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Where’s the best place to watch the sunset in Hawaii? While some may prefer a front-row seat to mother nature’s nightly production, I would argue that the best sunset viewing exists above sea level – 13,796 feet above to be exact.
The geographic and spiritual center of the Big Island, Mauna Kea (meaning white mountain) is a Hawai’i Island highlight. In addition to spectacular sunset viewing, the summit of Mauna Kea is among the most sacred places in traditional Hawaiian spirituality and it’s home to the largest collection of astronomical telescopes in the world. So, needless to say it’s “out of this world” (forgive the bad pun, but there’s seriously an otherworldly vibe at the summit where sunsets, space and spirituality meet in a majestic moonscape setting).
With a summit nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, and a base 17,000 feet below sea level this 30,000 foot volcano not only holds the title of Hawaii’s highest peak, it’s also the tallest sea mountain in the world. Additionally, Mauna Kea is the second of five surviving volcanoes to create the island, so it’s basically Hawaii’s MVP.
While the summit is open to the public, getting there requires a 4WD. Since I don’t have the right vehicle, we decided to do a Mauna Kea Summit & Stargazing Tour through Hawaii Forest & Trail. This tour was something our group really wanted to do, but I was initially skeptical. I don’t necessarily harbor an affinity for astronomy and a 7-hour tour seemed like quite the commitment. However, after reading numerous glowing reviews, we decided to give it a go. We met the tour at the Forest Center at 1pm, got on the bus, and began the 2-hour drive towards the summit of Mauna Kea. Our guide, Nate, was extremely knowledgeable and knew everything about everything. I learned so much about the history of Hawaii, the flora and fauna of the island, Hawaiian culture and folklore, etc.
At 7,000 ft we stopped for a picnic dinner at the historic Humuula Sheep Station. Dinner consisted of either tofu wraps or teriyaki chicken (your choice) and was served on picnic tables in a big white event tent. After dinner, I decided to brave my fear of outhouses and use the restroom before getting back in the van. I cautiously entered the porta potty and had just pulled my pants down when I looked over to my right and saw a HUGE black spider staring me down. Giving in to my arachnophobia, I booked it out of the bathroom trying to simultaneously run, scream, and pull up my pants. (I’m sure I gave the other guests quite the show)
After dinner we were back in the van making our way towards the summit. In less than an hour, we climbed another 7,000 ft and got to the summit around 6pm – just in time to watch the sunset.
Atop the mountain the air is thin and incredibly clear. In fact, scientists have deemed Mauna Kea’s summit the best place in the world to observe stars and, therefore, have been placing the world’s finest telescopes up there for years. In addition to the large telescopes that surround the summit, the otherworldly moonscape view gives you the feeling of being on another planet. In fact, the Apollo astronauts did considerable training there because it’s so moon-like. Without the presence of trees, plants or bugs, the summit’s surroundings seems like a lifeless void (further contributing to its cosmic congruence).
Watching the sunset from the summit was absolutely amazing. Perched above the clouds, you feel like you’re on top of the world (cliché but true). The one downside to being “on top of the world”? It’s freakin’ cold up there! Nate gave us parkas and mittens, but even with the extra jackets, it was SO cold due to the heavy winds. There was snow on the ground around us and the temperature was below freezing, which made it easy to forget I was in Hawaii. My morning lounging by the pool in a bikini seemed like a distant memory as I stood there shivering while watching the last of the sun go down (a part of me secretly thankful to get back in the heated van).
Once the sun had set we went back down to 9,000 ft and Nate gave us brownies and hot chocolate while he set up the telescope. He used a laser pointer to show us specific stars and constellations, and we each took turns looking at planets through the telescope. At that altitude without any light pollution, the number of stars you could see was staggering. Despite freezing most of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and I learned a ton.
If you’ve never been to Mauna Kea I highly recommend joining a tour the first time. The information provided by the guide gives context to what would normally be “just a volcano” and viewing the stars through their high-powered telescopes is an incredible experience. Plus the road is very steep and narrow, so it’s preferable to sit back and take in the sights rather than worry about driving the steep, meandering road to the summit. Since the summit is so high in elevation there’s also the chance for altitude sickness. The tours prevent this by stopping half way up to feed you dinner so you can hydrate and get used to the elevation, plus they are trained and experienced should someone get sick (if you’re touring on your own and your driver gets sick it could be bad news).