Why you should go to Mauna Kea at sunset
“How are you not wearing gloves right now?”
Our new travel buddies, Garrian and Mary, were staring at me like I was half crazy. I was so concentrated on taking photos I could barely feel how cold it was.
We’d finally made it all the way to the top of Mauna Kea- Hawaii’s tallest dormant volcano at almost 14,000 feet.
I’d gotten as close as the Visitor’s Center on my last visit but without a 4×4 there was no getting up to the summit. Alternatively, you could take a tour to the summit but those are expensive. This time around, we rented a Jeep and with our new buddies we layered ourselves until we resembled mummies to brave the chilly sunset together.
The excitement level at the summit is overpowering. I fussed about getting a ‘good’ spot to set up the tripod to watch the sunset, and as we waited we watched all the tour groups make their way up the mountain. Again I stress how much better it is to rent your own car so you can be on your own time frame. There wasn’t any rush to leave. I waited a long time to see this.
What I adore about sunsets is the changing of the colors. In just one sunset you can see a kaleidoscope of colors. It was wildly romantic and I made sure to sneak in some smooches.
Although we’d made it to the summit, conditions for night time star gazing would be perfect in a few hours. No one wanted to wait that long, so we ventured down back to the visitors center.
When they tell you it’s cold at the summit, pay attention. It IS very cold. Our friends were freezing. It wasn’t as windy as I thought, of which I was glad for. Nevertheless the chill factor went up as the time went on. Back at the visitors center, the only way to get really great photos was to either: 1)Cross the street with your flashlight and make your way up the small hill to avoid the light trails from the coming/going cars or 2) Stay at the summit and wait till all the cars leave. Also, on the way down, you can park where it seems safe (off the road) and set up your tripod there. We saw some good spots to stop at, but it would have to be for another trip. The gang was cold and getting pretty hungry.
If you’re going to Hawaii Island, you need to include a visit to Mauna Kea. Make it a plan to come here. Even if you can only get to the visitor’s center in your Honda, do it (the road is paved up until the visitors center). The video you can watch inside will share some pretty cool info on the history of the telescopes- I’ve seen the video a few times and I’ll still watch it. Outside, you can participate in the free star gazing with helpful staff who will allow you to have a look into several telescopes they have set up right there. You can stargaze at the center until 10pm. The staff also explain a little of what you’re seeing in the sky that night. Restrooms and snacks + gifts are available, and they also have free hot water in case you buy noodles in a cup or for tea. We brought our own soups and used the hot water they provided.
Here’s a little video we did at the summit. Even on my tripod with my heavy camera, the wind was picking up. Solution? More layers and a new tripod!
More Mauna Kea Tips
-Give yourself enough time to make it all the way up before sunset, you can’t speed on the road past the visitor’s center since its gravel.
-Bring your own water & food. Pack a sandwich or something more substantial. I’m always hungry so we had lots of soup but I could have really used a foot long sub. Always hungry!
-You’ll be advised to stop first at the Visitor’s center. Make sure you do this. You’ll acclimatize to the altitude and are less likely to feel sick when you get to the summit. Half hour at the least. Nothing like some altitude sickness to ruin your night.
-If you can spare some extra time for hiking during the day, this is a good idea. You could also alternatively try to hike to the summit, which would take all day and try to hitch a ride back down. If I get the chance to visit again I’d be sure to do the short hike to Lake Waiau.
-If you can’t stay for sunset, consider heading there early enough to catch the sunrise.
I’d love to get better at night photography and Mauna Kea is a wonderful place to practice due to the low level of air pollution. The skies are incredibly clear. This is a scared place for Hawaiians and as such should be treated with respect. Don’t litter, don’t speed, and take your time!
Any other tips for visiting Mauna Kea? Please share in the comments below! Have you visited? How was your experience?