Saddle Road on the island of Hawaii is less challenging to drive, but still requires caution.

Most older Big Island guide books and travel advice columns contain a warning, “Rental car companies prohibit driving across Saddle Road.” Until recently, there was good reason for that—and some companies may still have restrictions about driving “the saddle.” However, Saddle Road is a much nicer drive than it used to be.

Over the last few years, several sections of the ongoing Saddle Road realignment project have been completed, so what was once a sometimes nerve wracking drive is, for the most part, now a much smoother and safer experience.

There are a few things to consider before you undertake this potentially gorgeous and inspiring journey across the Big Island:

First, bad weather is going to make the drive tough even though the road is now wider and more navigable. If you look up toward the mountains from Kona or Hilo and see thick, grey clouds, you may want to reconsider the drive and opt to take another route instead (either the Hamakua coast or the South Point drive).

Another warning: if you do drive Saddle Road, you must be aware of the one-lane bridges on the Kona side. We started up Saddle road a few weeks ago and were quickly reminded how aggressive some drivers can be. Watch for the “Yield” signs and heed them carefully. Once you’re on your way, also pay attention to speed limits, especially near the Pohakuloa Training Area.

Last, if you do decide to make the drive, get gas, snacks and water before you head out. There is always a chance of encountering construction. Your drive may take a little longer than you’ve budgeted for. Leave prepared and take time to stop at the Mauna Kea State Park to use the facilities, stretch your legs and enjoy the view of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea. (The Park is located at about 6,500 ft elevation, so you’ll definitely notice a difference in the temperature up there. Go prepared!)


  1. Although you can't beat the coastal beauty of Hawaii Belt Road, Saddle Road does provide a scenic beauty itself with it's multiple climate zone changes from Kona to Hilo and with the rising mountains on either side of you (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa). A simply not-to-be-missed trip that will take you on Saddle Road is sunset and stargazing from atop of Mauna Kea! This was a highlight from my last visit to the Big Island.

  2. thanks for this. I"m headed to the BI end of October… brrrrrr .  it will be cold to visit those high places.
    but I can't wait.  wonder if rental places stlil tell you you can't take a car up there, even with the improvements?
    we were intimidated by their warnings… afraid they could track where we took the car but didn't want to miss doing it last time.  

  3. Aloha Katherine, most rental cars will allow you to drive up to the visitor center but not to the summit of Mauna Kea because I believe the road is still not paved leading there.  There are some great tour companies that will take you to the summit for the sunset and then to the visitor center for stargazing – they are so knowledgeable and it is well worth it (most also provide parka jackets as it is cold!).

  4. Saddle road really isn't that bad…I found South Point to be much worse. I was the one driving and was bordering on motion sickness from all the twists and turns. :/  But really nothing beats the Hamakua Coast in terms of sheer beauty..and even though the mileage is a bit more it still always took me less time to reach Hilo via Hamakua.  The last time I was up at the summit of Mauna Kea the road was still graded gravel but there were quite a few rental cars up there. It is very steep so if you don't have 4wd you'll need to use your lowest gear to make it up and it's slow going; I averaged 25 mph. 

  5. The Hilo side is under construction from mileposts 9-18, there are several long, steep stretches with no pavement.  I declined to drive it in a standard rental car

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