You don’t have to blow your budget on a sunset tour of the Mauna Kea Summit on the Big Island, you can do it on your own for a better experience and a fraction of the cost! An average sunset tour of the summit + stargazing costs around $200 per person and includes transportation, dinner, a snack, and a parka to wear at the summit. For Garren, my Dad, and I to do all of the same things the tours do (but at our own pace without the herd-factor) we spent $75 per person including a 4WD rental car, gas, and picnic supplies. We picked up our 4WD rental from Harpers Car & Truck Rental on the Kona side of the island, but they have an office in Hilo as well. Not only did we save money by skipping the tour, we also had much more flexibility and privacy while still being able to do all of the things the tour groups do. The one downside was that we didn’t have a guide to explain things to us, but honestly the Mauna Kea Summit is more about experiencing it and taking it all in than listening to a tour guide spout facts. I felt like I got a good sense of the spirit and culture surrounding Mauna Kea just by being there. It is an incredible place, and it speaks for itself.
If you want to skip straight to my Mauna Kea Summit Packing List, click here.
Mauna Kea’s Summit sits above the clouds at a lofty 14,000 feet. That means that even though it’s Hawaii, it can get pretty chilly at the summit. It often gets below freezing in the winter and winds can be strong. That being said, we went in March and were quite comfortable in light-weight winter jackets and warm hats. (Remember, we’re from Minnesota, so a light weight winter jacket for us may be different from your idea of a light weight winter jacket.) My guess is the temperature was in the mid 30’s at the summit and in the mid 40’s at the visitors center where we went stargazing later that night. Quite warm for us Minnesotans! Even so, my mom and Andrea weren’t really in the mood for more cold weather after the polar vortex of a winter we’d had, so they decided to stay at sea level and have a beach day. That left Garren, my Dad, and I. Garren and I were treating this high-altitude adventure as a test-run for our upcoming trip to the Peruvian Andes, and we also wanted to see how well our prescribed altitude-sickness drugs would work, so we each popped a pill of Diamox before we left.
Kona to Mauna Kea Summit
We had already picked up our 4WD rental car on the way back from Kiholo Bay that morning (See my Snorkeling With Sea Turtles at Kiholo Bay post). We got a Toyota Four Runner, a finely tuned beast that could have destroyed the rental Chevy SUV we had been driving all week. The staff at Harpers Car & Truck rental went over the vehicle with extreme care, making sure everything was in order, and showed us how to engage the 4WD for the road from the Mauna Kea visitors center to the summit. When we drove the Four Runner, it was clear it had been taken good care of (or just made really well) and we were confident it would have no trouble with the high-grade climb on the gravel road to the summit.
Our first stop was the grocery store to pick up supplies for a late lunch and dinner later. We picked up some french bread, deli meat, Craisins, Maui Chips, and juice at the Safeway in Kailua Kona. Then we took the Hawaii Belt Road and began climbing above sea level toward the Saddle Road. We had sandwiches with the french bread and deli meat and snacked on the incredibly addicting Maui Chips as we drove. It was a beautiful drive through old lava flows and windswept grassy fields that turned into a dry scrubland dotted with cinder cones as we rose in elevation. (Read more about our previous drive across the Hawaii’s Saddle Road here).
Assaulted by an Outhouse
After an hour, we had gone from sea level to around 6,000 feet. We stopped right across from the turnoff for Mauna Kea Access Road where there was a large cinder cone covered in Koa forest, like a tiny oasis amid a desolate rocky desert. The cinder cone is called Pu’u HuluHulu and there is a quick 30 minute trail you can take if you want to acclimate to the altitude before continuing up. The Diamox was kicking in and I had to pee like never before, so when we got there I made a beeline for the tiny outhouse near the start of the trail and swung open the door. When I opened that door, the worst smell I have ever inhaled came gushing into my nostrils, making me gag involuntarily. If I had not been so absolutely desperate and near to peeing my pants, I would have taken one breath and immediately smashed the door closed and ran. Knowing what I had to do, I craned my neck away from the outhouse as far as I could, took one giant gulp of air, and held my breath as I ran in and shut the door behind me. I peed with speed and I only took in one more breath before stumbling out.
Whether you have to pee or not, you should at least stop for a few minutes at Pu’u Huluhulu so you don’t climb all 14,000 feet of Mauna Kea in one quick swoop. It’s possible to drive from sea level to the summit in under two hours, but you would feel pretty awful at the top. Prevent altitude sickness and take your time getting up there.
We continued our drive up the mountain, taking the Mauna Kea Access Road, which was significantly steeper than any of the roads thus far. Our Four Runner climbed effortlessly along the well-paved road, winding up through the clouds. We passed over a cow grate and realized we had entered cow grazing land. We were careful to look for the “invisible cows” we had been warned about.
It took no more than 15 minutes for us break through the clouds and find ourselves at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (aka the visitors center). We were at a cool 9,200 feet where we would be acclimating for about an hour. We had made our ascent in less than two hours, and we didn’t want to rush the last 4,800 feet and risk getting sick. We pulled on our jackets and meandered through the small visitors center, listening to the informational video on loop, checking out the gift shop, and taking another pee break (Diamox really makes you go!). As we acclimated, we checked ourselves for symptoms of altitude sickness, but we all felt great. As several large tour buses pulled up to the visitors center, emptying hoards of tourists beginning their acclimation period (much shorter on the tours), we decided it was time to clear out and finish our ascent to the summit.
Back in the car, Garren engaged the 4WD as we transitioned from the impeccably paved road to the high-grade gravel that would take us to the summit. We left the tour groups in our dust, and were the only vehicle on the road as we looked up at the summit. It seemed so far away as we craned our necks skyward. The summit was almost a mile higher than where we were, but only a short 8 miles of road away. Soon we were back in a wispy layer of clouds that drifted across the road and spilled over the cliff to our right. We would catch glimpses of the drop below us as we rounded each bend, the clouds falling farther and farther as we climbed. The Four Runner handled the steep winding road with confidence and precision, and we were thankful as we safely rounded each curve without rolling off into thin air and plummeting through the clouds.
Soon the sky was clear and bright above us. Things were looking up. The landscape around us had lost its vegetation, and was now just steep slopes of volcanic rubble, red cinder cones looming in the distance. Just off the road a ways, we saw the site where Apollo astronauts practiced with the lunar rover. It made sense. I felt like we were on another planet.
Part way up, we could see we had some time before the sun would set and we were still the only car on the road, so we pulled over at a turnout to look out over the clouds.
We continued our drive, and soon the gravel turned back to pavement. We wound our way up Mauna Kea’s peak until patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road and white domed observatories came into view. We made it! It had taken us about 30 minutes to climb the 8 miles from the visitors center.
Mauna Kea Summit
We parked near one of the observatories and stepped out of the car. At 14,000 feet, the view was incredible, and we fell silent as we took it all in. High above the clouds that blanketed much of the island below us, large red and brown cinder cones rose eerily out of the earth. The low hanging sun cast long shadows behind the cinder cones and illuminated the red slopes down to the clouds. We could feel the thinness of the air.
Looking at the sun, we still had some time before sunset, so we decided to make the short climb to the true summit, a mere 200 heart-pounding yards away. The walk was not bad, even though my heart rate was telling me otherwise. Even the slightest exertion at 14,000 feet will suck the wind right out of you. We checked our pulses part way up and my 62 year old father had the lowest heart rate, then Garren, then me. Huh.
At the summit we met a nice Australian who was clearly struggling with the altitude and claimed to have a sick wife lying down on the ground somewhere… I’m not sure what he was doing hiking the summit if his wife was in serious medical condition, but he took our picture and we returned the favor. As the sun dipped lower, we scrambled back to where we parked for the best view of the sunset.
The tour groups had just arrived, so I claimed my spot and set up my Joby tripod on a concrete block near one of the observatories. The sun was perfectly positioned over the dip of a cinder cone and the glow from the earth and clouds reflecting the sun was both warm and chilling. I turned to my left and realized I could see the peak of Mauna Loa, the other volcano that makes up the Big Island. It was only a hundred feet lower, but far off in the distance, peeking above the clouds. To my right was the island of Maui.
As the sun set, I reflected on the immensity of what was before me. I felt like I was looking out over another world. The sun slipped below the clouds and there was a buzz in the air as everyone excitedly threw glances at each other, glad we had made the journey to the top. I snapped one more shot of the horizon, this time capturing bright orange array of tourists in matching parkas provided by the tour companies.
Within a few minutes, we were back in the car shifting into low gear to start our descent before the light was gone. I had been warned that the descent would be harrowing, and it probably would have been in a standard rental car, but with Garren’s confident driving and our sure-footed Four Runner, I felt safe. As we crunched down the gravel road, I gazed out the passenger window, watching as we slipped closer and closer to the blue blanket of clouds below.
Accessibility Note: The place we watched the sunset was less than 20 feet from where we parked our car, and although there was some gravely/sandy ground, it would have been very easy to navigate with a wheelchair, walker, cane, etc. This is definitely an incredible experience that can be enjoyed by just about anyone. The walk to the true summit was cool (and not wheelchair accessible), but it wasn’t necessary for experiencing the surrealness of being above the clouds as the sun sets over red cinder cones laced with snow. Absolutely beautiful.
Stargazing on Mauna Kea
We stopped back at the visitors center before dropping below the clouds, and waited for twilight to fade and for the stars to come out. The stargazing program was underway at the visitors center. They have a few telescopes for visitors to use. Garren had looked up the moonrise and twilight times for the dates of our trip and we made sure to go on a night when the moon would be below the horizon so it wouldn’t wash out the stars. It would have been perfect, had there not been a constant stream of people either coming or going from the parking lot, with their headlights blinding us each time. In hindsight, it would have been much better to park at the visitors center and walk a hundred yards or so away from the parking lot (bringing flashlights) to get away from all the light.
Next time we will bring a blanket and some snacks to set up our own stargazing station away from all the commotion. Even so, the stars were the brightest I had seen since my night in Israel’s Negev desert three years ago. Although the stars were impressive, the setting is what made Mauna Kea stargazing so unique. I loved how the cinder cones framed the star-studded sky.
Accessibility Note: Although we didn’t experience much altitude sickness (a light headache at the summit was all we noticed) it is common to experience some symptoms. To prevent them, stay well hydrated, take time to acclimate as you ascend, and if you feel bad, go back down immediately. If you know you tend to get altitude sickness, you can ask your doctor to prescribe Diamox, which we found to work very well (though it will make you pee a lot).
Mauna Kea Packing List
Here is what I recommend bringing on your Mauna Kea Summit adventure:
- Walking shoes
- Hiking shoes if you plan to hike
- Long pants
- Long-sleeved layering tee
- Winter jacket (light weight)
- I brought my North Face Thermoball jacket – my favorite travel jacket. It’s great for temperatures down to 20°F and compresses down to fit inside its own pocket!
- Hat (our warm bomber hats were a bit overkill, but do we know any other way in MN?)
- Gloves (didn’t need these, but if you’re from California you may want them)
- For altitude sickness. Took one tablet before leaving. If you know you get altitude sickness, start the night before.
- Picnic supplies
- Blanket for stargazing. Beach towels would work just fine.
- Water bottle
- My go-to travel camera, the Canon Powershot S95 has manual controls, great image quality and performs well in low light while still fitting in my pocket!
- I love my Joby GorillaPod – it’s the only tripod I use! Perfect for travel because it’s lightweight, compact, and can wrap around just about anything (tree branch, guard rail, etc.)
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