Hawaii Highways road photos -- (Ala Mauna) Saddle Road

(Big Island part 1 of 6 -- other Big Island parts: Observatories Roads ·
Lava Closures · Red Road · Waipio Valley · Other Big Island)

Here are about a dozen photos of what is now called Ala Mauna Saddle Road across Hawaii's Big Island, with links to other sites on this road through the Big Island's interior. The high-altitude side roads to the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa observatories, previously covered here, are now on a photos page of their own.

Note: This page has not caught up to the ongoing major improvements made to Saddle Road in the last few years. Some of the photos, particularly of now-bypassed portions of the highway through the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area, are now mainly of historical interest.

Ala Mauna Saddle Road (state/county route 200) is the closest thing to a cross-island highway on the Big Island. It is a famously bad and dangerous road despised by most rental car companies, which generally prohibit tourists from taking their vehicles on the road (Harper's, in Hilo and Kailua-Kona, is the most notable exception), making this highway perhaps the only paved state highway in the United States that is open to motor vehicles but off-limits to most rental cars. The road was built as a gravel road during World War II to provide access to an Army training area in the Big Island's interior, and also as an inland evacuation route if Japanese forces attacked the Big Island. The road was paved in 1949. At least the western ten miles feels like it hasn't been maintained or improved much since. However, it is an interesting road for intrepid travelers, with its close-up views of the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes and the lava fields covering the "saddle" between the two. It also takes travelers to side roads to the observatory complex on the Mauna Kea summit, and a weather observatory high on the north slope of Mauna Loa (which also is one of the two trailheads for the arduous hike to the Mauna Loa summit). Those side roads are the subject of a separate photos page, which follows this one.

The state is realigning and improving Ala Mauna Saddle Road (and perhaps ultimately will extend it to join state route 19 on the Big Island's west coast), which should make the road less "exciting," and more rental-car friendly, without diminishing the experience of driving through the stark landscapes of the Big Island's interior. These plans picked up speed after 9/11, when the Defense Department offered to pick up the entire tab for the part of the project realigning the road away from the Army base, to improve base security and reduce conflicts between civilian and military traffic. Construction on that phase of the road improvements is underway. The first new segment (on a new alignment between mile 28 and mile 35) opened in late May 2007, at which time Saddle Road was renamed Ala Mauna Saddle Road ("Ala Mauna" means "trail to the mountains"). The next phase of the project reconstructed the existing road between mile 19 and mile 28, and was completed in 2008. A later phase, between mile 35 and mile 42, reroute the rest of the highway passing through the Army base. Improvements between mile 6 and mile 19, and realignment of the highway west of mile 42, are in the works, and all the Saddle Road improvements could be completed by 2013. In addition, a recently-completed southern bypass of downtown Hilo makes it easier to get to and from Saddle Road's eastern end.

This page has received only minor updates since 2007. More material, including photos of new Saddle Road alignments, will be added later.

NOTE: In case you want more detail, clicking some of the photos below (for now, just some from my 2001 trip, and 2005 and 2007 photos from other contributors) will call up enlarged, higher-quality (less .jpg compression) versions. Those alternate versions have larger file sizes, so please be patient while they download.

Warnings: As shown in the photos below, some parts of Ala Mauna Saddle Road, including segments not yet bypassed, are very narrow with rough pavement edges, that make head-on collisions a real problem. Dense fog, as moist air rising upslope from the coast meets cold air rolling downslope from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, can make for dangerously low visibility. The road west of mile 41.5 is also not well reflectorized for night driving. The road had an accident rate 80% higher than the Hawaii average for two-lane rural highways, though the recently-opened bypasses of some of the worst sections hopefully will lower that statistic.

Most rental car companies prohibit taking their vehicles on this road (see above). Also, there are no travel services at all on Ala Mauna Saddle Road, so make sure to refuel in Hilo before heading west, or Waimea, Waikoloa, or Kailua-Kona before heading east (especially if you plan to take the side roads to the observatories on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa -- the high altitude can increase your fuel consumption quite a bit).

The Mauna Loa volcano south of Ala Mauna Saddle Road is active, though not currently erupting. An eruption could close the road, though such closures are improbable (the most recent lava flows in the corridor were more than 70 years ago), and there will be plenty of advance notice in any case. The Mauna Loa volcano is closely watched by the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, whose web site will have current information on any signs of trouble from Mauna Loa.

Map of Big Island, with pre-2007 Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment highlighted:
Map of Big Island, showing pre-2007 Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment

Wavy pavement on Ala Mauna Saddle Road east of Hilo Ala Mauna Saddle Road entering lava fields
Ala Mauna Saddle Road out of Hilo (pictured here near mile 15, facing eastbound) starts off curvy and somewhat narrow, but at least with smooth new pavement. However, the new pavement was laid over the old roadbed, so it still is rather wavy. Even the best parts of the old road, like this, are posted for only 35-45mph, though a recently-opened new segments are posted for 50-55mph. The slow safe speeds on much of this road take away some of its appeal as a shortcut between Kailua-Kona and Hilo, compared to the longer but faster state route 19. (May 2000)
At mile 22 out of Hilo, the since-improved westbound highway becomes a little straighter (but still wavy) as it emerges from the forest to pass through lava fields. Unlike the fresh flows prevalent in the Puna district southeast of Hilo, the lava here is more than a century old. (May 2000)
Koa Kipuka off old Ala Mauna Saddle Road Old Saddle Road alignment at Hamakua District boundary
Koa Kipuka, an island of vegetatation jutting out in the middle of a bleak lava field, off the old Ala Mauna Saddle Road just west of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea turnoffs (both just east of mile 28). Flows from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa met here to level out the saddle between the two volcanoes. (May 2000)
The Humuula Saddle (altitude 6670 feet), highest point on the highway, just east of the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area. This is where the old road turned narrow and rough (especially the pavement edges, damaged by heavy military vehicles using the road). The new bypass opened in May 2007 either improved or completely bypassed this part of the old highway. (October 1999)
The Army bids you farewell, crossing east over Humuula Saddle and out of its training area
Facing eastbound from the Humuula Saddle sign above, the speed limit increases as Ala Mauna Saddle Road (as it was before the May 2007 improvement/realignment of the road) leaves the Army training area. The Army's sign shows the versatility of the word "aloha," which means both "welcome" and "farewell" as well as a lot of other things. (October 1999)
Truck straddling center line of narrow Saddle Road through Army base Concrete tank crossing on Saddle Road
The old Saddle Road through the Army base, just east of one of the road's concrete tank crossings (shown at the bottom of the photo). The truck straddling the center line, to avoid the corrugated pavement edges, was all too common on the western half of Saddle Road. This part of the road, and the tank crossing shown in the next photo, were bypassed in May 2007 by the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment; no surprise that this old segment was the first to be bypassed. (May 2000)
A more complete view of another tank crossing on old Saddle Road, at mile 34.3. (November 2001)
Smooth pavement on the new Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment, westbound at the left turn lane just west of the Mauna Kea summit road turnoff
More smooth pavement at the west end of the new alignment, with right turn lane to the turnoff for Mauna Kea State Park These photos show both ends of the highway's much-improved new alignment, including reflectorized lane markings and shoulder rumble strips not on the old road. Above is the new road westbound near mile 28, at the Mauna Kea summit road turnoff, in May 2007. The other two were taken later that summer near mile 35, east of the Mauna Kea State Park turnoff, westbound (left) and eastbound (below). (All three photos courtesy Aaron Stene)
New Ala Mauna Saddle Road alignment facing eastbound, with reflectors embedded in the road and rumble strips on the shoulders
Looking east, Ala Mauna Saddle Road on the left, with unpaved truck/tank road on the right
Through the Army base, much of Ala Mauna Saddle Road (left) is paralleled by an unpaved truck/tank road reserved for military traffic (right), here at mile 41.0 facing eastbound. This segment has been mostly bypassed by the new Saddle Road alignment. (November 2001)
Warning of military traffic ahead on Ala Mauna Saddle Road

At mile 37.1 heading east, the sign warns of military vehicles entering and leaving the old road, and slow-moving military convoys. (November 2001)
One of the many one-lane bridges and culverts on the western half of Ala Mauna Saddle Road, west of the Army base. (May 2000)
One-lane culvert on western part of Ala Mauna Saddle Road
Ala Mauna Saddle Road dead-ends at the Mamalahoa Highway (route 190); head left to Waikoloa and Kailua, right to Waimea
Ala Mauna Saddle Road's western end is here at its junction with the Mamalahoa Highway (state route 190). The junction photo above is from route 200 westbound; the photos below are from route 190, northbound and southbound respectively. The photos below show some of the few route 200 shields out there (the road itself had no route shields last time I drove it, though some mileposts indicate the route number, and there is at least one route shield on a newly-opened segment). (Photos above and below left January 2005, courtesy of Tim Reichard; photo below right May 2000)
Junction of route 190 northbound with Ala Mauna Saddle Road Junction of route 190 southbound with Ala Mauna Saddle Road

Some other sites:

Official Ala Mauna Saddle Road project site (including history, improvement plans, and maps) -- updated irregularly, but provides a pretty good overview of the plans now going forward

Article in the May 16, 2000 Honolulu Star-Bulletin (including photos, and links to a two-minute video tour) about Ala Mauna Saddle Road

Go to the previous or next parts of the Hawaii Highways road photos collection:

Link to go back to Kalawao County page
to Kalawao County
Link to continue to Observatories Roads page
to Observatories Roads (Big Island part 2)
or directly to other parts:

Overview · Introduction · Interstate H-3 · Interstate H-1 · Other Freeways
Other Oahu South · Other Oahu West · Other Oahu East · Kuhio Highway
Other Kauai · Hana Highway · Piilani Highway · Kahekili Highway · Other Maui
Lanai/Molokai · Lava Closures · Red Road · Waipio Valley · Other Big Island

or to other sections of the Hawaii Highways site:

Link to Hawaii Highways main page Link to Hawaii Highways, Big Island route list table 3

Comments, etc.? Please e-mail me.

© 1999-2007, 2010 Oscar Voss.