Hawaii stargazing tips & other things I learn on family vacation

Often times on our family vacations, there are a lot of questions about my clarity of mind when I make certain choices about the activities and outings I arrange for us.

“Are you sure that boat is big enough?” “Is that safe to eat?” “Did you read the car rental contract? Are you sure we allowed to take the car on this road?” And those questions were just from last weeks’ vacation!

So, a couple of years ago, when we took a vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii, it was absolutely no surprise to me when I was bombarded by the naysayers, whom I’m proud to call my family, with a myriad of questions which called my judgement into question regarding a particular outing – driving as close to the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest elevation in the state of Hawaii, as we could get.

Manua Kea, Hawaii Observation Visitors Center
We were headed to the end of that rainbow.

Now, I’ve shared with you all my love of star gazing– not knowing exactly what I’m looking at, but simply my love to take it all in. It doesn’t matter to me what the constellations are called, I just want to see the stars – all of them, well at least as many as my eyes can see. And from the 9,200 foot elevation of the Mauna Kea visitor station, we were going to be able to see an expanse of the Milky Way.  I was a woman on a mission, dragging my family behind me.

By the time we got up to the observation center, the temperature had dropped over 50 degrees, the wind was a pleasant 25-35 miles per hour and the clouds were making everything damp. But never fear! I brought coats, gloves and hats for everyone. The rental car had steam coming from under the hood, well actually every orifice possible,  and the windshield was quickly covered with a glaze of ice, but a friendly park ranger reassuringly said, “Don’t worry, that happens to most rental cars when you reach this point.”  I was feeling pretty good about things.

The sunset from Mauna Kea Observation Center on the Big Island of Hawaii
Hold your hat & don’t stand up.  The wind blowing and the sun setting at 9,200+ feet above sea level.

So, it was all fun and games….until, the sun went down. You see, I had promised them we would head back down the mountain as soon as the sun set and we caught a glimpse of the Milky Way in all its glory. But, when the sun went down, the clouds closed in on us rather than clearing like they were supposed to according to every guide book and website I scoured in preparation for this outing. (*See below for my planning tips.) Not a single star, much less the Milky Way, was anywhere to be seen. I looked at my family and they looked at me, and my oldest child so wisely said, “I hope they sell hot chocolate in the visitor center, because I have a feeling we are going to be here a while.”

And so, we waited. Inside the visitor center, we listened to a lecture on the history of Mauna Kea, we were taunted by a video showing what the Milky Way looks like from where we were standing – if you could actually see it. Every few minutes, I would go outside and look up. One of the volunteer astronomers who was there looked at me and gave me a consoling (or condescending, depending on which day I’m telling this story) smile as he was covering up his expensive and huge telescope – to which I responded, “We came all the way up here. It’s as if we could reach out and touch the stars from here if we could just see them.”  I stood there, my head held back, waiting.

And then suddenly, the clouds…started…to break. I ran in and motioned for Don and the girls to come out. And there it was. The Milky Way in all its splendor.  I was waiting for one of them dare to say, “Can we go now?” But they didn’t. Instead we all stood there looking up for as long as the clouds allowed before they closed in again obstructing our view.

My family on Mauna Kea
I will give them credit for smiling – and for not throwing me over the edge

Seems to me that life is like that. We go in thinking one thing is going to happen and then poof, the clouds roll in and your perspective is altered. My grandfather used to have a saying for when things got out of control, “Hold your hat and don’t stand up!” It doesn’t mean to turn and retreat when the going gets rough.  Just the opposite.  It reminds me to do what I need to do to enjoy – or at least not get thrown off – the ride.

Tips for planning a trip to The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station on The Big Island of Hawaii:

  • The Visitor Information Station is accessible by car, but to venture up to the Summit, you will need a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle or be a part of a tour group because the road to the summit is unpaved, rough, and quite steep. Due to the hazards of altitude sickness, pregnant women, persons in poor health, and children under 16 should NOT venture above the Visitor Information Station.
  • The weather changes rapidly, so go to the “Road Conditions” section of the Maunakea Weather Center website; http://mkwc.ifa.hawaii.edu/ or call 935-6268 for a recorded phone message (updated as conditions change) before venturing up – especially during the winter months, when the road may very well be closed.
  • As of the 4/1/2018, the free, public Stargazing event is now held on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings (weather permitting). Parking is available for up to 115-vehicles on a first-come, first-served basis. Once the parking lots are full, all vehicles will be turned away.  
  • The road can get crowded and there are limited parking spaces (see above), I suggest heading up early.
  • Be flexible in planning the day you visit, since the weather does change.  Remember that the weather where you are staying on the island may (will) be different from the weather at the Center. Once you are there, BE PATIENT and enjoy the Center until you catch your own glimpse of the sky!
  • Pack hats, gloves, extra layers of clothing – and sunglasses and sunscreen.
  • Make sure that your car is in good working order and has a full tank of gas (the closest gas station is 35 miles away).
  • If a trip to Mauna Kea doesn’t work out on your trip (it took us 4 visits to Hawaii before we made it up there!!), there are lots of amazing things to do on the Big Island, so enjoy!

I’d be glad to offer you more ideas and tips for a trip to the Big Island – simply comment below with your questions!

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