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Star Gazing and Big Island Fun on Mauna Kea
Stargazing from atop Mauna Kea can be cold. The most enjoyable time can be had by driving back down from the summit after sunset to the Onizuka Visitor Station. When pulling into the center after dark, please use your parking lights only. This prevents everyone else from being temporarily blinded by your headlights.
Actually, let's back up a moment. Let's assume you have hijacked your rental car for the day and you're going to make the trek to the summit regardless of the warnings. Let's say your rental car makes it to the 9,000' mark at the visitor station. The best thing to do at this point is to stop. No, we're not trying to stop your ascent, just slow it down a bit.
If you've driven up from sea-level and you're probably starting to feel a little giddy at this point. Stop at the Onizuka Visitor Station. It will be your first building on the right before you get to Hale Pohaku, where the scientists meet and sleep.
At the visitor station you can watch a great video about the mountain and telescopes. It's a must see if you haven't seen it before. Even if you have seen it before, get a cup of hot cocoa and watch it again. The hour will do wonders for your summit climb. It will help cool your car and acclimate your body for the next 4,000'. At a minimum, read the warning signs of altitude sickness, it could save your life or someone your with. Leave either side of the island at about 3pm so everything falls into place once you're there.
Check your car's fluids before you leave the visitor center. If it's between September and March, bring heavy jackets for everyone. I'm sure you'll be fine but you might just get to save someone else if you prepare properly. We've all been up there in slippahs and boardshorts, you're not that kewl.
Driving to the summit from the Onizuka Visitor Station will take about 45 minutes. Pull all the way up to the top and you'll see where the tour buses are parking. Try not to block anyone in or block the road. That's dumb move as most people up at the top will be driving somewhat erratically with less then normal oxygen levels in the brains. Think about this now, not later. An old motto we've adopted says, "even the simplest of tasks become difficult at the summit." Parking included.
Snowborders, this means get dressed at the Onizuka Visitor Station. Getting dressed at the summit can take away enough energy for that extra run or hike at the end of your day. If you feel it's unsafe to drive with your boots on, save them for the very last thing you need to go before hiking or dropping in from the top.
Parents, don't take small children to the summit. Doing so can screw up their brains and generally endanger their safety. Dogs seem to be fine up there so take a dog if you feel like you have to take something living besides yourself. If your dog dies, don't blame me or this site. We're only trying to provide information. What you do with this information is solely your responsibility.
Ok, with that said, you will be in for the most dramatic sunset you've ever seen. The Volunteers at the Visitor Station will probably have the telescopes setup out front for your enjoyment. The stars and planets you'll see will be the best views you've had. The crowd at the Onizuka Visitor Station will be a mix. Backyard astronomers, world renowned scientists and people that have never a planet with their naked eyes will all be taking turns on great telescopes (5", 8" and 10").
Coming down from the mountain will make you feel different from going up. Some feel tired, some feel rejuvenated (for a bout 30 minutes). My point here is that unless you're used to the altitude, drive extra safe back to sea-level. Many people report being very tired once they hit saddle road. Not a great time to be driving the most dangerous road at night on your vacation. Please re-read the first paragraph.
Oh yeah, one more thing. The techniques used to keep your brakes from catching on fire is simple but very important. Put your car in low gear. Ideally, you don't want to use your brakes at all. However, this slow of a pace on your vacation might be difficult to attain especially if you're not on Hawaiian time yet. If you must use your brakes, brake hard regularly with periods of no braking. This gives your brakes time to cool. Using your brakes lightly over long periods can cause your brakes to fail and or catch on fire (along with your rental car).
If your brakes fail going down Mauna Kea, you better hope your karma is fully laundered and you're been respectful to Pele. Otherwise, we'll just read about you in the paper and wonder why a dozen or so people never listen, every year.