Waimea & Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea
The 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain if measured from its base on the ocean floor, is one of the best places on earth for astronomical observations, thanks to pollution-free skies, pitch-black nights, and a tropical location. Here are the world’s largest telescopes—and at press time, some environmentalists and Native Hawaiians who still worship here were fighting construction of an even larger one—but the stargazing is fantastic even with the naked eye. Note: Some spell it Maunakea, a contraction of Mauna a Wakea, or “the mountain of Wakea” (said to be the sky father and ancestor of all Hawaiians), in lieu of Mauna Kea, or “white mountain.”

Safety Tips: Before heading out, make sure you have four-wheel drive and a full gas tank, and check current weather and road conditions (http://mkwc.ifa.hawaii.edu/current/road-conditions; [tel] 808/935-6268). The drive via Saddle Road (Hwy. 200) to the visitor center takes about an hour from Hilo and 90 minutes from Kailua-Kona; stay at least 30 minutes to acclimate before ascending to the summit, a half-hour further on a steep, largely unpaved road. Dress warmly: It’s chilly and windy by day, and after dark, temperatures drop into the 30s (from 3C to -1C). To avoid the bends, don’t go within 24 hours of scuba diving; pregnant women, children under 16, and those with heart or lung conditions should also skip this trip. At night, bring a flashlight, with a red filter to reduce glare. Note: Many rental-car agencies ban driving on remote Saddle Road, so a private tour, while pricey, is probably the safest and easiest bet (see “Seeing Stars While Others Drive,” below).

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Visitor Center
Named for Ellison Onizuka, the Big Island astronaut aboard the ill-fated Challenger, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station (www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis; [tel] 808/961-2180) is 6 1/4 miles up Summit Road and at 9,200 feet elevation. It’s open daily noon to 10pm, with interactive exhibits, 24-hour restrooms, and a bookstore with food, drink, gloves, and other gear for sale. Day visitors can peer through a solar telescope. From 6 to 10pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (weather dependent), a guide leads a free stargazing program that starts with a screening of First Light, a documentary about the cultural and astronomical significance of Mauna Kea. Note: In peak seasons the parking lot can fill up quickly, with long lines for telescopes. Check the website for special cultural or science programs at 6pm Saturday, preceding the stargazing.

At the Summit

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It’s another steep 6 miles, most of them unpaved, to the summit from the visitor center. If you’re driving, make sure your 4WD vehicle has plenty of gas and is in good condition before continuing on. Up here, 11 nations have set up 13 peerless infrared telescopes to look into deep space, making this the world’s largest astronomical observatory. The W. M. Keck Observatory has a visitor gallery, open weekdays 10am–4pm, with informational panels, restrooms, and a viewing area of the eight-story-high telescope and dome (you can also visit its Waimea headquarters; see www.keckobservatory.org for details.) For cultural reasons, visitors are discouraged from hiking the footpath across the road to the actual, unmarked summit where ancient astronomers and priests came to study the skies and where Native Hawaiians still worship today. No matter: From the summit parking lot you have an unparalleled view of other peaks, such as Mauna Loa and Haleakala, and the bright Pacific.

Another sacred site is Lake Waiau, which, at 13,020 feet above sea level, is one of the highest in the world. Although it shrinks drastically in time of drought, it has never dried up. It’s named for one of the sisters of Poliahu, the snow goddess said to make her home atop Mauna Kea. To see it, you must take a brief hike: On the final approach to the summit, on the blacktop road, go about 600 feet to the major switchback and make a hard right turn. Park on the shoulder of the road and look for the obvious .5-mile trail, following the base of the large cinder cone on your left to the small, greenish lake. Note: Please respect cultural traditions by not drinking or entering the water, and leave all rocks undisturbed.

Seeing Stars While Others Drive

Two excellent companies offer Mauna Kea tour packages that provide cold-weather gear, dinner, hot drinks, guided stargazing, and, best of all, someone else to worry about maneuvering the narrow, unpaved road to the summit. All tours are offered weather permitting, but most nights are clear—that’s why the observatories are here, after all—with pickups from several locations. Read the fine print on health and age restrictions before booking, and don’t forget to tip your guide ($10-$20 per person).

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  • Hawaii Forest & Trail (www.hawaii-forest.com; [tel] 800/464-1993 or 808/331-8505), the island’s premier outfitter, operates a daily Maunakea Summit & Stars Adventure, which includes a late-afternoon picnic dinner, sunset at the summit, and stargazing at the visitor center, for $221. The company uses two customized off-road buses (14 passengers max each) for the 7- to 8-hour tour. Early risers can take advantage of jet lag for the exclusive Maunakea Sunrise Experience ($197), which departs at 3:15am and includes breakfast. A daytime option from Hilo, Maunakea Voyage ($179) offers lunch and a private tour of the Imiloa Astronomy Center, with a peek inside a summit observatory. Like all of Hawaii Forest & Trail’s tours, these are exceptional, with well-informed guides.
  • Monty “Pat” Wright was the first to run a Mauna Kea stargazing tour when he launched Mauna Kea Summit Adventures (www.maunakea.com; [tel] 888/322-2366 or 808/322-2366) in 1983. Guests now ride in a large-windowed, four-wheel-drive (4WD) van instead of a Land Cruiser and don parkas instead of old sweaters; otherwise, it’s much the same, with veggie lasagne for dinner at the visitor center before a spectacular sunset and stargazing. The 7 1/2- to 8-hour tour costs $216.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.