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Mauna Kea Observatories :: Big Island, Hawaii

When most people think of Hawaii, they think of the lovely beaches, cool ocean and dramatic and lush mountains. But Mauna Kea is an unexpected slice of Hawaii that doesn’t fit any of those descriptions. If you haven’t had the chance to visit Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, I’d highly recommend the trip. It’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been.

Sitting 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea (which means white mountain in Hawaiian for the snow it can actually have) is an ideal location for the observatories it hosts. (If you’re interested in learning more about the observatories’ telescopes and why Mauna Kea was chosen, check out the Institute for Astronomy’s website.)

From a visitor’s standpoint, it’s worthwhile to drive to the summit and gaze at the surrounding sea and nearby islands (provided they’re not obscured by clouds). Be aware that technically only 4-wheel-drive vehicles are permitted above the visitor’s center and the drive is considered by some to be dangerous (it’s windy, steep and unpaved), but we didn’t find it all that difficult in our rental Jeep. The extreme altitude can also be a concern, so stay aware of how you’re feeling when visiting.

The images below are a small sampling of what you may see and experience on your drive up to the summit and back. We initially encountered some beautiful fog at the base of the mountain, but eventually found ourselves above the clouds with a magnificent view of a desolate and dry landscape. After a tour around the summit, we stopped at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy for one of their stargazing programs. The skies are so incredibly clear that you’ll likely see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

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