One last adventure, shall we? Up through Kona, you head east on Palini Road and it will turn into Route 190. We’ve been to the end of the world a few times. Now how about we head to the top of it?
Following route 190, we’ll be heading northeast along volcanic ridges and through cattle country. I think the views and perspective are worth the drive alone, a “long cut” towards the northern end of the island. You are a couple thousand feet up, sort of paralleling Route 19. The land and sea just spreads out underneath you as you cross over fairly recent lava flows (from the 1800’s). Instead of following it through to Waimea, though, we’ll be taking a hard right onto route 200, the Saddle Road.
–but wait a second. About five miles before the 200 turn off is Waikoloa Road. It is just a neat drive, as you wind down the mountain side to the sea and the resort area. There are some lengths of road that literally snake down the side of the mountain, offering spectacular views. If you get the chance: drive down it. But back to the saddle and the last adventure–
When I make the turn onto Route 200 is where I have to fight for control of the radio. And typically lose, but I do try. Am I the only that feels that life has a soundtrack to it? That certain moments and places demand background music? When you make the turn onto the Saddle Road, you have to play Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” You just have to.
You don’t have to fear the reaper (baby, take my hand) and you also don’t have to fear the saddle.
On my first visit to the Big Island in 2011, I wrote a review of the Saddle Road, a highway that cuts across the interior of the island from Hilo in the east to join up again with the Hawaiian Belt Road in the west. It’s about 55 miles of some of the best driving you’ll ever do as you cross the “saddle” between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. In 2011, locals were still steering people away from the road and some rental some car agreements prohibited the use of their vehicles on this road. –it’s an outdated reputation.
Locals remember it as barely a road, rugged, with torturous twists and turns. It was first built in 1942, intended for military vehicles. With war underway, it was a rush job. That Saddle Road should have been feared, but it has changed a lot. Today, it is a commuter route for locals between Kona and Hilo.
The first third, as you travel east up towards the saddle, reminded me of a back country drive mated with a kiddie roller coaster. There are plenty of hills and blind gullies to keep things interesting as you make your way from dry lava scrub land to rolling green hills and plains. To make it even more interesting, there are one lane bridges throughout. Keep your eyes on the road and pay attention to those speed limit signs. You also have to keep your eyes open for oncoming traffic that tends to be in the center of the road.
The actual saddle portion of the road is now a full fledged highway with a “have at it” speed limit. The views are nothing short of epic as you slalom between the peaks, with the landscape changing and a misty ceiling above you. With the fog and mist, it can seem otherworldly as you crest the saddle at 6,578 feet.
The eastern portion of the road, going down towards Hilo, was under construction when I was there.
It was not fun. At all.
The road was in the process of being widened and paved. I was driving along gravel, through the rain (you are on the wet side of the island now), with no marked lanes or even center dividers. You are also traveling down from six-thousand feet, so some of the portions are steep. I would guess that by now it is all done (unless someone lost their shovel—Big Island joke) and your passengers will be able to enjoy fern covered forests and you won’t be white knuckling the steering wheel.
About midway through the saddle is the access road to Mauna Kea, and this sight should not be missed. But, well: bundle up? I thought the same thing when I was told as I got off the plane into the desert in July: I don’t have any “bundling up” clothes; I’m on a tropical island! I made do with what I had, throwing on the jeans, wind breaker and layers of t-shirts. Yeah, I was still cold. In July, the average low temperature is 46 degrees Fahrenheit, the high is 60.
From the saddle, you’ll travel up Mauna Kea Road to the visitor center at 9,200 feet. This is as far as I got. The road to the peak closes about a half hour before nightfall as it is too dangerous to drive in the dark. Not that the access road is much better. Four wheel drive is a must–the way down can burn out the breaks on two wheel drive cars. Also, at night, you have to be on the lookout for “invisible cows.” This is open range country, with black cows wandering freely.
With the cold, the somewhat dangerous drive, and the threat of invisible cows, why should you come here? The first thing that pops into my head is this: you can see the face of God. –and I’m not a very religious person.
The visitor center alone is worth the trip, and it is strongly advised that you stay for at least a half hour to acclimate to the altitude before continuing up the next 4,500 feet. The visitor center is in a large bowl surrounded by sweeping arms of the volcano. A hot cup of coffee warmed me up some, but then I went over to edge and looked down into a sea of rolling clouds and I forgot I was cold.
Despite the fact that we missed our last chance to make it up to the peak, I think that we got there at the perfect time, at dusk. The setting sun ignites the sea of clouds and then when darkness falls, a window into the universe opens above you. You can reach out and slide your hand through the Milky Way.
Light pollution is non-existent. We’re talking super high definition here. If you have ever been to a planetarium, or sky gazed anywhere else, it is like looking up through a cloudy, dirt smeared window compared to this. Don’t think of Windex and paper towels. Think taking out the window entirely, and the house surrounding it. There is simply a crispness to the view and air that I have never encountered before.
The peak of Mauna Kea is considered the pride of the astronomical community and is thought of as the best place in the world to view the heavens. Dozens of telescopes from around the world are up there or being built. The peak is 13,796 feet above sea level (with more than 17,000 feet below sea level to its base). It’s the largest mountain on earth–the rest of the world can shake a stick at that.
I tried getting someone to draw a comic for me here to illustrate this. You see the back of a little kid, all cool looking with spiked hair, shades, and a leather jacket with “Mt. Everest” emblazoned across it. Leaning down to look at him are two Hawaiian guys, one a little taller and muscular with a “Mauna Kea” t-shirt and the other fatter with a “Mauna Loa” t-shirt. The caption would be: “aww, ain’t he cute.”
From base to summit, Mt. Everest, the pride of the mountaineers, is a scrawny 20,029 feet (though to give credit where credit is due, Mt. Everest reaches the highest into the atmosphere). Mauna Kea is over 32,696 feet, with Mauna Loa, the neighboring peak, not far behind by about 32, 580 feet.
–Sorry, I’m getting all geological geeky again—
Though Mauna Kea is considered the tallest mountain on earth, Mauna Loa is not to be outdone and is considered the largest, with a mass and volume that measures about 18,000 cubic miles. That’s a lot of mountain! Some of the awesome drives that we took on Route 190 and the eastern and southern portions of the Hawaiian Belt Road, where we seem to riding along great volcanic ridges, with the views just spreading out underneath us? That is due to Mauna Loa. It is a shield volcano, and because of the way they build themselves, with more liquid lava flows, they build themselves in “sheets.”
But back to Mauna Kea, which literally means “white mountain.” You can ski. From November through April, snow can blanket the peak. One week this March (I think) I saw a news report that said the only blizzard occurring in the United States was in Hawai’i…and 30 miles away from a tropical resort.
If you do decide to head to the peak, as I will be doing my next time there, my advice is to read all the warnings in the guide books and at the visitor center. Altitude sickness is very real, and the change in elevation can make your adventure miserable if you are not prepared. Don’t even think about the peak after a day of scuba diving!
One warning I will pass on though that others might not think to tell you (or might not due to the “TMI” [too much information] factor : be careful of what you eat before coming to the top of the world. Stay away from anything like beans, cabbage and other “gaseous” foods. The change in elevation can do some interesting things to them while they are in your digestive track. Our trip down was, shall I say, very fragrant? Oh hell: we were farting up a storm for the next 12 hours, just ripping them left and right. And on that note…
That’s all I got.
The ride down was not that bad, though I was riding the brakes so much it did make me worry about the discs. No invisible cows made their appearance. The ride back to Kona was sleepy and uneventful. With the ladies passing out around me, and warmer climes settling in as I descended back into the desert, I was able to roll the window down and take control of the radio.
I always used to tease my wife, Tracy, about her Hawaiian-centric view of the world. From the beaches to the food to the people: she would complain that nothing is ever as good as it is in Hawai’i. Now, I understand.
The flight home will be just as miserable as the flight here, with the extra added bonus of losing six hours. When I get back, things seem a bit more dull, not as vibrant. A longing sets in and buries itself deep within my bones. Retirement?
A Final Word: it’s not the final word.
If you have been to the Big Island, or are from there, you are thinking of a two page list of places and things that I missed. I did not mean this series to be in any way complete. “Hawaii, The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook,” is considered the “bible” of Big Island guides, and I agree—it was of immense help in writing this, from helping me to spell names and check facts to jogging my memory of the places I did go and explore.
But I wasn’t trying to write a guide book. I’ve been to the Big Island twice, for a total of about 11-12 days. This series is from those brief visits, just a bit of an overview, to try and share this incredible place, so you, my reader, can either live vicariously through me, to maybe impart to you that longing in my bones, or to just give an overview so the place doesn’t overwhelm you when you get there.
Next up for me is to try and put this together with words and pictures into a coffee table book.
…and then make it back to the Big Island, to explore some more, discover more about it, meet some more of the people, and, the big fantasy (besides airplane seats made for normal sized people–fantasies get simpler as you get older) meet an orthodontist looking for a lab tech so I can seriously consider making a move before retirement.