Driving up Mauna Kea for stargazing

view of Mauna Loa from Mauna Kea
Your hosts bundled up in warm coats to take in the view of Mauna Loa from Saddle Road from the slope of Mauna Kea

For many years, car rental companies did not allow their cars on Saddle Road (Hwy 200) – the road that crosses along the slope of Mauna Kea from east to west. Recently some rental car companies have relaxed that policy. That’s great news for us visitors who want to check out Hawaii’s excellent stargazing.

The car rental company policies vary on how far off of Saddle Road, their renters can drive. The Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB) provided this helpful list detailing permissible road access by car rental company:

Saddle Road (Hwy 200) access only

  • Alamo Rent A Car
  • Avis Rent A Car
  • Budget Car Rental
  • Enterprise Rent-A-Car
  • National Car Rental

Saddle Road (Hwy 200) plus access up to the Onizuka (Mauna Kea) Visitor Center, but not beyond

  • Thrifty Car Rental
  • Hertz *
  • Dollar Rent a Car **

Saddle Road (Hwy 200) plus Onizuka Visitor Center and all the way up to the summit (4-wheel drive only)

  • Harper Car & Truck Rentals of Hawaii

All the rental car companies listed allow access to Saddle Road, which in turn, allows access to Mauna Kea State Recreational Area as well as other turn out points off the road. From there, you could do your own stargazing.

As you can see from the list, only a few car rental companies provide access up to the Onizuka Center for International  Astronomy Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea at 9200-foot above sea level. This center offers a free nightly star gazing program.

Though one car rental company permits access all the way to the summit at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, I advise you refrain from driving to the summit on your own. The atmosphere at the summit has 40% less oxygen than sea level. This lower oxygen level could have unpredictable effects on your mind and body.

If you don’t want to drive Saddle Road, you can always take a guided tour which goes all the way up to the summit for sunset and then stargazing. We did that in 2008 and loved it. See: Advice for Mauna Kea sunset and stargazing tours.

Rental car policies are subject to change. Therefore, we advise you verify road access directly with the rental company of your choice.

Thanks to the BIVB for list detailing rental car road access.

* We tried to confirm Hertz’ policy, but could not reach a contact at Hertz after repeatedly trying and the BIVB did not reply to follow up questions. If the Hertz Never Lost program is any indicator, their planning tool lists Mauna Kea Information Center as an attraction that can be added to individual trip plans, but that’s only an assumption at this point. Update: we were able to confirm with Hertz that they do permit their cars as far as the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.

** We are reluctant to recommend Dollar Rent a Car because our last rental car from them was roach infested. That happened nearly four years ago, so perhaps things have changed now, but after a nightmarish experience, we are scared to risk trying them again.

  1. I would love to do Star gazing in Maui. Plus car rental details would be great to know if there are similar restrictions. Facebook Fans!

    1. Yes, you can stargaze on the summit of Haleakala. The road is steep and winding, but safe to drive and approved by all rental car companies. See these posts:



      Plus, here’s a post about other roads in Hawaii that rental cars prohibit:

  2. Do you know if there’s any transportation services available at the Mauna Kea Visitor Centre to go up to the summit?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like