Atop the World's Tallest Mountain, Mauna Kea

"Well I hope you don't get frostbite up there." Those aren't the words you ever want to hear from someone, no matter what you're doing or where you're going. Yet that's what my tour guide jokingly said as he greeted me. Was I knee-deep in snow awaiting a trek up to Mount Everest? Nope. Was I preparing to mountaineer up Mt. Rainier? Nope. I was standing in a parking lot amidst tourists in shorts, flip flops, and Hawaiian shirts on Hawai‘i Island, waiting to board for a trip up to Mauna Kea, the world's tallest base-to-peak mountain. The tour hadn't even started and I knew this was going to be unlike any tour I had taken before. I'm sure the tour guide thought the same thing as he looked down at my toes wiggling in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and looked up to see me grinning from ear-to-ear.

Few places have left me as breathless as the summit of Mauna Kea did. So maybe part of that was due to the fact that there is 40% less oxygen at Mauna Kea's summit than at elevation (Stands at 13,796 ft. above sea level, but most of it is below sea level, which is why it actually has a base-to-peak height that is greater than Mt. Everest). Yet I can't imagine that there was anyone among the hundreds on Mauna Kea's summit that day who weren't mesmerized by what they were seeing, be it the summit that hovers over a blanket of cloud cover, the line of observatories that make Mauna Kea one of the best places in the world for astronomical observation, the sight of the adjacent volcano, Mauna Loa, rising above the clouds, or the sun setting below the horizon. Even being the sunset chaser that I am, no sunset I had seen could quite compare with the experience atop Mauna Kea.

But sunset is just half the reason that so many people are willing to risk altitude sickness to journey to the top of Mauna Kea. If you think that stargazing is like watching Westerns, that if you've gone stargazing once, you've gone a thousand times, then you haven't been stargazing at Mauna Kea. While part of me wanted to sit in the van while everyone else froze their asses off outside ("Freeze" and "Hawaii" should never be in the same sentence together), our guide lured me out with hot cocoa and warm brownies. While I pictured this idea of "stargazing" being to look up at the sky and point at the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, I was again pleasantly surprised when Robert began assembling the 11-inch telescope, which was much larger than any telescope I had used before.

What followed was one of most fascinating visual displays I had ever seen. It wasn't long after the sun had set that the sky began to be dotted with stars. If Robert wasn't pointing out a famous constellation like Orion, then he was pointing out a planet, such as Venus, or a shooting star. But that wasn't even half of it. Far off in the distance I could see a faint haze, which just happened to be Andromeda, one of the furthest objects that can be seen with the naked eye at two million light years away and a galaxy that is larger than the Milky Way. It was a couple minutes later that Robert pointed out the Hubble Space Telescope cruising by. Yes, that Hubble Space Telescope. The elevation, dry air, and distance from city lights is what makes Mauna Kea such a prime astronomical observation spot. But why bore you any longer by talking about how beautiful Mauna Kea's summit is. See for yourself below.

Know Before You Go

  • Bundle up and dress in Layers. "But Spencer, this is Hawaii we're talking about?!" Yah, I said the same thing, but I was singing a different tune when it took all the strength I had left in both hands to push down on the shutter button to take my last picture atop Mauna Kea. Don't wear flip flops, clogs, or Vibram Five Fingers. You'll be uncomfortably cold. Just ask those who went atop Mauna Kea last week when there was snow on top of the mountain. If going with a tour group, inquire ahead of time, since some tours provide parkas and mittens.
  • If you have a smartphone, download one of many stargazing apps. Wired recently published an article with a round-up of space and astronomy apps.
  • Do the trip up to Mauna Kea's summit independently as a back-up plan or if you're short on time. There is a ton of history and education that really paints the full picture of Mauna Kea, but that'll only come by going to the top with a local or a tour guide. I know what some of you may be saying. "Spencer, but I just hate taking group tours." I know, I'm with you, but this was unlike any group tour I've taken. There was just over a handful of us and this wasn't the profile of your typical tourists. We sat around a picnic table at the base for dinner and went around telling stories of our most unique travel experiences, as most of them had traveled more then I did. One couple had even done this particular tour once before and were back for seconds.
  • I was in fact hosted by Expedia on this Hawai‘i Island excursion. You can read my full report and book that exact tour below:

Hawai‘i, The Big Island from Up in the Air

Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure