Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station

Mauna Kea Visitor Center Vs Summit: Which To Visit In 2024

Wondering whether to visit the Mauna Kea visitor center or summit while on the Big Island? This article’s for you.

The Mauna Kea summit is the second highest island mountain in the world, sitting at an elevation of 13,803 feet! Being at such a high altitude, it requires a 4×4 vehicle and more preparation to drive to than the visitor center. 

The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station sits at an elevation of around 9,000 feet, and is accessible without a 4×4 vehicle.  

So, should you visit the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station or the top of the summit?  

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about visiting the summit and visitor center.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase through these links we may earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. 

Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station

What’s the difference between the Mauna Kea Visitor Center and summit? 

The Mauna Kea visitor information station is at an elevation of 9,200 feet, whereas the top of summit is at an elevation of 13,803 feet, where the observatories are visible.

You can drive any car to the visitor center, whereas the summit is only accessible by 4×4 vehicle.

The visitor center has a small gift shop, restrooms, and a short trail to a viewpoint on top of a hill. 

Telescope at Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center gift shop
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station
Astronaut ice cream sold at Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center gift shop
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center git shop

Should you visit the Mauna Kea Visitor Center or summit? 

If you’re visiting the Mauna Kea summit to view the sunset, you can get a great view from the visitor center. In fact, most Mauna Kea tours stop at the visitor center for watching the sunset and stargazing. 

But if you love astronomy and want to cross visiting the summit off your bucket list, I recommend going on a Mauna Kea observatory tour

When we visited, we didn’t drive to the top of the summit because our car rental advised us not to. To drive to the top of the summit (highest peak in Hawaii), you’ll need to drive a 4×4 vehicle or go on a tour. 

The summit is at an elevation of 13,803 feet, and it has 13 telescope observatories, which can be seen from the top of the summit.

The Keck observatory has a small entrance where visitors can view the large telescope, but is temporarily closed as of now.

To drive to the top of the summit, you will have to get approval from the park ranger at the visitor center.

There’s a road block at the visitor center where cars are checked before driving to the top. They require you to drive a 4×4 vehicle, and have more than a half tank of gas to go up. 

Additionally, driving to the top of the summit is not suitable for everyone.

Pregnant women, children under 13, and people with certain health conditions are advised not to drive past the visitor center, due to the risk of altitude sickness

How do you get to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center?

To get to the Mauna Kea visitor center from Hilo, you’ll take Saddle Road and turn onto Mauna Kea Access Road. It’s around a 45 minute drive from Hilo, and around an hour and a half drive from Kona.

Once you reach the visitor center, there is plenty of free parking.

I recommend arriving at least 30 minutes before sunset to secure a parking spot, since it can get packed once the tours arrive. 

Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Information Station

How do you get to the summit?

To get to the summit, you’ll continue driving on the road past the visitor center.

You’ll be stopped by a park ranger at a roadblock beforehand to ensure you’re driving a 4×4 vehicle and have enough gas (more than half a tank).

A 4×4 vehicle is required because the road up to the summit is on a dirt road that’s rocky and has steep inclines. 

What are the best tours to get to the summit?

The best Mauna Kea summit tour is the Mauna Kea summit and stars small group adventure tour

You’ll get to ride to the top of the summit in a luxury van, see the observatories, and view the sunset and stars through telescopes at the visitor center.

The tour covers dinner, hot chocolate, dessert, and a complimentary hooded parka to stay warm. 

They provide transportation from Kona, but if you’re in Hilo you’ll need to drive to the visitor center. 

  • Provides transportation from Kona or the visitor center
  • Luxury van ride to the top of the summit
  • Cost covers a picnic-style dinner, hot chocolate, dessert, and jackets

But if you don’t want to drive to the visitor center from Hilo, the best option is the Mauna Kea Summit Sunset and Stars tour.

They provide transportation from hotels in both Kona and Hilo. This tour visits the top of the summit, and includes jackets, gloves, hot drinks, and a professional photo at the summit. 

  • Provides transportation from Kona or Hilo
  • Cost covers jackets, gloves, hot drinks, and a professional photo

What is the Mauna Kea Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail?

When I visited the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, we followed the park ranger’s advice to hike the “sunset hill trail”.

This is a short trail across from the visitor center, up a small hill, where you can view the sunset over the clouds.

Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail

It only took me around 15 minutes to reach the top of the hill, and it’s an amazing viewpoint.

Although you can see the clouds from the parking lot, I highly recommend doing this short hike during sunset. 

Photos from the Mauna Kea Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail

Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail
Mauna Kea Summit Visitor Center Sunset Hill Trail

Mauna Kea Summit FAQs

When’s the best time to visit the Mauna Kea summit?

The best time to visit the Mauna Kea summit is during the day, since the summit is closed 30 minutes after sunset.

If you’re only visiting the visitor center, the best time to visit is around an hour before sunset.

This will allow you to secure parking, and have enough time to hike the “sunset hill trail” before the sun sets. 

Is the visitor center worth visiting?

Yes, the visitor center is worth visiting if you want one of the most beautiful sunset views on the island.

Although we didn’t drive to the top of the summit, seeing the sunset over the clouds was one of the highlights of my trip. 

Can you drive a 4×4 vehicle to the summit?

Yes, you can visit the summit yourself by driving a 4×4 vehicle.

Keep in mind that you’ll be stopped by a park ranger on the way up, to make sure you have a four wheel drive and enough gas to make the trip.

Is driving to the Mauna Kea summit dangerous?

The drive to the summit can be dangerous since the road past the visitor center is a bumpy, dirt road with sharp turns and steep inclines.

This is why most rental car companies don’t allow you to drive to the top of the summit.

Who shouldn’t visit the Mauna Kea summit?

Due to the risk of altitude sickness, pregnant people, children under 13, and individuals in poor health are strongly advised not to visit the MaunaKea summit.

Additionally, people who have went scuba diving in the past 24 hours should not visit the summit since they’ll be at risk for “the bends” (decompression sickness).


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