Our second day on the Big Island was spent honoring the two Hawaiian deities Pele and Poli’ahu. We started the day with the goddess of fire at Volcanoes National Park and ended the day at Mauna Kea summit – the home of the goddess of snow.
- Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
- Drive from Volcanoes National Park to Mauna Kea
- Mauna Kea Visitor Center
- Mauna Kea Summit & Observatory
Before heading over to Volcanoes National Park, we picked up our Jeep so we could self-drive to the Mauna Kea summit. You will need a 4WD vehicle to drive to the summit and clear the mandatory checkpoint.
We didn’t rent a 4WD car for our entire trip because the cost was too high. Instead, we used Airbnb experiences to find a reasonably priced vehicle that we could use for the day. Overall, we were happy with our experience and would happily recommend our host. If you’re not interested in self-driving, you can always book a day tour package where the tour company will take care of the logistics for you. If you want to go stargazing, you must book a tour as independent cars are not allowed at the summit after sunset.
Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is massive and you could easily spend a week exploring all the park has to offer. That said, you can see most of the major highlights within 1 or 2 days.
We stopped by the Visitor Center and Volcano House before hiking the Kilauea Iki Trail down to the Kilaeua Iki Crater. Once you get back to the Kīlauea Iki Overlook parking area, you can complete the short, 1.5-mile loop to Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube). Note, parking is extremely limited so aim to get to the park early if you plan on doing the 3.3-mile version of this hike (as opposed to 5.3).
The rain started to pick up so we skipped additional hikes and instead drove over to Kīlauea Overlook to see daytime views of Kaluapele (Kīlauea caldera) and Halemaʻumaʻu crater.
TIME SPENT: 3-4 hours
Drive from Volcanoes National Park to Mauna Kea
We left Volcano National Park by 3:30 so we’d have ample time to get to Mauna Kea summit for sunset. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the Big Island. At 13,803 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea summit is the highest point in Hawaii and an astronomer’s paradise. It is also the only place on the island where you truly need warm clothing.
It’s about a 2-hour drive from Volcano National Park to Mauna Kea Visitor Center. The road to Mauna Kea is called Mauna Kea Access Road off Highway 200. There aren’t any large signs on the highway so be sure to lookout for the access point (which is located near the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone Parking Lot).
TIME SPENT: 2 hours
Mauna Kea Visitor Center
Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is the official name of the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. It’s a mandatory stopping point en route to the summit. At the visitor center, you can use the restrooms, acclimate to the altitude, change into warm clothes, and give your tires a break. Spend at least 30 minutes at the Visitor Center to adjust to the altitude and learn about the cultural significance of the mountain.
TIME SPENT: 30 minutes
Mauna Kea Summit & Observatory
It’s about a 30-minute, slow drive from Mauna Kea Visitor Center to the summit. Once you’re at the top, get comfortable as you witness one of the most stunning sunsets of your life. Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can see the sun dip below the clouds amidst volcanoes, mountain peaks, and telescopes.
TIME SPENT: 1.5 hours
We go back to the visitor center at around 8 PM. After another short break, we made our way back to Hilo.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 5 hours (including time spent at the Visitor Center on the way back down)
- Mauna Kea vs. Volcanoes National Park. Hiking down to the caldera and watching the sunset at Mauna Kea are two of my top highlights from my Big Island trip so it feels impossible to pick between the two. If you’re short on time, budget-constrained, or short on luggage space, I’d recommend skipping Mauna Kea since the trek to the summit is time-intensive, requires an expensive vehicle (or expensive tour), and winter clothing.
- Is Mauna Kea a Mountain or a Volcano? Mauna Kea is not a mountain – it’s a dormant volcano.
- Is Mauna Kea in Volcanoes National Park? No. The active volcanoes that make up the heart of Volcanoes National Park are Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
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