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How to visit Mauna Kea if you’re in a Campervan

Updated: Jan 29

the view of Mauna Kea from Mauna Loa at sunset
the view of Mauna Kea from Mauna Loa at sunset

Most Campervans on the island of Hawaii are 2-wheel drive (at least, all of ours are!). Which is all you need for everything except for one experience - visiting the top of Mauna Kea. 

When you book a campervan with us, you have a few options for how to visit Mauna Kea.

My top recommendations for how to visit Mauna Kea is to take your cozy van up to the visitor center. You won’t have any trouble getting there without 4x4. From the visitor center you can park, use the restrooms, and hike the small pu’u (hill) right across the road for sunset. 

I love to make this experience cozy and meaningful by bringing a couple of camping chairs, a pre-cooked dinner, and an intention or hope for the future to the top of the Pu’u. It’s still cold even at the visitor center, so pants, a jacket, and close-toed shoes are recommended!

The Pu'u across from the Mauna Kea Visitor Center at Sunset
The Pu'u across from the Mauna Kea Visitor Center at Sunset

This is my top recommendation for a couple of reasons. 

#1: The Sacred and the Science

The summit of Mauna Kea is the site of much controversy because of its sacred meaning to the Hawaiian people and the location of the observatories at the top. While science has much to gain from these observatories, there is a long history of disregard for sacred sites, practices, and rituals. 

As a guest, you won’t have any trouble or hassle visiting at the present moment, but it’s worth pondering what you may gain at the very top of the mountain.

#2: Time and Temperature

If you want to go to the Summit, ideally you should arrive to the visitor center and give yourself at least 30 minutes to acclimatize in order to not get altitude sickness. After that, it’s another 30-40 minutes to the top. The top has very freezing temperatures, so honestly you won’t want to stay for long. Security will ask you to leave right as sunset is complete and you probably will be ready to go. In my opinion, the extra time required to get to the top compared to the less amount of time you have to admire the beauty isn’t worth the extra bit of the trip to the top.

Given these factors, I have found the experience at the Pu’u next to the visitor center allows guests to admire the grandeur of a stunning mountain-top sunset without the altitude sickness, extra drive, and freezing temperatures.

Bertha the Campervan in front of Mauna Kea from Mauna Loa Access Road
Bertha the Campervan in front of Mauna Kea

If you feel it is important to you to go to the Summit, consider how you might show respect to the sacred site. Whether that is donating to a non-profit that supports and elevates cultural practices or acknowledging for yourself the sacredness of the site, bringing an intention and gratitude. Each of us can do our part, no matter how you choose to experience this majestic site.

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