This itinerary takes you to Hilo and up the side of the mountain (Mauna a Wakea or Mauna Kea) to journey to the sky. The itinerary will take around 6-10 hours depending on how much you do and long you linger.
First Stop ….
on this itinerary is to the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. Hours are 9am and close at 4pm), then have lunch and go to the next stop on the itinerary. Keep in mind, they are closed on Mondays. You really should go. This center is on the outskirts of Hilo, on your way up Mauna Kea (the next stop on your journey). There is a great planetarium and the exhibits are fascinating. You will learn a lot about the origins of the universe, but this center has something different, along side that you will also learn about Hawaiian myths about the stars, origin stories and more. This is all in the Origins exhibit. The Exploration exhibit will take you on a journey across the seas as the Hawaiians did it, in a canoe guided by the stars. Both myself and our daughters find the exhibits and many programs fascinating. The cost (as of this writing) is 17.50 for adults, 9 for children… and worth every penny.
After ‘Imiloa, you have two choices. You can go to Mauna Kea summit (14,000 ft) on an escorted tour of the observatories, or go to the visitor station (9,000) for the stargazing programs (or go to the summit and then the visitor station afterward).
The second stop, the summit! You can do an escorted summit tour at 1pm on Saturdays and Sundays. You meet at the visitors station (see below) and…
After the orientation, we will caravan up to the summit. The drive to the summit takes about half an hour and the speed limit is 25 miles an hour. The tour will go into at least one of the Mauna Kea Observatories and will end between 4:15 and
4:30 pm on the summit. Those wishing to stay at the summit after that time may do so.
You must be over 16 to go up, you must have a 4 wheel drive (or at least highly recommended) with a full tank. If you don’t want to be wedded to 1pm on a weekend, you could go yourself, though you’d miss out on the interiors of observatories and some great insight. This escorted tour is free. Alternatively, you could take one of the commercial tours which take care of everything, 4wheel transportation, food, etc. Very convenient, informative… and a cost involved.
The third and last stop is the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station after the observatories (or if timing or age is an issue, this would be the 2nd stop after the Imiloa Astronomy Center) 9,000 feet up the side of Mauna Kea. It is no wonder that countries and research labs from all over the world have built observatories on the top of this mountains. The sky is so nearly flawlessly clear, the Milky Way looks like well, a milky way. The stars not only appear as if you can touch them, they are also nearly at your feet, or at least you there are not trees blocking the view to the horizon. Try to go right about sunset, if you aren’t coming down from the summit, perhaps a bit after. Driving will be easier going up, and you’ll get there when the viewing is great. Also, keep in mind the moon and the weather. If you can, time your visit so you are there at the new moon, or after the moon has set. The website linked above has weather conditions listed, current and forecast. More often than not, it’s clear at 9,000 feet, but not always. Good to check. Every night the have excellent stargazing programs with astronomers (amateur and professional… all highly knowledgeable) guiding you through stargazing with some excellent and powerful telescopes. It’s free!
Also, if you go on a Saturday night (perhaps after your tour of the observatories?), every Saturday has a special program at 6pm (astronomy, culture, music). There is an indoor store with food (hot chocolate!), souvenirs and astronomy gadgets. You should get yourself one of those star charts to get bearings and learn some of those constellations! Better yet, if you have an iPhone, get one of the many apps that are great for charting the stars! I use Pocket Universe. It uses location and the phone’s position to show exactly what you are looking at in the sky.. and has a night mode (dark w/ red).
Oh, and when they say dress warm for Mauna Kea (either summit or visitor station), do so. It’s not “Oh, this is Hawaii… 60′ is cold.. cold, this is ear lobe frostbite cold. I know you probably didn’t plan on warm clothes for a trip to Hawaii, but you are on the Big Island . Bring a jacket, gloves and a warm ear-covering hat. Layers are good. You might want to check out the article “Seeing stars in the cold” to dress warmly without much expense and without schlepping the clothes in your luggage.
You could do all three if you want to take the entire day on a weekend!
Total Time: 6-10 hours (depends of if seeing observatories and how long you linger at each location. Plan on 2 hours or more of driving time to visitor center, another 1-2 hrs driving time to summit if going, 1-2 hrs at each location)
Total Cost: 17.50 per adult, 9.00 per child. Tours and visitor center are free. Only cost involved is the Imiloa Astronomy Center. This does not include cost of gas and rental car.