Big Island

Sunsets and Star-Gazing on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea

Hawai‘i’s Big Island — the Kohala Coast in particular —  is arguably the best place in the world to catch a sunset or gaze at the stars. The region’s unique geography and topography – combined with near-zero light pollution and the potential for a remarkable above-the-clouds perspective – allow for world-class stargazing. The highest peaks of the Big Island attract astronomers from across the globe.

The Kohala Coast’s unique geography, topography, near-zero light pollution, and above-the-clouds perspective make it one the best one of the best places in the world to catch a sunset or gaze at the stars.

Scientists flock primarily to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano located near the center of the island, that houses some of the world’s most advanced telescopes. Even for residents who didn’t major in astronomy, Mauna Kea is truly a sunset chaser and stargazer’s paradise — and it’s only an hour and 15 minutes from the Mauna Lani Resort community, on the Kohala Coast. 

Mauna Kea

Standing close to 14,000 feet above sea level, the Mauna Kea summit is the highest point in Hawai‘i and one of the only places in the state that sees snowfall. There’s even been glacial activity on the volcano during colder periods. It offers magnificent sunset views surrounded by clouds in a Mars or moon-like landscape. Mauna Kea is also home to the highest body of water in the state, Lake Wai‘au, a sacred lake to Hawaiians. This remarkable high-altitude lake is located at more than 13,000 feet above sea level.

A cool fact about Mauna Kea is that it’s actually higher than Mount Everest. The volcano is mostly hidden underwater so when measured from its base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea rises more than 33,000 feet (more than 10,000 meters) high!

There are two options for stargazing visitors at Mauna Kea:

  1. The Visitor Information Station
  2. The Summit

Visitor Information Station

The Visitor Information Station (VIS) is located at the 9,200 foot (2,800 m) level of Mauna Kea and offers free stargazing programs on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 7:00 until 10:00 pm, weather permitting. Local astronomers, staff and volunteers set up telescopes for viewing at 7:00 p.m. and use laser pointers to identify constellations, galaxies, and planets.

All are welcome to the VIS, where the stars are actually more visible compared to the summit. At the summit, the oxygen is lower and vision can be impaired at such a high-altitude. More on that later!

There’s also a special stargazing program most Saturdays at the VIS, starting at 6:00 p.m. The first Saturday of each month is Universe Tonight, a special presentation on research and discovery at Mauna Kea. The second Saturday is a student-led viewing program organized by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Astrophysics Club. The fourth Saturday of each month is Malalo o ka Po Lani, a special cultural presentation of the volcano and surrounding land, told from a Hawaiian perspective.

No reservations are needed and there’s no admission fee, although the VIS does accept donations. Parking can be an issue so arrive early. There are only 115 parking stalls at the VIS and once the lot is full, cars will be turned away. Make sure your gas tank is full for the steep drive up. You will need it!

Mauna Kea provides the ideal environment for these observatories because there’s a thin atmosphere between the telescopes and the stars.

The Summit

After a 30-minute stop at the VIS — which is recommended for acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness — visitors can drive or hike to the summit. At the top are multiple international observatories, including 12 telescopes operated by 11 countries:

  1. NASA Infrared Telescope
  2. W. M. Keck Observatory (twin telescopes)
  3. Gemini North telescope
  4. Canada France Hawai‘i Telescope
  5. Infrared Telescope Facility
  6. James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
  7. Subaru Telescope
  8. United Kingdom Infrared Telescope
  9. University of Hawai’i 88-inch (2.2 m) telescope
  10. SuSummit36-inch (910 mm) telescope

In addition to being high in the clouds with almost no light pollution, Mauna Kea provides the ideal environment for these observatories because there’s a thin atmosphere between the telescopes and the stars. These observatories are private research facilities and not open to the public, but if you choose to drive or hike to the top, the sunsets are truly unbelievable.

Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours. For this reason, altitude sickness is a serious risk. At this altitude, atmospheric pressure is 40 percent lower than at sea level, meaning there’s less oxygen available. Acute mountain sickness can occur, including headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath and poor judgment. If visitors experience any of these symptoms, they should descend immediately.

Kama‘aina Observatory Experience

Residents of the Mauna Lani Resort community (and all of those who call Hawai‘i home) who are 16 years and older are welcome to attend a free monthly event hosted by the Mauna Kea Observatories and the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. The experience includes a visit to the summit, an expert guide serving as a personal astronomer, a private high-powered telescope and an education on all aspects of Mauna Kea, including space, geology and ancient Hawaiian culture.

This resident-only observatory opportunity was introduced by one of Hawai‘i’s own, President Barack Obama. A Hawai‘i state ID or Hawai‘i drivers license is required to accompany the reservation.

Here are the upcoming Kama‘aina Observatory Experience dates:

  1. October 20, 2018 – Canada France Hawai‘ Telescope and Gemini
  2. November 17, 2018 – Subaru and East Asian Observatory
  3. December 8, 2018 – Keck and Submillimeter Array

Mauna Kea is mostly hidden underwater. When measured from its base on the ocean floor, it rises more than 33,000 feet high.

Seaside Stargazing

There are also many local stargazing options for Mauna Lani Resort, Kohala Coast and Big Island residents looking for an astronomy experience closer to home. Star Gaze Hawai‘i hosts sessions at several local hotels and resorts almost every day of the week, including:

  • Hapuna at Mauna Kea Resort
  • Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort
  • Fairmont Orchid, Hawai‘i (at Mauna Lani)

Star Gaze Hawai‘i also hosts astrophotography sessions and private stargazing sessions. Reservations are required and the cost per adult is $40.

DIY Stargazing

With its remote location and relatively low levels of atmospheric and light pollution, residents can enjoy some of the best stargazing on the planet from truly anywhere on the Big Island. For those who want to view the stars in the comfort of their own backyard, there are a few upcoming meteor events that should be visible without a telescope.

Orionids Meteor Shower
October 21, 2018

This month, residents can see shooting stars from the Orionids meteor shower. To find the Orion constellation, look for the belt of Orion: three bright stars in a line that rise over the Eastern horizon just after sunset. The stars keep rising towards the east-south-east until they are almost overhead at dawn. Once gazers locate the constellation, relax your eyes and enjoy.

Leonids Meteor Shower
November 17, 2018

The Leonids meteor shower isn’t as bright as the Orionids shower, but after the moon sets in the early hours of November 17  — approximately between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m. — a lucky few may be able to catch some of the Leonids shooting stars.

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