Surreal. That is the only way I can describe my experience at Mauna Kea.
I recently got back from my second trip to the Big Island. The one thing that I had to do when I was on the Big Island was go to Mauna Kea. I got to watch the sunset from above the clouds and watch the stars come out. I saw the huge telescopes that make incredible discoveries. It was one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever done in my entire life.
Mauna Kea means White Mountain, named because of the snow that covers its summit. While snow falls in the winter, which can impact your ability to visit, in June, there was no snow to be found.
Mauna Kea reaches 14,000 above sea level and is technically the tallest mountain in the world.
Everyone calls Mount Everest the highest mountain in the world because it has the highest elevation above sea level. But as an island, Mauna Kea reaches deep onto the ocean floor. If you measure Mauna Kea from its bottom on the ocean floor to its peak above the clouds, it’s the tallest mount in the world.
Planning My Visit
I did some research about Mauna Kea and ultimately decided to go with a guided tour.
Anyone can drive up to the Visitor Information Station, which is open from 12:00 pm. to 10:00 p.m. every day of the year. But it’s a steep road, and most rental cars are not allowed to drive to the summit of Mauna Kea, where the observatories are and where the sunset is the best.
I decided to go with a tour group for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know how difficult the roads would be to drive on. I didn’t want to have to worry about driving. Also, I wanted to see the sunset from the highest mountain in the world. I felt like it would be anticlimactic to go all that way and not reach the top.
Our tour guide told us to pack plenty of water, food, warm clothes, and a camera. Drinking plenty of water can help you prevent or minimize altitude sickness. It also gets cold at 14,000 feet above sea level, so long pants and jackets are a must.
With our jeans on, sandwiches made, and backpacks full, we met our tour guide at 3:00 pm. At 3:30 pm, a group of nine of us left in her van. Since I tend to get car sick, I sat in the front next to our tour guide. She told us Hawaiian stories, history, and legends during the entire drive and made us feel safe and comfortable.
On the way to Mauna Kea, we first stopped at Rainbow Falls, one of the most accessible waterfalls on the island. We spent about 15 minutes here enjoying the waterfall and using the restroom before our hour drive.
Driving up Mauna Kea
After about an hour, we reached the base of Mauna Kea. It was a 6-mile drive up from the start of the mountain to the Visitor Information Station. Our tour guide wanted us to stay at the Visitor Information Station for one hour so that we could acclimate to the lower altitude.
Our tour guide told us that if we began to feel sick from the altitude, we should let her know. She had oxygen with her and was trained to administer it. Luckily, no one in our party felt sick.
While we were at the Visitor Information Station, I put on my long sleeve shirt. It was slightly chilly at the top, but the sun kept me warm. We went inside to view a short video about Mauna Kea. Our tour guide told us that the best way to acclimatize to the higher altitude was to walk around and drink water, so that is exactly what we did. Then, we sat down at a picnic bench to eat our sandwiches and drink the hot chocolate that our tour guide gave us.
After an hour, our tour guide told us it was time to get back into the van to go to the summit.
Sunset at the Summit
It was a long and windy road to get to the summit from the Visitor Information Station. Part of the road is all gravel and very bumpy. I was glad I wasn’t driving!
After a while, we reached the summit. I could not believe how big the telescopes up there were. Our tour guide gave us heavy jackets, which I put over the jacket I brought with me. It was cold up there, but watching the sunrise from above the clouds was worth it. There were a lot of people, but it still felt serene, peaceful, and quiet.
As soon as the sun went down, we had to leave the summit. The lights from the cars interfere with the telescopes.
After we got few miles down the road and the sky was dark, our tour guide pulled over to show us the stars.
Our tour guide brought us to an incredible area and was extremely knowledgeable about the constellations and the legends. It was breathtaking to see so many stars all at once and to be able to see so many constellations. I also loved hearing about the Hawaiian legends about the constellations and how the Hawaiians used the stars to navigate.
Tips for visiting Mauna Kea
The Maunakea Visitor Information Station provides some important safety information about visiting, which I think is worth repeating here.
If you are planning to visit the summit, it is highly recommended that you stop at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 ft to receive a current weather update, safety information, and to adjust to the change in altitude for at least 30 minutes.
Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours, so altitude sickness is a strong possibility. At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain.Anyone in poor health should consult their physician before planning a visit to Mauna Kea.
Anyone who is pregnant should not go further than the Visitor Information Station. People under the age of 16 should not go any further because their bodies are still developing and they are affected more rapidly when going to a high altitude. If you plan to scuba dive, do not plan to come up the mountain within 24 hours after your dive. Furthermore, it is recommended that anyone with a heart or respiratory problem does not to travel above the visitor’s center.
Visit the Maunakea Visitor Information Station’s website for more information at https://hilo.hawaii.edu/maunakea/visitor-information/
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