My knowledge of the night sky is basic at best. Sure, I can spot
the Big Dipper, and I love a full moon. Wanting to heighten my
celestial sense, I knew no viewing venue could top Mauna Kea. So I
decided to shoot for Hawaii Forest & Trail’s (HF&T)
stargazing tour to this renowned astronomical observing site.
On a warm Big Island afternoon, our group of five eager
explorers boarded a 12-passenger van at HF&T’s Kona Coast
headquarters. Our interpretive naturalist, Kevin Schneider, had
packed parkas and other provisions for the eight-hour excursion.
Not accustomed to lengthy transit, I had my concerns. They faded,
however, as our adventure unfolded.
We made a quick stop at Waikoloa Resort to pick up pre-ordered
dinners plus five more adventuresome souls. These strangers
gradually grew into a friendly ohana (family) with a common goal
Mauna Kea is overwhelming. To observe the “White Mountain” from
sea level, one can only begin to grasp its size. Weaving toward the
summit, I was consumed by this massive mound.
Remarkably versed in Hawaiian nature, culture and history,
Schneider shared both fact and folklore on the dramatic evolution
of our surroundings. As we passed a pueo (owl) perched in a dead
mamane tree, he explained how ranching and grazing herds had
transformed the area from forest into grassland.
Midway to the summit, we met a second HT&F van at the
historic Humuula Station on Parker Ranch. The abandoned sheep
outpost was geared with a dining tent, tables and extremely clean
It was cool and foggy at the outpost quite a contrast to our
coastal conditions earlier in the day. I donned my parka and joined
others wandering among the ranch remains. Aside from sustenance,
our dinner stop also helped acclimatize us for our final ascent.
With a hearty meal under our belts, we continued our star
Near the 9,000-foot level, the van emerged from fog into a
brilliant blue sky. It was as if the heavens had opened up. We
progressed toward the 13,500-foot elevation past volcanic cinder
cones and patches of snow.
“Mauna Kea’s summit rises above 40 percent of the Earth’s
atmosphere,” Schneider said. “Plus it’s far from city lights. Up
here, you’ll have optimal viewing of galaxies that stretch to the
very edge of our observable universe.”
With some 200 billion stars in our galaxy, I knew we were in for
quite a show. Schneider warned us that the temperature drops three
degrees every 1,000 feet.
“It’s freezing up here right now,” he reported.
I exited the van with a wobbly step or two. The elevation
definitely had an impact, but it quickly passed. The temperature
was another story. I zipped my parka and pulled up the hood.
Standing at the summit is nothing short of surreal. We were
literally on top of the world, at the peak of the tallest mountain
on Earth, rising some 31,000 feet from the ocean’s floor. And as
daylight slowly slipped away, the journey was growing even
Schneider recited the roster of observatories. “Those are the
Keck twins and that’s the Subaru Telescope.”
Eleven countries currently host 13 telescopes at the summit,
nearly three miles above it all, in the world’s most isolated area.
After an amazing sunset, we returned to the Onizuka Center for
International Astronomy at the 9,200-foot level. Here, Schneider
set up a pair of eight-inch Celestron Cassegrain telescopes for our
star party. He also used lasers to point out clusters and
constellations. Warm in our parkas with hot chocolate and macadamia
nut cookies in hand, we oohed and aahed at the brilliance of
Hawaii’s night sky. While this stellar show seemed so distant,
Schneider clarified how we were standing in the middle of it all
right here on Earth.
“We’re looking into the past and into the future right now,” he
said. “We see what’s light years away. It’s all linked.”
His remarks made me sense that life in space was likely staring
right back at that exact moment. Far beyond simply viewing the
heavens, I was learning Earth’s place in the cosmos. Seeing
Saturn’s rings so clearly was the highlight of my night. Another
trekker said she enjoyed the lore learning that Taurus lies as a
protector between the hunter Orion and the Seven Sisters. Others
seemed astounded by Jupiter and its eight moons or the fact that
Earth’s moon had such intense divots.
After an hour or so, our ohana agreed that we were seeing things
more clearly connecting the dots, so to speak. We were headed for
home as the Southern Cross began to rise just as Schneider had
promised. I counted my lucky stars I’d taken this trek.
Hawaii Forest & Trail
74-5035B Queen Kaahumanu Hwy.
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
Hawaii Forest & Trail specializes in half- and full-day
guided nature tours across the Big Island. The eight-hour,
10-person maximum Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure is offered
daily, with pick up at HF&T’s headquarters and Waikoloa
Resort’s Kings’ Shops. Afternoon departure time varies throughout
Price: $159 plus tax, including dinner, snack, hot
beverages, hooded parka and gloves. Reservations are highly
recommended at least one week in advance, as this tour consistently
sells out. Commission is 10 percent.
Restrictions: Must be
16 years of age or older. Not recommended for those with heart,
circulatory or respiratory conditions. Scuba divers should be aware
of altitude risks.
Recommendations: Long pants, light jacket or
sweatshirt, closed-toe sport or walking shoes.
Miscellaneous: All HF&T guides are first-aid and CPR trained,
and several have advanced first-aid and rescue