Mauna Kea translates to English as “white mountain,” aptly named for the snow that falls at its peak. On a clear day, you can be sitting on a black sand beach in your bathing suit while looking at snow on top of Mauna Kea. From the beach, you can even see the telescopes that sit on top of Mauna Kea because they are as large as buildings.
Reaching 14,000 feet in elevation, driving to the top of Mauna Kea will bring you above the clouds. If you measure Mauna Kea from its base underwater, it measures 33,000 feet tall, making it the tallest mountain on earth from top to bottom. There are signs all over Hawaii telling you this, pointing out the fact that Mauna Kea is, in fact, taller than Mount Everest (as long as you measure from its base underwater).
Luckily, in order to get to the top of Mauna Kea, all you have to do is get into a car.
If you go to the Big Island, I would tell you that the two things that you have to do are go to Mauna Kea and to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
We took our tour through Arnott’s Lodge. I was so happy with my experience back in May when I went with my friend that I didn’t hesitate to book with them again. They gave Nick a military discount which was really nice because this tour does not come cheap.
You probably want to be at Mauna Kea for sunset, but what you might not realize is that this is an almost all-day affair. Nick and I were staying in the National Park, so we went to Hilo in the morning to drive around and see some stuff. Since you are on the tour for a long time, Arnott’s asks you to bring your dinner (some tours will provide dinner). So we stopped for sandwiches and then got to the lodge around 3:00 pm to check in.
Soon, we were on our way. We drove about an hour to the Visitor Information Station at Mauna Kea.
The first stop on Mauna Kea is the Visitor Information Station, located at 9,000 feet above sea level. If you decide to drive up to Mauna Kea, this is where you will have to stop. After this, the road becomes gravel and really uneven. No rental car company will let you take your car up there. You probably would not want to drive on it, anyway. I’ve heard that if you decide to take your car up there anyway and you get stuck, it costs $10,000 to tow it down.
Packing for a Hawaii vacation doesn’t often include hats, gloves, and scarves. But when you are going to Mauna Kea, it definitely does. We brought pants, long sleeves, sweatshirts, hats, gloves, and scarves.
We didn’t put on all of our layers just yet because it wasn’t cold up at the Visitor Information Station. We walked around a bit, went inside to see the video they had playing, and ate our dinner. The sun was super strong and I even started to feel warm.
Anyway, we spent about an hour up there getting acclimated to the low altitude before getting back into the van to continue our journey. We went from 9,000 feet in elevation to 14,000 feet in a matter of minutes. The road was so bumpy and rocky that our guide stopped talking to us and just focused on driving. He did a great job though and I didn’t feel worried or anything.
When we got to the top, it was about 30 minutes before sunset. Nick and I promptly put on every single layer we had on. Our tour guide gave us the big bulky jackets that we wore over everything, which is another great reason to go through a tour, I think. You don’t have to worry about cramming a big jacket into your suitcase.
Nick was so excited to see snow that he promptly made a snowball, which he, of course, threw at me. Behind him is a telescope! They are the size of buildings! Can you see that person behind Nick for scale?
There is 40% less oxygen at the top of Mauna Kea than at sea level. You can get sick. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick or anything, but I had to take deeper breaths and so I decided to just stay put. We walked only a few feet before settling on our view and watched the sunset over the clouds.
It almost looks like water, but those are clouds the sun is setting behind!
After the sun went down, we had to immediately get back into the van and go down a little bit. All of the vehicles have to go down after the sunset because the light from the cars interferes with the telescopes. Our tour guide took us to a secluded spot and gave us a star show, where he showed the different named that Hawaiians have for the constellations and talked about how Hawaiians used the stars to navigate. It was a full moon so we didn’t see as many stars as we could have, but it was still awesome to experience.
I would go back to Mauna Kea in a heartbeat, and I think it’s something you absolutely have to do if you visit the Big Island!