Advice for Mauna Kea Sunset and Stargazing Tours – An Excellent Big Island Activity
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 9200 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?
That’s the one thing I wish we would’ve done on the Big Island that we didn’t, go stargazing… we simply packed too much stuff in too short a time; though we spent one of our days checking the lava flows which was awesome. Just means we’ll have to go back!
Jim – that’s the great thing about Hawaii and especially the Big Island….there’s always something to put on your to do list for the next time around.
I’d love to do this tour again, but on a darker, clearer night. I’d love to time a visit to Maui or the Big Island during a big event like an eclipse, comet, or meteor shower.
Great website! I really like the combination of videos and photos. I was hoping you could include the link to our new website? The current one is for the old site. http://www.hawaii-forest.com/adventures/mauna-kea-summit-and-stars.asp. Mahalo!
Aloha Chris and mahalo for the nice compliments. I have updated your link per your request. Thanks for visiting GoVisitHawaii!
Good article, thanks! My wife and I plan to visit the Big Island again in May/June and have planned specifically for a new moon for stargazing. Would you say that the tour you were on is the best available? It seems to have some pretty strong motivating factors in favor of it.
Beyond that, we’ve toured Volcanoes Nat’l Park during the day but want to see it at night – any tips on that? Also, do you recommend any local shops for renting road and mountain bikes as well?
Hi Brian – We were happy with the tour company we chose. We thought their service was very good. I’m sure that their mini-bus was much more comfortable and easier to get in and out of than the passenger vans that the other companies use.
Regarding the Volcanoes National Park at night, did you want to see the lava flowing? (I highly recommend seeing the lava flow at night.) If so, then the current flow is actually outside of the park. I’ve written these tips about seeing the lava at night: https://www.govisithawaii.com/2008/03/16/advice-for-viewing-the-big-island-lava-flow/
The HVNP website has quite a bit of useful information about visiting the park: http://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/things2do.htm
I hope this helps.
Tradewind Tours Hawaii offers a great star gazing tour on the island of Oahu. (tradewindtourshawaii.com)
Thanks a lot for the info! It’s really helpful, I’m going at the end of July to Big Island =) I’m so excited.
I was wondering though, what camera did you use for your Mauna Kean Sunset pics? Thanks!
Mariana – the cameras we used were:
Pentax Optio W10
The Nikon is a semi-professional camera, but the Pentax is just a point and shoot. It’s a great little camera, though, because it’s water tight so you can take it to the beach and on snorkeling and boating tours without having to worry about it.
Many thanks for the information. It’s helping me to complete our travel plans before we depart for Hawaii.
We can’t afford to pay for an official stargazing tour. Are there points along the route to the top of Mauna Kea (I’m envisioning just pulling off the road, below the visitor center), or other spots, that are good places to star gaze? We’ll be on the Big Island during the New Moon phase, so unless it’s cloudy, we should at least have a good dark night!
Yes there are points to pull off at and below the visitors center.
Even though this guided tour went to the summit of Mauna Kea, we went below the visitor center to do the stargazing.
At what elevation is the visitors’ center? Some of my family members should not go to the summit, and I’m wondering if there’s good stargazing lower down or even elsewhere on the Big Island. Thanks for any info on this.
It’s stated in the article – 9300 ft
Correction — 9,200 ft.
Make sure you also see this article that’s also referenced above: https://www.govisithawaii.com/2012/08/14/driving-up-mauna-kea-for-stargazing/
Go on a night that the astronomy club has free stargazing tours. You don’t have to pay for driving to the visitor center and the rental car companies allow it now, including Saddle Road, so it’s not a problem. I think they do that on every Saturday night. They’ll have telescopes set up and will give a presentation and then laser-pointer tour of some highlights. Try to plan to go up on a night when either the moon rise occurs late or there is no moon. Even a small moon in the sky really reduces visibility of the other, fainter stars and planets.
We were up there a couple weeks ago with a relatively new moon and couldn’t see that much, but later drove up Haleakala (on Maui) at night on our own and on the way down, at 8000-9000 feet elevation, saw a LOT more stars because the moon was not up yet even though it was much fuller that night.
Thanks, Brian – FYI – some but not all rental car companies allow their cars on the road to the visitors center, even though Saddle Road is approved. I’m not sure why some prohibit it since it’s a perfectly good, paved road.
This sounds a lot better than the experience we had. Maybe it was the company. The ride was very uncomfortable in a ten passenger van. We drove around for hours picking up people at the hotels around Waikoloa. Although I did not want to sit in the front seat with the driver he insisted that I do, and insulted me all the way up and part of the way back until my husband took him aside and told him to stop. As a person with some disabilities I did not appreciate it.
The food we had was awful and cold and when we got to the top there was not stargazing. The company knew it would be a cloudy night and did not give us the option of changing.
A very uncomfortable 10 hours all and all and not a fun way to spend our anniversary so we never took another tour.
This one sounds better, maybe we will consider it for the future.
Oh, dear I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience, Anita. Thanks for letting us know.