Big Island Places

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Mauna Kea

Getting Here and Around

The summit of Mauna Kea is only 34 mi from Hilo and 18 from Waimea, but the drive takes about an hour and a half from Hilo and an hour from Waimea thanks to the steep drive. Between the ride there, sunset on the summit, and stargazing, we recommend allotting at least four hours for your Mauna Kea visit.

To reach the summit, you must drive on Saddle Road, which used to be a narrow, rough, winding highway, but has recently been rerouted and repaved, and is now a beautiful shortcut across the middle of the island (except for that stretch near Waimea). The road to the Visitor Center at Mauna Kea is fine, but the road from there to the summit is a bit more precarious—unpaved and very steep—although most cars can make it up slowly and 4-wheel-drive vehicles won't have any trouble at all. If you're worried about your rental making the drive, you can still head for the summit with one of a handful of tour operators who will take care of everything. If you plan to drive yourself, fill up on gas and bring water and snacks and warm clothes with you, as there is nowhere along the way to stock up.

The second thing, which is extremely important to remember, is the altitude. Take the change in altitude seriously—stop at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour, and don't overexert yourself, especially at the top. Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours before attempting a trip to the summit to avoid getting the bends. The observatory recommends that children under 16, pregnant women, and those with heart, respiratory, or weight problems not go higher than the Visitor Center.

The last potential obstacle: it's cold, as in freezing. The military personnel stationed in Hawaii do their cold-weather training atop Mauna Kea. It's difficult to find cold weather clothing in Hawaii, so, if you plan to visit Mauna Kea, pack your favorite warm things from home.

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