Mauna Kea Summit Tour

Observatory on Mauna Kea

If you want to brave the cold and extreme altitude of Mauna Kea's 13,796 foot (4205 m) summit here are some tips and personal experiences.

Getting to Mauna Kea Summit

In order to get to the summit of Mauna Kea, you need to rent a four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle from a rental company that grants permission to use the summit road. The road to the visitor's center is fully paved, but beyond that, the road becomes rough dirt and requires a 4WD. At the summit, the road is paved, but can be treacherous with ice and snow. We rented a 4WD from Harper Car and Truck in Kona. They have outlets in Kona and Hilo. This is the SUV we rented.

4WD rental vehicle

Before starting out, check the weather on Mauna Kea and look at the telescopes via CAMs realtime.

Another option is to take a Mauna Kea star tour from a company that drives 4WD vans to the Visitors center and then on up to the summit. They provide food, beverages and warm clothes. Or you can hire a driver to take you to the summit on their vehicle.

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Precautions for visiting Mauna Kea Summit

The extremely high altitude combined with starting at sea level makes the drive up to the telescopes potentially hazardous to ones health. The drive from Hilo or Kona to the Mauna Kea summit area takes approximately 3 hours, depending on the weather and traffic.

This includes a one hour rest at the Onizuka Visitor Information Station at the 9000 ft (2800 m) level of Mauna Kea to acclimatize to the high altitude. It is critical to take the time to adjust to the altitude. Even those that normally have no problem at high altitudes on the mainland can have problems due to the immense difference in the altitude driving up from sea level.

The air pressure at the summit is less than 60% of that at sea level, and the body must work hard to obtain oxygen. Altitude sickness is a risk for all and everyone will experience a reduction in their physical and mental capabilities. The stress caused by the high altitude environment can also worsen any existing health problems. Dryness, cold, and increased UV radiation also contribute to discomfort. Wait a day after flying to the island before going up to the summit and don't scuba dive before an ascent.

Read this University of Hawaii bulletin before deciding to take the risk of visiting the summit.

Mauna Kea Summit road

The road from the Visitor's Center to the summit is rocky dirt. It is a long bumpy drive. Take lots of water, drinks and food with you. We brought a huge lunch and snacks and were hungry for more. Bring very warm jackets, hats, scarfs and gloves. It seemed ridiculous when we filled the truck with winter coats at sea level, but we were freezing at the summit on March 31.

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What to see on Mauna Kea Summit

MaunaKea Summit

Once you have arrived at the summit of Mauna Kea, you can enjoy the incredible view from the top of the Pacific. Depending on the weather, you can the volcanic vents billowing out gasses from above, the entire island and ocean as well as nearby islands like Maui. The photo below shows the volcano emissions in the distance from the summit.

Volcano emissions seen from Mauna Kea summit

You can drive around the loop and check out the various views.

Hawaii Telescopes

Hawaii Telescopes

The telescope buildings along the road are interesting but they are all closed to the public except Keck which has a lobby area which allows you to view one of their telescopes.

The only Telescope tour available is the Japanese Subaru Telescope. You must schedule a tour at least a week and up to 3 months in advance from Subaru's website. You need to provide your own transportation to the telescope by renting a 4WD vehicle or hiring a car and driver.

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Subaru Telescope Tour

Subaru Telescope Hawaii

Subaru Telescope allows visitors to see their powerful telescope up close on a guided tour. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and shows the telescope and the primary mirror re coating facilities. Tours are offered up to 15 days a month. and begin at 10:30AM, 11:30AM, and 1:30PMr in either Japanese or English. Advance reservations are necessary made from Subaru's website.

"Subaru" is a Japanese word meaning "unite." It is also a term identifying the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus that includes six stars visible to the average eye.

Subaru Telescope Hawaii

A model of the telescope gave us an overview of what we were about to see. We were instructed to put on hard hats to protect us in the telescope area.

Subaru Telescope Hawaii tour

The facility is gigantic and the tour guide was excellent.

Subaru Telescope Hawaii tour

Subaru Telescope Hawaii tour

Our guide lugged an oxygen bottle the entire time in case one of us had altitude sickness. You can't look through the telescope as the data is collected digitally from the mirror. But, the tour shows the scale of the operation needed to operate an optical telescope.

Subaru Telescope Hawaii tour

Subaru has a complete mockup of their telescope facility in their Astronomy center in Hilo. They sometimes give tours of their Hilo facility as shown in the movie below.

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Mauna Kea Onizuka Visitor's Center

Mauna Kea Visitor Center

The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Center is the visitor’s center for the Mauna Kea telescopes located below the summit. The center, along with a residential facility for telescope workers, is at the 9000 ft (2800 m) level on the Mauna Kea access road. The center has exhibits, a gift store, bathrooms, and hosts telescope viewing sessions some evenings.

Viewing from a telescope at the visitor's center is far better than up at the summit of Mauna Kea because the air is so thin at the higher altitude that the light won't resolve properly in your retina. The optical telescopes at the summit capture the data digitally and don't rely on the human eye to "see" the skies.

Mauna Kea Visitor Center

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Directions to Mauna Kea Visitors Center:
Mauna Kea Visitors Center can be reached from Saddle Road/Route 200. At an elevation of 6,600 ft (2,000 m), a paved road intersects with Saddle Road at Mile 28. The steep road goes up to the Onizuka Visitor Information Center (about 20 minutes from Saddle Road). The distance from Hilo to the Visitor Center is 34 miles (55 km), with the average travel time being 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

For more information visit the Visitor Center website

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