I started this morning’s ride by the white-sand beaches and reclining palm trees of a tropical paradise. Now, I’m banking my motorcycle through the tight curves of a barren, windswept mountain.
In most places, traveling from one such extreme to another would take hours, even days. Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s taken me 45 minutes. And what’s more amazing is that the environmental diversity is just beginning. Ahead of me are a black lava desert, tunnels of green trees and the congested roads of a small city. That’s all before lunch.
As I tip my bike into another perfect curve along a twisting asphalt ribbon someone draped across the flanks of the 13,000-foot Mauna Kea volcano, I realize it hasn’t taken me long to make a couple of fundamental discoveries about the largest of Hawaii’s seven main islands.
First, even the Big Island ain’t that big. Just 93 miles across at its widest, it’s about the size of Connecticut.
Second, although the climate and scenery would seem to make Hawaii a motorcyclist’s paradise, there aren’t exactly tons of roads available to ride. Even a detailed map shows only about 10 distinct routes of any real length. It’s maybe 260 miles around the island.
Third, despite the tight dimensions, it sure packs a punch. It’s as if someone took the signature elements of about five other states, tossed them together and created a theme park. When you’re on a motorcycle and time is limited, is not exactly a bad thing.
The journey begins in the town of Kailua-Kona (often referred to simply as Kona) on one side of the island, with the town of Hilo on the other side as the destination, following a road that takes me near the peak of Mauna Kea.
As I ride east from the water near Kona, the lush band of palm trees and vegetation by the shore disappears almost instantly. The atmosphere becomes more barren than tropical. Less than a dozen miles from the hotel, the dry, auburn grass and scrub looks like central California in July.
I pick up state Route 190, the Hawaii Belt Road, heading northeast, and up, from Kona. Like many roads on the Big Island, it’s relatively straight, giving you the idea it was built more for expediency than fun.
After about 40 miles, I reach the intersection with Hawaii Route 200, Saddle Road, which heads southwest, toward the saddle between the island’s two big volcanoes: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. And even though I’ve only seen a fraction of it, it’s easy to believe that the Big Island is the least populous per square mile of the main Hawaiian islands. I haven’t seen a house for miles.
It’s not an environment that encourages a quick pace, but luckily, the scenery is pretty magnificent. The road rises more than 6,500 feet on the barren, treeless slopes of Mauna Kea. But that’s only halfway to the 13,796-foot peak, which is often snow-capped in winter. Measured from its true base on the sea floor, it’s the world’s tallest mountain, more than 6 miles from bottom to top.
I spot the turn I’m looking for and hang a left onto Mauna Kea Observatory Road. Instantly, the road gets steeper, better paved and a whole lot curvier. With a cold wind and an appropriately above-the-treeline feel, I could easily be in the high country of Colorado.
The asphalt ends near the observatory’s base camp at about 9,000 feet, where I turn out for a break. Even partway up, the view is tremendous looking east. Low clouds obscure the horizon, but the rolling terrain stretches for miles.
I have to admit: I never thought Hawaii could feel this deserted.
About 20 miles west of Hilo, Saddle Road stops being a gut-pounding chain of potholes and starts being a world-class motorcycle road. New pavement, lots of roller-coaster hills and tight turns usher in another of the island’s ecosystems.
This time, it feels like the Oregon coast, with lush, green vegetation, a light foggy mist and a distant ocean that occasionally sneaks into view. I could get used to this.
The temperature rises as I chase down the road. But that’s not the only change.
Driveways become more common, and civilization slowly returns as I approach Hilo, the island’s largest town. With a population of more than 40,000, it’s practically cosmopolitan, and it feels it. Traffic slows to a crawl as I wind toward the touristy shops and upscale restaurants in the center of town.
After lunch, it’s back on the bike for a run to the island’s northwestern tip. That means another blast over Saddle Road. Great curves climbing out of Hilo give way to black-lava desert, and within an hour or so, we’ve backtracked most of the way to Kona. From here, I turn north on Route 250, for an increasingly beautiful ride toward the town of Hawi.
Things start to get special as the road climbs out of the inland town of Waimea and threads among the hills. The ride is impressive. The road dips and curves to follow rolling terrain, and trees planted alongside it long ago turn the route into a rolling tunnel of green.
The next day, starting in Hilo, I pick up state Route 11 heading toward Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
After a 45-minute ride, I find the entrance to the park and discover a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, emerging into open ground at the rim of Kilauea Caldera.
Lava flows have created a wide, shallow dome maybe a mile wide. Steam wafts from several places across the expanse. At a few points, that steam floats across the road, and riding through it, I inhale the distinct smell of sulfur.
It’s a stark reminder that the volcanic activity which created the Hawaiian islands isn’t over. It goes on today. It’s a fact that becomes even more obvious as I continue toward the island’s southeast coast.
A few more miles of winding curves leads me out of the rain and into sun, just as the road reaches the edge of a high plateau overlooking the Pacific. The view down toward the water is impressive, with miles of cooled, pillowy-looking lava stretching to the sea.
Dropping in altitude, I soon find myself riding close to the shore, where the wind-driven waves crash against the craggy lava flow. Eventually, I reach a sign proclaiming the road closed.
It turns out there’s a lot of newer ground being formed a few miles ahead. Rangers have blocked the road because an active lava flow is spewing molten rock into the sea making the island of Hawaii a little bigger. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983 and shows no signs of letting up. I take the opportunity to pause, stare out over the ocean and reflect on what I’ve seen.
Just another day in paradise.