Reaching 13,796 ft. above into the sky, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the state of Hawaii, narrowly beating out neighboring Mauna Loa by a mere 118 ft. The accolades don’t stop there, however, because when measured from the bottom of the sea floor Mauna Kea actually tops out at an astonishing 33,476 feet, thereby making it the tallest single mountain found anywhere on Earth.
Unlike Mount Everest, however, standing on top of the summit of Mauna Kea and visiting the adjoining observatory are activities easily accessible to most visitors. Occasionally poor weather such as strong winds or blinding snow can render the summit inaccessible—Mauna Kea does, after all, mean “white mountain” in Hawaiian—but on the days when the summit road is open and clear it can be one of the most enchanting spots in the entire state of Hawaii.
Begin your tour to Mauna Kea summit and observatory at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Center, located at the 9,000 ft. elevation. Here you will find informational videos, astronomical displays, portable telescopes, and, of course, souvenirs for purchase. The best activity at the visitor center, however, is undoubtedly the nightly stargazing sessions, which take place from 6–10 pm every night of the year. The remote setting of the Mauna Kea backcountry has created a stargazing arena paralleled by few places on the planet, and it almost seems possible from this vantage point to reach out and touch the very edge of the world.
While the visitor center is an informative stop, the real vantage point is on the summit. The road to the summit is rough and windy and should only be accessed by four-wheel drive vehicle or by a commercial tour. Due to there being 40% less oxygen at the summit than at sea level, it’s only advised that those in good health decide to visit the very top.
Home to some of the strongest telescopes in the world, the Keck Observatory located on the summit is open to visitors during normal business hours, although there aren’t any opportunities to actually “look through” any of the really strong telescopes. Nevertheless, a tour through one of the observatories is the chance to mingle with some of the brightest minds in the field of astronomy and get an up close look at instruments which can literally peer billions of light years into the far away depths of the Universe.
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