A Little Planning Helps When Headed Up to Mauna Kea


Planning is not always my strong suit. Sure I can get us to some far off destinations, but once we hit the ground I don’t always have all of the information I need to get the most out of a sight. I have my post-it note with our top list of attractions to check out, but sometimes that’s all we have to go on. Mike generally reads up on things once we arrive. He is not a before trip planner, he leaves that to me. I’m not sure that is always the best idea.

Our time on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii had come to an end. We were headed towards Hilo (the east side) for a week of exploring. We had already driven the northern route around the island. We decided to cut through the middle via Saddle Road and detour up Mauna Kea to check out the observatories on our way.

Clouds roll across Saddle Road

Lava patterns filled the landscape

The drive brought us through some unknown landscape. We started off seeing lava fields with grass popping through the cracks. Farmland took over after a bit with cows grazing here and there. As the altitude soared the landscape became more barren and even wilder. Endless fields of black lava took over. Clouds rolled across the road in front of us. Apparently we had driven to an alien planet, something we were finding a lot of here on the island.

The climb up to the Mauna Kea visitor center was shrouded in fog with warning signs of cows crossing. Thankfully no cows were injured by our drive up. Suddenly we burst through the cloud and were greeted by a clear blue sky. We had arrived at last. It was really cold!

Where the cows hide out just waiting to jump in front of your car

I grabbed my sweatshirt and threw on some jeans over my shorts. I had researched enough to know it could get mighty cold on the mountain. If the observatory could see snow on this tropical island, which it had the day before,  than it must be a bit chilly from time to time. Mike threw pants and a hoodie on Dek. We got out to explore.

I’m sad to report that this is the highest we got to go up the mountain. I was pregnant and Dek was too young. A sign posted at the visitor’s center told us of the dangers of altitude sickness and all the people who should not try to reach the 14,000-foot summit where the observatories stood. Even people who were in amazing shape had stopped to each lunch and acclimate to the 9,200 feet at the visitor’s center for an hour.

Those on their way up to 14,200 feet take a rest to eat and adjust to the altitude at 9,200 feet

A little experiment at 9200 feet

Four-wheel drive was also recommended, which we didn’t have. Honestly this wouldn’t have stopped us. We had already driven roads in our little rental car that were for 4WD only. We did listen to the health warnings for Dek and me though. Heck, even scuba divers had a special warning in the altitude sickness sign at the visitor center and on the website.

At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain.  Anyone in poor health should consult their physician before planning a visit to Mauna Kea.  We do not recommend anyone who is pregnant to go further than the VIS.  People under the age of 16 should not go any further because their bodies are still developing and they are affected more rapidly when going to a high altitude.  If you plan to scuba dive, do not plan to go up to the summit within 24 hours after your dive.

Watch a little presentation on the observatory and research being done

Space snacks and paraphernalia are all available at the visitor center gift shop

The visitor center was interesting, just not as cool as seeing some of the worlds most coveted observatories. Scientists wait years for a chance to peek through those telescopes and observe stars, galaxies and nebula. True these are private facilities that we would not be able to access on a random day, but at least we could have looked at them from the outside.

We were visiting during the day, so no stars were out. If I had actually done any research and planning ahead of time we would have gone up at night to view the stars through the center’s telescopes via the free Stargazer’s Program. They had experts on hand to tell you about what you were seeing. The sun set around 6pm. Even with Dek’s bedtime we could have snuck a peek for an hour or so.

Now if I had really been smart I would have known that there was a solar telescope available during the day. We could have looked directly at the sun without hurting our eyes. How cool would that have been? Of course, you have to do some planning and research to know that one too.

Given how clear the sky was in the middle of the day, it was no wonder so many people head here after dark to marvel at the heavens. We might have missed some of the coolest aspects of the visitor’s center, but we did get to see some of their nifty gear and peer at the mountain people say you can snowboard if they get enough snow. Our planning will be much better next time and you can bet you will see us there after dark, maybe even with snowboards in hand.

The drive back down to Saddle Road to get to Hilo

Little hills in the distance break up the lava field landscape

Know Before You Go

  • The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station is open 9am-10pm, 365 days a year.
    • A small shop stocks a limited amount of food and your usual clothing, space snacks and other astronomy inspired gifts and paraphernalia.
  • There is no gas station on Mauna Kea. Make sure you have a full tank before you head up.
  • Restrooms are open 24 hours a day
  • A solar telescope is available during the day to view the sun.
  • The Stargazer Program is open daily from 6pm to 10pm, no matter the weather. It is free to all who visit.
  • Dress warmly. Even though you are technically in the tropics, at 9,200 feet it can get very cold, even close to freezing at night.
  • If you are pregnant, in poor health or under 16 years old do not plan on going past the visitor center. There are multiple warnings against it, but ultimately it is your call. Just be warned that even the healthiest person can be struck down by altitude sickness. It is nothing to mess with.
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Showing 6 comments
  • Becca@R We There Yet Mom?

    With the lava fields, it does look like a foreign planet- so cool! Thanks for showing us a part of HI that we don’t get to see!

    And thanks for linking up! Have a wonderful day!


  • Lisa

    Don’t be so hard on yourself – if you know what you want to see then you’ve done a pretty good job of planning. I know people that head off on vacation with no idea what they are going to do when they get there! I do all our planning at home but once we get to our destination then my husband is in charge of getting us where I want to go. I have no sense of direction and I’m not very good with a map so he has no choice but to take over.

    Mauna Kea looks pretty cool. We drove up Haleakala when we were in Maui and it was pretty cold at the top there too. It’s funny about timing – everyone tries to get to the top of Haleakala for sunrise which is supposed to be spectacular. It means leaving your hotel at about 3am though and there’s no way to do that with kids (at least not with mine). I’m sure sunrise was amazing but it’s still pretty darn spectacular at midday. And I’m sure Mauna Kea was amazing at the top or at night but what you saw was pretty darn spectacular too!

  • Steve

    Lisa’s right (especially about the kids not wanting to get up at 3am). If you’d shown up at night, you would have wondered how great the views were in the day. Also, imagine how sneaky those cows can be under cover of the night! Just a great excuse to go back again, maybe with a babysitter for the kids so you can show us all what it looks like from the very top (Lord knows I’m not going up there).

  • Myra

    I always plan, then forget the information and have to wing it on-site, then kick myself later when I find my info. 🙂 I remember seeing those lava fields when I was 16 – felt like another planet. (I like the update to your site!)

  • Sonja

    There are pros and cons to everything. I’m an überplanner and when we go on vacation my husband complains that I’m not flexible enough and get upset when things don’t go as planned.

  • Michelle

    My husband was just there for training. He said they were above the clouds. I’m getting good ideas for our trip this fall but I will need more time!

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