There is simply no better place on Hawaii Island to see the stars than from the summit and flanks of Mauna Kea – a dormant volcano towering more than 13,000 feet above sea level that makes up much of the island’s landmass and is indispensable to ancient Hawaiian spirituality.
Above the cloud line, the night air becomes cold and clear, with visibility no longer compromised by tiny droplets of water suspended in the air. This feature, along with Hawaii’s famously dark skies and low global latitude, makes for an ideal stargazing environment – quite possibly the brightest and clearest view of the heavens to be found anywhere in the United States. The grouping of massive telescopes at the mountain’s summit is a testament to this, with mind-boggling amounts of resources spent assembling these sci-fi looking domes in a wholly inhospitable environment of desolate, ancient high-altitude lavafield.
From the summit, a sea of clouds can be seen obscuring the lower flanks of the mountain, with occasional appearances of Mauna Kea’s neighboring volcano Mauna Loa across the great divide, making it seem as if two towering mountain tops were suspended in the sky. Far out on the horizon, it looks like the view from outside an airplane window – a carpet of puffy white clouds and stunningly blue sky and nothing else. The land at the summit is reddish gray and thoroughly weathered, with great rolling hills of cracked rock navigated by a road that loops up and down many switchbacks. It looks like a moonscape at first glance, only betrayed by the cluster of a dozen towering domed buildings seeming to spring out of the earth.
These are the telescopes – funded and maintained by eleven different nations – that have made Mauna Kea the global mecca of land-based astronomical research, with their facilities located within a more than 500-acre “special land use zone” comprising part of the much larger Mauna Kea Science Reserve. Incredibly, the grounds of the telescope complex are open to the public during daylight hours, although the buildings themselves are strictly off-limits to visitors. All mountain-goers have to do to reach this fascinating spot is check in at the Visitor’s Center and ensure that their vehicle is capable of four-wheel drive.
The gravel road of steep switchbacks connecting the Visitor’s Center with the summit complex is less than nine miles long, but takes nearly half an hour to safely drive. Taking the time to make that extra drive up the hairpin turns above the shrub line is worth it in the end, though, as the full panorama of sky finally comes into view at the top, offering a spectacle that many visitors to Big Island don’t ever get to see.
The Visitor’s Center offers an impressive range of educational models and informational displays, airing videos about the history of the observatories and its myriad research programs. The geology, ecology and cultural importance of Mauna Kea are common topics of the exhibits, as well as more general info about astronomy, volcanology and the formation of the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the summit area, the Center is open past sundown, which tends to be a busy time due to the several small telescopes – some up to 16 inches in diameter – that get deployed in its courtyard for visitors to use. Peering through the viewfinders on clear nights, first-time astronomers can see planets, star clusters, galaxies, nebulae and other other-worldly looking features of the night sky.
These impromptu nightly stargazing programs are usually run by a staff member or volunteer who walks gazers through a constellation tour, sometimes using a laser pointer to direct their attention to specific objects. This spot is also a popular haunt for amateur astronomers, who make the long drive up the mountain just before dark to set up their own telescopes in the same courtyard area and scan the sky for familiar sights.
Visitors to Mauna Kea who are planning on making the extra trip up to the summit should keep in mind that its strongly advisable to spent at least half an hour (or three to four hours to be even safer) at the Visitor Center’s halfway point in order to acclimatize to the high elevation. Altitude sickness is a real and potentially life-threatening hazard present on the mountain, and the risk is significantly heightened when planning to go higher than the Center. So, come prepared to take a rest stop before climbing the final section, and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness just in case you or someone in your party begins to feel sick.
Hawaiians’ Sacred Ground, Useful Rocks, And An Ecological Challenge
In the ancient Hawaiian religion, the summits of Big Island’s mountains are considered sacred. For generations, a law existed in old-time Hawaii that stipulated only high-ranking members of royalty may visit the top of Mauna Kea, as by being the tallest of the island’s five volcanoes, it was also seen as the holiest. They considered the summit area to be the “region of the gods”, and a place where benevolent spirits lived. In the Hawaiian language Mauna Kea is short for “Mauna a Wakea”, meaning “white mountain”, named so for its snow-covered summit in the wintertime.
Commoners lived on the flanks of the mountain and depended on its large swaths of forests for food, and on its deposits of hard volcanic basalt rock for tool production. Europeans began to arrive to the island in earnest by the late 18th Century, who introduced cattle, sheep and game animals, many of which escaped their enclosures and became feral, causing significant damage over time to the mountain’s fragile ecological balance.
Nearly a millennia ago, ancient Hawaiians established quarries high up on the mountain to mine exceptionally hard basalt rock found in deposits in areas where red hot rock met glacial ice and quickly cooled. Volcanic glass was collected to make blades and fishing gear, and this industry was going strong until European and American-made steel tools began to replace them wholesale.
How To Get to Mauna Kea
Reaching Mauna Kea’s Visitor’s Center and summit telescope complex can be a bit tricky for first-time visitors to Big Island. Regardless of whether you are coming from Hilo or Kona, though, you will end up on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, otherwise known as Saddle Road or Highway 200.
Visitors coming from Kona-side will pass by the Pohakuloa Training Area and its extensive stretch of military troop housing and support buildings before reaching the left turn onto Mauna Kea Access Road. A few miles before the turn, drivers will pass the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area with picnic areas, an outdoor jungle gym, modern restroom facilities and fantastic views of the mountain.
After turning left onto Mauna Kea Access Road (right if coming from Hilo), follow it for roughly six miles keeping left at the fork and following signs for the Visitor’s Center, officially known as the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, which is open seven days a week during business hours, and usually stays open for a few hours after sunset to accommodate its free stargazing program.
This is where the paved road ends, and beyond the Center the route to the summit is a winding stretch of gravel switchbacks that runs another roughly nine miles before ending at the telescope complex loop. It’s important to keep in mind that occasionally the summit road is closed beyond the Visitor’s Center due to bad weather, especially in the winter. So, it’s smart to check to see if the road is open prior to planning a trip to the summit to avoid a big disappointment. Also, those who do opt for a day trip to see the telescopes need to begin the descent back to the Visitor’s Center after sunset as nighttime at the summit is when the researchers work.
All of the buildings at the top are off-limits with the exception of the Subaru Telescope, which does offer pre-planned tours during the daytime on a limited availability basis. It’s also crucial to dress warmly if you plan on sticking around for sunset, since ambient temperatures can drop to as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Most rental car companies on the island have their customers sign paperwork promising that they won’t drive their rentals beyond the Visitor’s Center due to the hazardous nature of the road and other liabilities. If you plan on renting a car on Big Island and taking it up Mauna Kea, make sure to read the fine print of your rental contract to see if there are similar restrictions.