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Stargazing at Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island

Stargazing at Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island

Besides Volcano National Park, the biggest thing on our Big Island to do list was to head to a stargazing party at Mauna Kea.  We’re all pretty big astronomy buffs here, and living in the city we don’t get a good view of the sky on an average night.  Mauna Kea is world renowned for their clear skies and lack of light pollution, which is why it is home to so many scientific observatories.

We had planned to drive to the observatories on the top of the mountain, but large signs warned us not to take anyone up that was under 16 due to altitude sickness.  If we added their ages together (5 + 3) it would still only be half that, so we opted to heed the warnings and stay at the visitor center while we waited for the sunset.  You see, Mauna Kea is the highest spot in the state of Hawaii and 13,796 feet above sea level.  Since you probably begin your evening at sea level, that’s quite the climb for your body to deal with.

Beware of Invisible Cows Sign on Mauna Kea

Fog is apparently a constant concern, hence this ridiculously worded sign!

By the time we arrived, we were pretty leery about the clouds.  It was got very overcast as we began to climb the mountain, and thought the whole trip would be a bust.  However, the guys in the  Onizuka Visitor Center at Mauna Kea told us it usually cleared up at nightfall.  They also told us about a little hike we could take to see the sunset.

Unfortunately while the volunteers were doing the portion of the evening where they point out stars by high powered lasers and talk about them, we were unable to hear.  A large portion of guests that night were not English speaking, and I guess they didn’t find what was being said as relevant to them and proceed to talk very loudly behind us.  So loudly, we couldn’t hear what was being said at all.  This might not happen every night, but it would have been nice to have a way for the volunteers to have the option of using a microphone. We were very disappointed that we couldn’t hear the presentation.

Claire at Mauna Kea Visitor Center waiting for Stargazing

Claire waiting for the sun to set and the clouds to clear.

The clear sky was pretty impressive.  The kids got to see Saturn and the moon in the high powered telescopes, and they thought it was “awesome!”.  But, it was pretty chilly and they got tired before the end of the evening.  We never did fully adjust to island time while we were there.  So they were not the happiest campers when we headed out.

Recommendations About Stargazing at Mauna Kea

Overall – Recommend. More info on the program can be found here.

Ages – Any age, but big warnings about sleepy-time-cranky-pants preschoolers if they are still on mainland time.  Also, I was personally bummed about not getting to go to the observatories myself… so I wouldn’t try again until the kids are 16+

Timing – I would plan it near the end of your trip because it really is a late night, especially if you are jet lagged.  It is in the middle of the island, so a good drive from Hilo or Kona.

Clothing –  A warm coat and and a blanket if possible.  Hot chocolate is available at the visitor’s center for a decent price.