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Top Reasons To Visit Mauna Kea. Big Island Guide

Mauna Kea is a must visit on the Big Island. Here are our top 6 reasons on why you should visit Mauna Kea during your stay.

Where is Mauna Kea?

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano located 35 miles west of Hilo in the northern-central region of the Big Island. The summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the Hawaiian islands, standing nearly 14,000 feet high. It is open to the public year round.

It is one of only places on the planet where you can drive from sea level to about 14,000 feet high. The drive up takes just about two hours.

The alpine landscape on the mountain starkly contrasts the tropical paradise below. Mauna Kea is a must-see if you are spending any length of time on the Big Island.

How high is the Mauna Kea Visitor Center?

The Mauna Kea Visitor Center is located almost 2 miles above sea level, sitting at 9,200 feet.

driving to Mauna Kea
Image by twenty20photos

Can I drive to the top of Mauna Kea?

Yes, you can drive a vehicle all the way to the summit. Keep in mind that the drive has been described as a white-knuckle level of intensity drive. The Mauna Kea access road is only partly paved and the summit does get snow. It features many hairpin turns, no guardrails and super steep grades.

Driving to Mauna Kea summit should only be down in 4-wheel drive vehicles. In addition, to have four-wheel drive, check with your car rental company to see if you are allowed to take the rental car past the visitor information station located at 9,200 ft. It is recommended to take a pit stop here to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness.

Take your time on the way up. Driving up to the Mauna Kea summit is worth it. The views, landscape and culture are well worth the drive.

The Top 6 Reasons to Visit Mauna Kea

It’s one of the most sacred spots in Hawaii

The views alone are a great reason to see Mauna Kea, but combining the views with the rich history and tradition associated with the area make it even better. In the creation story, the Earth Mother and the Sky Father created the islands, with Mauna Kea being their first-born.

Mauna Kea is considered to be the center of the Big Island and became a place where gods and goddesses were worshiped. Mauna Kea is still one of the most sacred places in all of Hawaii and deeply entwined into Hawaiian culture, so treat the land with the respect that it so deeply deserves.

Driving through the clouds

The entire experience of Mauna Kea is unforgettable from the start. One of the most surreal parts of driving up to the summit is driving through what many think of as fog at first. That fog you are driving through is actually drifting clouds.

Incredible hiking

If you are an experienced hiker, the 12-mile hiking trail that starts at the visitor center is incredible. The trail is tough, but absolutely beautiful. Remember, do not ascend to the very top of the summit. Mauna Kea is a sacred place that needs to be respected, climbing to the very top is considered to be very disrespectful to Hawaiian natives.

The Observatories

If you like the stars and outer space, Mauna Kea is home to one of the world’s best astronomical research sites. There are 13 different observatories built near the summit.

The Sunsets

The best time to visit Mauna Kea, the summit specifically, is right at dusk. The sunsets you can see from way up there are impeccable. It has been said that seeing the sunset there is like watching the sun set from the top of the world.


Due to the high altitude, Mauna Kea is home to some of the best stargazing around. Volunteers will bring out telescopes near the visitor center to help you see the stars more clearly. You can view the constellations and see stars like you’ve never seen them before.

What to know before heading to the Mauna Kea summit?

Before heading up to the summit, there are few crucial things to consider. Remember, you are ascending from sea level to a very high altitude in just a few hours - this can make some people sick if the proper precautions are not taken.

Take it slow, bring snacks, water and anything else you think you may need such as ibuprofen in case you get a headache. If you have gone scuba diving during your trip, you must wait at least 24 hours before heading to the top of the summit.

In addition, the weather at the summit of Mauna Kea will be very different from the tropical climate of Hawaii. Be sure to pack layers and warm clothes before making the trek to the summit.

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