The Big Island is a fantastic place for looking at the stars and hosts some of the world’s best telescopes. This makes stargazing a natural thing to do while on Hawaii island and there are a few obvious thing you can do to fit it into your itinerary, ranging from a (free) nighttime picnic to an adventurous sunset visit to the summit of MaunaKea.
Table of contents
- How to visit Maunakea:
- Learn about MaunaKea
- Health hazards at high elevation
Table of Contents
- How to visit Maunakea:
- Learn about MaunaKea
- Health hazards at high elevation
In this stargazing guide we give background information on MaunaKea, and explain how you can visit the Maunakea Visitor Center and/or see the telescopes and sunset at the summit. Use the table of contents above to jump ahead to the information that interests you most, and see the four most frequently asked questions (and answers) below:
Yes, but not with any car and only during daylight hours. On the road from the visitor center to the summit only 4WD vehicles are allowed, and the summit is off-limits from half and hour after sunset. Read more about driving to the summit here.
Yes! At 9,200ft (2,800m) elevation the visitor center is a great place for stargazing, especially if you visit during the free weekly stargazing events (currently unavailable due to COVID restrictions). The drive over Saddle Road and up to the visitor center is also highly worth it, and shows a beautiful side of Hawaiʻi. Scroll down to read more about going to the visitor center.
After being blocked most of the year 2019 during protests against the construction of a new telescope, the MaunaKea summit road is now open again.
No 2-wheel drive vehicles will be allowed past the end of the paved road just above the VIS. Most 4WD rental agencies (except Harper’s Car and Truck rental) do not allow their vehicles to be taken up to MaunaKea. Harper’s, however, is now closed. The easiest and safest way to go to the summit is to join a tour.
By the way: if you like stargazing you should definitely have a look at our astronomy calendar for the Big Island to see if there is a good excuse to look up at the stars during your stay in Hawaiʻi.
How to visit the MaunaKea summit: DIY or with a summit tour
If you enjoy looking at the stars, a visit to the Big Island is not complete without some serious stargazing. What better place to do so than from the highest volcano in the state? Going to the summit requires a 4WD car and good driving skills, so many people prefer joining a tour to the summit. We discuss both possibility below:
- Drive to the summit yourself
- Organized Tours to the summit of MaunaKea
- Summit tours for Hawai’i residents
You can visit the telescopes at the summit during daytime and stay for up to 30 minutes after the sun has set. Maunakea also is one of the best places to see the sunset on Hawaiʻi, and considering the competition that says a lot! You can see the sun dip below the clouds in a spectacular explosion of color, framed by (snowy) peaks, old volcanoes, and futuristic world class telescopes.
If you decide to visit the summit, please be respectful. To Hawaiians the summit of MaunaKea is sacred: it is the place where Poli‘ahu (the goddess of snow) lives.
1: Organize your visit to MaunaKea yourself
There are two logical destinations on MaunaKea if you want to visit for stargazing:  the visitor station halfway up the volcano, and , the telescopes at the summit.
You can reach the visitor station with any car. To get all the way to the summit you need a 4WD vehicle with good brakes to navigate the steep and winding gravel road to the summit.
We discuss how to get to both places using your own transport below:
Going to the MaunaKea Visitor Information Station (MKVIS)
Important: the visitor center re-opened again in July 2021 but is still operating under modified daily hours: between 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The visitor information station (official website) is officially called the “Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station,” and is named after the Hawaiʻi-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
To reach the visitor station follow Hwy 200 (Saddle Road) until you get to the Mauna Kea access road (around mile marker 28, across the street from the Puʻu Huluhulu Cinder cone parking lot) and follow that road up. The visitor center is located ~halfway up the volcano at 9,200 ft elevation. Make sure that you have a full tank of gas before you start the ascent, as the nearest gas stations are ~35 miles (50 km) from the visitor station.
The purpose of the visitor center is to educate the visitors on the cultural importance of the mountain. You can also watch a video about astronomy in the center, and find a small shop where you can buy souvenirs, hot and cold drinks, and snacks.
Free stargazing program at the VIS
Important: Due to COVID restrictions the free star gazing program is currently NOT offered.
At night, local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes outside of the station and let visitors use them under supervision as part of their free nightly stargazing program (official website).
The stargazing program is organized four nights per week between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm. These nights are: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (weather permitting), and reservations are not needed. There are special stargazing program events some Saturdays. Check out the link for details.
Please be aware of the possibility of long lines and scarce parking at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) on these evenings until ~1.5 hours after sunset. Parking at the VIS is available for up to 115-vehicles on a first-come, first-served basis. Once the parking lots are full, all vehicles will be turned away.
Did you know that you can actually see more stars from the visitor station than from the Maunakea summit? Your vision at the summit is less acute because of the lack of oxygen there, meaning you can see less stars even though your are at higher elevation. Telescopes are obviously not bothered by a lack of oxygen so the summit *is* the best place for them.
Driving to the MaunaKea summit (7 things to know)
You can drive up all the way to the summit during daytime if the weather is good and if you have the proper vehicle. Please take the following things into account when doing so:
- Stop for at least half an hour at the visitor station to acclimatize to the altitude. The summit is at 4,205 m (13,796 ft) elevation and high altitude carries serious health risks, most of which can be mitigated by a short stop.
- You need a 4WD vehicle to drive to the summit of MaunaKea. No 2-wheel drive vehicles are allowed past the end of the paved road just above the VIS. Most 4WD rental agencies do not allow their vehicles to be taken up to MaunaKea but have a look at Harpers Car Rentals for rental cars that you can take up to the summit.
- Sometimes the summit road is closed due to bad weather. The observatories at the Mauna Kea summit maintain a website showing the conditions of the road up to the summit. Please have a look here to see if the road is open and to find out what conditions you can expect. High winds, ice, and snow on the road are all within the realm of possibility.
- You cannot use the telescopes on the summit or to enter the buildings. ~30 minutes after sunset the summit becomes off-limits and visitors are expected to drive down.
- 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.
- Scuba diving and high altitude visits are extremely incompatible. Wait at least 24 hours before going to the summit after you have been scuba-diving. Snorkeling is no problem.
- Dress warm! After the sunset temperatures can drop as low as 30-40 degrees F (between -1 and +4 Celsius). Also, make sure to bring enough snacks, sunscreen, and water.
In the following informative 6-minute video you can see how two Oʻahu residents, Devon and Irina, make it to the Mauna Kea summit themselves:
2: MaunaKea Summit and Stargazing Tours
There are currently seven tour operators that are permitted to take people to the MaunaKea summit. These operators are guaranteed to employ knowledgeable guides and bring their own portable telescopes. This means that you will get to experience a personal lesson in stargazing from a seasoned expert, next to a visit to the summit during the sunset.
Tours typically supply arctic parkas and thick gloves to keep you warm, snacks, and water. Depending on the tour you choose, dinner can also be included. Expect the tour to last an average of 8 hours.
Our favorite tours are organized by the professionals of Hawaii Forest and Trail because they employ knowledgeable and interpretive guides and respect the local customs and habits:
Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Experience
A stargazing journey from sea level to the nearly 14,000 foot summit of Maunakea reveals the wonders and world-class clarity of the Hawaiian night sky. This tour lets you see the sunset among some of the world's best telescopes and then takes you for a private star show at 9000 ft. with an 11” Celestron telescope.
Duration: 7 to 8 hours
Free cancellation: up to 24 hours before tour
The complete list of permitted commercial tour companies is (last updated: June 2021 from source):
- Hawaii Forest & Trail (more information on our website)
- Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (website)
- Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Adventures (website)
- Hawaiian Haoles, inc. dba Hawaiian Eyes Tours (website)
- Robert’s Hawaii Tours (currently not organizing their own tours)
- Taikobo Hawaii (English and Japanese language tours)
- Super Vacation Hawaii LLC (LA based travel agency and wholesaler, website)
Stargazing tours that don’t go to the summit
A stargazing tour does not need to include a visit to the summit. While a summit visit obviously offers added value, including it in a tour is also a trade-off with tour duration. For both types of tours the stargazing itself happens at comparable elevation (so the quality of the night sky is the same), but tours that go to the summit must leave there within 30 minutes after sunset, and thus their stargazing always happens early in the night. Because this tour doesn’t have to sunset constraint we can organize our tours late at night which helps (A) to see many interesting night sky objects and (B) to avoid almost all of the other tour companies, giving you a more private and unique experience.
Another advantage of not going to the summit is that all ages are welcome. Tours to the summit in comparison only allow 13+ year olds.
We highly recommend the following 2-hour long small group tour that gets GREAT reviews from all of their customers, who are especially happy with his storytelling, love of astronomy, knowledgeable explanations of objects in the sky, and photographic expertise.
Mauna Kea Stargazing Experience + Free Photos
Explore remote Mars-like locations on Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa for a unique stargazing experience unlike any other. This small group tour is led by an analog-astronaut/astrophotographer that takes free professional photos of you and your group.
Duration: 2 hours
By: Epic Tours
Free cancellation: up to 48 hours before tour
Tours to the MaunaKea summit for Hawaiʻi residents
The 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 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.
MaunaKea facts and trivia
MaunaKea last erupted more than 4,000 years ago and is no longer considered an active volcano. The MaunaKea summit is the highest point of the state of Hawai’i at 13,796 ft above sea level. There have even been glaciers on the volcano during past colder periods. (source)
The story of Maunakea gets better. Because the volcanoes on the Big Island are so heavy and because large parts of them are under water, MaunaKea is actually higher than Mount Everest. Measured from the base on the ocean floor, MaunaKea rises over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) high!
If you are in for a hike at high altitude, you can also make a short excursion to the highest lake in the state at 1,3020 ft: Lake Waiau.
List of observatories on the MaunaKea summit
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 than from MaunaKea! On top of the mountain and above the clouds, observing conditions are close to perfect, with almost no light pollution and a thin atmosphere between the telescopes and the stars.
The following list contains all the telescopes that are currently in operation on the MaunaKea summit. You can find more information on each of them on this website.
- Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO)
- Canada France Hawai’i Telescope (CFHT)
- Gemini North Telescope
- Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF)
- James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)
- Subaru Telescope
- Sub-Millimeter Array (SMA)
- United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT)
- University of Hawai’i 88-inch (2.2 m) telescope (UH88)
- University of Hawai’i 36-inch (910 mm) telescope (Hoku Kea)
- One receiver of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)
- W. M. Keck Observatory
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].
Safety tips for visiting MaunaKea
The MaunaKea summit at an elevation of 13,796 feet (4205 meters) is an extreme environment with an atmospheric pressure 40 percent lower compared to sea level. People visiting the summit may experience altitude sickness, which is triggered by rapid exposure to lower oxygen levels.
Good to know: a 1-hour stop at the visitor center halfway up the mountain will let your body acclimatize and greatly decreases the chance that you’ll experience altitude sickness while going to the summit.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Your age, gender, or physical fitness do not affect your likelihood of getting altitude sickness, and altitude sickness can become a medical emergency if ignored. If you are experiencing any symptoms of altitude sickness you should stop and rest where you are to acclimatize to the altitude. See this resource to learn more about the symptoms, treatment, and prevention of altitude sickness.
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 you experience any of the following symptoms:
- severe headaches,
- breathing difficulties,
- blue lips or fingernails,
- extreme drowsiness that may lead to coma.
At the summit the radiation from the sun is stronger and the air dryer. This means that dehydration, sunburn, and eye damage are all possible especially when you spend more time at the summit (for example when hiking to lake Waiau). Bring plenty of water and protect your skin and eyes against the intense UV radiation at the summit with sunscreen and sunglasses.