Hawaii 2012 - Day 13: Mauna Kea - Waipi'o Valley

Hawaii Travel Blog

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In the lava fields near the saddle point with Mauna Kea in the background.

We had a bit of a logistical problem. As stated in the blog of last Sunday we arrived on Hawai'i on Hilo International Airport. We would fly back home, however, from the other side of the island, from Kona International Airport. Our car was rented at Hilo but would need to be returned in Kona. A one-way rental is not unusual and is free in several states. But not in Hawaii. Alamo would charge us a one-way rental fee of about 55 USD. Ridiculous! I once did a one way coast to coast from Miami to Los Angeles. And yes in such a case I can imagine a one-way rental fee. But for just 144 km (90 miles).

Autumn on Hawaii?
No way! We had planned an excursion for today which was close to Kona so we had decided to rent a car in both Hilo AND Kona. Today we had to go to collect that second car.

The best way to go from Hilo to Kona used to be following the coast around Mauna Kea and then cross over from east to west via the village of Waimea (not to be confused with the village on Kaua'i ). An alternative route existed, the Saddle Road (route 200). This road takes a more direct east-west approach climbing over the 2022-meter (6632-feet) high saddle point between the Giants Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Saddle Road was very badly maintained and at some points hardly paved at all. Besides that fog fields (due to the altitude) were a common phenomenon, making the road even more dangerous.

Lave structure
Because of that it was off limits for rental cars, and also time-wise way longer to drive than the longer coastal route. This has changed recently. Route 200 has been improved to meet common road standards. The Saddle road was in the picture since 1849. Several attempts to build it were abandoned. After the Pearl Harbor attacks it was realized by the military, but only as a dirt road. Then it became the dangerous road. And now it is finally serving the purpose one had in mind in 1849.

The ascend was slow. We noticed it only because at some point we broke through the clouds, leaving the infamous Hilo rain behind us. Saddle road leads right through beautiful lava fields. Due to the high altitude it does not give that tropical Hawaiian feeling. To me it felt more like we were driving in Scotland or Norway. Bare rocks, low clouds, a bit chilly, etc.

At the saddle point (2022 meter / 6632-feet) the road branches with two roads.

The steep road into the Waipi'o Valley
Turn left and you'll drive up to just below the summit of Mauna Loa (another 1377 meters / 4517ft). Turn right and you'll drive up to the actual summit of Mauna Kea (another 2183 meters / 7162 ft). We turned right and drove up to the Mauna Kea visitor's center located at an altitude of 2835 meters (9300 ft). This is as far as the rental company allowed us to go. After the center the road becomes a dirt road for 4WD cars only. We of course drove up a small section, bringing us higher that the 3055-meter (10023 ft) high record of Haleakala on Maui. Unlike the other illegal drives this one felt wrong. The huge sluggish Chevrolet was definitively not the car to do this with. So we turned around.

Not too bad a decision, we still had another follow-up mission to fulfill, the Waipi'o Valley! This important landmark is also called the Valley of the Kings.

At the bottom of the Waipi'o Valley
It is located on Kohala, Hawai'i's only extinct and oldest volcano. Since it is the oldest it has also the highest degree of erosion. Huge valleys have formed. The Waipi'o is one of them. Its floor is at sea level, its surrounding walls reach up as high as 610 meters (21000 feet). The Hi'ilawe Falls, Hawaii's tallest waterfall is dropping a total of 442 meters (1450 feet) into the valley. Its tallest single drop is 366 meters (1201 feet), way higher than the highest point in European Netherlands. The valley was one of the most fertile parts of the island. It is said that in the past as many as 4000 to 10000 persons lived here. In the 1800s many Chinese settled in the valley. At that time it comprised schools, churches, hotels, restaurants, a post office, and even a jail.
Hi'ilawe Falls, the tallest waterfall of the state
A huge tsunami swept all this out in 1946. The valley has since then only been populated by a few persons. There is a road into the valley. Although it is fully paved it is by law only open for 4WD cars. (And of course totally off limits for rentals). The road is with and average grade of 25% said to be the steepest road in the USA and probably in the world.

On the 18th of August 2009 I wrote in my blog: "Descending into the valley is possible. Unfortunately the weather had turned rainy. So the only thing we did was just gazing into the valley." (see here). Hence our follow-up mission to hike into the valley. The road was indeed very steep, our calves and other leg muscles had to work hard. While we made our way downhill I was curiously worried about our return trip.

It took us about 20 minutes to walk down the steep section, and another 15 to walk on the valley floor towards the beach where we could enjoy the views on the steep valley walls, the lush green valley itself, and the blue sea.

Another view on the Waipi'o Valley seen from the lookout
Unfortunately the weather was a bit cloudy (again). On our way back we walked a bit further into the valley, just far enough to catch a glimpse of Hi'ilawe Falls. Our return, up, was heavy. To our surprise we walked up in almost the same time, just 27 minutes!

While the sun was setting we made our way westward to Alamo Rental Car on Kona Airport where we picked up our car. We had carefully picked a time after the major airlines had arrived. And our strategy worked. All the economy cars had been rented out again, so we got (it was becoming normal) another double upgrade. From that moment in time we had the luxury of two rental cars! A personal car each!

After having dinner we decided to drive back following the longer coastal road. The Chevrolet was running out of gas and we did not like the idea of stranding in the deserted (and cold) saddle.

More pictures below.

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In the lava fields near the saddle…
In the lava fields near the saddl…
Autumn on Hawaii?
Autumn on Hawaii?
Lave structure
Lave structure
The steep road into the Waipio Va…
The steep road into the Waipi'o V…
At the bottom of the Waipio Valley
At the bottom of the Waipi'o Valley
Hiilawe Falls, the tallest waterf…
Hi'ilawe Falls, the tallest water…
Another view on the Waipio Valley…
Another view on the Waipi'o Valle…
Tragedy in the lava fields
Tragedy in the lava fields
The lava seems black, but in fact …
The lava seems black, but in fact…
A soft plant in the sharp lava
A soft plant in the sharp lava
Opening a bottle of soda at an alt…
Opening a bottle of soda at an al…
The Waipio Valley seen from the l…
The Waipi'o Valley seen from the …
Descending into the Waipio Valley
Descending into the Waipi'o Valley
The steep road into the Waipio Va…
The steep road into the Waipi'o V…
Stephan demonstrates the steepness…
Stephan demonstrates the steepnes…
The road is only open for 4WD cars…
The road is only open for 4WD car…
At the bottom of the Waipio Valley
At the bottom of the Waipi'o Valley
At the bottom of the Waipio Valley
At the bottom of the Waipi'o Valley
Washed ashore at the bottom of the…
Washed ashore at the bottom of th…
Wailoa Stream flows through the Wa…
Wailoa Stream flows through the W…
Leaving the Waipio Valley
Leaving the Waipi'o Valley
The Waipio Valley rules
The Waipi'o Valley rules
GPS track of the hike into the Wai…
GPS track of the hike into the Wa…
GPS Height profile of the hike int…
GPS Height profile of the hike in…
Hawaii
photo by: WorldXplorer