I’ve never seen the Milky Way, the stars shine so bright and close as I did at Mauna Kea. It was a surreal experience to stand under the stars that night, and I don’t think I can ever feel so close to the universe ever again.
It’s not exactly common knowledge, but Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world if measured from the seafloor. In fact, at 33,000 feet from the seafloor, Mauna Kea is the second tallest mountain in the solar system – only Olympus Mons on Mars is taller. It really is a humbling experience to stand on this magnificent ancient, dormant volcano that rises from the bottom of the sea and almost touches the stars – like an umbilical cord that connects the Earth to the Universe.
Driving To Mauna Kea Visitor Center
I think the part (other than stargazing) that fascinated me the most was that you can go from sea level to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (at 9,200 feet or 2,800 metres) in just over an hour! We went from downtown Hilo, which was 27 degrees Celsius and at sea level, to Mauna Kea VIS, which was 3 degrees Celsius and at 9,200 feet! So yes, please carry a jacket and dress warmly when you visit Mauna Kea.
The road is beautiful and not at all treacherous to drive. No sharp curves, or steep inclines. This is especially important if you’re planning on visiting it at night. The climb is gradual and unless you’re driving, you really don’t feel the ascent. I’m told that the Saddleback Road provides stunning views of the Big Island during the day. Sadly, we only drove to Mauna Kea at night. And on most nights Mauna Kea VIS is above the clouds, so there is a patch of road that goes through rain and clouds before you emerge above them.
Full instructions on how to get to Mauna Kea VIS, from Hilo or Kona, can be found on this website. It is not usually advisable to go to the summit of Mauna Kea (where the observatory is) unless you have a 4×4, and are confident of driving in absolute darkness. In addition, you need to check the road condition before driving to the summit. I was also told that the experience of watching stars is no different than that from the VIS (other than the fact that it’s more secluded).
Parking Can Be A Pain
Once at the VIS, you may encounter some parking issues. And since there are no street lights, it’s hard to spot a slot. If you arrive later than 9 PM, you could end up spending a considerable amount of time searching for a spot.
Also, it is courteous to visitors, such as yourself, to turn off your headlights ASAP or it ruins everyone’s stargazing experience. So, park your car, switch off the headlights and ignition, wear something warm, and step out into what I can only describe as a starry wonderland!
An Evening Under The Stars
The Mauna Kea VIS runs a super informative program every day from 6 PM to 9 PM. The program begins with the showing of a documentary about the history of Mauna Kea. After the video, Mauna Kea Rangers take over and provide visitors with some of the most interesting astronomical, historical, and cultural facts. It was so incredible and fascinating to hear them speak for hours as they took turns. They used laser pointers to point at celestial bodies that they are talking about (that’s why you’ll see red lines in my photos).
Honestly, when I think about that night I still get goosebumps. It felt like we were in a planetarium, except we weren’t. We were out in the freezing cold, gazing at the billions of stars above us. Literally in touching distance. The milky way, strikingly visible through the naked eye, formed a band across the night sky. It was all too surreal!
It’s also good to know that the VIS has a gift shop that stays open till late, serving small bites and drinks. There are telescopes that are set up for viewing and operated by volunteers. If the clouds suddenly come in, you’ll see them rushing to cover the telescopes to prevent any damage from the water vapour.
I didn’t feel like leaving the VIS…ever! I was having the most incredible experience of my life! But little did I know that it would get WAY better.
The Most Spectacular Shooting Star Ever!
On the night of 20 September, those present at the Mauna Kea VIS witnessed the most spectacular shooting star. As the guides narrated their stories, I quietly walked about looking for a secluded spot to shoot the milky way. I found several. In order to capture the milky way, you have to use a tripod and set up your DSLR for long exposures. During those 30 seconds, I could only hope that no one accidentally came in front of my camera or knocked it down (given how dark it was).
Seeing a shooting star didn’t seem like such a big deal on Mauna Kea. After all, you can literally see till the end of time. The rangers even joked that every time someone sees a shooting star that they would have to deposit $10 in the donation box.
I Got Super Lucky
Anyway, during one of those 30-second exposures, I got so damn lucky. Super, super, super lucky. A meteorite streaked across the length of the sky for 5-10 seconds and grew bigger and bigger as it changed colours. I was the first to see it and literally shouted “Whoa!”. The meteorite got so big and bright and lasted so long, that everyone present that night managed to get a glimpse of it (especially I after I screamed). I stood there looking straight at it all throughout. After what felt like an eternity, we all clapped as if we’d witness the greatest show put on by the stars. And then suddenly, I heard my camera click. As my camera processed the light that it had captured, I prayed that it got some part of the journey of the shooting star.
I don’t know how, but by some stroke of divine luck, I had my camera in the exact direction of the shooting star and managed to capture a part of its journey to Earth. That night, everyone couldn’t stop talking about the shooting star they had witnessed. The rangers even admitted that it was the best shooting star they had ever seen in the 15 years that they had been coming to Mauna Kea!
Since then, I haven’t stopped thinking about the odds – I could have had my camera pointed in ANY direction at that moment. What luck!
Final Words – A Must Do
Visiting the Mauna Kea VIS is one of the best, free things you can do in the world! Do not miss the opportunity if you’re on the Big Island ever.
Photos from the Big Island
The only sucky part about the Mauna Kea VIS at night is that there are too many cars that pass by the road. Their bright headlights often ruin the stargazing experience. Sadly, there’s no way to prevent that. Also, the parking. We arrived late and found it immensely difficult to find a parking spot.
Fortunately, the views, the experience, and the talk by the rangers more than make up for all the downfalls.