When we started planning our second trip to the Big Island, one of the few “must do’s” on our list was visiting Mauna Kea summit to view the sunset. It was originally on our list on our first trip, but due to weather (one of the few days it snowed up at the summit, since it was December), we weren’t able to go the night we had scheduled, and due to our hectic schedule, we weren’t able to go on another night.
So this time around, we made sure that we could do this. We were visiting in the spring, so the chance of snow was remote, and we were based out of one hotel on our second trip, and our schedule was flexible enough to go on a second night if we could’t get our preferred date.
We made the decision to take a tour to the summit, rather than go on our own. Yes, it is possible for individuals to visit the summit. However, they MUST have a 4WD vehicle to drive up there, because there is no way a 2WD vehicle will last all the way up and down the winding, gravel road. Since we didn’t rent a 4WD vehicle, it just made everything easier to do a tour.
We selected a tour with Maui Forest and Trail because it was well recommended in our guide book, their Summit and Stars Adventure Tour in particular. We wanted to see the sunset from the mountain, and have the opportunity to see some of the stars from the visitor center. Due to the lack of light pollution on Mauna Kea and the surrounding area, it is very easy to see many, many stars on clear nights. The tour lasts several hours, because it first involves a stop at an abandoned sheep shearing station to eat a nice, picnic dinner. The sheep shearing station reminded me of one of those abandoned, haunted farms that come alive during the Halloween season. All the place needed was a corn maze and a psycho with chainsaw to complete the eerie, creepy atmosphere.After dinner, our van headed up the mountain road, with only a brief stop at the visitor center at 9,000 feet. The ride up is slow, but steady. The road is paved up to the visitor center, but the road from the center to the summit (about five miles) is not paved for the most part, (except for the final stretch just before you reach the summit).We got up there about 30 minutes before sunset, so we had some time to walk around and look at the panoramic view. Of course, due to the fact that the summit is around 13,803 feet, you can’t really move too fast without feeling the effects of the altitude. The sun was still bright on the horizon, but the shadows were lengthening. Because of the high altitude, the clear air, and the lack of light pollution, Mauna Kea is home to many powerful telescopes to look at the sky. The summit is surrounded by them, and you can see them everywhere. It was also a remarkable change from being down at the beach. It was warm (somewhere in the 80s) at sea level, but it is very cold (near freezing) at the summit. Make sure you dress warmly, because you are going to need it (my tour offered up winter parkas and warm gloves for the duration of the tour).After the sun slipped below the horizon, darkness fell pretty quickly. We didn’t have too much time to stay after the sun set, because all visitors must descend from the summit no later than 30 minutes after sunset, so vehicle lights don’t interfere with the work of the telescopes.By the time we descended to the visitor center, it was completely dark. At first, we were a bit skeptical that we would be able to see any stars, because of the cloud cover. However, after a while, the clouds lifted enough for us to see the stars. Our guide set up his telescope, and we took turns looking at all the different heavenly bodies he pointed out to us. A tour will last around eight hours from afternoon pickup, to a dropoff late at night. However, we felt the cost (around $200 per person) and the time were worth it, since we were finally able to see the colorful majesty that is a Mauna Kea sunset.