Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where are the restrooms?
A: Outside to the back of the building
Q: What is the elevation of the VIS and what is the elevation of the summit?
A: The Visitor Station is located at 9,200ft (2,800m) and the summit is 13,796ft (4,205m)
Q: Is there Wifi at the VIS?
Q: Is the VIS part of a national or state park?
A: No, the area around the VIS and summit of Mauna Kea is a conservation district and not part of the National Park Program,.
Q: Are there any shuttles to the Summit?
A: No, there is no organized shuttle or ride from the VIS. The permitted commercial Tour companies all start below, on the Kona and Hilo sides and need to be prearranged in town. VIS staff and Rangers cannot give visitors rides. You can hike, which takes 8-10 hours round-trip.
Q: Do we need to make reservations for the stargazing program? For the free escorted summit tour?
A: No. Reservations are not necessary. Anyone wanting to participate just needs to arrive at the Visitor Information Station, by 1:00 p.m. for the Escorted Summit Tour, or between 6 and 10 pm for Stargazing.
Q: Where can I see the sunset from the Visitor Information Station?
A: Visitors can hike roughly 15-20 minutes along a trail to the top of Pu’u Kalepeamoa which is located across the street, southwest from the VIS.
Q: Where is the nearest gas station?
A: Gas stations are all about the same distance, so it depends on which direction you want to go. Hilo, Waikoloa Village and Waimea are each about 35 miles away. If you think you're (almost) out of gas: park your car on level ground, release the gas cap to equalize pressure in the tank, turn off the engine and turn it back on again. If the gas level is still "empty", let us know.
Q: Who runs the observatories?
A: A total of 11 different countries support the observatories in various combinations. For example, the NASA Infrared Telescope is run by NASA (U.S. Government), the Keck twin telescopes are built by the Keck Foundation and used by University of California, University of Southern California and University of Hawaii, the Gemini North telescope is supported by a consortium representing 7 different countries, and so on.
Q: What's in the video "Hawaiian Starlight"?
A: There are no words. It has background music (from the video game "Halo"), time-lapse photography of the mountain and the observatories, and space photography from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which produced the video.
Q: What is there to do around the VIS?
A: Around the VIS, you can watch videos, shop in the First Light Bookstore, check out the silversword garden through the gate past the picnic tables, hike to the top of Pu'u Kalepeamoa across the street for a great view of the Saddle region and Mauna Loa, picnic, view the Sun through our solar telescope, or just relax and enjoy this place.
Q: What is there to do on the Summit?
A: During the day, many people are going up to the Summit to visit an Observatory, hike to the actual Summit or to Lake Waiau, and/or watch the sunset. After that, most people will join us at the VIS for stargazing.
1. On weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., you can go inside the Keck Observatory & look at the biggest optical telescope on the Mountain (10 meters). Go to the Keck "twins", and look for the "visitors' entrance" sign. When you enter the building, there's an outer door and an inner door. Between them, on the left, is another door which says "viewing gallery". Go through that door to enter the dome & look at the telescope. There's a light switch with a timer, on the inside wall to the right. There are also bathrooms (with flush toilets) inside the visitors' lobby inside. There are no staff on duty, but there are posters explaining various aspects of the Keck telescopes.
2. From the 2nd intersection (near Hoku Kea telescope), you can view the Summit. Park your car between Hoku Kea and the porta-potties.
3. From the 1st intersection at "Park 3", you can walk to Lake Waiau. This is the 6th highest lake in the U.S. and a very sacred site in Hawaiian culture. Follow the trail to the south from Park 3, and after about 1/2 mile you'll see a trail branching to the right. Climb up to the top of the crater and you'll see Lake Waiau. From Park 3 the one-way walk takes about 30 minutes and is about 2/3 of a mile or 1 kilometer.
Q: What's the altar near the silverswords?
A: it's an ahulele (ahu=lower stone part, lele=upper wooden part), an altar with 3 levels for making offerings to family, the earth/enviroment and gods/goddesses. There is one at the base of the Access Road at Pu'u Huluhulu, and one at the Summit as well. Some people make offerings at each one as they ascend the Mountain. Please don't disturb the ahulele or leave anything that won't biodegrade.
Q: Do the stars look different on the summit from here at the VIS?
A: The lack of oxygen on the summit means your vision is not as acute there. You can actually see more stars from the VIS than from the Summit.
Q: What are the observatories observing?
A: There are 13 observatories, and they can be classified by the part of the electromagnetic spectrum they view, into 4 different types (optical, infrared, submillimeter and radio). They may be doing multiple different projects in a particular night, depending on the time, weather and other requirements of the astronomers who they're working for. For any particular observatory, you can go to their website to see the kinds of research they're doing and have done.
Q: Is there a place on the way to the summit to watch sunset?
A: No, there is no place along the summit road that will allow you to watch the sunset other than the summit area itself.
Q: Can I go to the summit?
A: If you are planning to visit the summit, we highly recommend that you stop at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200ft to receive a current weather update, safety information, and to adjust to the change in altitude (for at least 30 minutes). Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours, so altitude sickness is a strong possibility. At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain. Anyone in poor health should consult their physician before planning a visit to Mauna Kea. We do not recommend anyone who is pregnant to go further than the VIS. People under the age of 16 should not go any further because their bodies are still developing and they are affected more rapidly when going to a high altitude. If you plan to scuba dive, do not plan to come up the mountain within 24 hours after your dive. Furthermore, we do not recommend anyone with a heart or respiratory problem to travel above the VIS.
We also highly recommend that only 4 wheel drive vehicles with Low Range travel beyond the VIS. About 300 yards beyond the station, the pavement ends and the next 4 and a half miles are a steep graded-gravel road. You should check with your rental car company to see if you are allowed to travel on Mauna Kea.
The road to the Summit is 2 lanes all the way, but the first 4.5 miles are gravel and rock. You should not leave the gravel road except at the turnout at the 2nd bend and the turnout half-way across the 3rd traverse (about mile 2). You can turn into any of 3 parking lots along the paved section of the road.
Hiking from VIS to Summit
The average round-trip time is at least 8 hours, more if you spend time at the summit. There’s nowhere to get food or water and it’s dangerous to get caught on the trail at sunset. Head east to the road if you get in trouble or call 911.
The average round-trip hiking time is 8 hours, 5 hours up and 3 hours down. Don’t expect to have enough daylight to complete the journey unless you leave early enough. Be aware that the sun sets earlier in the winter. This is a wilderness area. There is no public transportation available on the Mountain. There are no rest areas or restrooms, and cell-phone service is spotty, and absent in places. If you find yourself lost or physically in trouble and it’s getting dark, head toward the road where you may encounter help. There is no public transportation on the Mountain. You should not assume you can get a ride down if you become tired or lost. If you have an emergency, call 911.
Vehicle Lights – Summit
For maximum safety please drive with your headlights on at all times.
You should leave the summit and head back down the hill within 15 or 20 minutes after sunset. This way you’ll still have time to make it most of the way to the VIS before it gets completely dark. This is much safer than waiting until it gets dark before leaving the summit. The ambient light just after sunset is bright enough that you’ll still be able to see fairly well, and your headlights won’t disturb the observatories as much as they would if you waited until after it became completely dark.
Vehicle Lights – Visitor Station
For maximum safety please drive with your headlights on at all times.
People are stargazing on the visitor station patio, so please shut off your headlights as soon as you park your vehicle so as to minimize the disturbance.
If you are going to remain in your car or with your car, please turn OFF your headlights so that you are not disturbing the stargazing activities.
Public access after sunset and before sunrise
When conditions permit safe driving, the road to the summit of the mountain is open to the public. Weather and road conditions can cause temporary closures. Please avoid the summit from 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise.