The entire mountaintop complex, plus almost all of the land area above 12,000 feet, is managed by the University of Hawai‘i. Visitors are welcome to tour the observatory complex and stop by the visitors information center at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (808/961-2180, daily 9am-10pm) at the 9,300-foot level. Named in honor of astronaut Ellison Onizuka, born and raised on the Big Island, who died in the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986, this center is a must-stop for stargazers. Inside are displays of astronomical and cultural subjects, informational handouts, computer links to the observatories on the hill above, and evening videos and slide shows, as well as a small bookstore and gift shop.
At times, 11- and 16-inch telescopes are set up outside during the day to view the sun and sunspots; every evening they are there to view the stars and other celestial objects. The visitors center is about one hour from Hilo and Waimea and about two hours from Kailua-Kona. A stop here will allow visitors a chance to acclimate to the thin, high-mountain air—another must. A stay of one hour here is recommended before you head up to the 13,796-foot summit. The visitors center provides the last public restrooms before the summit and is a good place to stock up on water, also unavailable higher up.
Free stargazing is offered nightly 6-10pm, and there’s a summit tour every Saturday and Sunday (weather permitting) at 1pm. These programs are free of charge. For either activity, dress warmly. Evening temperatures will be 40-50°F in summer and might be below freezing in winter, and winds of 20 miles per hour are not atypical. For the summit tour, you must provide your own four-wheel-drive transportation from the visitors center to the summit.
Going Up the Mountain
If you plan on continuing up to the summit, you must provide your own transportation and it must be a four-wheel-drive vehicle. People with cardiopulmonary or respiratory problems or with physical infirmities or weakness and women who are pregnant are discouraged from attempting the trip. In addition, those who have been scuba diving should not attempt a trip to the top until at least 24 hours have elapsed.
As the observatories are used primarily at night, it is requested that visitors to the top come during daylight hours and leave by a half hour after sunset to minimize the use of headlights and reduce the dust from the road, both factors that might disrupt optimum viewing. It’s suggested that on your way down you use flashing warning lights that let you see a good distance ahead of you while keeping bright white lights unused. However, as one security person has stated, safety is their primary concern for drivers, so if you feel you must use your headlights to get yourself down without an accident, by all means do so. Some rental companies have changed their rules regarding taking cars up to the summit and it is not allowed. Others have not wavered. Cars can have a difficult time handling the climb up, so decide for yourself if it is worth making the trip on your own. It is possible to hitch a ride from the visitors center to the summit with a nice passerby, but plan ahead to make sure that you also have a ride back! It would be a long cold walk down in the dark.
Alternatively, make arrangements for a guided tour to the top. These tours usually run seven to eight hours and run $175-200 per person. Tour operators supply the vehicle, guide, food, snacks, and plenty of warm clothing for your trip. They also supply telescopes for your private viewing of the stars near the visitors center after seeing the sunset from the top. From the Kona side, try Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (808/322-2366 or 888/322-2366) or Hawaii Forest and Trail (808/331-5805 or 800/464-1993). In Hilo, contact Arnott’s Hiking Adventures (808/969-7097, discounts available for hotel guests). Take extra layers of warm clothing and your camera.