Star Trek

A tour operator helps clients shoot for the stars

By: Dawna Robertson

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 star trekking.

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 porta-potties.

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 quest.

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 better.

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 the year.
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 skills/certifications.