At a breathtaking 14,000 ft/4,265 m (with an azure sea sparkling below), Mauna Kea is one of the best spots on Earth to explore the heavens: The Mauna Kea observatory complex has 13 major astronomical telescopes. Free stargazing programs are presented each evening, weather permitting, at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station. Phone 808-961-2180. http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis.
Ascending Mauna Kea is a challenging undertaking. The roads can be treacherous (rental car agencies frown on making this trip in anything but a four-wheel-drive vehicle), and the thin atmosphere at the high altitude can affect stamina and concentration. On your way up, stop at the Onizuka Center for at least an hour to acclimate yourself to the altitude, learn more about the observatories and get some safety tips.
People with histories of health problems and pregnant women should not go to the summit because of the extreme conditions (children younger than 16 are not allowed to go to the top). Those who do go should keep in mind there are no services of any kind at the summit. Guided summit tours are available Saturday and Sunday afternoons—meet at the information station at 1 pm. (You must have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.) Located 9,200 ft/2,800 m above sea level, the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) hosts a free stargazing program Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 6-10 pm. Reservations are not necessary.
Mauna Kea is also one of the most exotic places on Earth to snow ski (January-March). However, there are no tows, lifts or ski facilities of any kind on the mountain, and conditions are unpredictable and ungroomed. You and your group can either rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and take turns driving to the top, dropping the others off and picking them up at the bottom, or you can hire a guide to drive you. For information and details, contact Ski Guides Hawaii. Phone 808-885-4188. http://www.skihawaii.com.
West of the observatory is the Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, which rents self-contained cabins and dormitory lodges, and allows hunting for game birds, wild boar and sheep in season. Phone 808-974-6200.
Mauna Kea is 50 mi/80 km northeast of Kailua-Kona.
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