Mauna Kea (at night), Big Island, Hawaii


I had long been inspired by the starry sky prints of photographers like Lars Leber and David Slater and had been keen on capturing my own.  While on a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, I could not turn down the opportunity of driving to the summit of the world’s tallest volcano.  The summit of Mauna Kea is one of the world’s best sites for astronomical photography and observation.  The sky at the summit is super clear for a number of factors including: dry air, low to no cloud cover (because it’s above the inversion layer), no light or atmospheric pollution.


Despite my signature on the rental agreement and every warning I had received about attempting to drive up the dirt road to the top of the 13,796ft tall peak, we packed our van with our team of misfits and embarked for the summit.

Adventure Astronomy Astrophotography Big Blizzard Broken Camera Cold Exposure Freezing Galaxy Gemini Hawaii Island Kea Long Mauna Milky Observatory Off Peak photography Road Shooting Snow Solar Space Star Stars Summit System Telescope Volcano Way Windy

As the altitude increases and the air thins, it is advised to take a break at the information center (around 9000ft) for about an hour in order for you body to acclimate to reduction in partial pressure of oxygen.  It was actually pretty interesting the night we went.  Several astronomy nerds were outside with some phat telescopes, which was cool because they let us use them and told about the different astrological features we were looking at.

Milky way light speed Star Wars Hawaii MaunaKea Kea Mauna

I was totally geeking out with my camera as I tried to mimic the light speed affect from Star Wars.


Unfortunately for us, there was a blizzard at the summit with 50mph winds and subfreezing temperatures, so they closed the road at 9000ft.  It was already pretty cold for us (49 degrees Fahrenheit) where we were.  We found it hard to believe that the weather could be so different a few thousand feet higher on such a calm cloudless night, but we decided to heed the warnings this time and did not chance it.


Left a little “light gratify” before heading back down.


On the trip back down the moon rose and we realized it had not been a cloudless night, we were simply way above the cloud line.  At first we thought we were looking at the ocean as we began our decent but as our altitude dropped we realized it was actually a sea of clouds.


I was not ready to give up on the summit.  I checked the conditions of the road to the summit of Mauna Kea for several days to get another opportunity to take my milky way pictures.  On our last night on the big island the park opened up the road.  It did not take long for me to pack up my gear and blast off to the peak again.  Although there was no official blizzard, the conditions were still less that hospitable.  At one point the temperature dropped down to 32 F, and the winds we reported to have been blowing at 30mph.  The path was super windy and bumpy all the way up.

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But was we reached the top we were greeted by a every galaxy and solar system within the Earth visible range.  I had never seen so many stars in my entire life.  The van swayed and rocked with every gust of wind that forced its way passed us.  The wind made it difficult to even open the door.  It was so cold outside that we took turns taking pictures while the rest would warm back up in the van.

Gemini Telescope milky way

We got to see the  Gemini telescope as well as several others that were difficult to identify in the dark.

Astrophotography milky way Hawaii

Since all of our pictures had to be long exposures (20-30sec), we used a tripod to get all these shots. After a while, it got so windy and cold that after setting up each shot we would hunker down behind the van, which we used as a wind block, until the exposure was done.  At one point, however, I had just crouched behind the fender of the van when I heard a distinctive  “CLUNK” sound.  I already knew what had happened, but was too afraid to look… The wind had blown over my entire tripod with the camera still fixed to it.  The fall crushed the LCD screen, put a hole and a few scratches in the body.  The impact also broke the internal metering system such that the camera only worked in Manual mode (which is very difficult to use for a beginner like me).  I was soooo bummed.  Not only had my camera taken a beating, but the brand new lens I had just received for christmas a couple of weeks prior was still fixed to the camera.  Luckily, the hood of my Tokina 11-16mm 2.8/f took the brunt of the shock and the lens still works perfectly (ALWAYS USE YOUR LENS HOODS!!!).  But at the time I had no clue what all had broken and was trying to be as macho as possible to hold back any tears, which would have frozen into ice cycles on my face anyway…

Long exposure telescope astrophotography milky way galaxy laser star wars Mauna Kea

Despite one of our friends having passed out in the back seat due to the altitude and the casualty I had just suffered (broken camera).  I could not help but think that the night had been a win.  My friends and I had endured near blizzard conditions on the top of a tropical volcano.  We all had banging headaches as a consequence of not stopping at the 9000ft mark to acclimate to the altitude. But the sheer immensity and majesty of space were truly awe inspiring.  Seeing snow in Hawaii was crazy surreal.  To experience a glimpse of the infinite vastness of our universe was so humbling and truly dope.

4 thoughts on “Mauna Kea (at night), Big Island, Hawaii

  1. Bespoke Traveler December 9, 2015 / 6:02 am

    Sorry to hear about your broken camera but you were able to get some wonderful photos of the night sky.

    • sunshinehawaii December 10, 2015 / 2:23 am

      Thanks for the encouragement! I just returned from Maui with some new shots from the summit of Haleakala. I need to upload them soon!

  2. Tanya March 20, 2016 / 7:14 am

    I am travelling from Australia to Hawaii in Nov/Dec 2016. What are the rules for being at the summit on Mauna Kea at night? When we were there in 2013, we were told we had to be gone 30 min after sunset.

    • sunshinehawaii March 20, 2016 / 10:32 pm

      I’m not too sure why they would tell you to leave right after sunset. Many tours take people up there in the middle of the night so they can be there in time for sunrise. No one told us anything while we were up there, but I did not stop to ask anyone either. It would seem silly to make people leave as it is one of the best places on earth for astrophotography, which can only be done at night. I’ve heard of people being told to leave if they were expecting dangerous shifts in the weather. Six out of the seven days we were there, summit access to Mauna Kea was restricted due to a blizzard.

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