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Mauna Kea summit for sunset

Is visiting Mauna Kea summit for sunset worth it? You bet! There are charter bus tours from Kalua-Kona to experience sunset atop Mauna Kea, the highest point on Hawaii’s Big Island, but if you’re an independent adventurer, you can arrange your own self-guided tour, provided you have a 4×4 vehicle to access the high alpine road. Mauna Kea is one of the few places in the world where you can drive from sea level to nearly 14,000 ft within a 2 hr time period. Knowing we wanted to access Mauna Kea summit, we rented a Jeep from Alamo with this in mind, since the previous year we were denied access in our sedan rental car by the park ranger who checks cars before allowing them up the final unpaved access road to the top at 13,579ft.

All vehicles are required to stop at the check point regardless, to allow occupants to climatize for 30 minutes to the elevation. Although we were amidst mostly SUVs when we visited in March 2020, there was a Ford Mustang that had scooted through (check the photos below for proof!), so it appears that the checking for appropriate vehicles might be spotty at times.

On the Saddle Road Highway to the turn off for Mauna Kea

We had targeted to leave Kaula-Kona between 1-3pm, taking the Saddle Road Hwy and turn off to Mauna Kea summit, and arrived at the top by 4:30pm, having taken the brief break on the way up at the ranger station. This allowed time for some exploration and a setting sun beginning around 6pm. In previous years we’ve also done some day hiking in the Ranger Station area, which is a nice additional activity if you have arrived early, and are not yet ready to make the assent to the top.

Mauna Kea clothing

By 6:30pm the sun had dropped from the horizon, and so had the temperatures, which by then were hovering around 24 F degrees (-4C), and feeling much colder with a stiff wind chill. The evening we were there it was forecast to dip down to 14F (-10C). Most observers stay huddled in their cars for warmth to watch the big show, after the requisite shivering selfie, often in shorts and flip flops – likely not a good idea if they were to experience an engine break down! Definitely pack along some warm clothes for you time at the Mauna Kea summit.

Encountering snow near the summit
Bundle up! It’s windy and cold even before the sun sets. And the mercury dives once that sun hits the horizon.

The Mauna Kea Observatory is a premiere atmospheric research facility, which has been continually monitoring and collecting data related to atmospheric change since the 1950s. The undisturbed air, remote location and minimal influence of vegetation and human activity make it ideal for monitoring the causes of climate change. The observatories can be seen at the top, and guided tours of some of these facilities can be arranged. Be sure to check out get your guide for available tours, attractions and organized activities being offered by local operators. Often there are deals if you book in advance.

Spot the Mustang? Not exactly up to the 4 x 4 standards usually limited to accessing Mauna Kea summit

Mauna Kea weather

It’s worth monitoring the weather and planning this trip for a clear night, since the blue open sky that gave way to absolute darkness and stars atop a snow-covered mountain was a spectacular contrast to the earlier beach day in the baking sun we had experienced. We packed warm cloths, hats and mitts with the cold weather in mind. Yes, those 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic mittens came in handy!

I hope you enjoyed exploring the adventures that can be had in the various climate zones of Hawaii’s big island. Don’t forget to link to Touring Hawaii’s Big Island Kona Coast Beaches by Scooter to learn about eight great beaches all accessible from Kalua-Kona as easy day trips on two wheels (or by car). We found alternating adventure days with beach days was a great mix for activity (and saving your hide from the intense sun!) You can’t go to Hawaii without taking time to kick back at the beach and relax with the sand between your toes. Aloha!

Planning guides

Great for planning, and you’ll want to pack it along for the trip – check out Lonely Planet’s Hawaii the Big Island. Or search out all of the Hawaii guidebook options on chapters.indigo.ca or on Amazon. If you prefer immediate access in e-book format you can get that through Chapters/Indigo as well, or at ebooks.com

Accommodations

We stayed at the Garden Paradise, in Kailua, hosted by Martina. It was just 10 minutes drive from the airport, and very central for all of these day trips. Book with Martina below, or check out other options in the area available through VRBO and Booking.com

If you’re one of those people who needs to exhaust all options when doing an accommodation search, be sure to also check out Hotels.com or Expedia. While some listings start to overlap, the odd time a crazy deal pops up, or even better a really unique place or a serious last minute upgrade, due to a cancellation. Worth doing the run through I’d say!

I’ve written about many of the beaches on the Kona side previously, which we revisited on our rest days. In fact, last year we rented twin scooters and visited eight. Link here to get a run down on some magic places to spend a restful beach day: Touring Hawaii’s Big Island Kona Coast Beaches by Scooter Aloha!

One resource we found extremely valuable was Lonely Planet’s Hawaii the Big Island. Be aware it was written in 2017 though, prior to some volcanic activity since then in the southern regions. We’ve updated you here with our experiences since then.

Looking for a cheap flight to Kona? Be sure to check out CheapOair.com (or CheapOair.ca if you’re located in Canada. They make it super easy to compare flight deals across different airline providers. Their When to Buy Flights Tool is handy for planning. They also have a search tool for car rental deals. We rented from Alamo this particular trip, but have previously also used National. It really comes down to searching their deals for the booking time you want.

Save up to 40% on hotel booking

I also love what BookingCredits.com is doing in the accommodation space. Most hotel booking sites have access to rates not available to the public, but are required by the hotel to sell them at a the retail price. When you book your stay, they will pocket the difference between what you paid, and their commission — as profit. With BookingCredits.com instead of pocketing all the margin as profit, they give the majority of that back to you. Booking Credits was founded by former travel industry experts including the President of Delta Vacations and Senior executives from Expedia. There’s no membership required, and the credit goes back as cash on your credit card within 60 days of your booking. A simple, but cool concept! Do an accommodation search HERE and check them out.

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