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This post has been updated and expanded here.

Feeling hemmed in by the spring drizzle in Kona, the Men of Tour Guide decided to take a much needed break and drive from Kailua Kona across The Saddle Road, up to the summit of Mauna Kea and down into Hilo.

Hualalai Volcano and Pu'uanahulu on the Big Island: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano and Pu'uanahulu on the Big Island: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Driving out of Kailua Town on Highway 190, we passed Pu’unanhulu on the backside of  Hualalai Volcano, continuing to the junction with Highway 200, The Saddle Road, famed in song, legend and fable.

Looking Back Toward Kohala Mountain from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking Back Toward Kohala Mountain from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road has a nasty reputation, which is only partly deserved.  Having been rebuilt from Hilo-side up over the saddle, there are only a dozen or so miles of rough, single lane roadway remaining.

Stopping at The Saddle, we decided to hike up Pu’u Huluhulu, the Shaggy Hill, a wildlife preserve on a prominent kipuka, or living island between lava flows.

Mauna Kea from Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mauna Kea from Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Kipuka Huluhulu offers superb views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, as well as fabulous bird watching and a grand nature trail through a lot of native flora.

Vanishingly Rare Silver Sword Plant on Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Vanishingly Rare Silver Sword Plant on Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Taking John Burns Way from The Saddle up to the summit of Mauna Kea, we stopped at the Visitor’s Information Station for a rest stop, to acclimatize and to photograph some Silver Sword plants; one of the rarest plants on earth, Silver Swords grow only on Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Haleakala.

From the Visitor’s Information Station we made our way up to the summit road.  This road, too, has an only partially-earned nasty reputation.  True, the road is mostly graded rock (it gets graded 3 times a week); true, it’s steep and narrow with NO shoulders and scary drop-offs; and, true, the weather can turn in a heartbeat from warm and sunny to full-on blizzard white-out.

The Men of Tour Guide Hard at Work on Mauna Kea: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Men of Tour Guide Hard at Work on Mauna Kea: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

However, anybody who has experience driving on dirt roads in the mountains and drives cautiously is apt to be just fine…afterall, it’s not the roughness of the road that keeps people from the summit, it’s the lack of air at altitude that kills the car. If you are in doubt about the drive, the Rangers at the Information Station can help you decide if you should drive up or not.

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hikers on Mauna Kea Summit Looking at Mauna Loa Summit: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The summit of Mauna Kea is one of my favorite places in all of Hawaii.  I’ve been here at all times of the day and night, in all kinds of weather; I have stood at the summit and seen the North Star and the Southern Cross in the same sky on the same night; I have skied and snowboarded from the summit and hiked to the top from sea level.  I’ve ridden my mountain bike up and ridden my Honda Ruckus scooter from Kailua Town up.

Mauna Kea Summit Temple: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mauna Kea Summit Temple: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

I love this mountain.  In September of 2006, Sean O’Neil, a paraplegic, rolled his wheelchair to the summit all the way from sea level in Hilo. All I could think when I heard he’d made the summit was “There is a real adventurer with the heart of a lion…”.

Rolling our own way back down the John Burns Way to The Saddle Road, we discovered the spring monsoon was still in full swing as we headed east towards Hilo Town.  Of course it was raining on Hilo Side! Stopping in the foothills just west of Hilo, we spent some time exploring around Kaumana Caves, a lava tube that extends for 25 miles, formed in the 1881 eruption of Mauna Loa.

Frank Descends Into Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Frank Descends Into Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Entrance is gained at Kaumana Cave County Park by a concrete staircase descending into a skylight.  The adventurer is immediately faced with a question: explore the uphill portion or the downhill portion?  Whichever route you take, be sure to have 3 sources of light, a hard hats (knee pads are nice, too) and be prepared for wet and slippery rocks. If you’re not intent on exploring deeply, a walk into the portions where sunlight penetrates is still pretty amazing.

Looking Out Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Looking Out Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Continuing on into Hilo, we spent some time at Rainbow Falls, which, because of the recent rain, was swollen and immense.

Rain-Swollen Rainbow Falls: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Rain-Swollen Rainbow Falls: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

I explored the river a bit above and upstream of the falls and found an incredible tract of wild urban jungle (if that is not actually a contradiction in terms, it’s at least a brilliant name for a rock band…) and lots more smaller falls, continuing on up the river.

THe Jungle Behind Rainbow Falls: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Jungle Behind Rainbow Falls: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

There is a trail along portions of this.

It was getting late as we explored downtown Hilo so we gassed the car and decided to drive home through Waimea.

Hualalai Sunset from Highway 190, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hualalai Sunset from Highway 190, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kailua Kona Sunset from the Pier: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Sunset over Thurston Mansion from the Kailua Pier: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

We blazed along laughing at our day’s adventure under an increasingly amazing sunset, arriving back in Kailua Town just in time to catch a meal of Kona Dogs and raspberry smoothies at Cousin’s in the Kona Inn Shops.  Best raspberry smoothies on the island, I’m telling ya!

For more information on touring the Hawaii in general and the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan.  All rights reserved.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article on Hawaii cool read for the day.

  2. hfMQVB Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

  3. Thanks for such a lovely blog. I have borrowed a friends 4X4 and am heading up today, about a year later.


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