Saddle Road/Mauna Kea
Great to combine with Northshore/Kohala Tour or North of Hilo Tour
about 4-6 hours, depending on your plans
A visit in the afternoon and night is recommended to attend the program at Onizuka Center. 4WD is the best way to get up to Mauna Kea and the only way to go further to the summit. The road is mainly unpaved and very steep after the Visitor Station.
Kona – Mauna Kea, no stops: 2-2,5 hrs
Hilo – Mauna Kea, no stops: 1.5 hrs
Kona – Mauna Kea: about 73 miles (~ 117km), 2 hrs +, no stops
Waikoloa Resort – Mauna Kea: 60 miles (~ 97km), 2 hrs +, no stops
Hilo – Mauna Kea: 43 miles (~ 69km), 1.5 hrs, no stops
What to bring:
sturdy shoes, sunscreen, water and food, camera, warm clothes
Getting here from Hilo/Puna: Follow Route 130 and later HWY 11 or HWY 19 (depending from where you are coming) to Hilo. From there take Puainako Extension (Hwy 2000) which merges into Saddle Road (Hwy 200).
Coming from Kona/Waikoloa: From Kona take Route 190 towards Waimea and make a sharp right onto Route 200 just before milemarker 6. From Waikoloa take the short cut over Waikoloa Road and continue on Route 190 towards Waimea. At the intersection to Route 200 make a sharp right.
Saddle Road connects the two largest volcanoes on Big Island Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The road was named after the saddle-shaped valley between the volcanoes. Driving from Hilo to Kona and the other way round this is the shortest but not the fastest way. The 53 miles are hilly and winding and full of blind turns, so take your time. However, the stories about unpaved sections that prevent you from driving without a 4WD are history.
The road connecting Hilo and Kona is fully paved and even extended to two lanes per direction at specific sections. Reflectors are added to the road supporting a safe drive during night as well. Unfortunately, many travel guides and rental companies do not update their content and tourists are fooled. This has the unfortunate result that they do not drive Saddle Road and miss the views and diversified landscape.
Coming here please have in mind that there are no restrooms, snack shops or gas stations around. Emergency services and medical assistance are two hours away. So fill up before you head out to either Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa and check your brakes! Furthermore, you might face altitude sickness since you overcome 14,000ft from sea level going to the summit.
1st stop: Mauna Kea Onizuka Center for International Astronomy/ Stargazing program and summit tours - http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/
The Visitor Station within the Onizuka Center is located 9,300 ft (~ 2800 m) on Mauna Kea and is open daily from 9am – 10pm. Here, you will find the only restrooms around. You get there by driving up Mauna Kea Road for 6 miles, which goes off behind milemarker 28. Watch out for cows since they love to block the road.
Up to the Visitor Station you are fine driving an average rental car without 4WD. As soon as you intent going further you might have a huge problem. The road beyond the station is unpaved and very steep with gravel.
As a special service the volunteers and rangers offer free nightly stargazing programs to their guests and escorted summit tours during the weekend.
The stargazing program starts at 6pm and ends around 10pm. Make sure you bring very warm layers, if possible thick coats, since temperatures drop fast and near the freezing point! The program is free of charge but relies on public donations. First you will see a documentary about Mauna Kea before you head out to watch the stars through the telescopes from the lanai (balcony). Even without the telescopes you will experience a breathtaking atmosphere and I bet you have never seen that many stars before! They are countless and don’t seem to end…
I recommend combining the stargazing with a guided summit tour on Sat or Sun starting at 1pm in front of the Visitor Station. The tour ends around 4pm/4:30pm and gives you a little time to stretch your legs in between or have a bite. Assuming you brought some food with you. Alternatively you can drive down Mauna Kea for a short distance to marvel at the scenic view before it gets dark and it is time for the stargazing program.
Most people don’t know about the summit tours and spend a fortune for commercial tours through travel agencies. Compared with these overpriced trips the Onizuka summit tours are far more exciting since experienced rangers are leading the tour and offer far more background information than an average guide.
Before planning the tour you should have a closer look at the terms and conditions to participate and stick to them, otherwise they will leave you at the Visitor Station. They request a 4WD (well even with an average rental car you might be lucky that other visitors have a spot left in their 4WD), a minimum age of 16 and great health conditions. Further informations are listed at:
If you like to hike after the summit tour there is one of the two highest lakes in the US located 25 minutes off the road. The lake is formed through remaining permafrost from the last Ice Age and holds water all year round.
If you wonder why I do not list any tours to Mauna Loa, it has a reason. The road to Mauna Loa is very narrow, though paved but a pain since you can be surprised by snow any time of the year. Although the view from the Weather Observatory is outstanding there is nothing much to do. If you cannot resist, get yourself a 4WD and drive up the 17 miles (~ 27km).
2nd stop: Kaumana Cave between 3 and 4-mile marker at Kaumana Drive
Coming from Hilo you might want to do the cave first. All others could also do the cave with the North of Hilo Tour.
Kaumana Cave is a lava tube from the lava flow in 1881. If you did the Thurston Lava Tube before, this one is the climax. To explore the tube you do not only need a real good flashlight but nerves…strong nerves!
A lush fern forest surrounds the tube and yellow stairs take you down through the fern and to the entrance. If you are not sure about this tube hike take a glimpse first and decide if you are up for some adventure or not. The less adventurous amongst you should stay right since this area is lighter, easier and safer to walk. All others should take the left entrance of the 2-mile long old dark tube. Taking the left path, try to protect your head since this side can be rocky, narrow and requires some climbing.