The Top Mauna Kea Tours
The Big Island’s Maunakea has been a hot topic in recent times, undergoing everything from fierce protests to torrential rains to blankets of snow. But take away the commotion and what remains is the mountain Native Hawaiians deem the most sacred site in their North Pacific archipelago.
Understandably so. Soaring 13,769 feet above sea level, it’s not only the highest peak in the Hawaiian Islands but when measured from its underwater base, is also the tallest mountain on Earth. Physical attributes aside, it was and continues to be a sacrosanct place, and home to a number of Hawaiian deities. Its more common, contemporary spelling, Mauna Kea, translates to “White Mountain”—for the seasonal snow it sees—while “Maunakea,” as suggested by the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s School of Hawaiian Language, indicates the mountain of the Hawaiian deity, Wakea. Its majesty, its height, its remoteness, its dry air, and the clear, luminous sky that cradles it has rendered the dormant volcano one of the leading astronomical observation sites in the world. In addition to serving as the designated place of the proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT)—the cause of those aforementioned protests—it houses thirteen telescopes operated by astronomers from eleven different countries. In other words? The summit is the place to see the sky.
As such, tours to its peak abound across the Big Island, offering budding astronomers, avid stargazers, and early risers a chance to get this close to heaven. Here are the top Maunakea Tours we’d recommend—and why you should toss a sweater into your suitcase now:
Maunakea Stellar Explorer / KapohoKine Adventures
Helmed by a team that’s committed to sustainable tourism, the Maunakea Stellar Explorer is, well, stellar. Using a large aperture, 10-inch Dobsonian mounted telescope, ultra-widefield Televue, Explore Scientific brand eyepieces, and premium narrowband nebula filters, this trip is a feast for your eyes—and then some.
It all starts with a tour of historic Hilo town, where you’ll drive along the waterfront before being taken to the renowned Rainbow Falls (note: its name is literal). This will be followed by a picnic lunch atop caves and a drive between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea—two of the most massive volcanos in the world—before you’ll set up shop with their hi-tech equipment for some serious stargazing. Along the way, guides will fill you in on Hawaii’s history, geology, and volcanology—leaving you as impressed by the night sky as by Hawaii’s incredible formation.
Know Before You Go:
- Do note that this tour does not include a visit to Maunakea’s summit or visitor center (out of deference to Native Hawaiians’ concerns).
- Prefer to depart out of Kona/Kohala? Their Kohala adventure is quite similar—and maybe more conveniently located to your resort.
- Already looking forward to warming up? Not only are jackets provided but hot cocoa and coffee—as well as a locally-made, artisan dessert—are handed out during the tour.
Maunakea Summit & Stars / Hawaii Forest & Trail
Hawaii Forest & Trail was born from its co-founder’s belief that few visitors to Hawaii were given ample knowledge of the islands’ natural history. Combining his background in naturalism with his passion for the Aloha State, he created a tour company that would not only grant guests glimpses of Hawaii’s stunning scenery but also provide them with info on its culture, past, and geology. As one of the few outfits to establish relationships with private landowners, Hawaii Forest & Trail takes you to places that are otherwise inaccessible—including the location where you’ll savor a warm picnic dinner on their Maunakea Summit & Stars Tour.
Lasting between 7 and 8 hours, the journey will cart you from sea level to Maunakea’s astounding summit, where you’ll watch the sun slip behind the horizon in one of Hawaii Island’s unforgettable sunsets. Post-dusk, you’ll be driven to an elevation of 9,000 feet and offered the opportunity to view the night sky with their 11” Celestron telescope. All the while you’ll be treated to fascinating nuggets of information about Hawaii, including Hawaiians’ legacy of navigation.
Know Before You Go:
- Have a teenager in your crew? Perhaps consider a different tour—those 16 and younger are not permitted on this excursion, given that children are at a higher risk for altitude-related issues.
- Be prepared, clothes-wise: The average mean temp on Maunakea is an icy 32 degrees. Wear long pants and bring a jacket—possibly even mittens.
- Bonus points: This adventure is offered daily, and departs from the considerably warmer Kona side of the island.
The Original Sunset and Stargazing Tour / Mauna Kea Summit Adventures
As Owner and Guide of Mauna Kea Summit Adventures Monte “Pat” Wright puts it, “Mauna Kea kuahiwi ku haʻo ika malie”—or “Mauna Kea is the astonishing mountain that stands in the calm.”
He shows guests this to be true on his 7.5-8.5 tour of the striking volcano, which starts in mid-afternoon and ends when the stars are alight. He started the company nearly forty years ago with little more than an old Land Cruiser and a basket of sweaters, and while that pioneering spirit remains—his team brings 50-plus years of mountain experience to the excursion—his accommodations now are far more modern, including the 4 by 4 passenger vans, complete with large viewing windows and coach-style seating, that’ll ferry you to the mountain he revers. Following one of Mauna Kea’s dramatic sunsets, you’ll be given a hot, hearty meal and warm, gourmet drinks as he and/or his crew narrates everything from the Southern Cross to Polaris.
Know Before You Go:
- Worried about the cold temperature? Don’t be—at least overly so: Mauna Kea Summit Adventures offers guests Arctic-style hooded parkas and gloves.
- While Mauna Kea Summit Adventures has prohibitions similar to those mentioned above—no pregnant women or people with lung and heart disease and other serious conditions—Pat’s tour comes equipped with oxygen that’s carried on-board. Additionally, his guides are trained in the detection of hypoxia—a condition characterized by deprivation of adequate oxygen supply—and use pulse-ox meters to make diagnoses.
- Into wildlife? Keep your eyes peeled before dark: Along the way, you may see an array of local flora and fauna, including the nene goose, donkeys, bats, and native ‘ohia.
Mauna Kea Stargazing Experience / Epic Tours
Consider this: Mauna Kea is over 7,680 cu. mi. in volume. Meaning, it’s so immense that it and its neighbor volcano, Mauna Loa, depress the ocean crust underneath it by a whopping 4 miles. Is it any wonder why a journey to its summit is called epic?
Epic Tours delivers on their name’s promise. Maxing out at 7 guests, which gives the trip a chill, cozy feel, it’ll take you to one of Mauna Kea’s best stargazing spots in a luxury SUV, first stopping at the Onizuka Visitor Center (VIS) at 9,200 feet to get acclimatized before ascending to Mauna Kea’s acme for one of the Big Island’s glorious sunsets (including the “Mauna Kea Shadow” to the east). What’s more, you’ll have the chance to ponder the constellations through the lens of a $30K telescope—and meet an astrophysicist or astronomer.
Know Before You Go:
- Intent on capturing the splendor with more than your iPhone? Epic Tours offers portrait photo sessions under the stars or during sunset, as well as GoPro camera rentals.
- Expect the whole package: Dinner, drinks, transportation, and parkas come with this tour as well.
- If walking on the clouds amidst glittering planets and stars is high up on your bucket list, book this trip. It highlights all that is so exquisite about Hawaii.
Still can’t decide?
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