Mauna Kea Summit Tour: Sunset, Telescopes, Stars, and Parkas in Hawaii

Big Island – Day 4 – Part 3

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Mauna Kea Summit sunset and telescopes

When ever I ask my Dad if there is anything specific he wanted to do in Hawaii, he always said it doesn’t matter. But one day he actually requested to go to one specific place on the Big Island: Mauna Kea Summit.

Mauna Kea is an old dormant volcano that is about 4,205 m (13,796 ft) high above sea level, and that is the highest point in Hawaii. Anyone and any car can make their way to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station but you can’t go beyond that point unless you have a four-wheel drive (if you’re counting, this is the third place on the island that has driving restrictions).

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On our way up to the Mauna Kea Summit, and telescopes near the summit. And already above the clouds.

Mauna Kea means “white mountain” in Hawaiian and is considered to be a sacred place for Hawaiians. I think its called the “white mountain” because it actually snows here in the winter, but as we were driving up it made me feel like a white mountain as we drove through the clouds and ended up with a view of clouds below us.

Although it is considered a sacred place, the summit houses thirteen telescopes from eleven different countries.

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Standing above the clouds

When we were doing some research on visiting the Mauna Kea Summit, we found that it was not going to be easy to gett a car to drive up to the summit and Dad wanted to see the big telescopes. Stopping at the Visitor Information Station was probably not what he wanted. We decided to join a tour as much as I didn’t want to. I’ve experienced traveling in a tour and experienced traveling along tourists in a tour group and learned to not like either very much. But we felt that the tour would be our best (and easiest) option to see the Mauna Kea Summit.

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There are several tour companies that run Mauna Kea Summit tours and prices were all pretty much the same. I ended up booking through BigIslandDiscount.com. And they booked us on a tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail. The tour includes pick up (possibly from where you’re staying), dinner, tour to the summit, and time do some star gazing. The Hawaii Forest & Trail website shows the tour to be $199/person +tax, but I got it for about $175/person +tax. And even without the discount, I think the tour was well worth it and did not feel like other tours I’d been on (mainly in China).

We originally planned to join the tour on day 1 but couldn’t miss (extended) family time, so we changed it to day 4. The change meant that we had to drive back to the Kona side of the island from the Hilo side, but this gave us an opportunity to drive all the way around the island. Our pick up location got changed from the condos we were staying at (it would have been so convenient) to the Queen’s Market Place near the Kona resorts. Pick up time at 3:10pm and we would be dropped off back at the Queen’s Market Place at about 11pm.

We gave ourselves a little bit of extra time and arrived at Queen’s Market Place a little early so that we can pick up snacks and change into some warmer clothes. Yes, you read right. We needed to change into long pants, closed toed shoes, and put on a sweater or light jacket because there are apparently four seasons in Hawaii. If we were in Hawaii during the winter months, we may even see snow. That is because of the high elevation we will be going up to at the Mauna Kea Summit and that also brings up health concerns for some (so keep in mind that it is not recommended for some people to go to the summit). I know it was a concern for quite a few people because the air much thinner etc. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere higher then this, but the elevation didn’t bother me very much. The cold bothered me a little more.

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The drive to Mauna Kea was much like driving through Kona; pretty felt like nothing. But as you can see in the pictures above, the scenery changed a little bit and really reflected the how big and different areas of the island can be and all of that was just during out drive from Kona to the Mauna Kea (located in the center of the island).

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It was a perfect start for the tour. The old abandoned buildings and forest in the background made for one of my favorite pictures of Hawaii and it really looked nothing like Hawaii.

It’s a small tour group of 14 people, and half of them were already picked up at a different location. Our tour guide made a quick stop at Island Lava Java Bistro and Brew (we were there for breakfast a few days ago), and from there they took us to a mysterious place for dinner. I believe is was an old bunker of some sort about half way up the mountain. They had a canopy set up with picnic tables set up for the tour groups and I believe Hawaii Forest & Trail was the only group that served dinner here (my relatives joined a different tour and had dinner at the Visitor Information Station).

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Dinner selections are either Barbecue Chicken (served hot) with Lemon-Mint Quinoa and a Dinner Roll; or a Vegetarian Tofu Wrap (served cold) with Peanut Dipping Sauce, Lemon-Mint Quinoa and a Dinner Roll. Mom, Dad, and Sister got the Barbeque Chicken and I got the Tofu Wrap (just because I wanted to try it). I was quite excited that the food was from Island Lava Java Bistro and Brew, but it really wasn’t anything special.

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Although it was already getting cold, Dad was still ok with his T-shirt (for a little bit).

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One of the few plants you can find growing on the mountain. It’s an endangered plant.

After dinner, we were given our parkas (we had to request our sizes when we booked our tour) and we continued our assent up Mauna Kea. Along our way to the summit our tour guide made a few stops, one at the Visitor Information Center for a bathroom break, and other stops giving us a little bit of history and information about Mauna Kea. You really start feeling the cold at each of these stops.

I think these stops also helped everyone adjust to the elevation. The higher we got, the more our tour guide was reminding us that we should take it easy. I guess you just don’t want to be running around at this elevation.

I started out with my sweater (wind breaker), the parka, and then it was zipped up all the way with gloves on.

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We stopped at a few of the telescopes and satellites that were not quite at the summit and finally made it to the summit where I saw one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen. Standing at over 4,000 meters watching the sun set into the clouds sure was breath taking. It almost felt as though I was in an airplane, but the telescopes in the foreground made sure to remind me that I was standing on a mountain.

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The summit was crowded with quite a few other tour groups and as the sun was setting, the wind was starting to get to us and it just got really cold. I never though I’d be this cold wearing a parka in Hawaii.

After the sunset, everyone was loaded back onto the tour bus and started to descend Mauna Kea, of course not without a bathroom break. This time bathrooms are just a few porta potties and there sure are long lines for them since everyone is trying to use them before heading down. You may want to bring a flashlight because it got dark very very fast.

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140901f_MaunaKea184817Our tour was not quite done yet. We pulled over on the side of the road for some star gazing 101. Our tour guide served us some brownies and hot chocolate an then set up his telescope. Of course it’s nothing compared to the big telescopes at the summit, but still a very nice telescope. We have a telescope at home and I learned how to find the north star and the big/small dipper from my own balcony but that’s all I’ve ever done before. I couldn’t take any pictures because it was so dark, but this was the perfect place to just look up and see stars. It’s hard to find a place to really do some star gazing in the city nowadays.

Even without the telescope, out tour guide pointed out astrology signs and gave us the basics. The telescope was where we got a closer look at stars, galaxies, etc. Honestly, they all just looked a little bigger and maybe a little brighter even with his very very fancy telescope. As the night went on, it got colder for me (my leggings were not keeping me warm at all).

We had a final stop at the Visitor Information Center for a final bathroom break (the bathrooms are open 24 hours, the center is not). And finally a quiet drive back to our drop off point, giving me time to take a nap before my long 1.5 hour drive back to our apartment in Honomu on the Hilo side of the island.

I took tons of pictures, and had such a hard time going through all of my pictures. Below are a few more of my favorites.

Standing Above the Clouds

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The Sunset

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The Telescope
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And More

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Mauna Kea Visitor Information StationOfficial Website Big Island DiscountOfficial Website Hawaii Forest & TrailOfficial Website
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