Exploring Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

Categorized as Big Island Vacation Information

Observatories and Sky Watching Atop a Big Island Volcano

Question:  Where can you, on a clear night, see both the North Star and the Southern Cross, while standing in the snow, and having been at the beach the same day?

There can only be a few correct answers to that question. The only one that I can vouch for is: Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

How high up are you to have snow in Hawaii? Well, if you count from sea level, Mauna Kea is about 13,796 feet up, about the same as a respectable Cascade or perhaps one of the Rocky Mountains.

Mauna Kea Volcano – Earth’s Highest Mountain

But if you count from the ocean floor? Geologically, Mauna Kea is Earth’s highest mountain — 33,500 feet from it’s seafloor base to volcanic peak. And it feels that way, like the top of the world. Check out this month’s National Geographic for a full fold-out poster depiction of this amazing mountain in the middle of the ocean.

The top of Mauna Kea is home to a large collection of internationally funded observatories due to the incredible combination of clear-sky nights, air quality and lack of light pollution which lends the peak an otherworldly feeling beyond the mere height of it’s peak.

The proportion of clear nights is among the highest in the world. It is an amazing experience any time of year or any time of day, but if you can arrange to join a tour for night-time you will have an unforgettable experience.

Touring Mauna Kea – Acclimate at the Visitor Center

Mauna Kea tours take you up in stages to help you acclimate to the extreme in elevation changes. The Visitor Center, at 9,000 feet, urges summit visitors to use four-wheel drive vehicles because of the steep, rough road, and to respect the altitude at the summit where temperatures often get down to freezing. Kids younger than 16 and anybody with health problems are strongly discouraged from going higher than the Visitor Center. Oh, and you had better fill up your tank before you start; no gasoline is available up the mountain.

Tours are the best option. They offer not only expert guidance, but parkas for chilly conditions (what, you didn’t pack your parka for Hawaii?), sometimes dinner and always telescopes to make the most of viewing the fabulous night skies. The best is Mauna Kea Summit Adventures.

I went up with a group of younger kids, so could not make the top ascent, but even from the Visitor’s Center, the night sky was completely amazing. I was severely dating myself by singing Crosby, Stills & Nash. “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time…”  It must have been the lack of oxygen, but really, but there is something so ethereal about being out in the clear cold of night with a million (million?) stars overhead, that completely takes you outside of your daily existence.

A Memorable Hawaii Adventure – The Starry Skies of Mauna Kea

Visiting Mauna Kea is a trip well worth planning for, well worth remembering.  I have since moved from the Big Island, but if I ever return, I will return to the Mountain and taste the starry skies again, amongst the silver orbs of the observatories scouting the Heavens!

If you are planning on visiting the Big Island, Hawaiian Beach Rentals offers exceptional Big Island accommodations including affordable and luxurious condos and luxury rentals. Browse our site or talk to a live, local agent at 800-853-0787.