Sure, I can spot the Big Dipper. And while I love a full moon, nothing beats the promise of wishing on a shooting star. But those iconic nighttime wonders aside, my knowledge of a darkened sky is basic at best.
Determined to heighten my celestial sense, I knew few Earthly viewing venues could top Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island. So on a recent romp to this remarkably diverse island, I decided to shoot for Hawaii Forest & Trail's (HF&T's) stargazing tour to this renowned astronomical observing site.
Our group of eager star-trekkers boarded a 12-passenger van at HF&T's Kona Coast headquarters. Interpretive naturalist Greg Brown had packed parkas and provisions for the eight-hour excursion. Not accustomed to lengthy transit, I had my concerns. They faded away, however, as our adventure began to unfold.
Well versed in Hawaiiana, Brown shared both fact and folklore on the dramatic evolution of our surroundings. Midway to the summit, we stopped at historic Humuula Station, an abandoned sheep outpost geared with a dining tent, tables and extremely clean porta potties.
It was cool and foggy at the Parker Ranch post – quite a contrast to coastal conditions earlier in the day. Aside from sustenance, the dinner stop also helped acclimatize us for our final ascent. With a hearty meal under our belts, we continued our star quest.
Near the 9,000-foot level, the van emerged from a thick fog into a brilliant blue sky. It was as if the heavens had opened up. We progressed toward the 13,500-foot elevation past volcanic cinder cones and patches of snow.
"Mauna Kea’s summit rises above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere," Brown explained. "Plus it's far from city lights. Up here, you'll have optimal viewing of galaxies that stretch to the very edge of our observable universe."
As I exited the van with a wobbly step or two, I noticed that the elevation definitely had an impact. While that quickly passed, the temperature was another story. Brown warned us that it had plummeted below freezing. So I zipped my parka and tightened the hood.
Standing at the summit was nothing short of amazing. I was literally on top of the world, at the peak of the tallest mountain on Earth. And as daylight slowly slipped away, the journey grew more spectacular.
Brown recited the roster of observatories. "Those are the Keck twins and that's the Subaru Telescope." Eleven countries currently host 13 telescopes at the summit, some 31,000 feet above the ocean's floor in the world's most isolated area.
After a stunning sunset, we returned to the Onizuka Center For International Astronomy at the 9,200-foot level. Here, Brown set up a pair of eight inch Celestron Cassegrain telescopes for our star party.
He also used lasers to point out clusters and constellations. Warm in our parkas and with hot chocolate and macadamia nut cookies in hand, we "oohed" and "aahed" at the brilliance of Hawaii's night sky. Far beyond simply viewing the heavens, we were witnessing Earth's place in the cosmos.
After an hour or so, my group agreed that we were seeing things more clearly "“ connecting the dots, so to speak. We were headed for home as the Southern Cross began to rise – just as Brown had promised. I counted my lucky stars I'd taken this trek.
The Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure is offered daily for $185 plus tax per person, including picnic-style dinner, snack, hot beverages, hooded parka and gloves. Reservations are highly recommended at least one week in advance, as this tour consistently sells out. Visit www.hawaii-forest.com or call 800-464-1993.
Photos by Hawaii Fort & Trail
A freelance writer based between Honolulu and San Diego, Dawna specializes in destinations and adventures in the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, the South Pacific and Western United States. Her stories have appeared in publications that include The New York Times, Global Traveler USA, San Francisco Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Smart Meetings, Family Fun, Hemispheres, Outside and Travel Agent Magazine. She is a frequent contributor to TravelAge West, a bi-weekly magazine targeting retail travel agents and wholesalers in the Western United States. An avid marathon runner and photographer, Dawna is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Visit www.dawnarobertson.com