In a single day on the Big Island, you can observe sea life in tropical temperatures in the morning and afternoon and by evening be on the tallest mountain in the world (by one measurement) freezing and looking at the heavens with extreme clarity. Tonight we’re watching the sunset on Mauna Kea.
The Hawaii Saddle Road goes right through the middle hump of the island while the Belt Road goes around the perimeter. Midway on the road, you’ll come to the Mauna Kea Access Road (created in 1964), which will take you to the top. It’s free to access the top, but be certain that your vehicle has all-wheel or four-wheel drive and good brakes for the steep descent.
Measured from its underwater base, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measuring 33,500 ft in height, which bests Mt. Everest by 2,500 feet. If measured from sea level, the mountain shrinks to 13,803 ft.
The access road snakes it’s way to the summit over the course of 14 miles. It is pavement until you get to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy (aka Mauna Kea’s visitor center), then it turns to dirt and gravel.
Passing the cinder cones on the way to the top gives the scene a feeling of other-worldliness. Is this Mars or Hawaii?
The summit of Mauna Kea is considered one of the world’s most important astronomical viewing sites.
Once the access road to the summit opened in 1964, scientific endeavors were launched to take advantage of the clear air and lack of light pollution. Today this section of Mauna Kea, called the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, is home to 13 observation facilities with another planned to open in 2027.
Mauna Kea is spiritually important to native Hawaiians, and many were not pleased when these buildings were built here. Protests have started again due to the construction of the newest “extremely large telescope.” The Government of Hawaii has decided, as a result of the protests, that they will not build on any new areas of Mauna Kea after they complete the new telescope.
In the early days, many people were needed to operate the telescopes and observe their findings. Today, they are controlled remotely from nearby Waimea and California. Astronomers use the internet to make their observations.
From this summit view, you have (left to right) the Subaru Telescope, the twin telescopes of the W.M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope.
This is the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory. It was decommissioned in 2015 and will be removed from the mountain.
This is the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility with Maui’s Haleakalā in the background.
The twin Keck telescopes are the largest optical/near-infrared instruments in use around the world. This is one of the twin Keck telescopes.
This is the Gemini Observatory. Also known as Gemini North because of its sister complex located on Cerro Pachon in Chile.
In the background to the left is the Canada-France-Hawai’i Telescope.
I find the observatories fascinating and it’s pretty exciting to be in the shadows of these cathedrals of scientific discovery.
We’re here to watch the sunset and catch a view of the stars after dark. Mauna Kea translates to “White Mountain” because there is often snow at the top. No snow today, but it is cold! Probably 40 degrees.
It won’t be long until the sun slips under the cloud cover. Check out the huge shadow of Mauna Kea stretching over the ocean of clouds.
And away it goes.
A quick selfie at the summit before it’s too dark to take one.
Our time at the summit has drawn to a close and it’s time to head back to the Onizuka Center for an evening program of star watching. You can see why good brakes are important up here.
Here, us normal folk can take a look at the heavens. Called the “mid-level facility” because of its location halfway between the summit and the start of the access road, the visitor center is just one small part of the mid-level complex. There is housing for up to 72 to support the work done at the summit.
It is named for Ellison Shoji Onizuka the only Hawaiian to go to space. Born in nearby Kealakekua, Onizuka died in the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
Every evening the center hosts a stargazing program. The staff sets up several telescopes outside the building. You can use them to look at the night sky to see planets, star clusters, galaxies. The staff used the brightest laser pointer I’ve ever seen to point out constellations in the sky above.
Feel free to BYOT (bring your own telescope).
Resist the urge to use your phone’s flash/flashlight to see. This will ruin your acclimation to the night sky.
Mauna Kea is free to visit, as is the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Visit the Visitor Center website for the latest information on weather, access road conditions and any night programs offered.