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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Getting to Know Hawaii: Mauna Kea Sunset and Stargazing Tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail

The Need to Knows:
  • This Mauna Kea sunset and stargazing tour from Hawaii Forest and Trail takes place at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea's summit can be found here:
  • The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (9,200 feet) is open every day of the year from 9AM to 10PM.  Visitors are asked to leave the summit (13,700 feet) after dark for safety precautions.
  • The Hawaii Forest and Trail Mauna Kea Summit and Stars tour costs $199 per person plus tax.  They do offer a military discount of 10%.  More information on the specifics of this tour can be found here.
  • Anyone with respiratory issues, heart conditions, children under 16, and pregnant women should not venture past the visitor center due to the summit's high altitude.
  • If you're coming to Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and do stargazing, be sure to dress warmly!  It isn't as cold as Haleakala can be for the sunrise, but it's still pretty chilly, especially if you are already acclimated to the tropical climate like Mr. L and I were.  If you go on this specific tour, thankfully Hawaii Forest and Trail will supply you with a parka.  Otherwise, be dressed for temperatures in the 30-50 degree range.
  • Gas is NOT available on Mauna Kea.  The closest gas stations are in Hilo, Waikoloa Village, and Waimea, all about 35 miles away, so make sure your tank is full before you leave!
  • Restrooms are located at the visitor center and port-a-pottys are located at the summit's observatories.
  • To help prevent altitude sickness, make sure you stay well hydrated and be sure to stop frequently while traveling up the volcano to acclimate to the elevation.
  • If you plan on scuba diving before you visit Mauna Kea, do NOT go within 24 hours of doing so to avoid decompression illness.
  • For more information on visiting Mauna Kea with Hawaii Forest and Trail, be sure to visit their website here.  For more information on visiting Mauna Kea on your own, check out the visitor center's website here.
One of the most fun and amazing things Mr. L and I did when we visited the Big Island for the first time was a tour to the summit of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and do a little stargazing with Hawaii Forest and Trail.  Mauna Kea is one of the most well-known volcanoes of the Big Island and has some of the clearest air in the world, making it an ideal location for deep space exploration and stargazing.

Mauna Kea
Now typically I tend to shy away from group tours and excursions.  I don't like feeling like I'm part of a herd of cattle being ushered from place to place.  But there are times when tours are definitely worth it, and I feel like visiting Mauna Kea is definitely one of those times.  Mauna Kea has two accessible points that most people generally visit.  The first is the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center located at 9,200 feet up the volcano.  Many people drive to this point to watch the sunset and to stargaze with either their naked eyes or telescopes provided by the visitor center.  However, when Mr. L and I talked about what we wanted to do for this trip, we wanted to go to Mauna Kea's actual summit.

Mauna Kea's summit is the second accessible point and is also where all of the observatories and telescopes are located.  It's another five miles or so from the visitor center up an unpaved and very bumpy gravel road.  Since most car rental companies void your rental agreement if you drive on this road, and since I am NOT a fan of driving up and down large mountains/volcanoes (thanks, Haleakala!), Mr. L and I decided the best thing to do for us was to get someone else to do the driving for us!

View of Mauna Kea from the Pu'u Huluhulu cinder cone
Because we were staying in Volcano, HI, the closest spot Hawaii Forest and Trail could pick us up was at Pu'u Huluhulu, a really cool cinder cone I recently blogged about that's at the beginning of the Mauna Kea Access Road that leads to Mauna Kea's summit.  Hawaii Forest and Trail operates on the Kona side of the Big Island and unfortunately this was as close to us as they could go, which wasn't close at all to be honest.  Pu'u Huluhulu is about an hour and 45 minutes from where we stayed in Volcano.

The top of Pu'u Huluhulu
If I could do it all over again, I would do this tour from the Kona side.  I felt like we missed out on some interesting knowledge and information from our guide Nate by missing the ride from Kona to Pu'u Huluhulu.  But Mr. L and I weren't sure if we'd be back to the Big Island again (turns out we got to come back about three weeks before moving off Oahu!) and we really wanted to see Mauna Kea.  So we sucked it up and ultimately got to see a pretty cool place (Pu'u Huluhulu) and we also got to explore more of Hilo (Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center) than we would have otherwise.  So I guess it was a win!

After Hawaii Forest and Trail picked us up from Pu'u Huluhulu, we headed a little ways over to the area where we'd be eating our dinner.  It's called Humu'ula and is actually an old sheep station.  Humu'ula was the location of the last large sheep flock in the islands until sheep raising was abandoned here in 1963.  It was even assessed for placement on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places.

After our tour guide Nate finished setting up our dinner for the evening, we were able to sit down and enjoy it.  It was actually pretty tasty!  I forgot pictures (I guess I was too hungry!), but Mr. L and I both opted for the BBQ chicken with quinoa and a roll.  It was filling and gave us enough energy to tackle our next task -- heading to the summit!

The road to the summit
Our second stop was at an overlook on the volcano to help all of us acclimate to the elevation changes.  This overlook faced the dominating Mauna Loa, and from that vantage point it was much easier to tell just how massive the volcano truly is!  Mauna Loa takes up about half of the entire Big Island, which if you didn't know is already bigger than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined.  And Mauna Kea may technically be taller, but the two volcanoes are actually of similar height: 13,678 feet for Mauna Loa and 13,796 feet for Mauna Kea.

We then got back on the bus and made the slow journey to Mauna Kea's summit to watch the sunset.  Here is where I will warn you, dear reader: pee every chance you get!  You'll be drinking a LOT of water to stay hydrated on the drive up as well as at the summit, and if you have to go during the bumpy, jerky ride to 13,000+ feet, you'll regret it immensely.  Trust me -- if you find a port-a-potty, use it!

Our third stop (once again to help with acclimation) was at the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a telescope that has 10 identical antennas placed over 8,000 kilometers from here on Mauna Kea all the way to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, essentially creating a telescope the size of a continent.  These antennas work together to produce high resolution images of different astronomical objects, ultimately with one goal to 3D map the Milky Way galaxy and to find the galaxy's nucleus.

We left the VLBA and finally rode up to "Millimeter Valley" at the summit where the major observatories are located, like Gemini, the W.M. Keck Observatory, NASA's Infrared Telescope, and more.  It would have been nice to have toured any had they been open, but since most of the ones that are allow visitors close at 4PM, it wasn't a possibility on this tour.  It is, however, possible on this tour from Hawaii Forest and Trail or on your own if that's something you're interested in doing!

I'd also like to note that although the observatories are at the summit of Mauna Kea, they aren't at the actual, true summit location.  That location is off to the side at the cinder cone Pu'u Wekiu, shown in the picture below.  There is a trail leading up to it that starts opposite of the University of Hawaii's 2.2m telescope, but due to the area's cultural significance to native Hawaiians and the fragile landscape and environment, hiking to the top of Pu'u Wekiu is generally discouraged.

It was also pretty neat to see not only the dominating Mauna Loa from the summit, but also two other volcanoes as well.  To our left was another one of the Big Island's volcanoes, Hualalai, and to our right in between the two round Keck telescopes was the formidable Haleakala on Maui.  I knew we'd see Haleakala since you can see both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from its summit, but it was a surprise that you could see Hualalai too.  It's easy to forget sometimes that the Big Island has two other volcanoes in addition to Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Kilauea for a total of five!

Mauna Loa

It was already pretty close to sunset time by this point, so Mr. L and I got into position to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we'd ever seen.  It was truly breathtaking!  We could not have asked for a better show from Mother Nature.  I felt like we were just in awe throughout the entire event.

Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures during our stargazing time period, so while I'm winding down beautiful sunset pics, I'll discuss what all we did.  After the sunset, we drove back down to the visitor center and stopped to wait for the clouds to move out as much as possible.  It turns out that the clouds might have made for a spectacular sunset, but they definitely are not good for stargazing!  But we were able to go in the gift shop and grab some souvenirs at least.  We then moved away from the crowds at the visitor center to a mostly empty parking lot so our guide Nate could set up our telescope for the evening.

It was SO nice getting to have a telescope all to ourselves instead of sharing at the visitor center with all of the other tourists.  It was also nice getting some hot cocoa and brownies to stave off the early evening chill!  Did I mention yet that it was chilly?  It's not as bad as the sunrise on Haleakala was thankfully but it was definitely still cold for Hawaii!  But Hawaii Forest and Trail did supply us with warm parkas which was awesome.

I think this part of the tour was where our tour guide truly shined.  Nate was so informative regarding the stargazing and you could tell astronomy was a passion of his.  He pointed out so many constellations and celestial bodies to us and gave us so much in-depth information on each of them.  He also answered any and all questions for everyone in the group, including any questions about purchasing telescopes for any of us amateur astronomers!  If we ever have the chance to use Hawaii Forest and Trail again (Mr. L, arrange a business trip to Hawaii ASAP!), I definitely want him as my guide again!

Our trip to the summit of Mauna Kea with Hawaii Forest and Trail was one of the best experiences Mr. L and I had not only on the Big Island, but in all of Hawaii.  Our tour guide was fantastic and we really felt that Hawaii Forest and Trail overall did an awesome job.  We really treasure the memories we created on this tour, and even looking back through the pictures on this blog post really makes me nostalgic for the islands.  It's something we'll remember for the rest of our lives, and if you decide to do this tour or even just go on your own, I think you will too!

Where's your favorite place to either watch the sunset or stargaze?

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