A Drive up Mauna Loa – Hawaii

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series Hawaii - The Big Island

A Drive up Mauna Loa – Hawaii

The big island of Hawaii is an amazing place to visit. Not only is it the biggest by far of all the Hawaiian islands, it is the youngest and has the most diverse climate and geology. From tropical rain forest to cool mountain air, this island gives you many options for vacation activities.

Many people have taken the tour to the top of Mauna Kea. The better known and most visited of the two dominant volcanoes on the island. Very few people have driven up Mauna Loa.  A good part of Mauna Loa is in the Volcano National Park. While Mauna Loa is slightly lower than Mauna Kea, by volume, Mauna Loa is the largest Volcano in the world.

Just some of the observatories on Mauna Kea's Summit
Just some of the observatories on Mauna Kea’s Summit

Last active in 1984, the lava from Mauna Loa is silica poor which means the flows are fluid and non explosive. The drive up Mauna Loa is over completely different landscape than the drive up Mauna Kea. Where Mauna Kea has lots of vegetation on the lower levels, Mauna Loa is all lava. The road traverses several types and colors of lava on the way up the mountain.

When we visited, we drove up both mountains the same day. We went up Mauna Kea first. That road goes all the way to the top and you can drive right to the observatories that dot the landscape on the summit.

Photo - NPS map of Volcano National Park showing the large area of Mauna Loa which lies inside the park. The road we drove up is on the other side (north)
Photo – NPS map of Volcano National Park showing the large area of Mauna Loa which lies inside the park. The road we drove up is on the other side (north)

The road up Mauna Loa is gated at the Mauna Loa Observatory at the 11,100 ft. level. There is a gravel road which leads to the summit. It is a long hike at high altitude to reach the Moku ‘Aweoweo Caldera at 13,677’.

Photo - The road to the Mauna Loa Observatory
Photo – The road to the Mauna Loa Observatory

The road to Mauna Loa is just east of the access road to Mauna Kea off the saddle road that bisects the island. For the first quarter mile or so it is a gravel road. I think this is to discourage people from trying to drive up further. There is an ominous sign at the saddle road entrance to discourage you as well.

Ominous sign at the beginning of the road.
Ominous sign at the beginning of the road.

Soon the road is paved again and the drive is through an incredible lava flow. There is only one lane and the road has many turns and dips that must be navigated. If you are in a hurry don’t bother with this road. Once you are off the pavement you are in the lava.

Check out this video on driving down through this part of the road.

The first of many lava flows you will drive through
Seemingly endless lava flows
Single Lane Paved Road to the Mauna Loa Obseratory
Single Lane Paved Road to the Mauna Loa Observatory

This road seems to take forever because of all the turns. At the slow speed you have to drive, it appears you are making no progress as you traverse the lava.  The summit of Mauna Loa is way off to your right on this part of the drive and it feels like you are going the wrong way. Then about half way up, the road  takes a hard right turn towards the summit. This will be the direction you drive all the way to the end of the road.

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This is the view of the road after the turn. Not nearly so up and down and windy.

As you can see it was a beautiful clear day when we drove to Mauna Loa. We only saw two other cars the whole round trip.

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Here is the view to the north. You can see the lower slopes of Mauna Kea and the Kohala coast in the distance.

A little ways further up and we got a nice view of Hualālai volcano which is the backdrop for Kona.

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Hualālai Volcano near Kona

In many ways this drive is easier than the drive up Mauna Kea. There are no steep grades. There are no cliffs to drive along and once you get past the gravel part by the saddle road it is smooth pavement.

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This part of the road you cross several lava flows. Notice that there are many colors and textures to the flows.
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About Dan Ashbach 793 Articles
Meet the Dan behind Dan330. He started a Pinterest account in December 2011 while off on a leave from his day job as a captain on an Airbus A330. While traveling the world, Dan practiced his longtime hobby of photography and developed his eye for natural beauty and appreciation of great photography. Continuing his love of exploration and great pictures, Dan added Pinterest to his daily routine; especially during the long Minnesota winters. His eye for great photography was recognized by the Pinterest community and in just under one year, Dan330 had attracted over one million followers. Dan and his wife Laurie have three children, seven grandchildren and two grand puppies. When not pinning, Dan loves to travel and participate in just about any outdoor activity. There are a few exceptions to this, but to find out what they are you have to go to the Dan330 board dedicated to “Things he won’t do”.