For a Hawaii Island experience that offers a look at nature that’s both up-close and light years away, turn to Hawaii Forest & Trail.
Through its Maunakea Summit & Stars Give Back Experience, the ecotourism tour operator — which launched the tour in January — provides travelers with a chance to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature while also helping to protect it.
“It’s the best of two very different but equally fascinating worlds,” said Jason Cohn, president of Kona-based Hawaii Forest & Trail, which has been operating for more than 25 years. “First, guests visit a lowland dry forest that’s being replanted with native vegetation; a few hours later, they’re high atop Maunakea volcano, where conditions for stargazing are great 90% of the time.”
Protecting Native Hawaii Plants
At first glance, the hot, dry Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve might not be what clients envision as a tropical paradise. But upon closer inspection of the 275-acre area, they’ll discover a wide variety of plants, trees and shrubs — some of which are found only in the drylands of Hawaii Island.
Notable among the flora is the endangered uhiuhi tree. In ancient times, Hawaiians used its dense wood to make spears, daggers, tapa beaters, house posts and fishing weights. Now, it’s thought that fewer than 50 uhiuhi trees remain in the wild due to wildfires, development, invasive plant species and other threats.
The Waikoloa region is also known for the wiliwili, whose light wood was fashioned into surfboards, canoe outriggers and fishing net floats long ago. Mature trees stand 20 to 30 feet tall, with an equally wide canopy. Amazingly, they can survive on very little water.
The uhiuhi and wiliwili are just two plants that Hawaii Forest & Trails’ partner Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative (WDFI) is working to save. Established in 2011, the nonprofit organization has reintroduced about 60 native species to the preserve. And clients on the Give Back tour can contribute to WDFI conservation efforts by collecting wiliwili, uhaloa, ilima and aalii seeds for planting. In addition, Hawaii Forest & Trail donates $20 of every ticket sold for this tour to the nonprofit.
The decision to partner with WDFI was an easy one, Cohn says: Hawaii Forest & Trail believes in its mission to preserve, protect and restore a native Hawaiian forest. Additionally, a large portion of the Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve is on a Maunakea lava flow, so it has a direct connection to the mountain.
“Its significance as a sanctuary for native plants makes it a unique and meaningful experience for visitors,” Cohn said. “Providing an opportunity for them to help rebuild a native ecosystem is what we hope the future of regenerative tourism looks like in Hawaii.”
Stargazing Atop Maunakea
After visiting the preserve, where temperatures are normally in the 80s, tour-goers ascend Maunakea to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, located at an elevation of 9,200 feet. There, they enjoy a warm dinner of beef stew or vegetarian chili; browse the store, which sells books, apparel and souvenirs; and acclimate to the thinner air and cooler temperatures.
If weather permits, the next stop is the volcano’s 13,800-foot summit, where astronomers from all over the world operate 12 observatories. Because the oxygen atop the summit is roughly 50% of the levels found on the coast, and temperatures are around freezing year-round, the stargazing segment of the tour takes place in more comfortable conditions, between the 9,000- and 12,000-foot elevations. Two types of telescopes bring into focus deep-space objects as far away as the Andromeda galaxy, which is some 2.5 million light-years from Earth.
Hawaii Forest & Trail uses a Stellina digital telescope to view images live on a tablet, and can email them to guests so they can download and share the photos via their phone, tablet or computer, according to Cohn. When there are high winds and cloud cover, tour guides employ a traditional Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain 11-inch optical telescope.
“Because Maunakea is the highest point in the Pacific, light pollution is not a concern, making it a prime site for astronomical research,” Cohn said. “Modern-day scientists are making incredible discoveries there."
Because Maunakea is the highest point in the Pacific, light pollution is not a concern, making it a prime site for astronomical research.
August is a popular month for gazing heavenward because of the Perseid meteor shower, considered the best display of that phenomenon during the year. Some 50 to 75 brilliant shooting stars per hour are expected to streak across the sky during the peak of the meteor shower, from midnight on Aug. 11 to dawn on Aug. 13. (Unfortunately, the full moon on Aug. 11 will likely hamper visibility.)
Travelers visiting in September can expect Saturn, Jupiter and Mars to be prominent for most of the month. Around Sept. 26, Jupiter will loom large and bright overhead, near the constellation Pisces. At that time, it will be the closest it has been to Earth since October 1963, at a distance of about 367.3 million miles.
“The early Polynesians also studied the stars, which guided them on long voyages across the Pacific,” Cohn said. “From then until now, Hawaii has had a strong link to the heavens.”
Clients can forge that special connection, too, as they look upward and marvel at the jewels of the Hawaiian night sky from atop Maunakea.