Is Mauna Kea, Hawaii the Best Place to Stargaze?

“The ambitious look forward, the hesitant behind, the curious to the sides, and the cautious downwards. Dreamers, they look upwards.”

I walked out of the sparse bathroom bathed in a dim red light, literally regaining my sight. I had just put on my set of contacts and my eyes were both adjusting to the low light and the two pieces of plastic in my eyes.

Have you ever felt a spike of fear when you are swallowed by a darkness that is dense like a fly stuck in molasses? Stepping out in the night from the washroom had my heart racing a few beats faster. To my right, through the luminescence of a few floor lights, I could barely make out the outline of a few empty picnic benches, abandoned for the night. Thankfully, there were over a hundred people milling about the small plaza in front of the gift shop at Mauna Kea, eagerly waiting for the nightly laser light tour.

Three lengthy lines indicated where telescopes were pointed at Jupiter and other major constellations. Instead of joining the lineups, I made my way to the picnic benches with my camera, seeking the best place to test my photography skills. As I looked heavenwards, I started to make out a few of the brighter stars, one of which I learnt later was Jupiter.

An audible sigh left my lips as I lowered my camera – the trip to Hawaii was long and the drive up to the viewpoint was almost two hours. I expected much more than just a handful of stars scattered over the vast night sky. I closed my eyes and lay back on the table. At least the cool mountain air was a refreshing change from the humid Hawaiian climate.  

My eyes re-opened to 360 degrees of stars, each shining with their own unique twinkling identity. A green laser danced across the sky, pausing for brief moments to classify a star that has been in our skies for longer than the human civilization. On one horizon, the many tiny lights of the Milky Way spread in a ribbon above the furthest mountain peaks. Orion, the hunter, engaged in combat with Taurus, the bull, sent by Zeus to protect the seven sisters, painting their story across a large canvas of black. The little dipper was easy to find and around the colloquially-named constellation stood the much larger constellation, Ursa Minor.

I brought my camera upwards again and tried to capture the brilliance that I saw before me, but I lacked the knowledge and equipment to capture the view. You must travel to Mauna Kea to experience the wonder of the night sky. Going out to a hill in the countryside pales in comparison to this viewpoint.

Mauna Kea Star Orion Belt Taurus Constellation Night Sky Hawaii.JPG
The best image I took was of Orion and Taurus, but it paled to the actual experience.

I have never really spent time gazing at the night sky, preferring to focus on earthly sights – both manmade and natural.

I never considered myself much of a dreamer – a grinder who loves to see indications of progress would be more of my identification. When I picture a dreamer, I imagine courage emanating from their every pore and enough determination in their eyes to tackle the world. The dreamers were ancient Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, and Egyptians who all managed to attribute the Leo constellation to a lion. The dreamers were the ones who gave meaning to a meaningless sky.

And the dreamers continue to be the people who find their own interpretation of the world.

Travelling to Mauna Kea Visitor Center

mauna-kea-observatory-visitors-center.jpg

I’m told Mauna Kea is the best place in the world to stargaze. I am no authority on astronomy, so please take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Mauna Kea is one of the most unique places on the planet for stargazing.

Situated on the Big Island of Hawaii, the observatory is thousands of miles from the nearest large city and surrounded by the darkness of the Pacific Ocean. The Mauna Kea Visitor Center is located on top of a dormant shield volcano, which allows an uninterrupted view of the stars because there aren’t any jagged peaks to obstruct the view of the horizon. The viewpoint isn’t at an elevation that most people would struggle for oxygen, but is still above the lowest level of clouds. However, altitude sickness is a concern for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The island has two areas of denser population, Hilo and Kona, which use dim lighting and light-absorbing cones to reduce light pollution. As a popular tourist destination, the scenic drive takes you through the clouds into a surreal during the day and night, approximately 60-90 minutes depending if you are coming from Kona or Hilo. The scenic drive up the mountain is not to be overlooked, as you will drive through continually greener landscape made possible by the rich volcanic soil. When travelling, I constantly seek the views that are unique to the place I am visiting – Mauna Kea is definitely unique to Hawaii and worth a visit.

 

 

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