The Big Island of Hawaii has some of the most unique terrain to explore on any of the islands. I mean, lava and green and black sand beaches? And not to mention the jungles and waterfalls. But on my last trip to the Big Island, I got to experience something truly special.
Sunset and stargazing at the summit of Mauna Kea is something you don’t want to miss on your trip. Once you’re up above the clouds, you’ll feel more like you’re on Mars or the moon than Hawaii and at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it’s just…breathtaking.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
The summit of Mauna Kea (one of the Big Island’s five volcanoes-it’s dormant) sits at 14,000 feet above sea level. Its height and location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (almost no light pollution) have made it an ideal place for viewing sunset above the clouds and for stargazing.
Actually, Mauna Kea is considered one of the most ideal spots in the world for astronomical observation. As a result, it’s home to over a dozen of the world’s best observatories.
But getting to Mauna Kea summit isn’t that easy. The road up to the visitor’s center is curvy, but completely paved and doable, cut once you pass the visitors center, the road up to the summit requires 4WD.
In this post, I’m going to break down your options for exploring Mauna Kea summit beginning with a guided tour and wrapping up with tips for doing it yourself.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures
There are only a handful of outfits that offer guided tours up to the summit of Mauna Kea and I chose to travel with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. We were staying in Waikoloa and we met our guide, Maka, at the Queens’ Marketplace where we loaded up into a luxury van. There were 14 of us on the tour with Maka.
It was about an hour and 15 minute drive from Waikoloa to our first stop at the Mauna Kea visitor information center, but the time flew by as we made our introductions and listened to Maka tell us about the topography of the island including a breakdown of the five volcanoes that make up the island (Mauna Kea is the second oldest and after its last eruption it’s considered dormant).
Nearby Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on the island by far although its summit is 100 feet shorter from sea level than Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa makes up 2/3 of the size of the Big Island and is the largest volcano on the planet (although second to Mt. Olympus on Mars). It last erupted in 1984 and is long overdue for an eruption that will make Kilauea look like an infant volcano.
***Spoiler: IT’S ERUPTING! Moana Loa started erupting on November 27, 2022 and it’s A SITE TO SEE.
Before we knew it, we arrived at the visitor’s center (9280 feet in elevation) for dinner and to acclimate. It was actually pretty crowded since most of the tour groups seem to stop here for dinner. We had dinner (homemade veggie lasagna) and brownies and had plenty of time to use the restroom, fill up our water bottles, skim the gift shop and take a few pictures. It was chilly enough for me to wear my sweatshirt at the visitor’s center, but I didn’t need my parka yet (Maka passed them out when we got there).
After about 45 minutes at the visitor’s center, we loaded back up and headed up towards the summit. This is where the road turns to gravel and 4WD is required. I think it’s required as much for the incline as the terrain. We drove for a while and saw the most magnificent views (we were up above the cloud line) before pulling over for a quick photo stop.
Just as we were about to get back on the van to continue to the summit, we noticed a plume of dark gray smoke rising through the clouds. We were seeing a steam explosion from Kilauea!! None of the guides had ever seen it before (the recent steam explosions from the crater are very rare and the timing was incredible!) and it felt very special.
It didn’t take too long to get to the summit after that, and when we got out of the van it was cooooold so we quickly donned our parkas and mittens. I can’t even begin to describe how magical the summit was so I’ll defer to the photos, but safe to say I’ve never seen anything like it before.
The other Mauna Kea Summit Adventures tour guide (who was in a separate van with another 14 guests) gave a brief talk about the observatories at the summit (including pointing out which one was responsible for deleting Pluto as a planet) and then we were free to wander around a bit and watch the sunset.
It was surreal! We loaded back into the van just as the sun fully set since all vehicles have to leave the summit at sunset (headlights can disturb the evening’s observations) and descended a bit to a special spot where the guides set up two telescopes for some stargazing. We looked at about 5 or so planets/stars through the telescope including Venus, Jupiter (amazing!!), and the moon (incredible!!).
I had never looked through a high powered telescope before so that was pretty neat but I also enjoyed listening to Maka explain how to orient yourself in the night sky and was actually able to recognize several constellations that he showed us with his laser pointer (I’m terrible at spotting constellations). I’m not going to lie…even with a parka (hood up!) and gloves I was pretty cold, but I’m a wimp. I looked at the temperature once we got back in the van and it was only 42 degrees (Fahrenheit) but it felt way colder! We did take a break for hot chocolate (there was also coffee and hot tea) and biscotti so that helped.
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After stargazing, we got back in the van and started to make our descent. This is where I was really glad I wasn’t driving. I slept most of the way back to Waikoloa, but I know we did make a quick bathroom stop somewhere, and we got dropped off at Queens’ Center about 10:30.
I honestly can’t recommend this tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures enough! It really was the highlight of my trip. Not only was it nice being shuttled around and not having to worry about the logistics of where/when and driving, but having Maka’s narration really made it worthwhile.
Just a few tips if you do this tour:
Dress warm! Long pants, long sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, thick socks, and closed toe shoes.
Drink more water than you think you really need. The altitude is no joke.
Take it easy at the summit. Up there you’re above 40% of the atmosphere and 90% of moisture so it’s dry and you’ll likely have shortness of breath if you’re moving around a lot or talking too much.
This tour costs $281.73. You can book here.
***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Hawaii. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. On the Big Island, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Mauna Kea Hotel, Westin Hapuna Beach, and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott.
Mauna Kea Summit on Your Own
If upwards of $280/person is just too steep or you don’t want to devote the 6.5-7 hours to the guided tour, it is possible to do parts of it on your own. Here are some tips:
It’s easy enough to at least get to the visitor’s center on your own. The road is a little windy but completely paved.
There is a stargazing program held for the public at the Visitor’s Center on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 6PM-10PM. You can get more information here. It’s free to attend, although space is limited. ***The stargazing program is currently still suspended due to COVID. Check with the visitor center directly before your trip.
To get to the summit from the Visitor’s Center, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle, but most rental car companies won’t allow their vehicles up there. If you want to do this, consider booking with Harper Car and Truck Rentals.
The drive isn’t particularly challenging terrain (it’s fairly smooth gravel), but it’s pretty steep so you’re going to need good breaks and be comfortable downshifting. There have been fatalities on this road with drivers losing control of their vehicle. If you’re not comfortable with extreme mountain driving, I wouldn’t attempt it.
If you do make a go of it (or even just go to the Visitor’s Center), make sure you have a full tank of gas. There’s no gas on Mauna Kea.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Big Island vacation rentals for your trip.
A Note About Cultural Sensitivity
The last thing I’ll mention whether you take a guided tour or go at it on your own, is that visitors to Mauna Kea should be respectful and courteous of its significance to the Hawaiian people.
The summit of Mauna Kea is considered sacred in part because of its role in the birth story of the Hawaiian Islands and because it is believed to be the home of Poli’ahu, the snow goddess. Because of this, development of Mauna Kea (both tourism and building observatories) is controversial. Major protests (including roadblocks and many arrests) happened in 2014 and 2019 regarding a proposed observatory and you’ll still see signs expressing local’s frustrations as you head up towards the Visitor’s Center.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about the Big Island: 28 things to do on the Big Island (that you can’t do anywhere else in Hawaii), plus things to do in Kona and in Hilo, a breakdown of where to stay on the Big Island comparing Kona and Hilo, the Big Island’s best beach resorts ranked, my favorite places to eat on the Big Island, my perfect 7 day Big Island itinerary, one day in Hilo, one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, four National Parks on the Big Island, stargazing at Mauna Kea, snorkeling and kayaking at Kealakekua Bay, a roundup of the best condos on the Big Island, my best Big Island travel tips, and reviews of the Fairmont Orchid and the Hilton Waikoloa Village.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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