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Stargazing From Hawaii’s Sacred Mountain

Chilly visitors enjoy sunset at the observatory atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea Mountain. Photo courtesy of Patricia Arrigoni.

Chilly visitors enjoy sunset at the observatory atop Hawaii

By Patricia Arrigoni

Since 1970, when the University of Hawaii was awarded a grant to construct an 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea Mountain, 13 more astronomical telescopes have been built representing not only Hawaii and the United States, but also Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

This place, considered sacred by native Hawaiians, is universally considered the best spot on Earth to stargaze with professional and amateur telescopes or even the naked eye. Free stargazing programs are held nightly from the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center at 9,200 feet, where scientists estimate people can identify 2,800 stars just by gazing up without even using a telescope.

While it is possible to visit the visitor center driving a regular car, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to reach the top at 13,796 feet. The professional telescopes are located about 30 feet below the top. Visitors must drive over an unpaved road through what looks like a lunar landscape. In fact, Apollo astronauts trained here with their moon buggy before their first moon walk in the 1960s.

Driving up rough grades of 15 percent, sometimes through snow and ice, can be dangerous. Once you near the top, however, the road is paved to keep dust from reaching the telescopes.

While I had been to the visitor center a couple of times, I really wanted to visit the summit, so I signed up for a sunset tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail called “Mauna Kea Summit and Stars.” We met our guide, Jon Knight, at the company headquarters opposite the Honokohau Harbor south of the Kona Airport at 2:15 p.m.

Knight gave a quick briefing, telling us that we would be headed north on the Mamalahoa Highway (Highway 190) to Saddle Road (Highway 200) to the base of Mauna Kea at 7,000 feet, where we would stop for dinner and a bathroom break. When we reached the summit, we could expect the temperature to be around 30 degrees with a wind-chill factor of below zero. We would see the sunset and then come back down to the visitors center, where he would set up a telescope for some stargazing.

We 12 passengers climbed into a small air-conditioned bus. As Knight drove us north through black lava fields, he pointed out trail heads leading to different beaches and an ancient fish pond. He also gave us the history of different lava flows. One, which was a rusty red, was determined by scientists to be 3,700 years old.

We stopped to pick up dinner in Waikoloa Village, a bedroom community of around 7,000 population built to supply housing for the workers of the big resorts along the North Shore. By 3:05 p.m. we were at an elevation of 1,000 feet and seeing brown and black wild goats grazing along the road.

Knight continued entertaining us with stories of early pioneers, visitors and the history of the Parker Ranch through which we were passing. We also learned how the United States military built Saddle Road in 1942 during World War II. As we passed Pohakuloa Training Area (108,863 acres used for artillery, bomb training and troop maneuvers), Mauna Loa Mountain was on our right and Mauna Kea to our left.

We stopped for dinner at an old sheep-shearing station where some tents with tables and benches had been set up along with portable toilets. Knight whipped out three red tablecloths, passed out bottled water and served us the stew, muffins and hot tea.

After we ate we got another briefing about possible problems we might experience at the summit, such as shortness of breath and getting dizzy. Our busy young guide then gave us each an Arctic parka while explaining that the summit area was considered a “hostile environment.” He explained that he had a tank of oxygen and that anyone who felt in trouble should sit and relax for a while or could be taken back down. We would be at the summit for 40 minutes, during which time we could stroll around, take photographs and enjoy the sunset, but none of the big observatories would be open to us.

On the trip to the summit being above the clouds was an out-of-world experience, a real spectacle. Once we were at the top, Knight set up a telescope and we were able to view Jupiter with four moons. He also identified which observatories were operated by what countries and explained about the workers who manned the site in two different shifts and slept in dorm facilities at a lower altitude.

Hot chocolate, chocolate-chip cookies and a stargazing show awaited us back at the visitors center. Using a long laser pointer, Knight pointed out planets, constellations, galaxies and the Milky Way in a crystal-clear sky for the next hour. It was 11p.m. before we made it back to company headquarters after a drive that took an hour and 45 minutes. It had been an 8 1/2-hour tour and an  unforgettable adventure.

IF YOU GO

Hawaii Forest and Trail is located at 74-5035 B Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. As you head south from the Kona Airport, you will see a gas station on the east side of the highway called Queen K Tesoro, (74-5035 Queen K Highway). The company building is located just behind it. The tour costs $185 plus taxes. Telephone 800-464-1993 or 808-331-8505, visit www.hawaii-forest.com or write for information to info@hawaii-forest.com.

An alternative tour company is the Mauna Kea Summit Adventures: www.maunakea.com, 808-322-2366 or 888-322-2366. Like Hawaii Forest and Trail, the duration is seven to eight hours, and the price is $185 plus tax.

Oxygen levels at the summit are 40 percent less than at sea level, so people with heart or lung problems or who are pregnant should not go. Also, scuba divers who have been diving within 24 hours should not attempt to ascend. Children must be 13 years or older.

Live web cameras constantly give weather information out about the summit. Call 888-322-2366 or 808-322-2366, www.maunakea.com.

For more information: Big Island Visitors Bureau: www.bigisland.org or 808-961-5797.

Patricia Arrigoni is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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