Updated: December 2017
Review of Mauna Kea Astronomy Tour - Mauna Kea Summit AdventuresWe take a sunset and evening trip to the summit of Mauna Kea, highlights of an astronomy tour..
If there is one thing the Big Island of Hawaii is famous for, it is volcanoes. Of course all the Hawaiian Islands were formed through volcanic activity, but only the Big Island has an active, flowing volcano that is creating more "Hawaii" every day! So if you are planning a trip to Hawaii, you need to spend some time on or near the volcanoes. Mauna Kea is the larger, dormant volcano found on the northern side of the island (Kilauea is the active volcano located on the southern part of the island - that's a separate trip!). How tall is Mauna Kea? Mauna Kea is 4200m tall, or 13,796 feet above sea level. Mauna Kea's height and location, standing in the middle of the ocean, make it one of the premiere telescope sites in the world. The summit of Mauna Kea is speckled with large observatories which slide open each evening to allow their massive telescopes to peer into the night skies. Getting to Mauna Kea can be tough - it's a long drive out on the saddle road. Once you reach the visitor center at 9000 feet, it is still almost another vertical mile up to the summit on a very windy, unpaved road - 4WD is required. You can do it on your own - we saw regular people driving up there - but taking an organized tour in a properly equipped van makes it much more enjoyable. This guide offers a review of the Mauna Kea summit trip we took in 2009 with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures.
Getting to the Summit Of Mauna Kea - Evening Tours to See the StarsOK, so you have this massive volcano, almost 14,000 feet tall, and during the evening, it gets close to, or well below, freezing, especially with the winds. And you're on a tropical island equipped with a swimsuit and tank top. So how do you do this? The easiest way to complete this adventure is to go with a tour company. It helps if you remember to bring a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of pants from home -- you'll need those. But the tour company will provide you with heavy parkas and gloves to keep you warm. And since this is the astronomy capitol of the world, they also bring along some hefty telescopes to do some stargazing. And they bring the 4WD van to get you safely up and down the 14,000 foot mountain. The tour company we are talking about is Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (MaunaKea.com). There are a number of companies that offer Mauna Kea astronomy tours, but these guys came highly recommended, so we went with them.
Let's go over some of the details of the tour. First, it is a pretty long tour -- about 8 hours. Second, the price -- $200 per person, which isn't cheap, but for 8 hours worth of activity, pretty fair compared to other Hawaiian tours. You'll definitely want to make a reservation well in advance, as these tours are normally filled (there are only so many seats on the van, 13 to be exact). You and the other guests meet at a central location where the tour van will pick you up - either in Kailua Kona or at the Queen's Marketplace in Waikoloa (you will be given exact details as to time and place when you book your trip). One thing to keep in mind, this is a high altitude trip. Most people never step foot on a 14,000 foot mountaintop -- the air is thin here, 40% less oxygen than at sea level. Some people get headaches or feel tired when climbing to such extreme altitudes. The trip is not recommended for young children (no kids under 13 allowed on tour), if you have heart or lung conditions, or are pregnant. You do get to acclimatize at the 9000 foot level at the Visitor Center for a little while, and the van does most of the work, but you will definitely feel winded when walking around up there. Personally, I have asthma but had no problems on the trip. Use your own good judgement as to what your body can handle.
Mauna Kea Astronomy Tour ReviewOK, so on with the trip. After getting picked up around 4PM, you'll begin the long drive out to Mauna Kea, following the famous Saddle Road that takes you between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The driver/guide provides a little commentary along the way, but it is mostly just enjoying the scenery. First stop is the Onizuka Visitors Center (see photo at left, below). For those who visit in a car without 4WD, this is as far as they go. You can learn about the observatories here, get a snack, buy a souvenir. It's starting to get colder now, so you will get your parka and gloves -- you'll want them, especially later. Your group spends about 30-40 minutes here. Dinner is included in the trip (we had heard good things about the teriyaki chicken and agree..), which is a pretty simple but tasty affair. Bring your own beverage.
As sunset approaches, you sit outside and watch the amateurs setting up their telescopes (side note - if you want a cheaper trip, it is totally possible to drive up to this area on your own and peak into some of these amateur scopes as the stars come out -- there were at least 10 of them out the night of our visit -- you may not see the summit, but if you are strapped for cash, it's still a worthwhile experience..), finish up your food, then get back in the van for the final ascent up the steep part of the mountain. This is the part you came for, ascending this barren volcano, watching the domed observatories coming into view. You'll stop once or twice on the way up, a chance for some more dramatic photos. You arrive at the summit pretty close to sunset. Depending on the weather, you might see the beaches you were lounging on a few hours ago, 88 degrees down there at sea level -- now it is 35 degrees, there might even be snow on the ground. You have a good 30 minutes to look around, see the telescopes begin to open and orient themselves, get more great pictures. The tour guide sets up their portable 11" Celestron scopes to do some early stargazing, depending on what is visible during this twilight hour. The large telescopes in the observatories ARE NOT open to the public and you won't be going inside or seeing anything from those scopes -- you see the outside of the buildings only. Visitors are not allowed on the summit after dark, so it's back in the van and back down the hill. But the night is not over. Now is when your real stargazing portion of the trip takes place. You'll end up back down around the 9000 foot level, where it's a bit warmer, easier to breathe, but still at a good altitude for clear skies. We ended up off a dirt road pretty close to the Visitor Center -- they park, everyone gets out, they set up 2 telescopes, and then everyone takes turns looking into the telescopes as your guides explain the night sky to you, point out planets, stars, constellations, and other deep sky objects. You may get to see Jupiter, Mars, or Saturn, binary stars, and faint galaxies. This goes on for an hour or so, with hot drinks and cookies provided for additional sustenance. Then it's back down to the drop-off point.
Here's a quick video clip of what it looks like from the summit..
So overall, this was a very fun and informative trip. Since it takes place in the afternoon and evening, it doesn't cut into your precious beach and pool time that you savor on your Hawaiian vacation. If you are an experienced astronomer, then the stargazing will not be very entertaining or informative, but for telescope novices, seeing the ring of Saturn or moons of Jupiter or the faint glow of a galaxy can be pretty exciting -- just don't go expecting to see the kinds of photos you see from the Hubble telescope -- you can't see things like that in real time in real life. The guides were friendly and helpful. Food was good but simple. Views from the top were beautiful. For me, the best part of the trip was just the adventure of the whole thing - starting the day at the beach and watching the sunset from 14,000 (the highest peak I have ever been on), wrapped in a polar jacket for warmth, seeing these 100s of millions of dollars worth of telescopes go into action. The main drawback is the price. If I had a family of 5 with me, I'm not sure I would have sprung for a $1000 night out, but for two of us, it was manageable. I'd almost like to see them offer a trip that meets at the Visitor Station, takes you to the summit, then does some stargazing -- maybe just 2-3 hours total and $100 or something. That would make it a little more family affordable. As to other opinions, on TripAdvisor, more than 60 visitors have rated the Mauna Kea Summit Adventures tour 4.5 out of 5, on average. The most common complaints were the expensive price tag and the somewhat lackluster star viewing -- as noted above, you really can't see too many amazing things in the sky with a telescope.. all those amazing photos you see of galaxies take hours and hours of light-gathering to produce and can't be seen by the eyeball in real time. So take that knowledge with you and set expectations accordingly. If you can afford it and want a once in a lifetime adventure on top of a volcano, sign up for this trip. Any questions, feel free to contact us at the address shown below.
(photo below shows the view from above the visitor center, half way to the summit, looking east over a layer of clouds -- even on cloudy days down below, the summit is usually totally clear for viewing...)