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A Guide To Stargazing On Mauna Kea in Hawaii

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The Big Island is one of our favourite Hawaiian islands. Not just because stargazing on Mauna Kea is an incredible experience, but because there are so many epic things to do here.

All of Hawaii’s islands were formed from volcanic rock millions of years ago – and The Big Island is where you can really see it!

Here, you can walk through mammoth volcanic craters to see lava rocks and puffs of steam erupting from the cracks in the ground.

You can wander through lava tubes to see underground tunnels, which have been carved out by lava.

You can head to Kīlauea at night to see molten lava bubbling and swirling around this active volcano.

And then you can venture to the top of Hawaii’s most famous volcano, Mauna Kea, to see a fiery sunset above the clouds and a stargazing experience that is truly out of this world!

So, without further adieu, here’s everything you need to know about sunsets and stargazing on Mauna Kea in Hawaii…

Stargazing On Mauna Kea In Hawaii

In Hawaiian, Mauna Kea is short for “Mauna a Wakea” which means “the mountain belonging to the sky.” She’s a dormant volcano but hasn’t erupted for over 4,500 years.

At an incredible 13,798 feet, the million-year-old Mauna Kea mountain may not have the highest summit in the world, but it’s technically the tallest! There’s another 19,700 foot worth of mountain below sea level.

Nowadays, Mauna Kea is most famous for the Mauna Kea Observatory, which is the world’s largest astronomical observatory and home to more than a dozen industrial telescopes.

Mauna Kea Observatory

And we think stargazing on Mauna Kea is not just the perfect Hawaii bucket list item – but a total bucket list thing to do in general!

On a clear day, Mauna Kea offers views across the island and beyond. You can even see some of Hawaii’s neighbouring islands in the far distance.

Once dusk starts to fall, you’ll be treated to a picture-perfect sunset above the clouds before descending down to 9,200 feet to gaze at the stars and Milky Way from the Mauna Kea Visitor Center.

Mauna Kea Sunset

The reason you’ll have to descend back down the mountain once the sun has set is that the telescopes up here are conducting important experiments and observations of the stars, which can’t be impacted by anything tourists are doing.

The Mauna Kea Observatory closes to the public from around 7 pm as this is when the astronomers need to start their work. Expect to start being ushered down the mountain from about 6.45 pm.

But if you get here ready for about 6 o’clock then you’ll have the chance to see epic views and a divine sunset first where the clouds look like they’re on fire!

Mauna Kea Sunset
Sunset above the clouds in Hawaii

As for stargazing on Mauna Kea, even at 9,000 feet, you can still see thousands upon thousands of stars. There are a few telescopes dotted around the Visitor Center for you to use but you’ll probably spot long queues.

The best bit is that you actually don’t need a telescope to enjoy stargazing on Mauna Kea. So clear is the sky and so high up is the mountain that you’ll be able to spot so many different constellations and even the Milky Way with just the naked eye.

Stargazing On Mauna Kea in Hawaii

Our tour guide used a blue laser light to point out various constellations to us, which was so helpful. We remember standing there and staring up at the sky for what must have been about an hour – and we were completely in awe the entire time!

If this sounds like an experience you want to have on your trip to Hawaii then here are our top tips for visiting plus some handy info on how to make it happen.

Top Tips For Stargazing On Mauna Kea

If you’re planning a stargazing trip to Mauna Kea then here are our quick fire tips for your visit.

1. Acclimatise at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center first!

This is very important. Mauna Kea is one of only a few places in the entire world where you can drive from sea level to over 13,000 feet in as little as two hours, so you’ll need to give your body time to adjust.

Altitude sickness comes from a lack of oxygen from being up so high and you might experience a shortness of breath, headaches, or just a general feeling of being tired.

Stay at the Visitor Center for about an hour to keep an eye on how you’re doing and only venture to the Mauna Kea Observatory if you’re feeling okay.

A good way to while away this time is to try and find the native Ahinahina (Silversword) plant, which grows in groups on Mauna Kea within a few minutes walk of the Visitor Center.

Seeing them is like seeing some kind of alien species in a sci-fi movie!

Hawaii Silversword Plant
Ahinahina (Silversword) Plant

2. Drink hot chocolate to speed up acclimatisation

We have no idea whether this is just a myth, but our tour guide recommended that we all drink some hot chocolate to help speed up our acclimatisation.

Not knowing anything about high altitudes at the time, we all listened. Just one man on our tour had to descend the mountain due to altitude sickness, so maybe the hot chocolate did help after all?

Either way, it only cost us $1 to buy a cup of hot chocolate from the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, so we felt like it was worth it at the time.

3. Wear warm clothes

The temperatures, especially at night, can really drop at the top of Mauna Kea (even in the summer), so make sure you’re prepared by wearing plenty of warm layers.

Our tour guide gave us all extra layers during our trip to Mauna Kea, which we were made to wear, so yours might do the same.

4. Consider bringing your own telescope or binoculars

It can get very busy at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, which is where you’ll do your stargazing from.

With only a couple of telescopes available for public use, you could find yourself waiting in line for some time.

The good thing is that you don’t need a telescope to see the constellations and Milky Way from the top of Mauna Kea. But if you want to see the stars in detail and don’t want to wait in line for a telescope, then consider bringing your own or a pair of binoculars.

5. Don’t go on the Mauna Kea summit

The Mauna Kea Observatory, where you can watch the sunset from, is over 13,000 feet up the mountain, but this isn’t the official summit of Mauna Kea.

The summit is another couple of hundred feet up and is behind the observatory, so you can see it from where the telescopes are.

Mauna Kea Summit
The Mauna Kea summit as seen from the Mauna Kea Observatory

You’ll probably also see some people hiking to the top of the Mauna Kea summit, but please don’t be tempted to join them!

The land is sacred to Hawaiian people and they deem it highly offensive to set foot on that part of the mountain. Stick to where the observatories are and you’re less likely to offend anyone. The views from here are still out of this world!

Above the clouds on Mauna Kea in Hawaii

Getting To Mauna Kea

The Mauna Kea Visitor Center is simple enough to get to from the main road.

But if you want to get to the observatory then you’ll need a 4×4 for the final section. The roads leading away from the Visitor Center are more like dirt tracks than roads and are steep and winding.

If you’re renting a car, check you’re insured to go beyond the Visitor Center (as you’ll technically be “off-roading”) and that your car has four-wheel drive.

RELATED: A Guide To Planning Your First Trip To Hawaii

Mauna Kea Stargazing Tours

If you’d rather not drive yourself then there are a few tour companies that provide great Mauna Kea stargazing tours.

Ours was with the folks from Arnott’s Lodge, which was excellent. We booked both a Mauna Kea tour and a tour around Volcanoes National Park with them.

Otherwise, here are some other Mauna Kea stargazing tours to check out:

Viator also has some great options:

Where To Stay On The Big Island

As the name suggests, The Big Island is Hawaii’s biggest island, so you’ve got a few options of where you could stay.

We think staying in Hilo, the Kona region or near Volcanoes National Park offers the best selection of accommodation, tours and things to do.

We flew into Hilo during our trip, so we based ourselves there and found a room at Arnott’s Lodge, which was a comfortable and affordable stay. They were also running an offer at a time where we could get a discount off their tours to Mauna Kea and Volcanoes National Park, so this made sense for us at the time.

Here are some other places to stay within these regions that come highly rated by other travellers:

More Epic Things To Do On The Big Island

Beyond sunsets and stargazing on Mauna Kea, there are lots of other fantastic things to do on The Big Island. Here are a few definite must-sees and must-dos.

Explore Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is a short drive south of Mauna Kea and has so many incredible experiences to offer you.

From admiring the free lava show of the Kīlauea volcano at night to walking through volcanic craters and lava tubes, it’s a must for any Hawaii bucket list.

Hiking through Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii
Hiking through Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii

Marvel at the underwater wildlife

Hawaii is a haven for water lovers – and The Big Island of Hawaii is no different.

Off the shores of the Kona region on the western side of the island, you can go whale watching and even snorkel with manta rays at night!

Check out Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls in Hawaii

Rainbow Falls is a waterfall just a short drive away from Mauna Kea. Most Mauna Kea stargazing tours will also stop off at Rainbow Falls along the way, or you can drive there yourself.

The waterfall gets its name because you can often see rainbows in front of the waterfall. But the surrounding woodland walks are also well worth taking the time to do while you’re here – even if only for a short while.

See the sights of Hilo

Hilo is The Big Island’s largest town, and as it has one of the island’s airports nearby, you might choose to stay in this area for your trip anyway.

In Hilo, make it your mission to wander around the downtown area. Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, a Japanese-inspired park, is pretty and tranquil while the Hilo Bay Cafe has great views from their outdoor terrace and serves delicious food (especially desserts!)

A short walk from downtown Hilo is Keaukaha Beach Park, which is another must-see. Being here feels like you’re sitting on your own private deserted island surrounded by palm trees.

Discover more things to do in Hilo >>

Keaukaha Beach Park near Hilo Hawaii

Try some Kona coffee

Kona coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world and now accounts for over 95% of all coffee grown on The Big Island.

Ask any local and they’ll tell you: “Kona coffee is the best!” 

In fact, they love their homegrown coffee so much that an annual festival – the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival – seeks to celebrate 200+ years of coffee heritage in Hawaii. 

So prized is their coffee that a 100% Kona coffee package is frequently described as 24 carats!

Definitely pick some up or grab a cup of it while you’re on The Big Island.

Travel to one of the other Hawaiian islands

There are eight main Hawaiian islands in total. While some are not commonly visited by tourists, it’s common for most Hawaiian itineraries to include at least two islands.

After all, each island has its own vibe, flair and bucket list things to do.

Hawaii Buddhist Temple on Oahu Byodo-In Temple
Byodo-In Temple on the island of Oahu

If it’s your first time island hopping in Hawaii then you’ll find it really easy to catch domestic flights between Oahu, Maui and The Big Island. 

Some cruises also dock at multiple islands so you’ve got options when it comes to island hopping around Hawaii.

Check out our guide to find out more about the other islands >>

RELATED: Hawaii Big Island Itinerary: 3 Incredible Days on The Big Island

We hope this guide to stargazing on Mauna Kea helps you with your trip! Is there anything else you want to know? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll reply asap!

A Guide To Stargazing On Mauna Kea in Hawaii

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Justine Jenkins

Justine is one half of the married couple behind the Wanderers of the World travel blog. She lives in Bristol, UK and has travelled extensively within Europe and beyond since 2013. After her trips, she shares detailed travel itineraries, helpful travel guides and inspiring blog posts about the places she's been to. When she's not travelling overseas, you'll find her joining her husband, Scott on various day trips, weekend getaways and walks within the UK, which she also writes about on Wanderers of the World. Aside from travelling and writing, she also loves reading, crafting and learning about nature.

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