HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The Road Less Traveled By

By Kelly Moran

The Road Less Traveled By

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by.”

Of course, Robert Frost wasn’t waxing poetic about the Saddle Road. But most people heading from one side of the Big Island to the other take Highways 19 or 11, so there’s relatively little traffic over the Saddle. If you’re willing to put up with the lousy condition of the westernmost twelve miles (as noted in my last blog), there’s enough to see to make it worth the journey. At the very least, the trip will help you understand some of the challenges – still unresolved – that the road poses to Hawaii County.

Start at the zero milepost in Hilo, at the intersection of Puainako St. and Kanoelehua Ave., across from the Prince Kuhio shopping mall. Puainako dog-legs at Komohana and becomes a wide, modern thoroughfare known as the “Puainako extension” – which some day will be fully extended, back toward the mall, parallel to today’s Puainako St.

The road heads steadily uphill, bypassing Hilo’s mauka suburbs, and joins Kaumana Drive after about six miles. The last houses in Hilo are at the eight-mile post.

The next ten miles or so wind, twist and turn through a forest reserve, deeply green with ohia and koa trees, and tall hapu’u tree-ferns. But the vegetation thins out as you gain elevation, until bare lava – including one flow from Mauna Loa that nearly reached Hilo in 1983! – becomes the dominant feature of the landscape.

But at the 19-milepost, a true highway begins, newly completed, with an uphill passing lane, wide shoulders and solar-powered emergency phones every mile or so. The access roads north to Mauna Kea and south to Mauna Loa branch off from this new section too, on either side of a thickly-wooded kipuka: a high piece of land, untouched by lava that flowed around it, and so leaving its older, dense vegetation intact.

(To remember the word, recall that a puka shell has a hole in the middle).

Continuing westward, you might think you’re in the desert Southwest of North America, because it’s a dry, rocky, nearly treeless stretch of scrub-brush, including the highly invasive and fire-prone exotic “gorse” weed.

About 35 miles out from Hilo, consider stopping and picnicking at the highest point on the Saddle Road: Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, elevation 6,500 feet, where there’s drinking water and toilets. You can reserve overnight cabins there, too; call the State parks office at 808-587-0300 for more information (or go to:


Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea


Don’t be surprised if you see military vehicles and soldiers in uniform on the next six miles of highway, as you skirt the edge of the U.S. Army’s Pohakuloa training grounds. The Army has used a huge tract of land to the south, toward Mauna Loa and Hualalai, for target practice since World War II, so it’s littered with metal fragments and unexploded ordnance, including some radioactive shells from the 1950s. Civilian efforts to get the Army to clean up the area have not been successful.


This part of the road (showing a concrete tank crossing) were bypassed in May 2007 by the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment.
This part of the road (showing a concrete tank crossing) was bypassed in May 2007 by the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment.


Unfortunately, that isolates the Ahu a Umi (the “mounds” of Umi), an ancient Hawaiian ceremonial site which can not be reached from the Saddle Road. Umi was first known king of the whole island. In the 9th century A.D., he held court once a year on a plateau in the Saddle where, by a trick-of-the-eye, tall Mauna Kea, enormous Mauna Loa, and the much smaller Hualalai, all appear to be about the same size. There, in the symbolic center of his realm, Umi built a heiau (temple) where he received his annual taxes and tribute, in the form of agricultural produce, animals, feathers and other decorative objects and religious tokens. His priests – having no written language – enumerated everything by mounding up rocks; and those stone cairns are, of course, all that remain today. But because Pohakuloa is too dangerous to cross, the only access is from mauka Kona, over private property, and the mounds can be visited only by professional archeologists and historians.

Ahu a Umi (the "mounds" of Umi)
Ahu a Umi (the “mounds” of Umi)

If Ahu a Umi were open to the public, it would be an intriguing and important visitor attraction, for it is hundreds of years older than the giant Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historical Site, near Kawaihae, and the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (“City of Refuge”) National Historical Park in Kona.

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