Go Stargazing at the top of Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea Stargazing Program
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) is open for limited hours due to Covid. Currently 11:30 am to 7 pm, these hours are subject to change, please
check the VIS website here for updates.
Visitors can still drive to the summit (a 4wd vehicle is a must) for hiking and sunset views, and many tours to the area will continue. With many of the Mauna Kea tour companies actually providing telescope viewing as part of their experience, they become an even more appealing option during this time. Also several of the companies will let you meet them on the mountain and you can drive your own vehicle to the VIS if you aren’t comfortable being in a group.
All About the Mauna Kea Stargazing Program
Free, fun, and a perfect cap to your Big Island vacation, the Mauna Kea stargazing program at the summit of Hawaii’s tallest volcano provides visitors a guided educational opportunity to learn more about the observatories present on the volcano while helping amateur stargazers find the best views of the heavens above. Positioned at 9,200 feet above sea level, the trip up the mountain from the coast can be a staggering one – the Mauna Kea visitor center recommends guests take a break halfway up to acclimate themselves to the altitude change before proceeding further.
Those that make the journey are rewarded with world-class looks at the stars above, which quickly explains why so many countries have installed astronomical observatories at the Mauna Kea summit. Due to the dark skies, lack of artificial light pollution, and low humidity, more than 11 countries have established 13 observatories on the dormant volcano, measuring both visible and infrared light spectrums in addition to submillimeter and radio wavelengths.
Enjoy Guided Stargazing at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station
(This program is not currently offered due to Covid) Normally free and open to the public, the Mauna Kea stargazing program is sponsored by the University of Hawaii and is typically held several evenings per week beginning at 6:00 PM. Those who venture up the slopes of Mauna Kea are advised that a limited number of vehicles can be accommodated at any given time, so once the parking lots are full, late comers will be turned away.
(When this program is running) Kicking things off with an informational documentary at 6:00 PM, guests learn about Mauna Kea, the history of the mountain, and the importance to both the scientific community and to Hawaiian culture. At the conclusion of the video, volunteers set up telescopes and guests are encouraged to take a closer look at the heavens above. Once it gets dark enough, the star tour begins and staff members point out notable features in the sky using a laser pointer.
The program is very popular and reservations can’t be made, so preparing accordingly and having a backup activity in case the parking lot fills up is recommended.
How to Prepare for a Mauna Kea Stargazing Trip
First things first: there are some safety concerns with visiting the Mauna Kea summit. Those who have heart conditions, are pregnant, or have recently been scuba diving are not advised to proceed up to the summit. Remember that the Mauna Kea Visitor Center elevation is 9,200 feet and that Mauna Kea’s summit elevation is 13,803 feet above sea level. The dramatic change in altitude from sea level requires an acclimation period of at least 30 minutes and can be made at any point beyond the halfway mark. If you start feeling dizzy or ill at any point, your best option is to head down the mountain immediately until you begin to feel better, altitude sickness can be very uncomfortable and potentially life threatening.
While the visitor’s center is often considered to be a natural resting spot, many guests proceeding up the mountain from sea level may need an earlier and potentially longer break before reaching the summit. With the renovation of the Mauna Kea Recreation Area on Saddle Road, you now have a great place to stop for a restroom break, stretch your legs and let the kids play at the park while you adapt to the higher elevation, around 6,500 feet above sea level. If you are driving to Mauna Kea from Kona you will pass right by this recreation area, so make a point to stop and enjoy the view and you’ll increase your chance of feeling good on the mountain.
The drive to Mauna Kea summit may not be covered by your rental car agency’s agreement, as some approaches beyond the visitor center require four-wheel drive. Check with your rental agency before proceeding or you may incur fines. Also, there is no gasoline available on Mauna Kea and the nearest gas stations are nearly 35 miles away. Please fuel up before heading up the mountain.
The temperature at Mauna Kea summit changes dramatically after dark and many guests don’t expect freezing temperatures on a Hawaiian vacation. Dressing warmly and bringing extra layers is highly recommended. I always wear pants, hiking shoes, a jacket with both wind and rain protection and a light hat and gloves. Of course, I like to be warm which is why I live in Hawaii. 😉
Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station and Summit Map