stargazing, mauna kea, big island, hawaii

Stargazing on MaunaKea: DIY guide + summit tours

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The Big Island of Hawai’i is a fantastic place for looking at the stars and is home to some of the world’s best telescopes. There are many ways in which you can fit stargazing in your itinerary: from a (free) nighttime picnic to an adventurous visit to the summit of MaunaKea.

In this stargazing guide we give plenty of background on MaunaKea and explain how you can visit the Maunakea visitor center and/or see the telescopes and sunset at the summit.

If you like stargazing you should definitely have a look at our 2017 astronomy calendar for the Big Island to see if there is any good excuse to look up at the stars during your stay in Hawai’i.

Going to the MaunaKea summit: DIY visit or with a summit tour

If you like looking at the stars or telescopes a visit to the Big Island is not complete without some serious stargazing. What better place to do so than on the highest volcano in the state?

The trip to MaunaKea takes you over Saddle road, which is the road that connects Waimea and Hilo.

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 (13,796 ft). Image credit: OMKM

You can visit the telescopes at the summit during daytime and stay for up to 30 minutes after the sun has set. Maunakea is one of the best places to see the sunset on Hawai’i, and considering the competition that says a lot!

You will see the sun dip below the clouds in a spectacular explosion of color, framed by (snowy) peaks, old volcanoes, and futuristic telescopes.

sunset, mauna kea, subaru, keck, hawaii, stargazing
Telescopes of the MaunaKea Observatory, Hawaii. From left to right: the Subaru Telescope, the W. M. Keck Observatory (2 domes), and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility

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 (a snow goddess) lives.

There are several possibilities to visit the peak of MaunaKea:

  1. Go to the summit with your own transport,
  2. Visit the summit with an organized tour.

1: Organize your visit to MaunaKea yourself

There are two logical destinations on MaunaKea if you want to visit for stargazing. The first one is the visitor station halfway up the volcano, the second one 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 car with good breaks 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)

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 you have to follow Hwy 200 (Saddle road) until you get to the Mauna Kea access road (around mile marker 28, across the street from the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder cone parking lot) and follow that road up. The visitor center is located ~halfway up the Maunakea 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.

In the visitor center you can watch a video about astronomy. There also is information on display about the Maunakea volcano and a small souvenir shop where you can buy souvenirs, hot and cold drinks, and snacks.

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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

Drive up to the MaunaKea summit

You can drive up all the way to the summit during daytime if the weather is good and if you have the proper car. Please take the following things into account:

  1. The summit is at 4,205 m (13,796 ft) elevation. This high altitude carries serious health risks, most of which can be minimized by stopping for at least half an hour at the visitor station to acclimatize.
  2. You 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 that you can drive up to the summit.
  3. You will not be able to use the telescopes on the summit or to enter the buildings. After sunset the summit is off-limits and visitors are expected to drive down soon after the sun has set.
  4.  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.
  5. If you have been scuba-diving, wait at least 24 hours before going to the summit.
  6. Dress warm!! After the sunset temperatures can drop as low as 30 – 40 degrees F. Also, bring snacks, sunscreen, and water.
Map with telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea
Map with telescopes on the summit of MaunaKea

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Free stargazing program at the VIS

At night, local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes outside of the visitor 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 / 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 is a special stargazing program every 1st, 2nd, and 4th Saturday of the month.

Please be aware of the possibility of long lines and scarce parking at the Visitor Information Station 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.

2: Mauna Kea Summit Tours

There are a few tour operators that are allowed to tours people up to the MaunaKea summit. Most operators employ knowledgeable guides and bring their own, portable, telescopes. This means that next to a visit to the summit during the sunset you will get to experience a personal lesson in stargazing from your guide.

The tours 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.

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.

stargazing, mauna kea, big island, hawaii
The sunsets from MaunaKea are out of this world, making a trip to the summit even more attractive

Tours to the MaunaKea summit for Hawai’i 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 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.
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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!)

MaunaKea facts and trivia

MaunaKea erupted last more than 4000 years ago and is not considered an active volcano anymore.  The MaunaKea summit is the highest point of the state of Hawai’i, 13.796 ft above sea level. There have even been glaciers on the volcano during colder periods. (source)

The story of Maunakea gets better. Because the volcanoes on the Big Island are so heavy and because a large part of the volcanoes is hidden 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 13020 ft: lake Waiau.

lake waiau, big island, mauna kea
Lake Waiau is located on Mauna Kea, more than 13.000 ft above sea level. It is one of very few lakes in the state of Hawaiʻi

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 above than from MaunaKea! On top of the mountain 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].

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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 some people may experience acute mountain sickness.

Symptoms of mountain sickness include: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. A proper 1-hour stop (at least 0.5 hours) at the visitor center halfway up the mountain will let your body acclimatize and 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.

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