Stargazing on Mauna Kea was very high on my list of things I wanted to do on my recent Big Island vacation. The experience is unique. Where else in the world can you go from sea level to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level in less than two hours? The change in landscape was surreal and dramatic. We drove from beaches and palm trees to pasture lands to weathered and worn snow capped cinder cones We went from wearing short sleeves to wearing arctic-type parkas. (You can see all 60 photos that we captured during our Mauna Kea tour.)
Here’s a short video montage from our Mauna Kea sunset/stargazing tour:
I’ve put together these frequently asked questions and tips to help you plan your visit to one of the best stargazing places on earth.
When to Go?
If you really want to see as many stars as possible, aim to go on a clear and moonless (new moon) evening. Now, I know that this may be easier said than done as the weather is unpredictable and you can’t always schedule your vacation based on the phases of the moon.
To plan in advance, check out this astronomy calendar of celestial events. This calendar lists all the events, including moon phases. It can be useful for your Hawaii vacation planning, as well as what you might see from your home town.
Use this official Mauna Kea forecast to determine the best weather, sunset times, and moon rise times. When you take a tour, you’ll probably be stargazing from around 7pm to about 9pm, so try to choose a time when the moon won’t be rising during that time in order to see the maximum amount of stars.Even though I was on the Big Island for two weeks, I actually had a limited amount of days that I could schedule this tour. I didn’t want to schedule the tour for the first few days because, I was super anxious to get out to see the lava flow and because I knew I would be jet lagged and unable to stay up past about 8pm for the first few days. I wish I could have planned the tour better so that I could have gone up to Mauna Kea when the moon wouldn’t have been shining so early and so fully. Next time, I’ll plan more wisely.If you book your tour in advance and the weather looks crummy, ask your tour company if you can switch to another night.
Why should I go with a tour company? Can’t I just go on my own?
While it is feasible to go on your own up to the summit of Mauna Kea, I don’t advise it if you are a tourist with a rental car. Here are a few reasons why I recommend you don’t drive it.
- Though many rental car companies modified their policies in 2011 and 2012 to allow their cars on Saddle Road, the national car rental companies don’t allow you to drive past the visitors center that’s at the 9300 ft elevation point. Some rental car agencies don’t allow their rental cars on the road to the visitors center. See Driving up Mauna Kea for stargazing for more information.
- You should have a 4-wheel drive vehicle for driving up to the summit. In fact for the official summit tour provided by the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, you must provide your own 4-wheel drive vehicle. There are several unpaved miles on the road from the visitor’s center to the summit. Plus, in the winter, you may encounter snow and ice.
- At the summit, there is 40% less oxygen which can have a pretty severe and unpredictable effects on your mind and body. So, why not leave the driving up to a professional who knows the roads and knows how the oxygen deprivation affects them.
What to look for in choosing a tour company?
There are probably a half dozen or so companies who offer Mauna Kea sunset and stargazing tours. I chose Mauna Kea Summit Adventures for several reasons. They claim to have the most powerful telescopes of the tour companies and they use mini-bus with large window and more comfortable coach seating. All the other companies use standard vans with the bench style seating, which is fine for short trips, but the drive up to Mauna Kea and long and bumpy.
Other things to look for are:
- Are parkas and gloves provided?
- Are the tour guides trained and knowledgeable?
- Does the tour company provide dinner?
- Does the tour company provide stops to allow your body to adjust to the elevation changes?
How much do Mauna Kea sunset/stargazing tours cost?
Expect to pay anywhere between $160 and $200 with tax. We paid $197 per person including tax with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. We could have saved 15% if we had booked our tour online and two weeks in advance. (See this reservation link for more details and black out dates.) We considered Hawaii Forest and Trail and they charge approximately $176 per person including tax.
Is the Mauna Kea visit safe for everyone?
No, it is not safe for everyone! I’ll quote the brochure provided by the Office of Mauna Kea Management.
Due to the effects of low atmospheric pressure on your body – including less available oxygen encountered at high altitude – it is strongly advised that individuals with the following categories not travel to the summit of Mauna Kea:
- Persons under 16 years of age
- Pregnant women
- Anyone with high blood pressure, heart or respiratory conditions
- Scuba divers with less than 24 hours after their last dive
- Anyone who has been drinking alcohol (consumption of alcohol is strongly discouraged on Mauna Kea)
If you have concerns, please check with your doctor.
What should I bring for this tour?
Wear long pants and sneakers or hiking shoes. The parkas are very warm, but you might want to wear or bring a long-sleeved shirt. You might also want to bring water and a light snack if you think you may get hungry.
If you have a very mild case of asthma, you might be permitted to go on the tour, but you must bring an inhaler. The way it was described to us is that people who have asthma are allowed to go as long as they haven’t been hospitalized for asthma in the past 2 years and they bring an inhaler. Be sure and check with your doctor and the tour company for advice regarding your own conditions.
Have you been stargazing our Mauna Kea? What advice would you add?