Look to the Sky

The vast landscape of Hawai‘i Island offers stargazing that harkens to Polynesian wayfaring and contemporary space exploration.

Text by Le‘a Gleason | Images by Andrew Richard Hara

The skyspace of Kohala lights up with a blanket of stars.

On Hawai‘i Island, the night sky is dark, unbothered by dense city lights. Thousands of majestic blazing giants, millions of miles away, can be seen above the inky seascape and mountain tops. For tourists and locals alike, who are searching for such visions, it’s nightfall on the island which presents new adventures: conditions change, temperatures vary, and numerous remote destinations offer different views.

Such stargazing is far from a contemporary phenomenon—early Polynesians did so to navigate to and from Hawai‘i aboard seafaring outrigger canoes. Deep historical and cultural connections to the night sky still fascinate humans everywhere, as does the perpetual mystery of space.

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For local photographer Andrew Richard Hara, his love affair with the night sky began with a college degree in architectural photography, which later blossomed into landscape and low-light photography. For over 10 years, Hara has been illuminating the stars, the moon, and other features in his low-light shots. “I use photography as an emotional journal. What I create is a reference of what I’m feeling there,” he says. “The visual part is 50 percent of what I’m seeing, and the other part is what I’m feeling, which makes me see these colors, or angles, or make certain decisions, or how I interact with the space.”

Hara began photographing at night to spend time alone exploring. “It was a way to connect with nature, in the quiet, without a lot of distraction—just me and the stars,” he says. “To be able to look up in the sky and feel connected to things that are millions of light years away is a meditation.” Below are a few perfect spots on Hawai‘i Island to look out at the stars and wonder.

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

Thousands flock to this national park every year to witness the beauty of ancient lava flows and native forests. And at night, when the sun dips below the massive Halema‘uma‘u Crater, the stars begin to shine, while silhouettes of the crater and native fauna are illuminated by the distant glow of the bubbling lava pit below.

An especially poignant view, Hara suggests, can be found at a public overlook along Crater Rim Trail between Kīlauea Military Camp and the publicly accessible steam vents. Visitors can hike most of the Crater Rim Trail (a section is closed for public safety), or simply drive to the overlook. On a clear night, stars spread across the night sky are offset by the glow of the crater below.

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park can be accessed from Highway 11. Crater Rim Trail is located on Crater Rim Drive within the park.

The Kohala Coast is Hawai‘i Island’s oldest area. Its massive mountains, which were once lava flows, are now marked by lush green forests and steep ridges. At the Kohala Mountain Road Overlook, located between Waimea and Kohala on Highway 250, those who stop during the day can see down the mountainside to the coast, the wide Pacific Ocean, and even glimpse Maui in the distance. At night, the glowing lights of Waimea, Waikoloa, and Kailua-Kona shine below, while the stars shine above. Here, a fantastic view of the night sky is rarely impeded by a passing car, and no hiking is necessary, since the stop is right off the road.

Kohala Mountain Road Overlook

Kohala Mountain Road is also known as Highway 250, and the lookout is near mile marker 8.

Mauna Kea is perhaps one of the most visited geographical sights on Hawai‘i Island. Standing at nearly 14,000 feet, it is a daily companion to those living below and a cultural emblem for island residents. Honored as a key site in Hawaiian origin stories, this mountain’s summit has also gifted astronomers from far and wide with some of the world’s best views of space.

The Mauna Kea Visitor Center, which sits about halfway up the mountain’s public access road, is a resource for those wanting to learn about the night sky. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, it hosts talks for the public. Visitors can view notable planets, stars, comets, and the moon through telescopes outside the center. Its elevation and lack of light pollution make this an excellent viewing area to see thousands of stars stretched across the night sky, and even, Hōkūnohoaupuni, the Milky Way galaxy.

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Mauna Kea can be accessed via Saddle Road (Highway 200). A sign directs drivers to turn just before mile marker 28. The visitor center is approximately six miles up the Mauna Kea Access Road.

Mauna Loa holds a special place in the hearts of Hawai‘i Island residents, including Hara. It is only a few hundred feet shorter than the widely known Mauna Kea, yet is unique in its own way; Not only is it more remote, but it is still classified as an active volcano. “Mauna Loa supports three-quarters of the island on its mass,” Hara says. “In itself, it’s majestic.”

The parking lot at Mauna Loa Observatory offers a view of Mauna Kea and a dense blanket of stars when the sky is clear. “It’s a really nice tucked away spot that allows for a great intimate connection with the night sky,” Hara says. “There’s a feeling of solitude that’s really comfortable.”

Mauna Loa Observatory can be accessed via Saddle Road (Highway 200). A sign directs drivers to “Mauna Loa Road” between mile markers 30 and 31.

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