Stargazing tour slated from Big Island's Mauna Kea

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- Hawaii Forest and Trail offers a number of itineraries on the Big Island, including its latest, a new stargazing tour from Mauna Kea mountain.

The eight-hour Mauna Kea Summit & Star Adventure costs $135 and picks up guests either at the company's office in Kailua-Kona or at select locations along the Kona Kohala Coast.

Customer pickup is at 3:30 p.m. and the return is at 11:30 p.m. Guests visiting from neighbor islands and visitors for the day can be picked up at the Kona-Keahole airport. The tour is limited to 10 people.

The drive from the Kona side of the island takes about two hours to reach the visitor center at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, where the stargazing takes place in the parking lot.

But before the sun goes down, the tour takes another 45-minute drive farther up a dirt road to the 13,796-foot level of Mauna Kea for a sunset view. There are 13 major telescopes operating at this level, but most are not open for public viewing.

At this height, the air is very thin and chilly. "It gets pretty cold after the sun goes down," said a spokeswoman for Hawaii Forest and Trail. "We tell our guests to bring long pants and a sweater or coat and closed-toed shoes, and we provide parkas."

The tour then descends to the 9,000-foot level for three hours of stargazing. Guests receive dinner and hot cocoa.

Hawaii Forest & Trail has its own telescope for guests to look at Mars; Jupiter and its moons, Saturn or Venus. The visibility of the planets depends on the time of year.

Hawaii Forest & Trail has a number of other Big Island adventures divided into half- and full-day trips.

There are five full-day tours, including the stargazing trip, and four half-day adventures.

The Valley Waterfall Adventure is a half-day tour that picks up customers at the King's Shops in Waikoloa near the Outrigger Waikoloa Beach hotel. It includes a three-mile roundtrip hike on the Kohala Ditch Trail above the Pololu Valley, passing five waterfalls.

Pickup is at 7:30 a.m. with a return at 12:30 p.m.

The cost is $89 for adults and $79 for children ages 5 to 12.

The Kahua Cloud Forest Adventure offers a four- to five-mile hike in the 8,000-acre Kahua Ranch in the Kohala area north of the Kona Kohala Coast.

The tour also departs from the King's Shops at the Waikoloa resort at 7:30 a.m. with a return at 12:30 p.m.

The price is $89 for adults and $79 for children.

The Kohala Mule Trail Adventure is a mule ride down into the Pololu Valley.

The mule ride goes through forest, archaeological sites, streams and ends on a beach. There's some time to rest on the beach before returning on the mules to the top of the valley. The tour leaves at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and lasts three hours.

The price is $95 for adults and $85 for children. There is a weight limit of 245 pounds, and children under the age of 8 are not allowed.

Guests meet at the Mule Station above the Pololu Valley Lookout.

The Kona Lava Tube Adventure offers a look at a cave on the Hualalai Volcano on the Kona side of the island.

The cave is suitable for walking in some places with an average height of 30 feet, according to the company. However, there are some places where crawling is required.

The tour is "a wild cave adventure requiring rock scrambling, vigorous hiking and movement over rugged and uneven floors. No technical climbing is required," according to information provided by the company.

Helmets, lights, gloves and kneepads are supplied. The tour leaves from the King's Shops at 1 p.m. and returns at 5 p.m.

The price is $89 for adults and $79 for children.

The full-day adventures are the Rainforest Discovery Adventure, the Volcanoes National Park Adventure and two bird-watching tours in addition to the newest stargazing tour.

The Rainforest Discovery Adventure is a walk at the Puu Oo Ranch, a cattle ranch with a rain forest that has rare native birds, ferns and interesting insects.

Departures from selected locations on the Kona side of the island are at 7 a.m. with a return at 6 p.m.

Adults are charged $139 and children $99.

The Volcanoes National Park Adventure is a trip to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a look at the rain forest, a lava tube and a chance to see lava. The tour takes 12 hours, and the departure time varies. Again, pickups are at different points on the Kona coast.

Adults are charged $145 each and children $99.

The Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge Birding Adventure includes a look at endangered endemic honeycreeper birds. The company only can offer the trip 12 times a year by permit, so the schedule will vary.

This is a 12-hour trip and costs $139 for adults and $99 for children.

The Rainforest and Dry Forest Birding tour is a bird-watching event in dry forest near Mauna Kea and in rain forest on the Puu Oo Ranch. Many of the birds are native to Hawaii and are endangered.

The trip goes on Mondays and Tuesdays. The charge is $139 for adults and $99 for children.

For details, call Hawaii Forest & Trail at (800) 464-1993 or on the Web at www.hawaii-forest.com.

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