HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Back in the Saddle Again

By Kelly Moran

Back in the Saddle Again

          As the crow flies (or as it would fly, if we had crows here, which we don’t), Hilo is about 80 miles from Kailua-Kona.  So you’d think, on an island this big, somebody would build a road from east to west along the shortest possible route.  And indeed, somebody did; but it’s never been a shortcut.

          In 1942, the U.S. Army needed a lot of space to practice target-shooting – somewhere with no population – and they picked the relatively barren lava fields of Pohakuloa, in the saddle-shaped valley between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  To get their troops and tanks and canons in and out, they hastily built a road westward from Hilo, up to their training grounds; and continuing on, through the Parker Ranch, terminating at the “old” Mamalahoa Highway (now called Rte. 190), the mauka road connecting Waimea with Kona.

          The Army “brass” took no chances – after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they realized that enemy bombing could easily destroy a wide, straight highway.  So they built the 53-mile road very narrow, with many tight turns.  It was never attacked, but it was heavily used by heavy equipment, and after the war – even after Statehood, when it became State Rte. 200 – it was never maintained to decent standards.

          Mauna Kea State Park was built on the Saddle Road; and so were access-roads to the summit of Mauna Kea, and to the NOAA weather station on Mauna Loa.  But there are still no rest-stops, gas stations, or restaurants; and quite a few miles are still “dead zones” with no cell phone service. That’s why rental-car agencies forbid customers from driving the Saddle in any but four-wheel-drive vehicles.


Several warning signs are posted at the point where pavement stops and the road narrows.
Several warning signs are posted at the point where pavement stops and the road narrows.

          But there have been improvements, and more are coming.  A new center section has just opened between milepost 19 and milepost 41, with two broad asphalt lanes, 45-55 mph speed limits, and a couple of extra-lane uphill passing zones.  On the Hilo side, the first 19 miles have been widened and repaved, although the route still follows the Army’s original curves and twists.  The twelve-mile western section, however, remains simply awful!  It’s extremely narrow, with soft shoulders and one-lane bridges, and many blind curves – some of them right at the crest of a hill.

(May 2007) New Saddle Road Dedicated - First Section Opens Linking Mauna Kea State Park and Mauna Kea Access Road
(May 2007) New Saddle Road Dedicated – First Section Opens Linking Mauna Kea State Park and Mauna Kea Access Road

          The next phase of improvement, in 2010-11, will straighten out the Hilo side.  The Kona side is still in the design-stage: the Army, Parker Ranch and the State are talking about a new right-of-way that will angle south, and meet Rte. 190 at the Waikoloa intersection.

          Until that is built, however, take the Saddle Road only if you want to try out the new segment or see the sights (about which, I’ll write more in my next blog).  It is shorter – in mileage – than going through Waimea, but it will not save you any time: driving from Hilo to Kona still takes two hours, no matter how you go.

3 Replies to “HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Back in the Saddle Again”

  1. Have heard horror stories about the Saddle Rd., but I’ve driven the rockies and old rte 66. It is good to read a reasoned and objective report. thank you.

    1. Hi Hazel,
      The road up Mauna Kea starts on the Saddle Road, and the intersection is well marked.

      Prospective visitors to Mauna Kea should be aware that, although any vehicle can drive the paved road to the 9,000-foot visitors’ center, the road from there to the summit (at 13,900 feet) is unpaved, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is required. The visitors’ center has exhibits about the mountain’s natural and cultural history, as well as its place in astronomical research.

      Anyone en route to the summit should initially stay a whole hour there, at 9,000 feet, to get used to the altitude.

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