stargazing, mauna kea, big island, hawaii

MaunaKea Stargazing guide for the Big Island of Hawaii

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Hawaii is one of the world’s best places for stargazing. There are many stargazing options you can fit in your itinerary on the Big Island; from a (free) nighttime picnic to an adventurous visit to the world-class telescopes on the summit of MaunaKea. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s most advanced telescopes are built on the Big Island. Few places on earth are better for watching the heavens above than atop MaunaKea! On top of the mountain above the clouds, observing conditions are close to perfect, with almost no light pollution and little air above.

If you like stargazing you should have a look at our 2017 astronomy calendar for the Big Island.

Our complete Maunakea visiting guide is quite a read. If you don’t have the time to read it all please use the following menu to jump ahead to the information that interests you most:

To the native Hawaiians, the summit of MaunaKea is a sacred place. It is the place where their gods live – it is their “heaven”. If you decide to visit the summit, please be respectful!

sunset, mauna kea, subaru, keck, hawaii, stargazing
Telescopes of the MaunaKea Observatory, Hawaii. Visible are: the Subaru Telescope, the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

How to go to the summit of MaunaKea

A visit to the Big Island is not complete without some serious stargazing, and it is easy to fit a visit into your schedule. The drive to MaunaKea takes you over the Saddle road, that connects Kona and Hilo. There is the possibility to visit the telescopes during the day, but the most spectacular option is to visit the summit during sunset. You will see the sun dip below the clouds in a spectacular explosion of color, framed by (snowy) peaks, old volcanoes, and futuristic telescopes.

mauna kea, stargazing, directions
Directions from Kona (64 mi) and Hilo (43 mi) to the summit of MaunaKea. Be aware that you need to stop at the visitor center for a while to help your body acclimatize to the large altitude difference between Kona/Hilo and the summit (13,800 ft). Image credit: OMKM

There are several possibilities to visit the peak of MaunaKea: [1] With your own transport, and [2], with an organized tour.

Regardless of how you choose to go up, you will have to make a stop at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy to acclimatize your body to the decreased availability of oxygen. This center is located ~halfway up the Maunakea volcano.

Map with telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea
Map with telescopes on the summit of MaunaKea

The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station

This isthe visitor center for the telescopes on MaunaKea and is named after the Hawaiʻi-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

The center shows a video about astronomy and has a small souvenir shop with many good souvenirs. On your way up you can rest here for a while and get your body used to the low oxygen content of the air. If you stop here on your way down at dark you can watch the stars through two telescopes and under the supervision of local volunteer astronomers!

You can reach the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy with any car. However, you need good breaks and a 4WD car to navigate the steep and winding gravel road to the summit! (back to top)

Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, stargazing, big island
A view of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station on the ascent of MaunaKea, taken from a Pu’u at the 9300 ft. level. Credit: Madereugeneandrew – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

[1] Organize your visit yourself

If you are organizing your trip up the mountain yourself, there are a few things you should consider.

  1. You will need a 4WD car to drive to the summit of MaunaKea, but not all 4WD rental agencies allow their cars to be taken up to MaunaKea! Have a look at Harpers Car Rentals for cars you can take up to the summit. The Onizuka visitor center is reachable with normal (2-wheel drive) cars.
  2. You will not be able to ‘look through’ the telescopes on the summit. After dark, the summit is off-limits and visitors are expected to drive down directly after the sunset.
  3.  However, the Subaru telescope organizes visits to its telescope during daytime. There is limited availability but especially if you like planning ahead this could be something for you. See the ” visiting the Subaru telescope” website for more information.
  4. The high altitude carries serious health risks! These are discussed later in this article.
  5. If you have been scuba-diving, wait at least 24 hours before going to the summit.
  6. Dress well!! Especially after the sun goes down, temperatures can drop as low as 30 – 40 degrees F!!

Take plenty of water with you and keep drinking, even if you are not thirsty. Take sunscreen. There are free stargazing programs at the visitor center every night of the year between 6 pm and 10 pm and escorted summit tours every Saturday and Sunday. During the free stargazing program you will see a video and be able to use any of the telescopes set up outside the visitor center after sunset. The summit tour leaves from the visitor center at 1 pm and lets you see the inside of at least one MaunaKea observatory! Afterwards you can stay at the summit until sunset and then slowly drive down for the free stargazing program.

Depart on time! Driving times from Hilo or Waimea to the visitor center are about 1 hour and another 30 to 45 minutes from there to the summit. Take the Saddle Road (Hwy. 200) from Hwy. 190. At Mile marker 28 across from the Hunter’s Check-in station is the unmarked Summit Road Turnoff.  People usually start getting light-headed after the 9,600-foot marker (about 6 1/4 miles up the Summit Rd.), the site of the last comfort zone and the Onizuka Visitor Information Station. Stop here for a while before continuing up the mountain.

Sunset from Mauna Kea
Sunsets from the MaunaKea summit are without exception breathtaking. Here you can see the JCMT and CSO telescopes, a snowy cinder cone and the sun setting below the clouds (not the ocean!)

If you do not have a 4WD car, the drive up to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is also very worthwhile. The drive up Saddle Road offers stunning views and is an attraction on its own. (back to top)

[2] Join a professional tour to Mauna Kea

If you decide to go on an organized tour, you have very good options. Most operators use very knowledgeable guides and pack their own telescopes. This means that next to a visit to the summit at sunset, you will get to experience a personal lesson in stargazing from your guide. They also supply arctic parka’s to keep you warm, and snacks and water. Expect to be away for an average of 8 hours. We recommend the professionals of Hawaii forest and trail and those of Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Both companies employ knowledgeable and interpretive guides and respect the local customs and habitats. (back to top)

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The sunsets from MaunaKea are out of this world, making a trip to the summit even more attractive

[3]: Tours to the MaunaKea summit for Hawai’i residents

Kama‘āina Observatory Experience is a free monthly community event that provides local residents with an opportunity to visit the summit, see world-class telescopes, and learn about the mountain in a holistic manner. It is organized by the Maunakea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Tours are scheduled every third Saturday of the month for individuals 16 and older with a valid Hawai‘i ID. You will need to show your Hawaii state ID or Hawaii drivers license on the day of the tour.

Reservations are required and will be available on a first come, first served basis, with a maximum of 24 available reservations per tour date. The maximum group size per reservation is 2 people.

Read more about the Kama‘āina Observatory Experience.

Health Hazards while visiting MaunaKea

At the summit elevation of 13,796 feet the atmospheric pressure is 40 percent lower than at sea level. This means that less oxygen is available to your lungs and that acute mountain sickness can strike. Symptoms of mountain sickness include: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. A proper 1-hour acclimatization at the visitor center halfway up the mountain will lessen your chances 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,
  • vomiting,
  • breathing difficulties,
  • coughing,
  • blue lips or fingernails,
  • disorientation,
  • 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. (back to top)

Which spelling is correct: Mauna Kea or MaunaKea?

Both Mauna Kea and Maunakea refer to the same place on the Big Island. Regardless of the spelling people will know what you mean by using either of the two versions.

According to the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Hawaiian Language and following traditional Hawaiian values and the Hawaiian language, MaunaKea (one word) is the correct designation.  Maunakea is a proper noun—the name of the mountain on the Island of Hawaii. “Mauna Kea” spelled as two words refers to any white mountain—it is a common noun (vs. the proper noun) [source].