Are you planning a visit to the Mauna Kea summit for the sunset of your life on your next Big Island adventure? Then this post is for you.
Our whole trip to Hawaii has been inspired by the snowy Mauna Kea and its iconic white-dome stargazing telescopes. To this day, watching sunset atop this ancient volcano is one of the most cherished memories from all of our travels.
Where is Mauna Kea and Why It’s So Amazing?
Located on the Big Island, Mauna Kea is one of the five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii. Revered across the world alongside its counterpart, Mauna Loa, it reaches over 13,800ft above sea level in height making it the tallest volcano on earth.
If measured from the bottom base in the ocean right up to the top, it would be the tallest peak on the planet, twice as tall as Mount Everest. Amazing, right?
It will take you over an hour or so to reach Mauna Kea from Kona, Hilo or Waimea (Kamuela). As always, we recommend saving your destination on Google maps on your smartphone before heading out and then following the instructions.
It’s a Living Mountain with Every Kind of Climate Zone
It’s a one-million-year-old volcano that has last been active just 4,600 years ago. It is considered a dormant volcano, but not entirely extinct.
Mauna Kea is pretty incredible. It has nearly every kind of climate zone from tropical and rainforests to alpine desert.
Flora and fauna here are quite remarkable, but the winds, snow, and rain are the main factors that are constantly affecting and eroding Mauna Kea’s fragile ecosystem.
One of the most impressive surviving plants is Ahinahina (aka Silversword) – a plant, that grows on the slopes of Mauna Kea and the East Maui volcano Haleakala!
The Hawaiian word “ahinahina” means “grey-grey” and was the best description of this rather beautiful plant by a society that didn’t know metals.
When you get to the Visitor Information Station, pay attention to the surroundings. It sits in the subalpine forest, surrounded by native Hawaiian Mamane trees.
Hot Chocolate and Stargazing
When heading to the summit, leave enough time to visit the Mauna Kea Information Station.
The staff here are very welcoming and knowledgeable and Mauna Kea rangers will do their best to answer all your questions.
We really enjoyed snooping around and investigating the interactive displays. There’s also tea, coffee, soup, hot chocolate, and astronomy books you can buy.
But mostly we enjoyed the stargazing activity after getting back to the centre from the summit of Mauna Kea. We sipped hot chocolate and looked at the stars through massive telescopes operated by staff and volunteers. It was so much fun!
You can stargaze at the information station on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 6pm – 10pm (weather permitting). Beware that parking is available for up to 115-vehicles on a first-come, first served basis.
The Maunakea Visitor Information Station opening hours: 12pm-10pm every day, all year round.
Will You Need a Four-Wheel to Drive to the Mauna Kea Summit?
There are four ways to get to the summit.
1. Rent a Four-Wheel Drive Car
If you are planning to visit Mauna Kea independently, definitely rent a four-wheel-drive car. This way you will be allowed to drive all the way to the clouds.
The road to the summit is steep graded-gravel road so a four-by-four Jeep is the safest option for independent travellers.
Anyone other vehicles will not be allowed to continue past the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station for safety reasons.
You should also check your vehicle rental company policy to see whether driving up the Mauna Kea summit is allowed.
Alternatively, consult the salesperson just to be on the safe side. Otherwise, you are risking incurring a financial penalty should anything happen to the car while you are at Mauna Kea.
2. Take a Mauna Kea summit Tour
Tours usually take about 8 hours, including food breaks and cost over $200 per person. For more information on what’s included on the day, you can check out the Mauna Kea Summit Adventures website.
If we are completely honest, we were happy the tour didn’t work out for us due to all of them being fully booked. We got to experience Mauna Kea on our own terms and much cheaper. We will tell you how we did it in a moment.
However, we realise that not everyone is up for independent adventures. If you are unsure about driving up the volcano yourself then we advise you to book a tour and enjoy it stress-free.
There are no shuttles or tours operating from the Visitor Information Station so you will have to organise it yourself.
3. Hitchhike to the Summit
The Mauna Kea Information Station is located at around 3 km high and can be accessed by a two-wheel vehicle. Once arrived, park your car and stick your thumbs out.
But remember that the road to the Information Centre is pretty steep and really foggy so be careful and look out for invisible cows!
Although it was pretty fun, we struggled a lot to get our tiny rental to the parking lot. So please be careful and if you feel like your car is giving up, turn around and stay safe. Otherwise, see you at the summit!
4. Hike the 8-Hour Trail
The Mauna Kea hiking trail is six miles long and starts at the Visitor Information Station.
The hike can take around 8 hours or longer, depending on your fitness level. Make sure you have enough time to reach and leave the summit before it gets too dark.
You should read the instructions on hiking to the peak of Mauna Kea carefully to stay safe.
Thinking of Getting to the Summit of Mauna Kea Independently?
This is our story of success and one of the most cherished moments from our island hopping in Hawaii (aside from getting hitched on Kauai).
Getting up the steep volcano in our teeny-tiny rental was challenging enough never mind the invisible cows! But we managed to reach the information centre safely.
It felt like we reached the top of the world. However, the one thing that we haven’t considered was the freezing temperatures. So here’s our advice – layer up!
We soon started realising that we are slightly underprepared for our adventure in Hawaii, epic fail!
But no worries, the ever so helpful Visitor Information Centre has a range of warm clothes you can buy if you find yourself stuck. We just layered every piece of clothing we found in the car boot and headed for the road to hitchhike.
We were lucky enough to be picked up by a lovely Swiss couple seconds after sticking our thumbs-up. Soon enough we were ascending through the clouds, having a pleasant chat and exchanging our experiences about the island. Priceless!
So the secret to being picked up quickly is to stay in small groups of two or three people, and smile!
Another tip is to agree the approximate meet-up time back at the car, otherwise, you will have to hitchhike another lift down the volcano! Maybe note down their number plate just in case; there will be many cars parked.
Also, be nice and treat your driver to a cup of hot chocolate as a thank you gesture back at the information centre.
Mauna Kea in the Daylight, What’s There to Do?
If you are visiting the volcano during the day, you can visit an Observatory. There are 13 international observatories at Mauna Kea supported by 11 different countries. They are the largest and the most powerful telescopes in the world founded to carry out research into the stars.
You can also hike to the Summit of Lake Waiau, the 6th highest lake in the US and a sacred site in Hawaiian culture.
Or maybe snowboard?
Snowboarding on Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea means “White Mountain” due to the snow that can be found at the pinnacle of the volcano. While we haven’t tried, you can snowboard and ski on Mauna Kea, but you’ll have to bring your own gear.
Of course, these kind of outdoors activities on The Big Island are super risky and we wouldn’t recommend it to newbies. Maybe just slide about carefully on your feet and enjoy the snow, as we did.
There is no supervision or any equipment to help you get there so really, you’re on your own.
What’s the Weather Like at the Crown of Mauna Kea?
Mauna Kea gets a lot of snow during the winter months so it’s always a good idea to check the weather forecast before visiting the summit independently.
We visited Mauna Kea in February and were lucky to avoid any road closures. You can check National Weather Service or the Mauna Kea Weather Centre for weather updates.
Am I Going to Be Sick at the Peak of Mauna Kea?
Apart from the views across the clouds, be prepared for altitude sickness. We recommend stopping at the information centre to adjust to the temperature and altitude before heading any further.
The oxygen here is 40% thinner than at sea level and that makes you feel pretty dizzy and uncoordinated.
You sort of getting used to it after a while, but still, it always feels as if you’ve been running uphill and need to catch your breath.
Best Time to Visit Mauna Kea
The best time to get the summit of Mauna Kea is just before sunset. But make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy it because you will have to leave the volcano soon after the sun goes down.
It goes without saying that sunsets at Mauna Kea are wonderful, painted in deep yellow and purple colours against the baby blue sky. It was a dream come true for us and hands down the best sunset to date!
Here’s What You Should Remember Before Visiting:
- Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed to travel above the Maunakea Visitor Information Station.
- When driving up Mauna Kea make sure your headlights are on at all times.
- Fill up the tank before the journey, there’s no petrol station at the visitor centre.
- Dress warmly.
- Parking can get crowded, so be patient.
- If your vehicle becomes disabled, immediately inform the Maunakea Rangers at (808) 961 2180.
- The visiting hours to the summit are from 1/2 hour before sunrise until 1/2 hour after sunset.
- For your own safety, leave the peak soon after the sunset.
- A Special Use permit is required for groups of 10 or more.
- Off-road driving is prohibited. Remember that Mauna Kea is a sensitive environment, so please treat it with respect.
- Stargaze at the Visitor Information Station.
- Buy hot chocolate for yourself and your driver if hitchhiking.
- Hiking to the summit? Be fully prepared.
- Do not litter.
Have you been to the summit of Mauna Kea? How did you get there? Let us know in the comments below…