Go Stargazing at the top of Mauna Kea
All About the Stargazing Program at the Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea
Free, fun, and a perfect cap to your Big Island vacation, the stargazing program at the summit of Mauna Kea provides visitors a guided educational opportunity to learn more about the observatories present on the volcano while helping amateur stargazing find the best views of the heavens above. Positioned more than 9,000 feet above sea level, the trip up the mountain from the coast can be a staggering one – the station recommends guests take a break halfway up to acclimate themselves to the altitude change before proceeding further.
Those that make the journey are rewarded with world-class looks at the stars above, which quickly explains why so many countries have installed astronomical viewing stations at the summit. Due to the dark skies, lack of artificial light pollution, and low humidity, more than 11 countries have established 13 observation stations on the dormant volcano, measuring both visible and infrared light spectrums in addition to submillimeter and radio wavelengths.
About the Guided Stargazing Program
Free and open to the public, the stargazing program is sponsored by the University of Hawaii and is held every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings beginning at 6:00 PM. Those who venture up the slopes of Mauna Kea are advised that only 115 vehicles can be accommodated at any given time, so once the parking lots are full, stragglers will be turned away.
Kicking things off with an informational documentary at 6:00 PM, guests learn about Mauna Kea, the history of the mountain, and the importance to both the scientific community and to Hawaiian culture. At the conclusion of the video, volunteers set up telescopes and guests are encouraged to take a closer look at the heavens above. Once it gets dark enough, the star tour begins and staff members point out notable features in the sky using a laser pointer.
The program is very popular and no reservations can be made, so preparing accordingly and having a backup activity in case the parking lot fills up is recommended.
How to Prepare
First things first: there are some safety concerns with visiting the summit of Mauna Kea. Those who have heart conditions, pregnant, or have recently been scuba diving are not advised to proceed up to the summit. The dramatic change in altitude requires an acclimation period of at least 30 minutes and can be made at any point beyond the halfway mark. While the visitor’s center is often considered to be a natural resting spot, many guests proceed up the mountain from sea level, necessitating an early and potentially longer break before reaching the summit.
The climb to Mauna Kea may not be covered by your rental car agency’s agreement, as some approaches require four-wheel drive vehicles. Check with your rental agency before proceeding or you may incur fines. Also, there is no gasoline available at the summit and the nearest gas stations are nearly 35 miles away. Please fuel up before heading up the mountain.
Temperature changes dramatically after dark and many guests don’t expect freezing temperatures on a Hawaiian vacation. Dressing warmly and bringing extra layers is highly recommended.