Stargazing from the summit of Mauna Kea

One of the more memorable excursions I made while visiting the Big Island was a drive to the top of the 13,796-foot Mauna Kea volcano with Don Hagen, managing director at Mauna Lani Point.

Anyone going up to Mauna Kea for the sunset and stargazing, as we were, should bring plenty of water to keep hydrated, food and several layers of heavy winter clothing.

Visitors also should stop a few times on the ascent to become acclimated to the high elevation.

From our starting point at the Mauna Lani resort, it was about a two-hour drive to the peak of the mountain, making for a total trip time of about six hours.

On the drive up, we stopped at about the 6,000-foot level off of Saddle Road, which leads to the Mauna Kea turnoff, to change into warmer clothes.

We also stopped briefly at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station at 9,000 feet, but found it crowded with tour groups.

There are three tour companies that run tours to Mauna Kea and pay commission.

Tours stop at the visitor information station for an orientation and to get acclimated to the altitude before climbing the summit for about a half-hour stay and then returning to the visitor center for stargazing.

I have been told the stargazing is better at the visitor center because there is more oxygen at this elevation, which, in turn, enables the brain and eyes to function better at night.

And it's not nearly as cold at the visitor center as it is on the summit.

The view on the summit during daylight hours is all-encompassing, with the 13,677-foot Mauna Loa volcano just across the way and Maui's Haleakala Crater in the distance.

By taking a few steps in any direction, visitors will see a commanding view of nearly all of the Big Island.

Giant stainless steel telescopes dot the summit, and when the sun goes down, they make deep, rumbling noises that signal they are opening up and ready for work.

There are several interesting sights to be seen on Mauna Kea that can't be viewed at lower elevations.

In the sky to the east, for instance, we saw a giant purple band of light. And looking down the east side of the mountain, Mauna Kea's enormous shadow could be seen draping over the island and out into the ocean.

Visitors also can see Earth's shadow in the sky as the sun dips below the horizon. Even after the sun disappears, its rays can be seen extending seemingly straight into the sky.

That's when visitors will begin to feel the air chill, with temperatures dropping into the 30 degrees Fahrenheit range.

But it's worth braving the cold because after the sun sets, the stars come out in an explosion of light.

Venus was so bright, I first thought it was an approaching plane. The absence of the moon that night made the stars especially vibrant.

Lying on my back, I saw a satellite pass overhead. You can see so many stars, it's nearly impossible to make out any familiar constellations.

After a while, it was just too cold, so we headed back down.

Driving down the mountain in the dark is tricky. Car headlights interfere with astronomers' stargazing, so visitors can only drive with the aid of fog lights.

It took us two hours to get back down to Mauna Lani, and by this time I was tired from the oxygen deprivation and thirsty from the extremely dry atmosphere up there.

-- D.O.

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