The Big Island of Hawaii 4) Kohala & Saddle Road

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Flag of United States  , Hawaii
Friday, February 25, 2011

My final blog post on the Big Island covers the driest (less than 10 inches of rain a year) and oldest parts of the island -- the northwest and central regions.  

The Kohala coast is a popular destination for tourists, with a string of resorts built beside beaches a half hour and more north of Kona.  Many of the island's best resorts and golf courses are located on this dry sunny lava plain.  Most of my trips to the Big Island are centered around medical meetings which tend to be situated in Waikoloa so I'm most familiar with this part of the island.  Because the Big Island is a fairly new piece of land, beaches are limited and the best beaches -- Hapuna and Mauna Kea -- are located on the Kohala coast immediately adjoining several top notch resorts.  As always, beware of rough water and riptides when swimming or snorkeling here.  There's a great easy to reach group of petroglyphs close to the King's Shops, on the King's Trail.

There are a number of small charming towns on the Big Island, my favorite being Waimea.  Waimea is a pretty burg nestled around 2600' above sea level in the center of Parker Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States (at 225,000 acres, it at one time comprised 9% of the Big Island).  The town is situated on the saddle of Mauna Kea and Kohala volcanoes, at the transition between the wet and dry parts of the island, has a great climate with cool breezes and I think it would be a great place to live (it's also well above the tsunami danger zone).   To me it seems more like a town from Montana or Idaho than Hawaii.  Probably the finest restaurant on the Big Island, Merriman's, finds its home here. 

From Waimea head north along Kohala Mountain Road which takes you up the spine of the old, dormant Kohala volcano.  You'll pass herds of horses and cattle and see some beautiful ranch land.  On a clear day you might catch stunning views of Maui; the Kohala Mountain Road is a great place to watch the sunset.  This road ends in the the charming old sugar growing town of Hawi, which is worth exploring.   It has several huge old Banyon trees, gift and wood craft shops, and wonderful ice cream is available at Tropical Dreams with such great flavors as coconut, chocolate macadamia nut, and many more.
 
Head east to the small town of Kapaau which has features an old statue of King Kamehameha the Great (just like the one in front of the Judiciary Building in Honolulu).  There are also several nice gift shops in this town.  Head east beyond Kapaau to the end of the road, the Pololu Valley lookout, which offers good views of a classic Hawaiian valley.  If you're up to it, hike the trail 400 feet down to the black sand beach and explore some of this valley -- something I've done twice and really enjoyed.  The beach (beware of the strong undertow) and valley are quite isolated and give you a sense of the "real Hawaii" that so many people strive to find.  There are seven remote valleys from Pololu to Waipio (which is approached from the Hilo side) most of which can only be accessed on foot so this is a potential backpacking trip if you're game.
 
As you head south from the northwest coast, drive the coastal road and stop at Lapakahi State Historic Park which features a reconstructed traditional coastal Hawaiian village.  There's an easy trail that takes you through this village and along the coast which is worth the effort.  Another very worthwhile stop is the Pu'ukohola Heiau, a massive stone temple built by King Kamehameha in 1790, located at the junction of Hwys 19 and 270.  The Heiau has nice visitor center with traditional weapons display.

One of the great drives in America is Saddle Road, which crosses between the dry and wet sides of the island across the broad lava flow and saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the world's largest and tallest mountains respectively (base of Mauna Kea is 19000' below sea level; the part above ocean is 13796' high).  The drive is best done on a clear day, especially in the morning as it often clouds over in the afternoon.  It's a windy road but of good quality, although not all rental companies let you take your cars across it (check with your company before you try it).  It's fun to see the changing vegetation as you climb the mountain, pastureland and patchy forest on the west and rain-forest on the island's wet east side, and desert vegetation on the saddle. 

Saddle Road provides access to Mauna Kea, it's visitor center and world famous Observatory. The peak of Mauna Kea is one of the finest places on the planet from which to observe the stars.  It's dry and clear with great air quality and fantastic views and can be only be accessed by four wheel drive vehicles (or on foot).  As it's at high altitude you'll need a warm jacket when visiting here (during our last trip the road to the peak was closed due to heavy snow).  The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is located at 9200' and is a good stopping point to help acclimatize visitors to the mountain.  It has videos and displays about the observatories, astronomy and the ecology of the mountain, and a small gift shop.  There's a large military base nearby and some dramatic lava flows from Mauna Loa (on which the Apollo astronauts trained for their moon landings).  At the turnoff to Mauna Kea from Saddle road sits Pu'u Huluhulu, a good place for a hike off road that offers lasting memories of views of the world's two greatest volcanoes.

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