Mauna Kea, Sunset At 13000 Ft

Mauna Kea, Big Island

Our destination is the peak of Mauna Kea, 13000 ft above sea level. The drive from sea level to 13000 ft takes about 3 hours. During the drive up, I could feel the change in air pressure. I kept moving my jaw to get that satisfying ‘pop’ in my ears.

Passing the clouds on the way up Mauna Kea
Passing the clouds on the way up Mauna Kea
Cinder cones on the flank of Mauna Kea

We were climbing so high soon we were above the cloud cover. It was grey and overcast in Kona when we left. Up here it’s like a perfect winter day in San Francisco. And just as windy and cold.

Cinder cones on the flank of Mauna Kea

The summit of Mauna Kea is one of the best spots on the world for astronomical observations: the air is dry and there’s little disturbance in the atmosphere. There are currently 13 observatories, a cluster of helmet-clad sentinels guarding the summit of the sacred mountain.

During sunsets, their silhouettes stand out against the brightly painted sky.

Mauna Kea sunset, Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Kea sunset, Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Kea observatory, Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Kea observatory, Big Island, Hawaii

Jack and I made a run up the actual peak of Mauna Kea, pausing often for breaths. The air is much thinner and colder here. As we reached the peak, we wrapped our parkas just a little bit tighter around us.

We got up there just in time to see the sun set for the day.

It’s beautiful up here above the cloud covers with puffy clouds stretching in front of us as far as the eyes can see. It’s the kind of view one usually sees from inside an airplane.

10 years ago, catching sunset at Mauna Kea was one of the highlights of my visit to Big Island.
(MORE: Chasing Lava)

I’m glad that despite the changes the island has gone through, some things remain the same.

The shadow of Mauna Kea peak on the clouds down below
The shadow of Mauna Kea peak on the clouds down below

Info Box

You can drive all the way up to the peak of Mauna Kea. 4 wheel vehicles recommended. As an alternative, Hawaii Forest and Trail runs tours up the peak which includes a stop at the Visitor Center to stargaze with their 11 in telescope.

Valuable Resources

  • Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, for those who love anything weird and offbeat.
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15 Replies to “Mauna Kea, Sunset At 13000 Ft”

  1. One of the best sunsets I've seen! It was quite an adventure to get up to the summit though, especially in a 2 wheel drive 🙂

  2. Beautiful photos. And I enjoyed being reminded of that feeling when you wake up on a night bus and need to pop your ears. Although once I tried to 'equalise' like when diving and air escaped from my eye. That freaked me out a bit!!

  3. I have been to the Big Island (and loved it) but didn't do this drive. Next time! Great photos, and I love the view of the observatory in your photo.

  4. Top views from mountains looks amazing. Clouds are very preety and this type of scene can make you day. Really incredible clicks. Thanks for uploading these photos.

    1. Stargazing sessions are held from the visitors center at the 9,000 ft level (they provide telescopes and people who know how to use them). It IS amazing. You find yourself unable to recognize constellations you're usually familiar with because there are so many "extra" stars you're not used to seeing.

  5. Amazing photos. My university astronomy professor had worked at this observatory previous to moving to Canada. I would love to gaze at the starts from this vantage point.
    Great post and thanks for visiting my blog!


  6. What a view! It always seems difficult to me to time these things. To get to the 'viewing spot' right on time for the sunset (or sunrise)

  7. Looks incredible. I love being on top of mountains, it's always such a surreal experience. I would love to visit Big Island some day!

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