Mauna Loa Observatory Road is the only bike ride where you can look around and imagine you’re in a field of brownies. For avid cyclists, this is a not-to-be-missed, signature ride on the Big Island. For regular people, you can enjoy also enjoy part of it without being overwhelmed. Starting at the base of Huluhulu Puʻu, you traverse through lava fields up to the observatory; when you stop to look back, you’ll have unadulterated views of Mauna Kea.
While Mauna Loa Road is certainly a challenge, however as with most rides, you get to call the shots. For the first four miles youʻll experience a gradual incline, with some ups, some downs. Riders who can manage elevation and moderate exercise can ride this section. The entire trip is an immersion in a rugged, remote and breathtaking environment. Go as far and as fast as you want and enjoy this truly unique landscape and environment.
The second segment starts when you hit a corner with a big rock outcropping and a gravel road that continues straight (stay on the pavement). Just past this is the AIRBORNE! indicator and immediately youʻll start a more serious ascent up the mountain. If you started in the morning, youʻll be warmed up by now, the skies will clear up (if theyʻre going to) and the crosswinds are at your side or back. Weʻve got this, steady we go.
After airborne, many small details come to focus. Different flows of lava have different colors, melting into a multi-colored landscape of browns, reds, and blacks. Mauna Loa unfolds in front of you as the road meanders up and around curves. Beautiful examples of primary succession* are on display with small brightly colored plants and lichen dotting the soil-less lava flows. One of the most distinguishing features of the ride is the sound, or more so, the loudness of the silence. Once you get a few miles away from the highway, there is just the wind, the unique sound of tires on road, and your breath. This state of silence, of raw nature and self, is one of the most unique impressions. Spend some time with it as you ride to the next landmark, the radio towers, which are about third way up around 8500ʻ.
At the radio towers, the road takes another strong right turn. This ʻpowerlineʻ section has some more ups and downs, traveling across the mountain. Itʻs here (or maybe sooner) that you might start imagining brownies. Looking left and right you’ll find fields of smooth pahoehoe lava that mimics a baking pan of brownies. No bones about it, this ride has some mental hurdles and I suggest brownies. I know that other riders envision their finish, or concentrate on their cadence and power outputs. Me, I think about food. Once you get to Brownie Field and brownies are on the brain, thereʻs no stopping the focus or motivation. Furthermore, the powerline section has fantastic views of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, perfect for a photo ops.
If youʻve made it to 10,000ʻ the top is only a couple more miles more and you know that you should probably just keep pedaling. The wondrous landing at the top is your own making and a moment when you realize that there could very well be a pan of brownies waiting for you at the bottom.
*Depending on who you ride with, you may learn things like primary succession from one of your cohorts. Thanks AP high school biology class!
What to Expect:
- It’s cold! Summer time temps in 50-70F. Wintertime at the top in COLD (it snows) range. Long fingered gloves, long pants acceptable wear, layers.
- It rains! A windbreaker/rain gear is essential.
- It can be windy. Windbreaker or warmer cover.
- No water, no food. Bring your own hydration & energy. Nearest potable water is the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Center 5 miles from base of the road.
- Traffic: It’s narrow, single lane road. Front facing and rear facing lights good idea.
- Elevation: The route runs from ~ 6,500′ up to 11,000′.
- Limited contact: make sure you either ride with someone else or someone knows your plans.