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Seeing Stars: A night on Mauna Kea volcano

The stargazing patio at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.

Sunshine! Blue skies!

The sudden appearance of these after a 25-mile ascent through rainy, fog-engulfed Big Island lava forest is a welcome, late-afternoon feast for the senses. Angst about a day of thick, gray cloud cover and heavy rains over seaside Hilo ruining my evening plans at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center begins to dissipate.

I’m driving the wide, lava-flow plateau separating massive Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes at 6,000 feet above sea level. Low-elevation clouds fall behind me on island-crossing Saddle Road. The likelihood of seeing the perfect night sky I’ve been promised seems finally possible.

The summit of Mauna Kea, a full 13,796 feet above sea level, has long been recognized as one of the best locations on Earth for astronomical observations. The 13 international telescopes constructed there over the past 45 years, and the early Hawaiians’ reverence of this highest point in the Islands as a sacred realm of the gods, are testament to that. But the summit of Mauna Kea is not easy to get to.

Wangle the four-wheel-drive vehicle required to negotiate the steep, seven-mile access road from the 9,200-foot level Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) to the summit observatories and you’ll find its telescopes closed to the general public. Plus, post sunset, you’ll be stargazing on an alpine summit often buffeted by brutal winds and temperatures as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Reason enough to be grateful that, on every evening since 2000, the VIS has been hosting stargazing on Mauna Kea for the rest of us.

A collection of telescopes is place on the VIS patio each evening for visitors to use.

Come sunset, a collection of telescopes (each purchased with public donations) is placed on the large, open-air patio of the VIS for all to use, with staff and volunteers offering guidance and stargazing knowledge. After complete darkness sets in, a staff-guided stargazing program offers a remarkably complete look at all things visible to the naked eye in Mauna Kea’s brilliant night sky.

And it’s all free of charge and accessible to anyone with a car healthy enough to make it up Mauna Kea Access Road to the VIS.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
The woes of Mauna Kea
"20 Things to Love About Hawaii Right Now": We've got the perfect place to see stars
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