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Places In Hawaii: The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy

Basic Information

  • What: The Onizuka Visitor Center
  • Where: Mauna Kea, Hawaii
  • Cost: Free
  • Hours: 9AM – 10PM
  • More Information: Official website

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Narrative

During our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, my family and I decided to drive up to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station below the 13,796 Mauna Kea volcano.  I planned to hike up this volcano the next day and I was concerned about what the altitude change would do to my body since I had been living at sea level for over a year.  I have never conducted a high altitude hike like this before without living a few thousand feet above seal level.  The visitor center is located at 9,200 feet of altitude so I figured spending some time here the day prior would help me acclimate.  From Hilo we took the Daniel K. Inouye Highway to the visitor center:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Just a few years ago this highway did not exist and instead people accessing Mauna Kea had to drive on the mostly dirt Saddle Road.  This road was so rough that many rental car companies forbid drivers from using the road.  Now it is a modern highway with a fantastic road that makes it easy to access Mauna Kea.  As we drove up the highway we had completely clear skies to take in the stunning views of this enormous volcano:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

From the highway the turn off to the visitor center was well marked and easy to find.  Just like the highway the road to the visitor center was paved and in great shape:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

From Hilo it took us about an hour to reach the visitor center:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Inside the visitor center it had all the typical tourist souvenirs you would think a place like this would have.  I was a bit surprised that it did not really have as much information about the significance of the telescopes on Mauna Kea as I was expecting.  However, at night the visitor center does have an astronomy program that is supposed to be really good.  I saw a number of local businesses offering astronomy tours at night to the visitor center.  I saw one of their telescopes set up outside when I visited:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Outside the visitor center there were a number of warning signs in regards to the dangers of hiking up Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

There was also a log book that hikers heading up the mountain are supposed to sign in and out of when they come back from their hike:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

After checking out the visitor center I walked up the road to spot the trailhead for the Humuula Trail that leads to the summit.  I only had to walk about 100 yards up the road before I found the dirt road that is the start of the trail:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

The trailhead is located right next to where the 4-wheel drive road begins that accesses the summit:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I think the authorities at Mauna Kea keep the road as four-wheel drive access only to reduce the number of cars driving to the summit.  When I hiked up Mauna Kea the next day there were very few cars I saw on the summit unlike Pikes Peak or Mt. Evans in Colorado that can be absolute mad houses due to the paved roads that lead to the top of those two mountains.  Across the street from the visitor center I saw this small volcanic cinder cone:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I decided to do a quick hike up the cinder cone to test how my body felt at this altitude.  As I followed the trail over to the volcanic cone I noticed this Hawaiian shrine built near the road:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

I next saw one of the many silversword plants that only grow on the high altitude volcanoes of the Big Island and Maui:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

The silver sword is actually an endangered plant that was nearly wiped out by the grazing of feral goats on the Big Island.  The moving of silverswords from the Haleakala volcano on Maui allowed the plant to reestablish itself in different areas of Mauna Kea:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

The trail quickly gain altitude where I could see the base camp area used by the scientists that work in the telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

I soon found myself on the summit of the cinder cone.  Here was the view from the summit looking back towards the highway with the Onizuka visitor center visible on the far left:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Here is a closer look at the visitor center area:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Here is the view looking up at the slopes of Mauna Kea and another prominent cinder cone rising in the foreground:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Here is a panorama I took of the view from the volcanic cinder cone looking towards Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

I was feeling really good despite the high altitude and decided to work up a sweat and hike up the other cinder cone to see if I would feel the altitude at all:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

I powered up the sandy trail to the top of the larger cinder cone and spotted this shrine on the summit:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

There was also this circle of rocks which I assume has some kind of significance for native Hawaiians:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Here is a panorama I took of the shrine area backdropped by the large mass of Mauna Kea:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Here was the view from the summit looking at the slopes of Mauna Kea where down below I could see the Humuula Trail ascending the side of the mountain:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

I would be hiking up the very trail early the next morning.  Here is the view looking back towards Hilo that was engulfed in a thick cloud cover:

Picture from the Onizuka Visitor Center Area

Here is one final panorama picture I took showing the looming bulk of the massive 13,679 foot Mauna Loa volcano in the distance:

Picture from Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Conclusion

If driving on Saddle Road it is well worth stopping at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station.  There may not be much to see in the visitor center, but the views are quite impressive and people can hike up some of the small cinder cones to get a taste of what it is like to hike up Mauna Kea.

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