MIlky Way Arching over Hualālai

My first attempt at a proper Milky Way arch photograph. Not easy to stitch properly, but worth the effort! Click on the image for a file size large enough to properly enjoy…

MIlky Way Arching over Hualālai
The winter Milky Way arches over Hualālai with Orion and the setting Moon at the center, taken from the Kaʻohe observing site, panorama of five images taken with a Canon 6D and a Rokinon 14mm lens with over 300 degrees of horizon

Kaʻohe Observing Site

Looking for a site that is a bit closer to home than driving all the way to the Mauna Kea VIS? Maybe not quite as high up the mountain, not as cold or windy? There is not a lot to choose from on Mauna Kea, much of the land is controlled access, either DLNR or private ranch land. Locked gates are the standard solution around the island.

Hualālai from Kilohana
Looking towards Hualālai from Kilohana, a heavy layer of vog sits just below

There is a gate that is generally not locked. The hunter check-in station at Kilohana that provides access to the Kaʻohe game Management Area. Starting at 5,700 feet from the Old Saddle Road the R-1 road climbs the mountain from here.

The actual spot I use is a staging area used by DLNR crews, hunters and the ATV riders who normally frequent the area. From the neat lines of pine trees it looks like the site was once a homestead or ranch house of some sort built high on the side of the mountain. It is about 1/4mile above Old Saddle Road and the Kilohana hunter check in station and directly adjacent to the R-1 road.

As usual you need to obey DLNR rules for access to the site. The R-1 road is designated a public access trail under the Nā Ala Hele trail system, so a permit should not be required. You must not be “camping”, this is defined by the DLNR as being in possession of “camping paraphenalia”, like sleeping bags, tent, etc., during the hours of darkness.

There is a sign in and out form at the hunter check-in station. The DLNR states that 4WD is required to use the R-1 road, but in reality the old homestead could be reached by any vehicle, the first part of this road is quite nice, basic gravel, the rough stuff is far higher up the mountain.

The site has many advantages. It is just far enough off the Old Saddle Road as to avoid vehicle headlights. Not that there is much traffic on the old road, the new road has accommodated most of the across island traffic and it is miles below the site.

One of the best features of the site is shelter from the strong trade winds that sweep across the island.  The trades are generally from the northeast, while the site is on the southwest flank, sheltered in the lee of a 14,000ft mountain.  I have seen days when the trades were howling in Waimea and Waikoloa, while it was dead calm at Kaʻohe.

You can get some fog and dew here in the evening. At 5,800 feet elevation you are just at the top of the inversion cloud level, sometimes just below. When it is clear it is glorious here, but you can get evening fog until the cooling night allows the sea breeze to wane and the cloud level to subside. You can always pass the site up and head on to the VIS if the cloud tops are higher.

Obsession at Kaʻohe
The 20″ Obsession telescope being set up at Kaʻohe, on the side of Mauna Kea

As with any site on the slopes of Mauna Kea, air currents around the mountain can cause some seeing issues. The site should be less susceptible to cold down slope flows than the VIS area as it sits upon a ridge line, not a depression.

The game management area can occasionally be closed to access by the DLNR for one reason or another. You can check the DLNR website or the Nā Ala Hele trail system webpage. Closures should also be marked at the hunter check-in station.

The site is most easily reached from the new Saddle Road (Daniel K. Inouye Highway) in the valley below. Turning up the old road near milepost 42 and driving one mile up to Kilohana. If you see the girl scout camp you missed the turn by a bit.

I have used the site many times, and have also observed from the nearby Kilohana Girl Scout Camp, and been very pleased with the observing. I suspect I will use the site again in the near future.

Directions from Waimea

The gate into the Kaʻohe Game Management Area and the start of the R-1 road at Kilohana
The gate into the Kaʻohe Game Management Area and the start of the R-1 road at Kilohana
  • Drive south on the Mamalahoa Highway towards Kona
  • 6.2 miles from the Lindsey road light you will reach the old Saddle Road intersection, turn left uphill
  • Proceed 10.2 miles to the Kaʻohe GMA entrance with a sign and yellow gate, the signs also say Kilohana Hunter Check-In Station
  • Proceed 0.2 miles on the dirt road to the site, the site is on the left in front of the pine trees

Directions from Kona

  • Drive 24 miles north from Kona on the Mamalahoa Highway (upper road)
  • Turn right on Saddle Road (Daniel K. Inouye Hwy.)
  • Proceed 9.6 miles on Saddle to the Old Saddle intersection
  • Turn left onto the Old Saddle Road
  • Proceed 1.1 miles to the Kaʻohe GMA entrance with a sign and yellow gate, the signs also say Kilohana Hunter Check-In Station
    Proceed 0.2 miles on the dirt road to the site, the site is on the left in front of the pine trees

Directions from Hilo

  • Drive across island on Saddle Road (Daniel K. Inouye Hwy.) to near milepost 42
  • Turn left up the old Saddle Road
  • Proceed 1.1 miles to the Kaʻohe GMA entrance with a sign and yellow gate, the signs also say Kilohana Hunter Check-In Station
  • Proceed 0.2 miles on the dirt road to the site, the site is on the left in front of the pine trees

An End to Observing at the MKVIS?

As we are all aware, the TMT protests are having direct consequences for everyone who goes to the mountain. Regular mountain users and tourists alike are dealing these consequences. The summit road closed to the public for a second week, the MKVIS also closed, even before these closures the protests had curtailed many activities.

Mauna Kea Observing
My 18″ telescope Deep violet set up under the stars at the MKVIS.
It looks to get worse.

An agenda item that will appear before this week’s DLNR board meeting contains significant rule changes regarding use of the lands surrounding the Mauna Kea access road. For the local amateur astronomy community this looks to be very serious, a complete closure of a place we have all come to value very highly.

Go the the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station on the weekends nearest new Moon and you will find telescopes. While the MKVIS telescopes get put away at 10pm there are ‘scopes that are operating late into the night, often still there when dawn colors the sky. These telescopes belong to local amateur astronomers who bring them here to enjoy perfect Mauna Kea skies.

Continue reading “An End to Observing at the MKVIS?”

Substation Observing Site

Another site that allows an amateur astronomer to take advantage of the pristine skies of Mauna Kea is located next to an electrical substation just a couple hundred yards east of the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. Here you can enjoy a truly spectacular sky above the tropical haze and VOG of lower elevation Hawaiian locations. Far from the modest lights of Kona or Hilo there is almost no light pollution and the tropical inversion layer often keeps the clouds and rain well below this mountain site. While the site may see some early evening use by sunset watchers and possibly a tour van doing a star tour for their guests the majority of the night will offer an escape from the crowds across the road leaving the observer alone to enjoy the universe.

View Larger Map
Map of the substation site
This location is across from the Mauna Kea VIS and accessible up a small gravel road passable by just about any vehicle. In the saddle between two small pu’us (cinder cones) there is a large flat area adjacent to a small electrical substation. This site offers excellent dark skies at 9,200ft (2,800m) with open western and eastern horizons. Mauna Kea blocks the northern horizon to an elevation of about 18 degrees with Polaris sitting right over the summit. Pu’u Kalepeamoa to the south (a small cinder cone) block some of the southern horizon.

The Substation site has some advantages and some disadvantages…

  • A dark site away from the lights and crowds if the VIS, but still nearby if you are to need access to the VIS bathrooms.
  • An open cinder area with enough room for twenty or more vehicles and telescopes.
  • The site is occasionally used by one or two of the summit tours to allow their guests a look through a telescope. This will usually take less than an hour before they pack up and leave.
  • Sunset viewing guests from the VIS cross the area to access the pu’u to the south where sunset may be viewed with a clear view of the western horizon.
  • The small pu’u to the south will block some of the southern sky.
  • If there is a east or west wind it can come through the saddle across the site making conditions less than ideal.
  • The site lies on DLNR administered land and is subject to DLNR rules. Camping is not permitted, where camping is defined as possession of “camping paraphernila” after dark. Make sure you do not have a tent, sleeping bag or other obvious camping gear along. In practice this has never been enforced at this site.

The VIS is more sheltered as it is below the small ridge and offers a somewhat better southern horizon.

The site is easily found by turning off the main road just below and opposite the entrance to the Mauna Kea VIS. A break in the guard rails provides access to a short gravel road that proceeds straight up the hill to the saddle and the substation.

Mauna Kea Star Trails
Star trail image taken from the Substation site looking towards the mountain. Visible are the lights of Hale Pohaku, switchbacks up to the summit and a golden swath in the sky painted by the Keck AO laser