The Big Island is home to the tallest mountains of the Hawaiian islands–and some of the tallest shield volcanoes in the world. Mauna Kea’s summit is the highest peak on any of the Hawaiian islands, rising 13,800 feet above sea level. And the Mauna Kea observatories, at 13,796′ above sea level, are the destination for most Big Island visitors who want a taste of the mountain–as well as an educational experience.
The observatories themselves aren’t open to visitors unless you visit during scheduled events, but a visitor’s center offers information on the Mauna Kea telescopes and the ways they have contributed to the field of astronomy. Expect a variety of placards offering area information. The visitor’s center also offers hot chocolate, soup, and a variety of snacks, along with a well-supplied gift shop and displays that will enthrall those with a penchant for astronomy.
Most visitors to the observatory parking lot arrive to stargaze, watch the sunset, or–for a select few–to drive (a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is required) or hike the last thousand feet up to the summit.
The drive up Mauna Kea is a time commitment, so go prepared for a long drive. Saddle Road, the road to the summit, is fairly new and well-maintained, but traffic moves slowly. The drive from Hilo traverses practically all of the island’s ecosystems, from lush rainforest to alpine desert, and it takes most drivers about 2-3 hours (with no stops) to reach the top.
The hike from the Mauna Kea Observatories has been described as a long, unremarkable slog. It can take as long as 8 hours to reach the summit from the visitor’s center, and for those with altitude sickness, the experience isn’t necessarily a fun one. Depending on the conditions when you visit, there may be snow; temperatures vary widely and are very unpredictable, so those in poor health and young children are discouraged from traveling beyond the observatory, even in an off-road vehicle.
Even if you’re just driving up to the observatory for the views, you’ll want to come prepared with warm clothing; it gets chilly at night! Bring warm socks and shoes and wear layers so you’ll remain comfortable in the changing weather. It’s not unheard of for you to go from 80-degree weather in Hilo to 45 degrees (or colder) temps at the observatory.
-Want to get to the summit but don’t have a full day to hike or a 4-wheel-drive rental car? You can often hitch a ride with others from the observatory. It can’t hurt to ask around if you’re feeling adventurous.
-If you want to be able to enjoy the sights without worrying about driving, book a tour to the summit instead of driving yourself. Tours typically last about 8 hours, and you’ll be able to soak in the sights without having to keep your eyes on the road.