We want to go stargazing on the Hawai'i Big Island but we're a little worried about altitude sickness (we have some near-senior citizens in our group). All of the observatories I could find are on Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea, both above 4,000 meters. Is there a lower-risk observatory in Hawai'i?

  • 6
    As far as I am aware the observatories on Mauna Kea are scientific establishments not open to the general public. If you just want to set up a handheld telescope and look up, anywhere a few miles from Honolulu will do on a cloudless night. At Mauna Kea, the visitor information centre is only 2800 metres or so altitude and is equipped with some small telescopes for the public to use.
    – Calchas
    Sep 3 '18 at 22:11

The Mauna Kea Visitor Center is well below the summit, at an elevation of 2800 m (9200 ft.) In addition to providing information about the observatories at the summit, they run stargazing programs Tuesday through Saturday evenings, 7-10 PM (weather permitting, of course.) Parking is first-come, first-served, and vehicles can be turned away if the parking lot fills up; I do not have a sense for how frequently this happens. Also, when departing at night, watch out for invisible cows.

The summit observatories can be accessed during daytime hours, but they are not designed with the general public in mind. The summit road beyond the Visitor Center is mostly gravel and quite steep. When I visited 10 years ago, at least one of the observatories (the Keck?) had a small indoor "viewing area" where the general public could step inside and look at the telescopes; but there was basically nobody else there at the time other than me and my companions. Finally, note that most rental car agencies specifically prohibit their rental cars from being driven on particular roads on the Big Island, and in most cases this includes the Summit Road beyond the Visitor Center.1

1 It used to be the case that rental cars were prohibited on the Saddle Road as well, which would have put even the visitor center off limits. Thankfully, this has changed, and many (though not all) agencies allow their cars to be taken on the Saddle Road. (And even though it was against the rental agreement 10 years ago, that didn't stop a younger, stupider me from driving a rental car clear to the top of Mauna Kea...)

  • 2
    To put the 9200 ft figure in perspective: airliner cabins are typically maintained at an air pressure equivalent to 8000 ft altitude during flight. So if the group travels to Hawaii by air, and nobody has any problem during the flight, it's unlikely (note: not impossible) that the additional ~1000 ft would make a major difference.
    – user
    Sep 4 '18 at 14:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.