Sure, I can spot the Big Dipper. And while I love a full moon, nothing beats the promise of wishing on a shooting star. But those iconic nighttime wonders aside, my knowledge of the darkened sky is basic at best. Wanting to heighten my celestial sense, I knew few earthly viewing venues could top Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. So on a recent romp to this remarkably diverse island, I decided to shoot for Hawaii Forest & Trail’s (HF&T) stargazing tour to this renowned astronomical observing site.
On a typical warm Big Island afternoon, our group of seven eager explorers boarded a 12-passenger van at HF&T’s Kona Coast headquarters. Interpretive naturalist Greg Brown had packed parkas and other provisions for the eight-hour excursion. Not accustomed to lengthy transit, I had my concerns. They faded away, however, as our adventure began to unfold.
We made a quick stop at Waikoloa Resort to pick up pre-ordered dinners plus five more adventuresome souls. These strangers gradually grew into a friendly ohana (Hawaiian for family) with a common goal … star trekking.
Mauna Kea is overwhelming. To observe the “white mountain” from sea level, one can only begin to grasp its size. Weaving toward the summit, I was consumed by this massive mound.
Remarkably well-versed in Hawaiian nature, culture and history, Brown shared both fact and folklore on the dramatic evolution of our surroundings. As we passed a pueo (native Hawaiian owl) perched in a dead mamane tree, our guide explained how ranching and grazing herds had transformed the area from forest into grassland.
Midway to the summit, we stopped at historic Humuula Station, an abandoned sheep outpost geared with a dining tent, tables and extremely clean porta potties. It was cool and foggy at the Parker Ranch post – quite a contrast to our coastal conditions earlier in the day. I donned my parka and joined others wandering among ranch remains. Aside from sustenance, the dinner stop also helped acclimatize us for our final ascent. With a hearty meal under our
belts, we continued our star quest.
Near the 9,000-foot level, the van emerged from a thick fog into a brilliant blue sky. It was as if the heavens had opened up. We progressed toward the 13,500-foot elevation, past volcanic cinder cones and patches of snow.
“”Mauna Kea’s summit rises above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Brown explained. “”Plus, it’s far from city lights. Up here, you’ll have optimal viewing of galaxies that stretch to the very edge of our observable universe.” With some 200 billion stars in our galaxy, I knew we were in for quite a show.
Brown warned us that the temperature drops three degrees every 1,000 feet. “It’s freezing up here right now,” he reported. I exited the van with a wobbly step or two. The elevation definitely had an impact, but it quickly passed. The temperature was another story. I zipped my parka and tightened the hood.
Standing at the summit is nothing short of amazing. We were literally on top of the world, at the peak of the tallest mountain on Earth, rising from the ocean floor some 31,000 feet . What a rush! And as daylight slowly slipped away, the journey was growing even better.
Brown recited the roster of observatories. “Those are the Keck twins and that’s the Subaru Telescope.” Eleven countries currently host 13 telescopes at the summit, nearly three miles above it all in the world’s most isolated area.
After a stunning sunset, we returned to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,200-foot level. Here, Brown set up a pair of eight inch Celestron Cassegrain telescopes for our star party.
He also used lasers to point out clusters and constellations. Warm in our parkas and with hot chocolate and macadamia nut cookies in hand, we “oohed’ and ‘aahed” at the brilliance of Hawaii’s night sky.
While this stellar show seemed so distant, Brown clarified how we were standing in the middle of it all right here on Earth. “We’re looking into the past and into the future right now,” he commented. “We see what’s light years away. It’s all linked.” His remarks made me sense that life in space was likely staring right back at this exact moment. Far beyond simply viewing the heavens, I was learning Earth’s place in the cosmos.
My night’s highlight was in so clearly seeing Saturn’s rings. Another trekker said she enjoyed the lore – learning that Taurus stands as a protector between the hunter Orion and the Seven Sisters. Others seemed astounded by Jupiter and its eight moons or the fact that Earth’s moon had such intense divots.
After an hour or so, our ohana agreed that we were seeing things more clearly – connecting the dots, so to speak. We were headed for home as the Southern Cross began to rise – just as Brown had promised. I counted my lucky stars I’d taken this trek.
The eight-hour/12-person maximum Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure is offered daily, with pick up at HF&T’s headquarters, Waikoloa Resort’s Kings’ Shops, and Junction of Highways 190 and 200. Afternoon departure time varies throughout the year. The price is $185 plus tax per person, including picnic-style dinner, snack, hot beverages, hooded parka and gloves. Reservations are highly recommended at least one week in advance, as this tour consistently sells out.
“Mauna Kea is one of the premier locations in the world to observe the night sky, either with the naked eye or using some of the world’s largest telescopes,” noted Rob Pacheco, Owner and President of HF&T. “Some of our uests come hoping to see a specific object, one of Jupiter’s moons or a specific constellation. Others are blown away when they see the ncredible vastness of the Milky Way for the first time. The night sky is something we all can relate to, and there’s no place better to experience it than in Hawaii.”
Aside from its Mauna Kea summit stargazing trek, HF&T takes adventure lovers on journeys that include hiking to waterfalls, experiencing volcanoes, walking in rainforests and spotting native birds in remote habitats. “Our vision is to inspire the conservation of Hawaii’s natural resources, which is fulfilled, in part, by offering guided nature adventures on Hawaii Island,” remarked Pacheco. “By taking people to places they wouldn’t normally access on their own, and by facilitating connections to the resources found there, we hope that our guests leave us with a greater understanding of the truly fantastic natural and cultural heritage of Hawaii.”
New to the company’s offerings is a Waterfall HeliHike with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters that explores several of the deep valleys in North Kohala via air, and then lands at the edge of a forest for hiking past streams and swimming in waterfall pools. The three-hour option is $406 per person plus a $59 fuel surcharge (subject to change).
Also launched recently are PinzTrek off-road adventures operated in Pinzgauer six-wheeled vehicles holding up to 12 guests. Whether fording mountain streams in Kohala, exploring the misty reaches of Hualalai or rambling through tropical fruit orchards, explorers can expect to be both entertained and educated. Priced at $115 plus tax per person, each PinzTrek Adventure incorporates a walking element. So in addition to experiencing off-road thrills, passengers also witness the beauty and diversity of Hawaii at a slower, more relaxed pace.
Both the Kohala Wai and Holoholo Hualalai excursions run three to four hours, while a five-hour Kohala Waterfalls Adventure is $135. Other trips and prices include a Kilauea Volcano Adventure for $169, Rainforest & Dry Forest Birding Adventure for $179 and Hakalau Forest & wildlife Rescue Adventure for $179. For those into more delectable discoveries, Merriman’s Culinary & Farm Adventure is a behind-the-scenes tasteful trip covering Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
Included in the Merriman’s itinerary is a visit to Kahua Ranch, a sprawling spread devoted to cattle and sheep ranching, as well as innovative agricultural practices. Also scheduled is a stop at Honopua Farm, where organic vegetables, lavender and cut flowers are grown. This outing returns to award-winning Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea for a special four-course dinner prepared by chefs using the fresh local ingredients produced on farms that were visited earlier in the tour. The $169 rate covers all transportation, tours and meals.
HF&T Joins World Heritage Alliance
HF&T has operated eco-excursions that take people for an up close look at the Big Island’s most remote natural assets since 1993. So it was a logical step for the company to take its commitment of sustainable tourism to a global level by becoming a member of the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism (WHA).
Founded by Expedia, Inc. and the United Nations Foundation, WHA operates with an initiative to support UNESCO’s goal of promoting and protecting World Heritage sites around the globe.
“Sustainability along with environmental and social responsibility are core tenets of our business philosophy,” said Pacheco. “We are excited about joining the WHA, and working together to preserve our treasured cultural and natural resources.”
HF&T will be implementing the WHA’s training materials on sustainable tourism into its own extensive guide training program. Additionally, the underlying principles of the WHA – encouraging social and environmental responsibility – serve to strengthen ongoing projects like the removal of invasive species from a Stewardship Plot inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.