Hawaii Road Trip: The Big Island’s Saddle Road and Mauna Kea

Photo by Mozul, from Creative Commons

Photo by Mozul, from Creative Commons

The spiritual and geographic center of the Big Island, Mauna Kea reaches a staggering 13796 feet into the sky (though serious scientists like to remind up that we actually measure mountains like this from below the ocean floor, which by that measure makes this the world’s tallest mountain). This desolate mountain houses endemic plants, the world’s largest collection of telescopes at the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, and the jaw-dropping alpine Lake Waiau.

In Hilo gas up and bring plenty of water, food, sun block and warm clothes, as the average temperature at the visitor center (9000 feet in the air) is 30 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll want to make sure that you did not go diving within twenty-four hours; and those of you who want to drive to the summit need a 4WD.

Take Saddle Road for 32 miles (this will take an hour) to the Mauna Kea Access Road. Continue for six miles to the Onizuka Visitor Information Center. Stop here to learn about the volcano, hiking trails (though if you are hiking remember that the air up here is thin and altitude sickness is very common), and to experience their evening stargazing program—one of the best things to do on the island, especially since it is clear up here almost year round. Besides a nightly view of the celestial world, there are star parties, meteor extravaganzas and even music on select nights.

To continue up to the summit for the last eight miles (most of which is unpaved and requires a 4WD), you can join a caravan tour from the visitor center, or brave this road yourself. Without stops, it takes about a half hour to reach the summit. Know that the air is particularly thin up here and altitude sickness is almost a requirement for visitors. Hiking can be challenging for even the most fit individuals. Pregnant women, young people under the age of 16, and those with respiratory difficulties are not allowed. Hawaii Forest & Trail offers decent summit tours.

At mile marker 6 is the turn off to Keanakako’i, an ancient quarry and the trailhead to Lake Waiau, about an hour hike each way. In the summit area, you can enter the WM Keck Observatory visitor gallery for a warmer view of this moonscape world. In January and February, you may notice people skiing on the brief appearance of snow that appears. It’s more a novelty than anything else as there are no true slopes or services. After you descend the mountain, it is possible to take Saddle Road to the Kohala Coast (it takes about an hour and change once you reach Saddle Road).

For more information on Hawaii travel, order a copy of my new Backroads and Byways of Hawaii.

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