Summit Mauna Kea

The largest mountain in the world is not Mt. Everest.  Everest is 29,028 feet but Mauna Kea is over 33,000 feet tall!  It’s just that almost 2/3’s of Mauna Kea is under water.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano whose snow-topped peak stands out in the center of a tropical island.  More recently Mauna Kea received 30″ of snow!  And yes, when it snows droves of locals drive up the mountain in trucks, fill the bed with snow and race down to build snowmen on the beach.  It’s crazy fun!  Although they don’t always let you to the summit if the snow is too bad.

Mauna Kea Telescopes

A very special attribute about Mauna Kea is that it holds most powerful and influential star-gazing telescopes.  They are placed there because Hawaii is such a remote island that the air quality is cleaner, the higher altitude of Mauna Kea allows for better viewing and the dry stable air allows for quality pictures.  Thirteen telescopes from eleven countries have placed on the top.  At sunset they open their huge domes and point the telescopes to the galaxy they are scoping.  In fact if you’ve seen a picture of stars or galaxies, it’s very possible that the pictures were taken right here from Mauna Kea.

Meaning of Mauna Kea for the Hawaiian People

For the Hawaiian people Mauna Kea is a very sacred mountain. Only Ali’i or royalty were allowed to the summit.  Ancient Hawaiians lived on the slopes and made tools from the rocks and foraged in the forests for food.  In the late 18th century cattle, sheep and game animals were introduced by the Europeans.  Some of these animals went feral and destroyed much of the  mountain ecology.  There are still feral cattle and other game beasts on the mountains today.

Mauna Kea Clouds

Galaxy Gazing from the Half-Way Point

When you turn to go up the mountain, at the half way point there is a visitors center and a small village for researchers.  At the visitor center it is good to stop and get acclimated to the climate.  They also offer free tea and hot chocolate.

Moon at Mauna Kea

I took this picture with a small point and shoot. Seriously! (Just through a telescope lens.)

In the evening the visitor’s center pulls out telescopes and will even do a special presentation ex

plaining the stars.  Depending on the time of year, you can look through the telescopes and see other galaxies, stars and other astronomical sky marks.  Here is a picture I took with my point and shoot (through the lens of one of the telescopes).

See Awesome Views without Going to the Summit

If the road is closed because of a blizzard (literally) or you don’t have a 4-wheel drive (necessary), then you can still enjoy beautiful views.  If you walk across the road from the visitors center there is a path.  To the south is a hill that you can climb.  It is a fantastic place to watch the sunset underneath you.

Going to the Summit of Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea Sunset

The sunsets at Mauna Kea are spectacular and have sort of ethereal feel to them. You have to experience it to understand. I encourage you to do so.

When you drive up to the summit you really need 4-wheel drive.  The roads are steep and mountainous.  They also have heavy washboards that bounce you all over the place.  Having said that, the roads are nice and wide so it’s not as scary as some other mountain roads in this world.  It’s still steep and you will need to shift into a lower gear when descending the mountain to avoid your breaks burning up.

After about 5 miles of bouncy roads it turns paved again.  Don’t ask.  I don’t know why.  It just does.  There is parking at the top right at the telescopes.  Typically they do not let visitors inside the units where the telescopes are housed.

Cool things about Mauna Kea

  • It’s cold!  I mean, really cold!  You will need every piece of clothing you brought with you to keep warm.
  • The “other” mountain.  If you look to the east at sunset your eyes could believe there is another mountain right beside you.  It’s not.  It’s the shadow of Mauna Kea.  You can tell your brain that but it’s still fairly hard to believe.
  • Atmospheric Pressure.  Because the pressure is different you can look at what appears to be a heavy rock.  When you go to lift the rock it’s not nearly as heavy as it would appear.  It’s not actually the weight of the rock but the reduced atmospheric pressure on the rock. 

Mauna Kea is quite the experience if you get the chance.  The best time to go is to time so you are at the summit before sunset.  It does take awhile to get up and back down so plan accordingly. 

Tours to Mauna Kea

There are tour companies that will indeed take you to Mauna Kea.  They typically stop at the visitor’s center for a noodle supper and then take you to the top.  Here are my thoughts:


  • If you’re scared to drive on steep roads, this is a viable option
  • Rental cars don’t allow you to go up the road so if you don’t have a 4-wheel drive available it makes sense


  •  They advertise you get to look through telescopes!  But the telescopes they are talking about are at the visitor’s center and they are available free to everyone.
  • It’s EXPENSIVE.  It typically runs around $180-250.

Mauna Kea Summit Tour

Mauna Kea Summit Adventures