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by Donald B. MacGowan

This post has been updated and expanded here.

Hualalai Volcano and Sere Basal Grasslands of North Kona: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano and Sere Basal Grasslands of North Kona: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Long the subject of wild rumors of danger, rental car agency blacklisting and resident grumbling, Hawaii’s Highway 200, more commonly known as The Saddle Road, has undergone significant rebuilding and realignment over the past few years.  What used to be a fairly rough, but also reasonably safe, drive between Kailua Kona and Hilo over the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa is now largely an easy drive on a new, wide, first-class highway.  To be sure, construction is incomplete and continues, particularly on the Kona side, and conditions are still poor in places; however,  it’s no longer the challenging white-knuckle exercise it once was.

This blog post is just a photo essay, meant to whet your appetite; a detailed  description for driving this road trip can be found here.

Looking Across Waimea at Kohala Volcano from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking Across Waimea at Kohala Volcano from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road Climbs up the Western Flank of Mauna Kea near Wai'iki Ranch: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road Climbs up the Western Flank of Mauna Kea near Wai'iki Ranch: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Saddle Road accesses the incomparable, vast, mysterious and awe-inspiring wilderness that is the roof of Hawaii.  From the sere basalt desert of North Kona, over the grassland savanna, fabulously lunar lava flows to the alpine tundra and icy heights of the upper slopes and summits of the world’s largest mountains, the road winds down into the wet-side of Hawaii to rainy Hilo with its lava caves,  flower-choked canyons, waterfalls too numerous to catalog and jungle canyon beaches.  Really, this drive is one of the most unique, incrediblly scenic drives on Hawaii.

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road along the Western Flank of Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road along the Western Flank of Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The land around the junction of of Highway 190 and Highway 200, running up to the Saddle itself and down to Kawaihae was called “The Kingdom of the Five Mountains” by the Hawaiians.  From this area, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Kohala Volcano, Haulalai Volcano and Haleakala on Maui can be seen.

Haleakala Volcano on Maui from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Haleakala Volcano on Maui from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Morning View of Mauna Loa From Along the Saddle Road: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Morning View of Mauna Loa From Along the Saddle Road: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mauna Loa Hides Behind a Fog Bank on the Saddle Road: Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Loa Hides Behind a Fog Bank on the Saddle Road: Donnie MacGowan

A trip up Mauna Kea, at least to the Visitor’s Information Station, is a must for anyone traveling between Hilo and Kona along this road.  There, rangers at the station can help you decide if you are prepared to drive the 12 miles of somewhat challenging dirt road to the summit at almost 13, 800 feet.

Pu'u Weiku Cinder Cone at the Summit of Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Pu'u Weiku Cinder Cone at the Summit of Mauna Kea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

At the summit of the saddle is also Kipuka Huluhulu, a wonderful  window of forest and wildlife serendipitously saved from annihilation by lava flows from Mauna Loa.

Full Moon Over the Mauna Kea-Mauna Loa Sadlle: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Full Moon Over the Mauna Kea-Mauna Loa Sadlle: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

An interesting, but short, hike to the summit provides amazing views of the saddle area and great bird-watching.

Looking up to the Summit of Mauna Kea from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking up to the Summit of Mauna Kea from Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road from Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road from Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking West to Mauna Loa from the Top of Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking West to Mauna Loa from the Top of Kipuka Huluhulu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Down into the jungle wetness of the Hilo side, just on the outskirts of Hilo Town, is Kaumana Caves Park, featuring an enormous lava tube.  You can climb down into the cave via a set of concrete stairs.  Further exploration of the cave, whether up or downhill is fascinating and easy, just be sure to wear a hard-hat and bring at least 3 sources of light (flashlights) per person if you venture past the opening.

Saddle Road Speeds Eastward, Diving Into the Rain and Mist of the Hilo Side of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Saddle Road Speeds Eastward, Diving Into the Rain and Mist of the Hilo Side of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Frank Burgess Descends into Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Frank Burgess Descends into Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Kaumana Cave: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Immense, jungle-filled gulches dissect the lower flanks of Mauna Kea north of Hilo Town, running down to the sea to uncrowded, amazing beaches, such as the one pictured at Hakalau.

One of literally thousands of Waterfalls racing the Eastern Slopes of Mauna Kea Along the Hilo Coast: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

One of literally thousands of Waterfalls racing the Eastern Slopes of Mauna Kea Along the Hilo Coast: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Now that you’ve been over the roof of the Island of Hawaii, head into Hilo Town for some Island-style fun, food and shopping.

The Deserted Jungle Beach at Hakalau Gulch Just North of Hilo: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Deserted Jungle Beach at Hakalau Gulch Just North of Hilo: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Old Sugar Mill Road Winds Through the Mist-Soaked Hakalau Gulch Jungle: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Old Sugar Mill Road Winds Through the Mist-Soaked Hakalau Gulch Jungle: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The shops and restaurants in the Bayfront Shopping District are not only filled with exotic things, diverse and interesting, but they occupy the numerous historic buildings of Downtown Hilo which survived the many tsunamis that have devastated Hilo Town through the years.

Evening Sunset over Hualalai Volcano on the Return Trip Along Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Evening Sunset over Hualalai Volcano on the Return Trip Along Saddle Road: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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

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

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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Kona take Highway 190 to Highway 200 in 45 minutes of driving. Saddle Road, which cuts between the “saddle” of Mauna Loa on the south and Mauna Kea to the north, […]

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