Science and splendor attract stargazers to Mauna Kea

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When it comes to searching the heavens, there is no place like the island of Hawaii. Atop the 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea, 13 observatories, including some of the largest in the world, face the night skies in the isolated heart of the Pacific. Taking their cue from the scientific community, a number of Big Island resorts offer stargazing as an activity.

Visitors can drive up Mauna Kea to stargaze on their own. However, most visitors reach the top of Mauna Kea via van tour. Several companies are licensed for summit tours, which are offered year-round. Each company is limited to two tours per day, with a maximum of 13 participants per tour. With such limited capacity, summit tours tend to fill up quickly. 

Ancient Hawaiians considered Mauna Kea's summit a sacred place. Austere, majestic and often snow-capped in winter, the peak was said to be home to the snow goddess Poliahu, sister and archenemy of the volcano goddess Pele, who was said to have made her home in the neighboring calderas of Mauna Loa and Kilauea.

Many recent discoveries about the solar system, galaxy and universe have come from observations made atop Mauna Kea.  

The road to the summit is reached from the Saddle Road, which links the Kohala and Hilo coasts. Although safe and easy to navigate, it is listed as off-limits to most rental cars. Vehicles from Harper Car Rentals and Hertz are the two exceptions; both offer cars designed for the summit road.

Stargazing happens at 9,000 feet at the observatory base camp, where a small museum (open until 10 p.m.) introduces visitors to the wonders of modern astronomy and Mauna Kea's role in it.  

But nothing quite compares to a sunset visit to the summit, followed by a viewing of a night sky alive with stars and the wispy grandeur of the Milky Way.

People with respiratory, circulatory or heart ailments should not take summit tours. Regular scuba divers are warned about potential altitude complications. 

Observatory tours offer more than a way of simply accessing the summit. I joined the Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure offered by Hawaii Forest & Trail. The tour included narratives by our driver-guide, both en route and during the stargazing period that followed a sunset visit to the summit. Parkas and gloves were provided to ward off temperatures that fell into the 40s. Hot chocolate and cookies were served.

Dinner, a hot, picnic-style meal, had been served earlier in a tent under cypress trees.

Weather permitting, summit tours are offered year-round and last seven to nine hours. Midday departures from the Kona/Kohala coast and Hilo reach the summit at sunset. The drive, on paved and unpaved roads, makes its way up a massive, volcanic mountain that rises 18,000 feet. Panoramas reveal a stark volcanic landscape of lava flows and cinder cones.

Both Mauna Loa and Haleakala are within sight of Mauna Kea's summit on clear days, rising above puffy cumulus clouds that are bathed in rich, sunset pastels.

The sunset viewing is followed by a return to the 9,000-foot level, where telescopes magnify the countless stars that sparkle in the black sky.

Hawaii Forest & Trail charges $169 for its tour; Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, $165; Jack's Tours, $174; and Arnott's Lodge, $110.

The Imiloa Astronomy Center, which opened last year in Hilo, provides a more comprehensive look at the universe and the ways in which the ancient Polynesians, including the Hawaiians, viewed the cosmos.

As master navigators, the Polynesians were intimately familiar with the heavens, for it was the familiarity with the position and movement of the stars that allowed them to navigate the vast stretches of the Pacific between various islands.

Imiloa links the traditions of the Hawaiian past and modern discoveries with exhibits that have multigenerational appeal. Admission is $14.50 for visitors age 13 and older and $7.50 for children ages 4 to 12; admission is free for children 4 and younger. For more on Imiloa, visit www.imiloahawaii.org

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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