Visiting Mauna Kea Observatories
If you would like to visit Mauna Kea
Observatory we recommend that you begin at the
Visitor Information Station of
the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at
the 9,000-foot level on the Mauna Kea access road.
At the center you can learn about the mountain,
the telescopes, and the Universe, buy souvenirs and
view the stars after dark through our portable
You can also drive to the 14,000-foot
summit of Mauna Kea to view the domes of the main
observatory itself, but you need to be aware that;
- Ordinary vehicles cannot cope with
the steep, unpaved road; you will need to obtain
a four-wheel drive vehicle, or take a commercial
- There are no opportunities to "look
through" the telescopes at the summit, and
visitors are not allowed at the summit after dark.
- The road up the
mountain can be dangerous, particularly in
- The high altitude of the observatory carries serious health risks
and routinely impairs physical and mental
- The Keck observatory and the UH2.2m telescope
have visitors galleries from which the telescope
may be viewed at certain times. The Keck gallery is generally open 10am - 4pm Mon-Fri, while the UH 2.2m is usually open 9.30am - 3.30pm Mon-Thu.
Kea is situated on the Big Island of Hawaii. It can
be reached from Route 200--the narrow and winding
Saddle Road, so named because it runs between the
two major volcanic mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna
Kea, at an elevation of 2,000 m (6,600 ft). A paved
road leaves the Saddle Road at Mile 28 and winds its
way up to the lower slopes of Mauna Kea to the Visitor
Information Station (VIS) at the Onizuka Center for
International Astronomy (OCIA), which is the mid-level
altitude acclimatization center for scientists and
technicians. The distance from Hilo to the OCIA is
34 miles (55 km), with the average travel time being
1 to 1-1/2 hours.
The OCIA Visitors' Information Station (VIS),
about 20 minutes from the turnoff from the Saddle
Road, is between the construction camp area and the
During the day while the VIS is open:
there are videos to watch, astronomy magazines to
read, displays to view, handouts to browse through,
and several computers with Mauna Kea and astronomy
The center owns several high quality portable telescopes through which the night sky may be viewed by visitors. One of the telescopes has a spectrograph and a Coronado H-alpha scope mounted on it so that visitors can view sunspots and stellar spectra during the daytime.
- Summit Tours are held on Saturday
and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 PM.
- Stargazing Programs are held every
night from 6:00 to 10:00 PM
Mauna Kea is a very remote location.
It has no public accommodations, food, or gasoline
service. The observatory buildings are usually closed
to the public. There are no permanent restrooms above
the Visitor Information Station. The only public telephone
above Hale Pohaku is an emergency phone in the entrance
to the University of Hawaii 2.2-m Telescope building.
Vehicles should be in good working condition with
good brakes and sufficient fuel to return to Hilo
or Waimea. Emergency services, including medical assistance,
may be two hours away.
The road above the OCIA to the Mauna
Kea Observatories is unpaved, rough, steep, winding,
and dangerous. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles are
permitted above the OCIA. The road can be traversed
in about half an hour in good weather, but extreme
caution must be exercised when driving it, particularly
on the descent. Use low gear and be on the lookout
for slide areas and for loose gravel. Do not drive
over 25 mph. Use headlights if it is foggy. The switchback
section of the road above OCIA is particularly hazardous
during the hour after sunrise and the hour before
sunset, because of the low elevation of the Sun -
in several sections of the road, you must drive directly
towards the Sun, so it is very difficult to see oncoming
Visitors to Mauna Kea should prepare
themselves for severe weather, especially during
the winter months, when heavy storms commonly deposit
several feet of snow. Minimum nighttime winter temperatures
at the summit are around -4 degrees Celsius (25 degrees
Fahrenheit); maximum daytime temperatures are about
+4 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), but wind
chill and the high altitude can make it seem much
colder. Between April and November the weather is
milder, with daytime temperatures varying from freezing
to almost 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit).
Kea Weather Center at University of Hawaii is
currently developing specialized weather prediction
tools for Mauna Kea and its immediate surroundings.
These predictions help astronomers to plan their observing
to make the most efficient use of each night's atmospheric
hazards on Mauna Kea
At the summit elevation of 13,796 feet
(4,200 m), the atmospheric pressure is 40 percent
less than at sea level. Less oxygen is available to
the lungs, and acute mountain sickness is common.
Symptoms include: headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness
of breath, and poor judgment.
The intensity of these symptoms may
be lessened by spending at least a half hour at the
Visitor Information Station (altitude 9,200 feet or
3,000 m) before traveling to the summit..
under 16, pregnant women, and people with respiratory,
heart, or severe overweight conditions are advised
not to go higher than the OCIA Visitors Information
must wait at least 24 hours after their last
dive before traveling to the summit.
High altitudes can also cause the life-threatening
conditions pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and
cerebral edema (fluid on the brain). Descend immediately
if any of these symptoms appears:
- severe headaches,
- breathing difficulties,
- blue lips or fingernails,
- extreme drowsiness that may lead to coma.
Drink Plenty of Water
The summit is usually extremely arid. To prevent
should drink plenty of water prior to and during
your visit to the
summit of Mauna Kea.
Sunburn and Eye Damage
The summit is above much of the atmosphere
that blocks the sun's ultraviolet radiation. This
presents a risk of serious sunburn and eye damage,
particularly when there is snow on the ground.
High altitude causes impaired reasoning
and drowsiness. Alcohol will further impair judgment
and driving abilities.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii (formerly the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center - MKAEC)
is a $28 million planetarium, museum and educational
resource on the University
of Hawaii at Hilo campus..