drive there... So I went on an organised trip one afternoon. It was great, the driver was very knowledgeable and after an amazing sunset they pulled out a huge telescope and there was a great starshow too... I saw 7 falling stars, if that wish doesn't come through, I don't know...
Spend your morning, basking on the heavenly Kohala beaches, but spend your late afternoon and evening bundled in a cozy parka and ski gloves, as you and your vanmates learn about and get close-up views of those billions of stars above your heads! The fabulous MAUNA KEA SUMMIT ADVENTURES is a 7-8 hour tour. Our guide regaled us with interesting stories on the human and geologic history of the Island as we wound our way up to the 13,795 foot summit for the sunset, then back down to the 6k mark for the stargazing portion of our evening. Absolutely magical. And freezing up there, too. And damn windy. But seeing and identifying more than the moon and the Big Dipper, hey! this is now part of my Hawaii too. Lucky me. ;-)
If you rent a special vehicle, you can go up here for star gazing. From up here, you can see the Milky Way like you've never seen it before (and for many they've never really seen it). It is said to be one of the best, if not the best places in the world for seeing the stars.
There are a number of amateur astonomers who set up there telescopes up here and allow others to look through them. There's also a a place to get some snacks to eat and look at astronomy souvenirs and goods.
All the way at the top there are the big observatories to experience. But those are only open a few times a month on specific days to the public.
If the oceans were dried out like on Mars, this would be the tallest maintain in the world.
From sea level it's a bit taller than Mt. Fuji, so it's the tallest mountain I've been to the top of.
The 4,200 meter high mountain Mauna Kea is the worlds highest mountain if measured from the bottom of the sea, and an important site to native hawaiians and scientist.
Astronomers all over the world benefits from the unique conditions for observing space from Maua Kea due to its height, lack of air polution and disturbing light from cities, which is why the worlds most advanced telescopes are situated near the summit.
The native Hawaiians regards Manua Kea as a sacred place and have been using the mountain as burial sites, as a place for healing powers and they used to bring the umbilical cords of new born children to a lake near the sumit. And even today Hawaiians go to Manua Kea for religious ocations. So please keep this in mind when you go there.
Now to getting up there:
You can walk, but it's going to take lots of time, you can drive yourself or go with a tour.
If you are thinking of driving a rental car there is only one company called Harpers that lets you take a rental car up to the summit. You should not try with a regular car as the thin air and steep roads may give you trouble.
On the way up to the summit it is advised to stop for an hour at the Onizuka Visitor Center for acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness.
There are several companies that does tours to the summit, most of them goes up in the afternoon to view the sunset at the summit with stargazing after the sunset.
I went with Arnott's Lodge Adventure tours based in Hilo and I have no problem with recomending them, if you are staying at the lodge you get the tour for half the price. The guide was a fountain of knowledge about the area we were driving trough and a serious astronomer also working on the telescopes. The stargazing after we had been to the summit was really good util a storm came and forced us to pack up the telescope and head back to Hilo.
No, I didn't bike to the top of Mauna Kea... but I did take a break in my circumnavigation of the Big Island by bicycle to take one of Arnott's Lodge's adventure tours to the top of the mountain.
What an awesome adventure! Our van trip started with the recommendation that we eat some sugar to counteract the effects of the altitude. True or not, snacking on chocolate made me happy! We stopped briefly at the visitor center at the 9200 foot level before heading for the top of the mountain and a view that is out of this world! You can see my impressions of the tour and pictures of some of the view and some of the 13 observatories in my Hawaii biking journal Mauna Kea page.
If you want to visit Mauna Kea, I highly recommend the tour run by Arnott's Lodge. Arnott's is a backpackers lodge offering very reasonably-priced accommodations, a place to meet other travelers, and a couple of great tours.
The sunset from atop Hawai'i's highest point is amazing. To the north, like a ship in the clouds, you can see the ramparts of Haleakala on Maui rising forth. The huge observatories are starting their night's work - not easy work at such high elevation. A few feet from the road is the little path you can take to the official high point of the island. Coming from Kona and 85+ degrees at sea level to 13796 feet in two hours can be quite disconcerting for your level of acclimitization. Go slow and have warm clothes. People come up here and ski during the winter - no lifts, high altitudes, probably not many runs:-l
Most people will be renting a car when they come to the Islands on vacation. They are warned that insurance coverage does not cover the Saddle Road. The road is actually a fine road, a little narrow but no worse than many in your neighborhood. You are a long ways away from a service station out here though.
From about the midpoint of the Saddle Road (which goes approx from Waimea to Hilo, over the 'saddle' between the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes), another road heads north, slow but sure, up the northern slopes of Mauna Kea. It is a good gravel road, a bit steep, and four wheel drive might be a good thing. There is a parking lot at about 9000 feet - that makes a popular stop for star watching - it is nearby the housing area used by astronomers working higher on the mountain. Higher on the mountain, the road is paved, so as to minimize dust around the huge telescopes atop the peak. For nice pictures of the telescopes themselves, see TropicDiver's Hawaii, Big Island Page. The view out over the Big Island landscape gets more amazing the higher up you go. The idea and shape of a 'shield' volcano is there for you to see in the shape of Mauna Loa to the south.
A view of Mouna Kea with its snow on top, can be seen from saddle road. Mauna Kea is Hawaii's higest mountain. There is an observatory at the top.