Thomas Carpenter

stargazing on mauna kea

Thomas Carpenter
stargazing on mauna kea

On our last trip to Hawai'i, we went to the Big Island, and we were just completely gobsmacked by how many fun things there were to do, there. As the largest island in the Hawai'ian chain, there are basically two giant volcanoes in the middle of the mountain.  If you're visiting the Big Island, you're either staying on the Kailua/Kona/Waikoloa side of the island, or you're on the other side of the island near Hilo and Volcano National Park.  If you want to get from one side of the island to the other, you've got three options:

1. Drive around the coast to the north.

2. Drive around the coast to the south.

3. Drive along the saddle road, which goes right between the two volcanoes.

If you drive on the saddle road, you have the option to turn off of the main road and head halfway up the side of Mauna Kea, a truly gigantic volcano.  You should definitely make that turn.

It's a pretty steep drive up the mountain, and after a certain point, you can't go up any further in a rental car because it will void your rental car contract. Even with a four-wheel drive jeep, it will void your contract. You probably shouldn't void your contract. But, I mean, if you can get up there, it's kind of spectacular. Just don't void your rental car conract.

See that? That's snow. Snow in Hawai'i. So, you get how spectacular this island is, right?

If you do get up to the summit, there are telescopes and observatories up there. The mountain is so high, and the air is so clear, and there is no light pollution for miles and miles around, so it's an ideal place for astronomers to hang out and plot the stars. You won't be invited into these observatories for punch and cookies, because they are scientists who are doing science, and that's more important than your curiosity.

But even if you don't go all the way up, because your stupid rental car company won't let you, it's still worth making the trip up half way, as long as you do it at sunset. Wear layers, it'll be cold. Even in August, it'll be cold.

Every night, volunteers and astronomers from the summit of the mountain come halfway down the slope to meet up with tourists and local visitors, who come halfway up the way. There's a visitor center, there, with restrooms and a little shop, and in the area just outside the visitor center, the volunteers have set up telescopes so that you can better see the stars, the moon, and the planets.

There will also be guides who will use a laser pointer to show you the Milky Way and to point out different constellations. When we were there, a guide pointed out Orion, various Zodiac constellations and Dippers both Big and Little, while his colleague, a native Hawai'ian, pointed out the names that his Polynesian ancestors gave those same formations.

But here's the thing, though--those stars! Honestly, it looked like someone had spilled sugar across the sky. I've traveled to fairly remote places before, and I'd been awestruck by the clarity of the night sky. But, honestly, this was unlike any of those experiences.

 Image via Creative Commons license by Flickr User Matt Rafferty.

Image via Creative Commons license by Flickr User Matt Rafferty.

The Big Island is just so incredible. Between snorkeling, volcanoes, beaches, zip-lining, horseback riding, and countless other fun activities, it's hard to imagine that you could find yet another once-in-a-lifetime moment on an island in the middle of the ocean, and yet...

...you go halfway up the mountain get out of your car and see the entire universe laid out in front of you. And it's completely and totally free.

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