Mauna Kea | Big Island

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on The Big Island that is approximately one million years old with its last eruption dated about 4,600 years ago. Scientists continue to monitor the volcano for activity on a regular basis to ensure the safety of those that work at the observatory, the daily visitors, and the community.

Measured above sea level, Mauna Kea sits at 13,803 feet and is the tallest mountain in Hawaii. When measured from sea level, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world at 33,500 feet in elevation. This elevation allows The Big Island to receive snowfall on its dry summit during the winter months. The summit is full of cinder and surrounded by lava rocks and observatories from around the world.

There are certain precautions to consider before visiting Mauna Kea. One of the most important as that you do not plan a trip to Mauna Kea if you have recently participated in a scuba diving session. It is recommended that you wait at least 24 hours after a dive before traveling to Mauna Kea due to its high elevation. Also, those who are pregnant, under the age of 16, or have heart or breathing problems are not recommended to travel pass the Mauna Kea visitor center.


Ancient Hawaiian mythology, which is still believed and practiced today by many Native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents, says that mountain peaks are sacred places. Mauna Kea is no exception and is one of the most sacred in Hawaii. In ancient times, Native Hawaiian chiefs would be the only ones allowed to make the journey to the summit of Mauna Kea. Other Native Hawaiians are believed to have lived on the slopes of Mauna Kea where they hunted in the forests for food. This is proven with the many Hawaiian artifacts that have been found, and continue to be found, in this area. Today the mountain is home to some of the world’s observation telescopes that sit at the summit of Mauna Kea. Currently, Mauna Kea is home to 13 observatories. This is an important issue amongst Native Hawaiians who understand and continue to believe in their ancestors’ past practice that the mountain is sacred ground and is to be respected for the area’s endangered species and Native Hawaiian cultural practices.


The first road to the summit of Mauna Kea was opened in 1964. The road has improved and you can access the summit of Mauna Kea with a 4-wheel drive vehicle only. The roads are usually open, except during time of heavy snowfall. From either the east or west side of The Big Island, you can visit Mauna Kea by way of Saddle Road (Highway 200). The improvement to this road has made it safer to travel, allowing many rental car companies to now allow travel on Saddle Road. The turnoff road that leads up the slopes of Mauna Kea is clearly marked, so you won’t be able to miss the Mauna Kea Access Road. As you make the drive up the slopes you will first come to a visitor center. Traveling pass the visitor’s center to the summit, you will be greeted with steep roads that wind on the side of the mountain turning from a paved roadway to a gravel roadway as you near the top.

Mauna Kea State Park

Before heading up to Mauna Kea, if you are coming from the east side of Saddle Road, you can take a nice rest stop on the slopes of Mauna Kea at the Mauna Kea State Park, which is at the 6,500 feet elevation. This area is usually sunny, but windy and chilly. There are restroom facilities here, as well as drinking water and a picnic area. You can enjoy the majestic views of the summit of Mauna Kea while you enjoy a quick break from the long drive. This park is a great area to relax and prepare yourself for your day’s adventure at the higher elevations of Mauna Kea. There is no entry fee and the park is open daily.

Mauna Kea Visitor Center

Located on the Mauna Kea Access Road, the newly named Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Center is at the 9,200 feet elevation of Mauna Kea. The visitor center is named after NASA astronaut, Ellison Onizuka, the first astronaut from Hawaii, who died on January 28, 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded minutes after liftoff. The visitor center is open daily, all year round, from the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. There is staff and rangers available to answer any questions you may have about your visit to Mauna Kea, as well as a bookstore, food for sale, restrooms, microwave, and hot water containers. There are telescopes available at this elevation between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. This is the furthest that those who are under 16 years of age, pregnant, have heart conditions, or other breathing or health related problems, because the amount of oxygen diminishes as you travel further up the mountain.

Stargazing Program

Even if you may not be a good candidate to travel to the summit of Mauna Kea, there are still activities that you can participate in. The visitor center holds a Stargazing Program from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p. m. every night, offering the clearest views of the night’s sky. The nightly program begins with a short movie about Mauna Kea, educating visitors on the history, astronomy relevance and importance, and the Native Hawaiian culture for full understanding of Mauna Kea and its significance in Hawaii. Visitors are then led outside to the telescopes for viewing of the stars, planets, and galaxies.

Summit Tour Program

The Summit Tour Program is only available on Saturday and Sunday all year round. To participate in this tour, you must be at the visitor center no later than 1:00 p.m. This will give you some time to get accustomed to the elevation and lower oxygen level. You will also need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to participate in the caravan to the summit. The entire drive takes approximately 30 minutes, following the safe speed limit of 25 miles per hour due to the dangerous road conditions. The guided tour begins at one of the observatories that is open to the public at the time, where you will get to observe large telescopes and the areas where scientists study astronomy. The tour ends at approximately 4:30 p.m., at which time you can travel back down the mountain with the caravan or stay at the summit enjoying the view for a little longer.

Mauna Kea Trail (Humuula Trail)

There is also the option of traversing to the top of Mauna Kea by foot. The entire hike is approximately five hours to the top and three hours to return to the visitor center where you need to register for the hike. It is best to begin your hike early in the day to allow for adequate daylight time. Prepare for this hike over steep inclines, loose cinder rocks, and lava rocks by wearing comfortable shoes; preferably hiking boots with warm socks. In addition, bring sunscreen, lip block, a hat, sunglasses, long jeans or pants, long sleeve shirt, jacket, snacks, aspirin in the event you get a headache, dust mask to warm the air before you breathe it in, a compass, and lots of water. Stay on the trail at all times and do not remove rocks or any artifacts that you may come upon. There is no camping or fires allowed on the mountain. Six miles from the visitor center are porta-potties that you should take advantage of, as there will be no other restrooms available on your hike up the mountain. The total hike is seven miles with signs to guide you along the entire hiking trail. Once you reach the summit, you can visit the Keck visitor gallery that has water and flushing toilets. The gallery is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. daily. If at any time after or during your hike you feel nauseated, dizzy, have a lack of appetite, or difficulty breathing it is advised that you seek medical treatment immediately.