Mauna Kea Summit Tour

This is a copy of my Tripadvisor review with some slight changes and extra photos


Sunset at the Mauna Kea Summit

We went with Hawaii Forest and Trail. As always, let me get the negative out of the way first.

For the love of God, please guides, on future trips when you do the stargazing, make sure the back door of the van or the door curtain can be closed for the comfort of those staying inside the van who are not interested or too cold to spend a lot of time looking at the sky?

There, that is my one peeve with this tour out of the way up front. The tour guides need to be more aware that some people taking the tour are only wanting to visit the summit and have a quick look at the stars and then retreat to a warm place to view them from the van windows – you can see them from inside the van and they are gorgeous.


Our tour van
Not everyone on the tour wants a lengthy tour of the sky with the laser pointer. It is great that you do it for those who want it, but those of us inside the van would like to be able to stay warm while you do.

Some of us are only there because our much loved other half is really into this stuff and we did not want to spend that much time apart during our holiday. We arrived at HFT at 1:20pm and got dropped back to the hotel about 10:30pm – that is a long time to be separated on holiday, so I went along.

On the night we went there was not a lot of wind but there was just enough to blow an icy cold breeze through the back doors of the van out to the front of the van. If there were a lot of wind I think I would really have struggled to stay warm in the van even with the parka and gloves.


My legs are not normally this chunky – leggings underneath the jeans, plus big thick knee length socks

Now I did not come unprepared for the cold – I had leggings on under my jeans which was certainly a hot time in Kailua-Kona when we left, very wooly knee length socks, leather boots, and I had over 5 layers on my top half which I added on as we went up the mountain, plus I had a hat to keep my head warmth in (next time I would wear a nice wooly beanie and I highly recommend you all do that) plus the parka and gloves on top of this and yet I was still shivering in spite of all this.

Clearly I am not an alpine person – I come from Australia where most of the time our coldest temps are a lot warmer than the temperature at the summit.

I would still recommend to anyone intending to do this – especially in the colder times of year – that you do not underestimate how cold it is going to get, that you order a parka a couple of sizes larger than you are because the layers are going to add more size to you and make it difficult to zip the parka up – and that you do not turn up to the HFT office for the tour in beach wear and flip flops knowing you are about to go up to the summit because you then have the hassle of having to bring all your warm clothes and get changed, plus everyone there will be looking at you like you is crazy. “Is that what you are going to wear? Seriously?”.

I think I was probably the only person with hidden leggings and if I were to do this again I might even put two layers of leggings under there, one of them being merino thermalwear.

With all of this said, the tour was pretty awesome. Chris and Nate were our tour guides and they were very interesting and knew their stuff. The parts I most liked were in the van on the way there when they were talking to us about the landscape and lava flows and what we could expect to see at the summit, etc.

The part of the tour I loved most was when we stopped at a lava flow to get out and have a closer look at it, which I wrote about in this post – Beauty.. and a curse?


Cows near the dinner site

The dinner was quite nice, I could smell it in the van on the way up and it tasted just as good as it smelled. It did involve 2x chicken thighs with a tomato and pineapple sauce, which me personally I tend to avoid for the most part being more a fan of the breast and wing, however the more this is served to me the more I like it and thus far it has been served to me twice on this trip.


The tables all set up for dinner – the tables are there all the time, guides bring the rest of this with them in the van

There was also rice, greens and carrots, corn bread, hot tea with many options (I chose earl grey) and we were all given a bottle of water which was ours to keep and told to keep hydrated.


Dinner was held at a pretty interesting location photographically, and there are tents you eat inside because the buildings are great for photography and not for going inside of.


Unfortunately keeping hydrated means toilet stops and there were a few of those which involved my least favourite invention of all time – the port a potty. Team that up with a lot of layers and a parka, and you are in for fun times, NOT.


You need to be aware of the following before you take this tour – quite a bit of the road up to the summit is not paved and this means a rough trip for a bit there. The van bumps and shakes its way to a paved section higher up which is there to keep dust down for the telescopes. It can be a bit teeth chattering and bone jarring. I found it a lot worse on the way down.

If you have ever experienced vertigo you will probably not want to choose a window seat – and be well aware that the hypoxia – lack of oxygen – you may experience at the higher elevations can cause vertigo to be worse than usual and also you might experience it more than once and the second time will be a doozy. It is said that general aviation pilots do not usually survive a second bout of vertigo when they are hypoxic because the second bout can be extremely disorientating.


Just before my second vertigo incident – this guy moved even closer to the edge!

Knowing this, once I experienced vertigo the first time on this tour I avoided looking out of the window when there was a drop off, even so I did have a second bout of vertigo at the summit when I was walking around and got too close to the edge and could see how far up we were and there was a sharp drop off and some guy was standing super close to the edge which freaked me out some. I quickly made my way back to the bus and sat down. I recommend if you are with someone and you did experience vertigo on the way up that you stick together in case you get disorientated. They are not lying when they say the second bout of vertigo can be very disorientating, so be very careful.

I experienced night vertigo for the first time and that is just awful. As you are going down it is dark but if you look over the edge you can see brake lights and headlights of other cars. This is one reason why I did not want to get out of the van when we stopped for the stargazing, I was feeling quite dizzy. However I did have to go to the bathroom, the walk there was entirely in the dark though there were motion sensor lights at the Hawaiian Johns. This was not a great time for me given how I was feeling dizzy and disorientated already. Next time I would bring one of those head light thingys that you can switch to red.


This was taken with a Canon DSLR – the stars are so bright you don’t need fancy equipment to get a shot.

And now the part of the trip I most hated – I already mentioned the leaving the doors open while stargazing, but it began to rain and get cloudy where we were, so the tour guides suggested going up a bit to try and get out of the clouds. This meant a trip from the paved section to the unpaved section again, and then more time with the van door open.

I’m glad everyone got to see more stars but jeebus I was cold and I was not the only one. Can I suggest to the guides in future if you want to do this ask if anyone wants to be let off at the visitors centre where they can stay inside in the warmth with hot chocolate. There was a young kid on the trip, myself, plus two others who would have jumped at the chance and been more than happy with that arrangement.

I don’t remember much of the trip home as I think most of us fell asleep for much of it. The guides dropped everyone back to HFT where they had parked, and then took us and one other passenger back to Kona which was much appreciated.

Nate and Chris were great, overall we had a good time, even if it was quite a cold time.

Coming up tomorrow – how *not* to visit the summit