Star light, star bright: millions and billions of them at 9,000 feet in Hawaii.
I had a long weekend trip to the Big Island last week and at the top of my “to do” is was going to the Visitors Center near the top of Mauna Kea to watch the sun go down.
At nine thousand feet, you are above the cloud line and it’s a miracle of light as the sun drops down below them. If you have a four wheel drive (or take an excursion tour), then you can go on up to the summit, another 4000 feet, and see the shadow of the mountain on the clouds as the sun sets. But we had a rental car (our contract states it can’t be taken that far up due to road conditions), but I was happy to stay put (for me, I just didn’t want to get any colder even though I was wearing warmer clothes). In order to get a better view down the mountain, I walked a short ways down the road – where you can see a power station with an access road on the right. This brings you to a rocky hill – maybe 400 feet, slightly steep but still walkable. If you get up to the top, you will be rewarded with an amazing view of the valley below and a large expanse of cloud cover below you.
And on top of that, there are several small cinder craters further down on the side of the hill that have an otherworldly look, especially when the fog rolls in. Which is what happened to us. Weather went from perfectly clear, to dense fog in a matter of minutes. We were tempted to leave. But I’m so glad we didn’t. The best was yet to come.
As typical of weather in Hawaii, it changes quickly. We had a beautiful clear night as soon as the sun went down. We were there to do what is done best there…. star gazing. And what better place on earth to do this – the site of a world-class observatory. It’s the clean dry air, no light pollution and some magic about the Hawaiian sky that comes together in amazing night skies. And the night we were there, no moon. There is staff on hand to point out stars and planets, along with volunteers with a slew of telescopes to look through. But I was happy to just gaze at the most stars I’ve ever seen in my life. I could see the Milky Way like I used to as a child.
I could see the galaxy Andromeda with my naked eye. I saw Jupiter through a telescope and three of its moons. It was wonderful. And I can’t recommend it enough. A trip to the Big Island should include this side trip, even though it takes a good portion of one day. Stay on the Kona side to make the drive a little easier.