Skip navigation

Tag Archives: climb

Across the Roof of Hawaii

by Donnie MacGowan

This post has been updated and expanded here.

Recent improvements to the Saddle Road make it no longer the grinding, intimidating drive it once was and open hundreds of square miles of unimaginably beautiful, strange and wondrous landscape to the Hawaii Island Visitor.

Approximate minimum time start to finish (to see every site): 12 hours

From 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, passes through ranch lands and the Pohakuloa Military Training Facility, for another 45 minutes, to the turn for Mauna Kea Access Road (John Burns Way). Nearby, Kipuka Huluhulu, or “shaggy hill”, is a 20 minute hike to the top and back. From here it is a 30 minute drive to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center. The small village is home to scientists and astronomers that work in the observatories and an amazing place to learn what their research tells us about our universe. Returning to Hwy 200, drive 45 minutes to the amazing Kaumana Cave lava tube, a short hike and a wonderful exploration. A further 30 minutes down Hwy 200 brings one to downtown Hilo, where there are shops, restaurants, fine museums, gorgeous waterfront beach parks and a fabulous Farmers Market. From Hilo, it is approximately three hours to return to Kailua Kona over Hwy 200; alternately one can take the faster though less scenic Hwy 19 to Waimea and then Hwy 190 into Kailua Kona, about a 2 1/2 hour drive.

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 1) In Kailua Kona, start at Ahu’ena Heiau; take Palani Road east to Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 to jct with Hwy 200, The Saddle Road

Ahu’ena Heiau and Kamakahonu Beach

Centuries ago the inhabitants of this region built a series of sacred temples, or heiau, which were originally used for the purpose of sacrificing human beings to their war god, Kuka’ilimoku. This particular archeological site is called Ahu’ena Heiau, which in Hawaiian means “Hill of Fire”.

Built originally in the 15th century and rededicated by Kamehameha the Great in the early 1800s as the main temple of his capital, the current structures seen at Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built in 1975 under the auspices of the Bishop Museum with financial help from the Hotel King Kamehameha and are constructed to 1/3 the original scale. There are restrooms and showers located on the pier near the beach. Adjacent Old Kailua Town is a treasure of shops, restaurants and aloha.

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 2) Take Hwy 200, The Saddle Road, east to jct with John Burns Way (also called Mauna Kea Access Road).

Looking West from Highway 190 to Haualai Volcano Halfway between Kona and Waimea, Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Looking West from Highway 190 to Hualalai Volcano Halfway between Kona and Waimea, Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Saddle Road

Crossing the spectacular saddle between the towering bulk of the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at about 6600 feet, The Saddle Road runs through brush, grass and forest lands, over lava fields and through some of the wildest and most breath-taking scenery on the Island. From this roadway, four of the 5 principal volcanoes that form The Big Island may be seen: Hualalai, Kohala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Because the western half of the road is in notoriously poor condition and consists, in reality, of only one operable lane for much of its descent from the saddle to the Mamalahoa Highway.

However, this road provides the only road access to the Mauna Kea Summit Area and Visitor Information Center, Mauna Kea State Park, Pohakuloa Training Area, Mauna Kea Astronomical Observatory Complex, Waiki’i Ranch and the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp. The Saddle Road also provides the only access to thousands of acres of public forest and open grass lands. Connecting Hilo from about milepost 7.8 on the Hawai’i Belt Road to the Mamalahoa Highway approximately 6 miles south of Waimea, the Saddle Road is widely used by island residents for cross-island travel, despite its somewhat poor condition and undeserved, evil reputation.

Mauna Kea From Mauna Kea State Park; Note V-Shaped Stream Valleys and Glacial Cirques: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Mauna Kea State Park; Note V-Shaped Stream Valleys and Glacial Cirques: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Saddle Road frequently has perfect weather, but also fairly routine are patches of intense rain, fog and high winds. It’s takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours straight driving time, depending upon weather, to make the full traverse from Kailua Kona to Hilo; however, one should be sure to leave time in the schedule to drive up to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station or hike the Pu’u Huluhulu nature trails.

Along its entire 53 mile length between the turn-off from the highway just 6 miles west of Waimea and where it meets Hawaii Belt Road just north of Hilo, there is no gas and there are no services available; plan accordingly. Some food, water and restrooms may be available at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station which is a 30 minute drive up a side road off the Saddle Road about half way.

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 3) Off a Spur road at the jct of John Burns Way and Hwy 200, on the south side, is Kipuka Huluhulu (“Shaggy Hill”) Nene Sanctuary.

Pu’u Huluhulu Nature Trails/Kipuka Aina Hou

Frequently described as simultaneously the most noticeable and the most overlooked landmark along the Saddle Road, Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu rises more than 200 feet out of the surrounding lava flows. It’s name meaning “furry hill”, this forested cinder cone has multiple trails winding up through rare native koa trees to breathtaking 360° views of Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at the top, where you can also wander a meadow of native Hawaiian plants recently reintroduced in this protected natural habitat. By whatever trail, the summit of Kipuka Huluhulu is only about 20 minutes walk from the car.

Owing to the encapsulated nature of the kipuka, bird watching here is particularly fabulous; the Ā’akepa, Nene and the Ā’akiapola Ā’au, as well as the Kalij pheasants, pueo, i’o and turkeys are among the rare, endangered or just plain beautiful birds you will see here. The numerous roads and trails through the hundreds of square miles of adjacent lava flows makes for interesting, if hot and dry, mountain biking and hiking.

Parking and a unisex pit toilet are the only amenities available at Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu.

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Looking South from Mauna Loa to Mauna Kea from Near Lake Wai'au: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking South from Mauna Loa to Mauna Kea from Near Lake Wai'au: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 4) Go north on John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.


Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Visitor Information Station is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the day there are interactive computer exhibits about Mauna Kea, the observatories and astronomical research, plus there are video presentations and nature trails to hike. Many evenings after dark National Park personnel and astronomers put on public programs and discuss what the latest astronomical findings tell us about the nature of our universe. The souvenir shop has some food items, including hot chocolate, coffee and hot soup, for sale.

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

Leg 5) John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Summit

Mauna Kea Summit

Before you decide to go to the summit of Mauna Kea, stop, think, plan. Are you prepared for cold and high altitude? Do you understand the nature and dangers of altitude sickness and UV radiation? Are you experienced at traveling icy dirt roads? Is you car safe for the trip (many car rental agencies on the island forbid you to drive this road)? The Rangers at the Visitor’s center can brief you on altitude sickness, UV radiation preparedness, the condition of the road and all other information you need to decide whether to visit the summit (see a video here).

Lake Wai'au--the Seventh Highest Lake in the US--Whose Name Means "Swirling Water", Perches Near the Summit of Mauna Kea On The Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lake Wai'au--the Seventh Highest Lake in the US--Whose Name Means "Swirling Water", Perches Near the Summit of Mauna Kea On The Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place. Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island, the summit is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians and is home to several, world-class astronomical observatories and their support buildings. Because of the extremity of the altitude and the poor quality of the road above the Visitor’s Center, it is advised that extreme caution be exercised in deciding to visit Mauna Kea’s Summit. From the road’s end very near the summit, a short, 10 minute trail leads up Pu’u Weiku cinder cone to the actual mountain top and a Hawaiian religious shrine. Also near the summit is the 1-mile hike to Lake Waiau, the 7th highest lake in the US, as well as numerous archeological sites. Moving at altitude is strenuous, so conserve energy. Do not over-tax yourself, be sure to drink plenty of fluids and protect yourself from the sun, wind and cold. Leave the summit area and return to the paved road long before you are tired.

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 6) Return John Burns Way to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 east to Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves

A skylight opening to 25-mile long Kaumana Cave is located at the county park near the 4-mile marker on the Hilo side of the Saddle Road. Concrete stairs take you down through the rain forest jungle to the bottom of a collapse pit forming two entrances to the cave. Most people are drawn to the entrance on the right, a large, opening leading to cavernous rooms. In this entrance, graffiti from hundreds of years ago to the present is preserved, scratched into the rocks. The entrance on the left, however, is more interesting, leading through squeezes and low spots to numerous rooms with fascinating speleo-architecture and cave formations. Both caves go to true dark in fewer than 300 feet in either direction. There are more than 2 miles of easily accessible, wild cave to explore here, but if you intend more than just a cursory inspection near the entrances, bring a hard hat, water and at least 3 sources of light. A quick tour of the caves takes fewer than 20 minutes.

Kaumana Cave's Skylight Entrance: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave's Skylight Entrance: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Parking for the caves is located across the highway from the park; extreme care should be taken when crossing he road. Public restrooms, water and picnic tables are available at the park. As you approach Hilo from Kaumana Caves, Hwy 200 becomes variously called Kaumana Drive, then Waianuenue Avenue.

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 7) Take Hwy 200 into Hilo Town.

Hilo Town

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts. In can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Liliuokalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains, or the rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches with lovely beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly, achingly-lovely spots on earth.

Hilo's Charming Bayfront Shops: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hilo's Charming Bayfront Shops: Photo by Donald MacGowan

More laid back and sleepier than bustling Kailua Kona, Hilo is the largest town on the island, and the county seat. The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Tsunami Museum, Lyman House Missionary Museum and the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo are all wonderful places to learn about various aspects of Hawaii. There are numerous shopping districts, two large malls and the Historic Old Hilo downtown shops to browse through, a variety of sprawling green parks, a fabulous tropical arboretum right downtown and a mile-long black-sand beach fronting the bay to explore. Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is a “must see” for any visitor who is spending time on this side of the island.

Mauna Kea's Summit  from Highway 19 Near Waimea Town: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea's Summit from Highway 19 Near Waimea Town: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 8) Return Waianuenue Avenue to Kaumana Drive to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 west to jct with Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 west to Kailua Kona.

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan


Advertisements

Aloha! I’m Donnie MacGowan and I live on the Big Island of Hawaii. Today, I’d like to take you to the top of Mauna Kea. At 13, 796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea’s summit is the highest point in the State of Hawaii; since its base lies at 19000 feet below sea level, its has a base-to-summit height of 33,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain on earth. It’s also one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mauna Kea began forming on the sea floor about one million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is snowcapped much of the winter, and the summit is covered with permafrost 35 feet deep. During the ice ages, Mauna Kea’s summit was glaciated 3 times, starting about 200000 years ago and ending only 11000 years ago. One can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, striated bedrock, glacial tills covering the summit area and remnants of ice-damned lava flows from those times. There are even the remains of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.

The Visitor’s Information Station and summit are reached via a road which turns off Saddle Road at about 6600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and tortuously stumbles its way up the south side of Mauna Kea to the Visitor Information Station at about 9300 feet. The road, though steep, is paved to the Visitor’s Information Station.  Above that, the road is graded dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt paving for the final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit road are available at 808.935.6263.

The Visitor Information Station is open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. 365 days a year. Informational multimedia presentations, souvenirs, and some food items are available here, as well as clean restrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark the center allows visitors to stargaze through several telescopes and informational talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Saturday and Sunday the staff lead escorted summit field trips, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that summit-bound visitors stop at the Visitor’s Information Station for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimate. The rangers there can help you decide if you and your vehicle are fit for the trip to the summit.

A wonderful, easy road trip that includes a visit to the summit of Mauna Kea can be made a memorable part of any visit to the Big Island.  Directions for a 1-day scenic drive from Kailua Kona to the top of Mauna Kea and on to Hilo (with stops along the way) can be found here.  More information on the summit drive and hike is available here; information about the Hawaiian mythology surrounding Mauna Kea can be found here.

Produced by Donnie MacGowan; original musical score written and performed by Donald B. MacGowan; videography by Donnie MacGowan and Frank Burgess.

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general, or touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information about the author can be found here.

A River of Lava Flows Down The Pali Toward The Ocean Entry at Waikupanaha, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Big Island Air

A River of Lava Flows Down The Pali Toward The Ocean Entry at Waikupanaha, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Big Island Air

Whether you visit the Big Island for a few days, a couple weeks or a few months, you want to make the most of your time in Paradise.  With such a wide variety of natural and commercial attractions, it is natural for the visitor to get a little overwhelmed in the “Option Overload” and not be able to make a balanced and informed decision on what they want to do and how best to spend their time.

Glow From the Vent in Halema'uma'u, Kilauea Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Donnie MacGowan August 2008

Glow From the Vent in Halema'uma'u, Kilauea Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Donnie MacGowan August 2008

Even choosing what activities you want to participate in…do you want to snorkel, hike, go on a whale watching tour?  We highly recommend you go hiking on your visit…but where do you go?  Many of the justly famous mountains, canyons and beaches of Hawaii all have superlative hikes, but which are best?  Which suit your interests?  Are you looking for an experience that is away from crowds, secluded and empty or one that’s exciting, but perhaps a little more tame?  Do you want to hike near your resort or find one that’s at the end of a day of delicious wandering?  Do you have the hankering to climb Hawaii’s highest peak, and the world’s highest peak from base to summit?  How about a stroll through dryland forest, over ancient lava fields to a wilderness beach? And what about hiking to the Lava…is that really safe?  Is it as unimaginably magical as it sounds?

Ranked in order, with the best on top, are our picks of the finest hikes on the Island of Hawaii.  We’ve tried to strike a balance in ranking these places since each is a gem in its own right, we’ve had to leave off many that are equally fine in their own right and of course, recommending some means that their popularity will increase and hence, they will become more crowded.  This list at least provides an excellent starting point for deciding where you want to spend you trail time.  When you arrive we ask that you treat these special places, and the people who live near them, with care, respect and aloha.

Explosion Cloud of Littoral Explosion at the Waikupanaha Lava Ocean Entry, Big Island, Hawaii:  Photo by Donad B. MacGowan

Explosion Cloud of Littoral Explosion at the Waikupanaha Lava Ocean Entry, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Lava Viewing at Waikupanaha Ocean Entry: This is truly the one “Must-See” trip for every visitor to Hawaii Island; the unimaginable spectacle and beauty of the earth remaking herself thorough volcanic eruption.  Explosions, glowing and flowing lava, waterspouts. lightening and every kind of geological excitement you can imagine, located at the end of an extremely short hike along a trail that is accessible to almost everyone.  See a video here.

Littoral Explosions as Lava Enters the Ocean Near Royal Gardens: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Littoral Explosions as Lava Enters the Ocean Near Royal Gardens: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: An amazing, wonderful walk through lovely fern and ohi’a forest down the sides and onto the still-steaming floor of an enormous volcanic crater that was, only a few short decades ago, the hellish cauldron of a frothing, liquid lava lake of fire. A fascinating, 4 mile/2 ½ hour loop hike of only moderate difficulty, most people in only fair shape can easily complete it in a couple hours. See a video here.

The Beautiful Green Sand Beach at South Point of the Island of Hawaii is Reached by an Easy 2 1/4 Mile Hike: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Beautiful Green Sand Beach at South Point of the Island of Hawaii is Reached by an Easy 2 1/4 Mile Hike: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Mahana Green Sand Beach at South Point: One of a handful of true green sand beaches in the world, the Mahana Green Sand Beach near South Point is not to be missed.  Beautiful, haunting, intriguing. Although the hike is 2 ¼ miles each way, the trail is relatively flat and easily followed. Swimming and snorkeling in the bay is fabulously weird due to the water color, just be wary of currents out from the mouth of the bay.

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

Mauna Kea Summit: Whether you struggle up the 6-mile climb from the Visitor’s Information Station, or take the 20 minute short hop hike from the end of the road, visiting the summit of Mauna Kea should be on every visitor’s wish list of things to do.  Simultaneously the highest point in the state of Hawaii and the tallest mountain from base to summit on earth, Mauna Kea is an otherworldly, unique, starkly beautiful place.  The hiker is reminded to be wary of changeable weather, severe snow storms that can strand you, altitude sickness, dehydration and sunburn. See a video here.

Makalawena Beach: Perhaps the loveliest beach in Polynesia, Makalawena is the perfect sand crescent, beach backed by palms and iron wood trees with morning-glory-draped sand dunes.  A easy mile hike in from Kekaha Kai State Park keeps this beach uncrowded. Snorkeling here is better than perfect, camping here is so wonderful we don’t know why it’s not mandatory.

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makalawena Beach in Kekahai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makalawena Beach in Kekahai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Captain Cook Monument on Kealakekua Bay:  Accessed by a steep trail this 2.5-mile hike takes about 1-1 1/2 hours to descend, somewhat more time to come back up.  The snorkeling at the monument is second to none and the hike is a fabulous walk back in time, through fruit groves, cattle pastures, lava flows and an abandoned Hawaiian village.  Take water, a lot of water, there is none to drink anywhere along the trail or at the bay, once you are there or on the all-uphill hike out. See a video here.

The Captain James Cook Monument at Ka'awaloa Village in Kealakekua: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Captain James Cook Monument at Ka'awaloa Village in Kealakekua: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Waipi’o Valley: An amazing hike into the Waipi’o fastness, down a steep narrow road to the largest black sand beach on the island.  If vast open spaces, scenery, wild tropical flowers, waterfalls and amazing beaches are your thing, this is your hike.  Once on the valley floor, exploring along the beach or farther on to subsequent valleys can take hours, or days, depending on your level of energy and interest.

Waipi'o Valley on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Waipi'o Valley on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Honomalino Beach: Starting in the Old Hawaiian Fishing Village of Miloli’i, the hike wanders along the coast in and out of the surf line to the wild and untamed Honomalino Bay—a wonderful place to picnic, snorkel or kayak. Exploring on foot in the area of the bay provides many wonders and archeological treasures, from abandoned temples and villages to the largest holua, or sledding track, in Hawaii. Remember to respect the Hawaiian natives, their culture and their sacred sites.

A Small House on Honomalino Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

A Small House on Honomalino Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general or exploring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information about the author can be found here.

Lava from Kilauea Enters the Sea at Waikupanahu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lava from Kilauea Enters the Sea at Waikupanahu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan, except where otherwise noted.

THIS POST HAS BEEN SUBSTANTIALLY UPDATED AND EXPANDED…PLEASE GO HERE.

Trip 5: Kona to Mauna Kea, Kaumana Cave and Hilo via the Saddle Road

Approximate minimum time start to finish (to see every site): 12 hours

From 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, passes through ranch lands and the Pohakuloa Military Training Facility, for another 45 minutes, to the turn for Mauna Kea Access Road (John Burns Way). Nearby, Kipuka Huluhulu, or “shaggy hill”, is a 20 minute hike to the top and back. From here it is a 30 minute drive to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center. The small village is home to scientists and astronomers that work in the observatories and an amazing place to learn what their research tells us about our universe. Returning to Hwy 200, drive 45 minutes to the amazing Kaumana Cave lava tube, a short hike and a wonderful exploration.  A further 30 minutes down Hwy 200 brings one to downtown Hilo, where there are shops, restaurants, fine museums, gorgeous waterfront beach parks and a fabulous Farmers Market.  From Hilo, it is approximately three hours to return to Kailua Kona over Hwy 200; alternately one can take the faster though less scenic Hwy 19 to Waimea and then Hwy 190 into Kailua Kona, about a 2 1/2 hour drive.

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 1) In Kailua Kona, start at Ahu’ena Heiau; take Palani Road east to Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 to jct with Hwy 200, The Saddle Road

Ahu’ena Heiau and Kamakahonu Beach

Centuries ago the inhabitants of this region built a series of sacred temples, or heiaus, which were originally used for the purpose of sacrificing human beings to their war god, Kuka’ilimoku.  This particular archeological site is called Ahu’ena Heiau, which in Hawaiian means “Hill of Fire”.

Built originally in the 15th century and rededicated by Kamehameha the Great in the early 1800s as the main temple of his capital, the current structures seen at Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built in 1975 under the auspices of the Bishop Museum with financial help from the Hotel King Kamehameha and are constructed to 1/3 the original scale. There are restrooms and showers located on the pier near the beach. Adjacent Old Kailua Town is a treasure of shops, restaurants and aloha.

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hualalai Volcano from Saddle Road, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 2) Take Hwy 200, The Saddle Road, east to jct with John Burns Way (also called Mauna Kea Access Road).

Saddle Road

Crossing the spectacular saddle between the towering bulk of the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at about 6600 feet, The Saddle Road runs through brush, grass and forest lands, over lava fields and through some of the wildest and most breath-taking scenery on the Island.   From this roadway, four of the 5 principal volcanoes that form The Big Island may be seen: Hualalai, Kohala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Because the western half of the road is in notoriously poor condition and consists, in reality, of only one operable lane for much of its descent from the saddle to the Mamalahoa Highway.

However, this road provides the only road access to the Mauna Kea Summit Area and Visitor Information Center, Mauna Kea State Park, Pohakuloa Training Area, Mauna Kea Astronomical Observatory Complex, Waikii Ranch and the Kilohana Girl Scout Camp.  The Saddle Road also provides the only access to thousands of acres of public forest and open grass lands.  Connecting Hilo from about milepost 7.8 on the Hawai’i Belt Road to the Mamalahoa Highway approximately 6 miles south of Waimea, the Saddle Road is widely used by island residents for cross-island travel, despite its somewhat poor condition and undeserved, evil reputation.

The Saddle Road frequently has perfect weather, but also fairly routine are patches of intense rain, fog and high winds.  It’s takes about 2 ½ to 3 hours straight driving time, depending upon weather, to make the full traverse from Kailua Kona to Hilo; however, one should be sure to leave time in the schedule to drive up to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station or hike the Pu’u Huluhulu nature trails.

Along its entire 53 mile length between the turn-off from the highway just 6 miles west of Waimea and where it meets Hawaii Belt Road just north of Hilo, there is no gas and there are no services available; plan accordingly.  Some food, water and restrooms may be available at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station which is a 30 minute drive up a side road off the Saddle Road about half way.

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kipuka Huluhulu from Saddle Road: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 3) Off a Spur road at the jct of John Burns Way and Hwy 200, on the south side, is Kipuka Huluhulu (“Shaggy Hill”) Nene Sanctuary.

Pu’u Huluhulu Nature Trails/Kipuka Aina Hou

Frequently described as simultaneously the most noticeable and the most overlooked landmark along the Saddle Road, Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu rises more than 200 feet out of the surrounding lava flows.  It’s name meaning “furry hill”, this forested cinder cone has multiple trails winding up through rare native koa trees to breathtaking 360° views of Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at the top, where you can also wander a meadow of native Hawaiian plants recently reintroduced in this protected natural habitat.  By whatever trail, the summit of Kipuka Huluhulu is only about 20 minutes walk from the car.

Owing to the encapsulated nature of the kipuka, bird watching here is particularly fabulous; the Ā’akepa, Nene and the Ā’akiapola Ā’au, as well as the Kalij pheasants, pueo, i’o and turkeys are among the rare, endangered or just plain beautiful birds you will see here. The numerous roads and trails through the hundreds of square miles of adjacent lava flows makes for interesting, if hot and dry, mountain biking and hiking.

Parking and a unisex pit toilet are the only amenities available at Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu.

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Mauna Kea From Kipuka Huluhulu Nene Sanctuary: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Leg 4) Go north on John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.


Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station

The Visitor Information Station is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the day there are interactive computer exhibits about Mauna Kea, the observatories and astronomical research, plus there are video presentations and nature trails to hike. Many evenings after dark National Park personnel and astronomers put on public programs and discuss what the latest astronomical findings tell us about the nature of our universe. The souvenir shop has some food items, including hot chocolate, coffee and hot soup, for sale.

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

Leg 5) John Burns Way to Mauna Kea Summit

Mauna Kea Summit

Before you decide to go to the summit of Mauna Kea, stop, think, plan.  Are you prepared for cold and high altitude?  Do you understand the nature and dangers of altitude sickness and UV radiation?  Are you experienced at traveling icy dirt roads?  Is you car safe for the trip (many car rental agencies on the island forbid you to drive this road)? The Rangers at the Visitor’s center can brief you on altitude sickness, UV radiation preparedness, the condition of the road and all other information you need to decide whether to visit the summit (see a video here).

The summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place. Beautiful, awe-inspiring, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island, the summit is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians and is home to several, world-class astronomical observatories and their support buildings.  Because of the extremity of the altitude and the poor quality of the road above the Visitor’s Center, it is advised that extreme caution be exercised in deciding to visit Mauna Kea’s Summit.  From the road’s end very near the summit, a short, 10 minute trail leads up Pu’u Weiku cinder cone to the actual mountain top and a Hawaiian religious shrine.  Also near the summit is the 1-mile hike to Lake Waiau, the 7th highest lake in the US, as well as numerous archeological sites.  Moving at altitude is strenuous, so conserve energy. Do not over-tax yourself,  be sure to drink plenty of fluids and protect yourself from the sun, wind and cold. Leave the summit area and return to the paved road long before you are tired.

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kaumana Cave, Hilo Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 6) Return John Burns Way to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 east to Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves

A skylight opening to 25-mile long Kaumana Cave is located at the county park near the 4-mile marker on the Hilo side of the Saddle Road.  Concrete stairs take you down through the rain forest jungle to the bottom of a collapse pit forming two entrances to the cave.  Most people are drawn to the entrance on the right, a large, opening leading to cavernous rooms.  In this entrance, graffiti from hundreds of years ago to the present is preserved, scratched into the rocks.   The entrance on the left, however, is more interesting, leading through squeezes and low spots to numerous rooms with fascinating speleo-architecture and cave formations.  Both caves go to true dark in fewer than 300 feet in either direction.  There are more than 2 miles of easily accessible, wild cave to explore here, but if you intend more than just a cursory inspection near the entrances, bring a hard hat, water and at least 3 sources of light.  A quick tour of the caves takes fewer than 20 minutes.

Parking for the caves is located across the highway from the park; extreme care should be taken when crossing he road.  Public restrooms, water and picnic tables are available at the park.  As you approach Hilo from Kaumana Caves, Hwy 200 becomes variously called Kaumana Drive, then Wainuenue Avenue.

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Astronomical Observatories on the Summit of Mauna Kea, From Downtown Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Leg 7) Take Hwy 200 into Hilo Town.

Hilo Town

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts. In can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Lilioukalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains, or the rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches with lovely beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly, achingly-lovely spots on earth.

More laid back and sleepier than bustling Kailua Kona, Hilo is the largest town on the island, and the county seat.  The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Tsunami Museum, Lyman House Missionary Museum and the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo are all wonderful places to learn about various aspects of Hawaii. There are numerous shopping districts, two large malls and the Historic Old Hilo downtown shops to browse through, a variety of sprawling green parks, a fabulous tropical arboretum right downtown and a mile-long black-sand beach fronting the bay to explore.  Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is a “must see” for any visitor who is spending time on this side of the island.

Leg 8) Return Wainuenue Avenue to Kaumana Drive to Hwy 200; take Hwy 200 west to jct with Hwy 190; take Hwy 190 west to Kailua Kona.

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Trogdor at Keauhou Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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