For a touch of adventure when visiting Hawaii, swap your swimsuits and sun tanning for winter woollies and mountain tops and make your way to the W.M. Keck Observatory on Big Island. This scientific treasure is situated at the peak of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano and is home to the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.
These awe-inspiring twin telescopes are colossal – standing at 8 storeys high and weighing 300 tons each – and have the power to observe galaxies billions of light years away from Earth. Both telescopes have been pivotal in uncovering new astronomical discoveries of the cosmos since the early 1990s. At the summit is a visitor’s gallery (open weekdays) where you can browse the exhibits detailing the observatory’s operations and research contributions, as well as take in partial views of the Keck I telescope from the viewing area.
Access to the summit of Mauna Kea is by 4WD only, so astronomy enthusiasts and those who simply wish to experience unforgettable views from 14,000 feet up in the sky will need to rent a 4WD prior to visiting. While ascending the volcano, it’s necessary to stop in at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station located at the 9,200 feet basecamp to get updates on weather conditions and to adjust to the altitude before venturing further (stopping for at least 30 minutes is recommended). The Maunakea Visitor Information Station also hosts a free nightly stargazing program from 6pm to 10pm.
For safety reasons, visitors who are pregnant, under the age of 16 or have a health condition are not permitted to journey past the visitor station to the summit. Those unable to drive to the observatory but still wish to get a taste for how it all works will enjoy visiting the W.M. Keck Observatory Headquarters (open Monday to Friday from 10am–2pm) located at 65–1120 Mamalahoa Highway, Waimea.