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At the summit of Mauna kea — 13,796 feet above sea level — sits a humble altar made of wood and stone representing Hawaii Island’s spiritual and cultural history. Considered a sacred place, Mauna Kea, or “white mountain,” is believed to be home to Wakea, the creator god and ancestor of all people.
Besides Mauna Kea’s cultural importance to locals, however, the dormant volcano plays an important role in Hawaii Island’s tourism industry.
“Our destination is known for rich land, sea and sky adventures, as well as for notable cultural experiences, and our visitors appreciate that,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “As the tallest sea mountain in the Pacific, Mauna Kea is striking and beautiful — enhancing Hawaii Island’s landscape and providing one of the best places on earth to view the night sky.”
Travelers looking to experience Mauna Kea as a renowned astronomical site need only look up to the sky. With a minimum amount of artificial light and such clear air space, astrological enthusiasts can enjoy the resplendent sparkle of the stars.
“Visiting Mauna Kea is unforgettable and unique, whether exploring on a tour led by experienced guides or stargazing at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet,” said Birch. “Atop Mauna Kea you can see the entire Northern Hemisphere plus 90 percent of the Southern Hemisphere, including the North Star and Southern Cross in the same evening.”
For an ideal experience on the mountain, Birch recommends booking a tour with a commercial company.
“I’ve been to Mauna Kea many times, and by far I’ve had the most memorable trips while in the good hands of professional guides,” said Birch.
Among the firms Birch recommends is Arnott’s Lodge and Hiking Adventures, which offers the Sunset/Starshow 4x4 van tour from its lodge on the eastern side of the island. Guests may choose between multiple pick-up points around the island, or they can drive their own cars and meet the guided tour. Other tours offered by the company include sunrise and daytime visits and custom trips.
Hawaii Forest and Trail’s tour includes a family-style picnic dinner served before sunset. Following dinner, the group continues on a 45-minute drive to the summit where a guide narrates the geological, cultural and natural history of Mauna Kea. After sunset, the tour descends to the Visitor Information Station, where guests will find a telescope set up for stargazing.
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures features an informative narrated tour with multiple pick-up points. The company provides arctic-style hooded parkas and gloves as well as high-tech computerized telescopes. Dinner is served before sunset and refreshments are offered during the stargazing portion of the tour.
If visitors prefer to discover Mauna Kea without a guide, the visitor information center has a few tips.
Those planning a trip to the summit are encouraged to make a stop at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station for safety information, current weather reports and to allow time to adjust to the altitude As one of the few areas in the world where a person can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in as little as two hours, altitude sickness becomes a distinct possibility, particularly because at that altitude there is 40 percent less oxygen than measured at sea level, so hikers are strongly advised to acclimatize before continuing up the mountain. Additionally, it’s recommended that those continuing past the station drive only vehicles with true four-wheel-drive.
Whether clients visit Mauna Kea with a tour or on their own, Birch suggested they visit Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo first.
“At Imiloa, you will be able to experience everything that Mauna Kea’s summit has to offer in a comfortable setting,” Birch said.
From stargazers to sun worshippers, Mauna Kea attracts a certain type of high-spirited visitor to its sacred mountain, added Birch.
“Our visitors are typically active and seek adventure, natural wonder and cultural highlights,” said Birch. “Mauna Kea is an iconic outdoor adventure that can’t be matched.”