Mauna Kea sunsets and stargazing

Mar 12th, 2007, 11:15 PM
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Mauna Kea sunsets and stargazing

I'm going to the Big Island this August and I'm wondering if anyone has some advice on visiting Mauna Kea. I'm going to the visitors' center for sure for stargazing. I'm undecided though on whether it's worth the extra logistics of renting a 4WD to go up to the summit to watch the sunset. Do the clouds cooperate in August? Is driving from the visitor's center down to Hilo at night a problem? Any advice/experiences shared would be much appreciated.
perez74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2007, 12:32 PM
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I am interested in the answers you get to some of your questions, as we'll be going in September and I was wondering about going to the summit for sunset and driving back down in the dark.

When we were there 2 years ago, we drove our plain old rental sedan past the visitor center in the daytime to the summit and it was fine. There are about 5 miles of dirt road. It is very dusty and a bit washboardy, but it's a large road that they keep well graded. Then, the last mile or two to the summit is paved.
gigib is offline  
Mar 13th, 2007, 02:19 PM
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My husband and I visited the Big Island in August 2006 - I would definitely recommend a drive up Mauna Kea. We were kind of skeptical when we did it because we couldn't find any solid advice that wasn't outdated, but we decided to give it a go.

We left our condo in Hilo around 4:30 PM (and it was 90 degrees and cloudy). We brought our dinner along with us and made sure the rental car had a full tank of gas. Saddle Road is newly paved and has a double yellow line down the middle - a perfectly driveable road for our Chevy Malibu rental car. The steepness of the ascent didn't occur until we turned right onto the Mauna Kea Access Road, and we really didn't encounter any fight from the V6 motor until the last 200 feet leading up to the Visitor's Center. We arrived at the Visitor's center shortly after 5:30 PM and it was 52 degrees - almost a 40 degree difference in one hour!! We brought blankets from the condo we were staying in - I highly recommend this since it's more feasible than lugging a winter coat to Hawaii in August.

When we were approaching the Visitor's Center, there was a ranger standing there directing us into the parking lot (it was hard to see once we arrived due to the fog). He was advising people not to go any higher unless they had 4WD. We had no intentions of going further than the Visitor's Center. We were concerned when we got up there because at 9300 feet we were IN the clouds and it was very foggy and misty. The volunteers at the Visitor's center assured us that it would burn off - and they were correct!!! It was pretty cool actually - the clouds actually descended as the sun set, so I got some really cool photos with the clouds below us and the sun setting.

During sunset, the documentary "First Light" is played inside the Visitor's Center. It's a pretty long film, and so we only watched a portion of it because we were more interested in going outside and watching the spectacular sunset. There is a gift shop inside the center which sells souveniers as well as bottled water and some car supplies in case you need them.

After sunset, volunteers set up many telescopes on the patio. we were able to view many constellations as well as the planet Venus. We also were able to see the rings around Saturn and many of its moons!

We were lucky that our trip was timed around the peak of the Perseids Meteor Showers. We hung around the Visitor's Center for a few hours to watch the Meteor Showers. The sky was cloudless and it was amazing how far you could see. Venus was so bright that I was able to capture a photo of it with a regular digital camera!

There were probably 30-40 people at the Visitor's Center the night we were there. There were 5 or 6 volunteers as well who were VERY knowledgeable. (Many of them are astronomy students at the University of Hawaii). They pointed out things in the sky and answered questions.

The drive down the mountain back to Hilo was what we were worried about, but we experienced no problems. Although it's very dark, it's not a bad drive. As long as you have common sense, you'll be fine!

I don't think it's necessary to go all the way to the true summit of Mauna Kea. We didn't want to spend the money to rent a 4WD or pay for a tour that didn't allow us to do things on our own timeline. But that's a personal decision, so it just depends on what you want to do.

I would highly recommend a trip up Mauna Kea. The Big Island is so diverse. We explored the entire island and every day I felt like we were in a differnt part of the world!
TVChick16 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2007, 10:16 PM
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Thanks gigib and TVChick16 for the info. I'm pretty excited about Mauna Kea. What I failed to mention and realize for the summit is that my girlfriend has mild asthma (no attacks in years, an occasional puff of the inhaler before exercise). I'm assuming that this may put the summit out of the question (although in high school she did high-altitude cross-country training without a problem). Did either of you experience any altitude problems? Also, how was the sunset from the visitor's center? Thing is, I'm thinking of proposing to my girlfriend up there. Why not from on top of the world? Visually, it seems like it would be a memorable place, but I'd hate for the moment to be marred by bad conditions (and altitude sickness!)
perez74 is offline  
Mar 14th, 2007, 09:22 AM
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Just a thought -- I think that car rental agreements still say that you cannont take a rental on Saddle Road. It is specially stated in the contract. {Per our 10/7 visit}.

Better be sure cause if you have a problem, there isn't anything on that road and it will cost you big time.
DebitNM is offline  
Mar 22nd, 2007, 09:38 AM
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It was stated nowhere in our rental contract that we could not take our car on Saddle Road. I think this used to be the case, but since the road has been upgraded it is a non-issue. I was weary at first, but after experiencing it first hand I would have no qualms about doing it again.

As for the asthma issue, I also have acute asthma and did not experience any breathing problems or altitude sickness at the Visitor's Center. I would however be more cautious if you decide to go past the visitor's center since the incline is sudden and would take you longer to get aclimated.

The sunset at the Visitor's Center was beautiful, although the terrain is not the most romantic. There are many spots in Hawaii that would be perfect for a proposal - many more beautiful than atop Mauna Kea. But I'm a beach person, so that's just my opinion!
TVChick16 is offline  
Mar 23rd, 2007, 09:55 AM
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It has been a few years since I was there so I'm not sure if anything has changed. At the top of Mauna Kea is the official highpoint of Hawaii and also observatories owned by a number of different countries. There was a shrine to native Hawaiians but at the time there was talk about stopping access to it. I think there were scheduled tours of one of the observatories. We did see the giant doors go up on two of them while we were there. We stopped at the center first and were told to wait for one hour before going to the top to acclimate to the altitude. I didn't have any problems the first time I visited. But the second time when I went with my family, both my daughter and I had to use our inhalers on the way down to the center. We went specifically to get to the highpoint but the view and the sunset were both worth the trip IMO. There was quite a temperature difference at the top so take warm clothes.
mileaday is offline  
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