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
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
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
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 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
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
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.