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Each time we visit the Big Island, we also go to the summit of Mauna Kea to enjoy the unique sunset  and to view the observatories. The area near the summit  has far more to do with outer space than with anything on Earthl. Visiting Mauna Kea  is much more than a mere chance to watch a beautiful tropical sunset. It is  more like going to Cape Canaveral to view a rocket launch. It is about touching frontiers of our expanding Universe.

Gemini North and UH2.2 at sunset

Gemini North and UH2.2 at sunset

October 4, 2013

The Big Island is created by the activities of  five volcanoes – Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. The sixth one – Lo’ihi is currently busy building a new island near the south coast of the Big Island.

Mauna Kea – a dormant volcano

Mauna Kea Volcanoes

The location and made up of Mauna Kea in Big Island. Mauna Kea makes up 22.8 percent of the island’s surface area. Credit: Wikipedia

Mauna Kea – a site for the world’s most coveted observatories – is a dormant volcano (like Hualalai). The last eruption was ~ 4,500 years ago.  It is now evolved to a post-shield alkalic stage, which  is characterized by a rare but more dramatic explosions. The post-shield stage eruptions usually consist of large volumes of relatively cool, gas-rich, xenolith-rich lava.

These  created numerous cinder cones (or pu’us) which one can see all the way up to the summit.

Mauna Kea Puus

Numerous cinder cones or pu’us followed us all the way to the summit


This is a perfect all day-trip. You can combine it with tours of the fascinating observatories at the top,  a view of the sunset, and the evening stargazing program.

You can drive from Hilo, or Kona, or Waimea (about 43 miles total). With the new and wide  Saddle Road, the drive from Waimea is actually easier and more enjoyable than from Hilo. So now you don’t have to stay in Hilo and get wet to be close to Mauna Kea.

The road to the summit goes through almost every ecosystem on the island.

Thick green vegetation at the Pu'u Huluhulu

Thick green vegetation at the Pu’u Huluhulu

From the tropical rainforest atmosphere of Hilo, or hot and dry Kona, to the Ohi’a forests, through ranch land, and then up to the summit, where little grows and lives and the air is very thin (only 40% of the sea level atmosphere).


Silverswords, rare and endemic for Mauna Kea plants, which were almost extinct but miraculously saved

On a clear day one can see Maui and the neighboring islands as well as the smoke from the active Pu’u O’o vent.

Maui is hidden by  clouds, it was a cloudy day

Maui is hidden by clouds, it was a cloudy day

Getting There

There are two ways to get to the summit of Mauna Kea – from Hilo and from Kona -and both using Saddle Road, from one end or the other.

Saddle road map

Saddle road map

Saddle Road is the road that goes between the East side of the island to the West side of the island, right through the middle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It is a wonderful drive in either direction. It used to be a narrow rural road with a pavement of questionable quality.  But it has been tremendously  improved recently.

Note that before you  reached the Saddle Road, you must have filled up your gas tank – full. There are no services once you get on Saddle Road.

As you head up Saddle Road at some point you leave the populated area and the houses will become more and more rare. At this point Saddle Road might get very misty.  We highly recommend you have your headlights on! At some point the road enters a pristine, native ‘Ohi’a Lehua forest. These beautiful trees with their bright red wispy flowers are unique to Hawai’i and are the official flower of the Big Island.

At 28 mile marker, is the junction of saddle Road with Mauna Kea Access Road, which is the road that leads the summit. While approaching the 28 mile marker you wills see a big and hairy cinder cone – Pu’u Huluhul.

It is the large forest covered cinder cone on the left side of the road (or the right side of the road if your coming from Kona).

Mile 28, Mauna Kea access road, mile 28 on Saddle Road

Mile 28, Mauna Kea access road, mile 28 on Saddle Road

We recommend that you part there and take a side trip to Pu’u Huluhul.

Sitting at the top of Pu’u Huluhulu

Sitting at the top of Pu’u Huluhulu

Turn on the red lava road and drive about 100m to the parking lot near the gate in the fence that surrounds Pu’u Huluhulu. This hill is protected from pigs due to the native plants and birds that live in this Kipuka. Right in front of you is the start of a rugged trail that goes up the side of Pu’u Huluhulu.

Puu HuluHulu Trail

Puu HuluHulu Trail

Know Before You Go

And learn from our mistakes.

  • Read the Visiting the Summit  page from the Visitor Center web site!
  • If you plan to scuba dive, do not plan to go up to the summit within 24 hours after your dive.
  • The road to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center and to the summit might be very foggy. Most of the road below Hale Pohaku is an open cattle range. Be aware of  invisible cows crossing the road.
  • The Visitor Center is located at 2,800 meter altitude, it could be cold there.
  • The  Information Station is open 9am-10pm, 365 days a year.
  • A small shop at the Visitor Center offers a limited amount of food, hot drinks, water, warm  clothing, space snacks, astronomy inspired gifts and paraphernalia.
  • Spend at least 1 hour at the Visitor Center – required. Watch the video they offer, and try hot cocoa and hot soup at the Visitor Center. It helps from cold and dehydration. Astronomers and technicians and all other people must acclimatize, when coming from sea level to work/watch the sunset at the Mauna Kea summit. For this reason,  the mid-level facilities were built in 1982 on Mauna Kea.  Lately, they have been given the name  Onizuka Center for International Astronomy in honor of Ellison Onizuka – an astronaut from the Big Island, who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster. Now it is the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy and the Visitor Information Station.
Solar Telescope

The solar telescope at Mauna Kea Visitor information station. It is pointed to the sun and equipped with filters to view solar corona and solar flares

    • The best ride to the top of Mauna Kea is an SUV or a truck, although I’ve seen people (and being myself a one) who used  smaller cars, but still it is steep.
    • The basic problem is that the road to the summit is steep and it is hard on a vehicle to go up, but it is more harder for the brakes coming down. Do not use brakes to descend the mountain – you will burn or crack the brakes. Use the engine instead to do most of your speed control! 4-Wheel vehicles must use 4-wheel low to descend the mountain.
    • Most rental cars agreements did not let customers to drive cars on the Saddle Road. But the road has been improved recently. Check this info before you go. as I know that Harper Car and Truck Rental does not  have these restrictions that the other car rental companies impose.
A  road to the summit

A road to the summit

    • There is no gas station on Mauna Kea, and the nearest gas stations are about 30 miles away in Waimea. Make sure you have a full tank before you head up. Also make sure that you fill your tank with the gas you car likes. Do not make our mistake – the last time we drove to the summit, we filled out our Jeep with the beast gas possible (93). And it did not like it. It started showing us the “Check engine” sign as soon as we  passed the Visitor Center.  We happily ignored it.  But in the future  we will fill the tank with its familiar 83.
    • Dress warmly – I mean it. Even though you are technically near the equator, at 4,207 m above the sea level  it can get very cold.
    • Before setting out for the summit, make sure that you have everything you need including a warm jacket, 2 pair of warm trousers, sturdy shoes, gloves, hat, and water. Yes, it will occupy more space in your bag than the rest you took for Hawaii. And it will look stupid laying near your swim suit, but temperatures at the summit are cold, even below freezing.
Andrey at the summit

Andrey at the very summit. Notice a warm 600 down jacket , 2 pairs of warm pants, wind stoppers and the hat. And UV sunglasses – must.

    • Wear UV protection, this includes UV sunglasses and a high number UV sunscreen. It is possible, on clear days, to burn within 15 to 20 minutes of exposure.
    • Watch yourself. If you  feel bad or funny, or noticed any unusual sensations, do not go past the visitor center. There are multiple warnings against it. Even the healthiest person can be struck down by altitude sickness. It is nothing to mess with.
    • Mauna Kea is home to many endemic plant and animal species.  Do not miss them and do not destroy them.
  • Acclimate 20 to 30 minutes on additional stops. After you leave the Visitor Center, make at least 2 stops at the parking lots at ~ 12000 and 13000 feet levels to help acclimate to the altitude.
While we stopped half way to the summit near the trail to Lake Waiau, we saw a big truck carrying the mirror segment for Keck telescope

While we stopped half way to the summit near the trail to Lake Waiau, we saw a big truck carrying the mirror segment for Keck telescope

  • We have incorporated these stops along with a short hike to Lake Waiau to our trip to the summit.
For some unknown  reason Lake Waiau is drying out, its size now is less than 10% of its "original" size in 2007

For some unknown reason Lake Waiau is drying out, its size now is less than 10% of its “original” size in 2007

  • Visitors are only allowed on the summit up until sunset. Head lights interfere with the telescopes and many driving vehicles create dust and pollution.
 Approaching Mauna Kea observatories. The speed limit is 5 mph, because on higher speeds the dust will spoil observatory mirrors

Approaching Mauna Kea observatories. The speed limit is 5 mph, because on higher speeds the dust will spoil observatory mirrors

  • Please be courteous and  plan on arriving in time to take in the view and watch the sun set and to be off the summit before dark. Leave no trace
IRTF at sunset

IRTF at sunset

The trail to the summit

The summit of Mauna Kea is a sacred place for Hawaiians. It doesnt have any observatories, they all located on a flat below the summit. But there is a trail that leads to the summit and you can hike there. Leave no trace

Keck has a small gallery which is open 10AM to 4PM Monday through Friday (with a nice restroom).  The gallery has a few posters and a viewing room where one can  take a look at the giant telescope.

Subaru and Gemini offer group tours of their telescopes,  but that require arrangements made beforehand.  Check their web sites or call them for current information on tours.