A national parks visitor gazes at the sky over Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui.

Looking Up To Understand

The national park sites of Hawaiʻi offer rainforests and cloudforests, rare and delicate birds, tranquil sandy beaches, rocky lava shores, vibrant coral reefs, and winter visits by humpback whales. But many park visitors are surprised to find themselves swept away by something unexpected and unforeseen: the astonishing spangled night skies of Hawaiʻi.

The Hawaiian Islands are located in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet, The Pacific. They are relatively tiny in that vast sea, and so by luck of circumstance have less light pollution than the highly developed, light-saturated, sometimes dusty landscapes of the continental U.S. to the east or Asia to the west. In the Islands, to look at the gloriously bright arc of the Milky Way stretched overhead on a moonless night is truly to feel like you can reach up and touch it. Surprisingly deep emotions can suddenly arise, along with thoughts and questions about the place of humans in the enormity of the known (and unknown) Universe. 

Hawaiian night skies helped the first Polynesian settlers to the islands navigate to, from, and between them. The Polynesian star compass, utilized on long double-hulled canoe voyages, divides the 360-degree horizon into four houses that align with the cardinal directions: hikina (east), komohana (west), akua(north) and hema (south). Understanding where and how the stars rise and set gives a sure sense of direction in a directionless ocean, marking paths in pathless places. Once people established in the islands, the stars were part of the cultural knowledge and rituals that were woven into daily (and nightly) life. The names and paths of the stars and constellations allowed for the planning of voyages and provided (along with the moon) a season schedule for planting and fishing. Many myths and legends of Hawaiian gods and goddesses feature elements of the night sky, like the great fishhook of the demigod Maui that hangs overhead in the summer, known to Westerners as the constellation Scorpio.

Traditional Hawaiian navigators were trained on the dry, high summits of Hawaiian volcanoes. Haleakalā Volcano on Maui, now a part of Haleakalā National Park, has always been a place for starwatchers. In the crystal clear and cold night air at 10,000ft. above sea level, students bundled up to learn how the skies changed over the course of the night, month, and year, committing the names of stars and constellations to memory and using that knowledge to expand understanding of their place on the planet and in the cosmos. Present-day astronomers do this, too, utilizing modern technical telescopes at the summit nearby to the national park visitor center, just outside of the park boundaries.

Visitors to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park can join in the long tradition of watching constellations rise and fall over the summits of mighty Mauna Loa or dynamic Kīlauea volcanoes. Some years, like this year, Kīlauea intensifies this timeless, primeval experience by adding the ruddy glow and multi-hued plume of a summit eruption to the visual foreground. Evidence of long-term use of sites in what is now the national park attest to a history of traditional teaching and learning. High on the slopes of Mauna Loa, in a remote area, are the broken but identifiable remains of a canoe navigator training site at the Koʻa Holomoana heiau (temple). There, according to the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, Hawaiian navigators-in-training were tested on their celestial skills, then sent far away and challenged to find their way back. 

Amateur astronomers and skywatchers of all kinds are welcome to visit both Haleakalā and Hawaiʻi Volcanoes national parks for night sky gazing, as both parks are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, dedicated local photographers have made the night skies over the park their passion, and their photos can be seen in park visitor centers as well as at local galleries and shops. Plan your own night sky photo safari, but know that weather is changeable here. Keep an eye on current weather conditions at: https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/weather.htm

At Haleakalā National Park, ranger-led star programs are offered on a periodic basis, so keep an eye on the park website. Those interested in park night sky programs can access podcasts in the meantime: https://www.nps.gov/podcasts/stars-above-haleakala-podcast.htm.

Use this query on our national park store website to explore all of the beautiful and functional night sky items we carry: https://shop.hawaiipacificparks.org/search?q=night+sky

Now go out there and sparkle!


IMGS: Janice Wei

Hawaii Pacific Parks Association Location Map
Hawaiʻi Pacific Parks Association. P.O. Box 74 Hawaii National Park, 96718 HI