Mauna Kea is the most beloved feature of the Big Island for locals and native Hawaiians. It is a dormant volcano reaching 13,803’ in elevation from the seafloor and is the second-highest peak of an island in the world. As the summit of Mauna Kea is above the clouds, it makes it a supreme location for stargazing. The two best locations for stargazing are at the Visitor Information Station (VIS), located halfway up the volcano, and at the summit’s peak by the telescopes. You can reach the VIS by any car, but you will need a 4WD vehicle to reach the summit as the windy roads are steep and parts are only gravel. The VIS’s official title is Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, named after the Hawaii-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
There is much to do at the VIS, such as buy souvenirs, hot and cold drinks, and snacks. It is also an excellent place to learn about the history and cultural importance of the volcano. The VIS offers a free stargazing program in which local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes outside of the station for visitors to utilize them. The free stargazing program is held every week (weather permitting) with no reservations on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday between 6:00 and 10:00 pm. If you choose to stargaze at the summit, you can drive yourself or utilize one of the seven permitted tour operators to take you. Each tour operator is equipped with skilled guides to teach the visitors the historical and cultural importance of the volcano and supply portable telescopes for the visitors to use. The tours typically last an average of 8 hours, and they usually provide thick gloves, arctic parkas, snacks, and water. As prices and amenities vary, it is important to do your research on each tour operator before you book your excursion. If you have a four wheel drive vehicle many guests choose to just drive up to stargaze, which is a much shorter excursion than most of the tour companies offer.