Big Island – Drive through the island central high section


What? : The drive from Kona side of the island to the city of Hilo pass through the high section of the island and provide a unique landscape experience. Highway 200 pass between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Where? : Highway 200 from Hilo to Kona side.

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Due note 1: You can read in non-Up-To-Date websites that this road is considered to be the most dangerous road in the Hawaii state because it had many rough areas and unmaintained pavement. In the past, many car rental companies used to forbid use of their cars on Saddle Road.

Ever since they have built the new highway it is probably the best and safest road I drove on the island (Dec. 2021).


Due note 2: Saddle Road cuts through some of the best scenery on the Big Island, do not be afraid to drive it.


Due note 3: The highway experiences heavy traffic as it provides the shortest driving route from Hilo to Kailua-Kona.


Due note 4: The area is remote and there are no facilities along the way, so if your car breaks down or you run out of gas you will need to ask for help.


Due note 5: Heavy mist, fog, low clouds, as also rain is common in this area. This is especially on the east side of the road near Hilo where the west side after passing the saddle is much drier. Drive according to weather and visibility conditions.

Due note 6: At many of the uphill sections you have today 2 lenses enable you to safely pass slow traffic and tracks. Wait in patient for those passing sections and do not pass where it is not allowed. As I saw it looks like that the new road has adequate shoulders the whole way.


Due note 7: I saw that some websites say to avoid driving here at night, I must say I disagree, we drove here at night with deep fog and rain, the road is providing excellent night marking without any sharp or dangerous carves. Simply, as in any other fog conditions driving, drive slowly, keep safe distance, and follow the road markers.


Due note 8: There are portions of the road with no cell service, though call boxes have been placed along the highway.


Due note 9: If you are planning to stop or hike along the road or even drive to the high Mauna Kea Summit Road bring warm winter cloth, this is above 6,000 feet elevation and it is much colder and windier than at sea level.

My thoughts: We used this road 3 times on our trips from our hotel (kona side) to the east side of the island, Hilo, Volcano NP, and waterfalls states pars. The road is in excellent driving conditions and provide interesting and different landscape as you climb up to the highest pass at elevation of 2,000 m.

The Drive:

Route 200, known locally as Saddle Road, traverses over 52 miles (1 hour drive) the width section of the Big Island, from downtown Hilo to its junction with Hawaii Route 190 near Waimea.


Saddle Road got its name from the section of the highway that passes between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. This “saddle” flat basalt lava flow section near mile mark 28 and it at 6,632 ft (2,021m) above sea level.

Two roads intersect Saddle Road at this location, the Mauna Loa Observatory Road to the south, and the Mauna Kea Summit Road to the north.


Built as a one-lane road by the U.S. Army in 1942, The road was considered for many years one of the most dangerous paved roads in the state, but since 1992 most of the road has now been repaved and rebuild to high standards.



The view from the road:

This is passing through highly diverse landscape, from the city of Hilo and the rain forest, the forests starting to get smaller as you climb the road, at some point dried lava flows cover the landscape.

At the highest point the landscape looks like a desert of endless flat black lava fields in all directions where the huge mountains are on both north and south sides (assume they are not covered with fog or clouds). When you keep driving west and down to the other side of the saddle soon you will get into rolling pasturelands with only few trees.

Along the road you can see many stopping points for viewpoints or trailheads lead to hiking trails.

Also along the route are roads leading to the mountaintops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as the largest military training and airfield.


Two roads intersect Saddle Road close to Puʻu Huluhulu crater, near mile 28, the Mauna Loa Observatory Road to the south, and the Mauna Kea Summit Road to the north.

We went north and drove the road leading to Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Astronomer's Mid-Level Facility.

The road start with a series of climbs through volcano cones landscape, after driving for 6 miles in this interesting open landscape you will each the facility. When we visit here (Dec. 2021) the road to the top of the mountain was close at this point because of a snowstorm above this elevation.

The visitor center (we did not go inside, there are restrooms) is at 9,200ft (2,800m) and the summit is 13,796ft (4,205m).

When fog or clouds cover the road there is not so much point to drive this road, you do not have any view to see. We came at a rainy winter day, and it was partly foggy, so we manage to enjoy the view on our way up but coming down a cloud completely covered the view.

It is advised to always drive this road with your headlights on.

The Drive to the Mauna Kea Summit:

We did not hike or 4x4 drive the road to the summit so I can’t provide any information on that.

At winter the mountain summit is covered by deep snow and road may be close. If you are planning to hike/drive up all the way to the summit check in advance (no cell reception at the highway).

Things that you should know:

At 14,000 feet high altitude sickness is a strong possibility.  At that high altitude there is 40% less oxygen available than at sea level.  Anyone in poor health should consult their physician before planning a visit to Maunakea. They do not recommend anyone who is pregnant, poor health, heart, or respiratory problem, under the age of 13 should not go any further than the visitor center.

Driving from VIS to Summit:

2-wheel drive vehicles are not permitted above the Visitor Information Station.

A 4-wheel drive vehicle with Low Range is mandatory.  Beyond the visitor station, the pavement ends, and the next 4 and a half miles are a steep graded-gravel road.  You should check with your rental car company to see if you are allowed to travel on Maunakea.

Hiking from VIS to Summit:

The average round-trip time is at least 8 hours, more if you spend time at the summit. It’s dangerous to get caught on the trail at sunset, don’t expect to have enough daylight to complete the hike unless you leave early enough.  Be aware that the sun sets earlier in the winter.


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