story by Michael Shapiro
photo by Jack Wolford
If you’re willing to trade a day at the beach for a night in a freezing desert (and who wouldn’t be?), you have the chance to see a night sky clearer than any other on earth.
Tours to the summit of Mauna Kea have become, with good reason, the most popular excursions for many of the Big Island’s eco-tourism operators, including Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, one of the state’s best known. Their half-day Summit & Stars Adventure departs from the Kona side and winds up the circuitous red-dirt road to the snow-capped summit. You step out of the van into freezing temperatures (parka provided) and an elemental, wind-tormented moonscape of rock and, in winter, ice. Drunk with a high-altitude buzz (13,796 feet), you watch the sunset burnish the white domes of the famed observatories and cast the mountain’s massive pyramidal shadow to the east, the sky turning lucid purple in the fading light. Lovely, but just a preliminary.
If sunset at the peak of the world’s tallest mountain fails to inspire a humbling sense of cosmic grandeur, the stargazing won’t. The tour heads down to the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Center at 9,200 feet to take advantage of the some of the clearest and cleanest air on Earth; this altitude, being above 90 percent of the atmosphere’s water vapor and far from the light pollution of a big city, affords an average of 300 clear nights a year. Here the night sky blazesthe glowing ribbon of the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon, meteors etch glittering trails, the Southern Cross spreads its arms over the edge of the visible world. Buck Pelkey, one of HF&T’s tour leaders, sets up a telescope for a closer look at the rings of Saturn and the spectral beauty of Canopus rising over the cinder cone of Pu‘u Wekiu.
To some, the summit of Mauna Kea is a victim of its own popularity, but it’s something even the most jaded Island resident should see at least onceideally on the night of a new moon. Even for an old hand like Buck, who leads tours to the summit several times a week, the celestial choreography never loses its power to awe. “The day I look up at the night sky and say ‘whatever,’ just take me out and shoot me,” he says. “Every night’s different. You just never know.” HH
Hawai‘i Forest & Trail