Bicycle Touring The Big Island of Hawaii
This post is written for all the folks who've been contacting me on the Warmshowers website, asking about routes and camping advice for their upcoming bicycle tours on the Big Island. Hawaii is an amazing place to cycle, but it's a little tricky to find accurate information. Here's some lil' gems that I hope will help!
The west side of the island (Kona side) has more bike infrastructure than the east side. I assume it's because the Ironman events are hosted there, so the community has invested in smooth bike lanes, etc. On the east side (Hilo), it's not as common to see cyclists. There’s not much shoulder and very few other bicycles on the road. Local drivers tend to be cautious and polite, but they’re not used to sharing the road with you. Always ride defensively: wear bright lights, neon clothing, use hand signals, and double-check your mirrors before changing lanes.
On the Big Island, you don't have much choice for routes. There's just one road that goes all the way around the island, called hwy 11. That's the route you'll want to take. Don’t be fooled by older maps: some highways have been covered up by recent lava flows.
Saddle Road is a "shortcut" that connects Hilo and Kona directly over the saddle between two volcanoes (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa), but I don't recommend that route, for reasons listed in the next section, Cycling from Sea to Summit.
If you have the time and/or desire, there's two loops off the main hwy 11 route that I recommend. One is in the Puna district: It's a triangle from Pahoa to Kalapana to Kapoho, and back to Pahoa. It follows a road called Red Road along the oceanfront, which is scenic, narrow, and lovely. Avoid weekends if you can, as the car traffic is increasing on this route.
The other loop is in the Kohala district, from Waimea to Hawi to Waikaloa. That route is crazy beautiful. Again, very narrow and rural, but paved and as long as you've got flashing lights and bright gear, you should be fine.
Cycling from Sea to Summit
Cycling to the top of Mauna Kea from sea level is a sought-after route for the most hard-core cyclists in the world. I worked at a bike shop in Hilo, and we had athletes from as far away as Europe come to the big island with their super-lightweight carbon fiber road bikes just to complete this ride. It's one of the most difficult climbs in the world, and here's why:
-Altitude. The top of Mauna Kea is at about 13,000 feet. About halfway up, unless you live someplace with high elevations like Colorado, your body is going to begin feeling the affects. Headaches, impaired judgement, etc. everyone is affected differently by elevation.
-Weather. the mountain's weather can change in an instant, and a sunny day can suddenly turn to freezing rain. Because of the altitude, sub-zero temperatures are common at the Visitors Center and above. Be prepared for a very cold night of camping, if you choose to camp on the mountain.
-Steep. Saddle road is crazy steep, no matter if you ride from Kona or Hilo! And the tough part is it just gets steeper. The very last section of the climb to the Mauna Kea summit is unpaved, and mountain bike tires are recommended: 2 inches wide at least.
-Water: you'll need to carry a lot to stay hydrated, because the only place to stop along the way for more water is the visitors center.
My advice is, if you really love the challenge and have something to prove, then riding Saddle Road makes sense. Otherwise, it's a lot of time and energy for a brutal climb, especially with extra touring weight on your bike. Your knees won't like you afterwards.
There aren't many campsites on the Big Island, and it's pretty easy to stealth camp in the southern part (I stealth-camped three times on my tour between Kona and Hilo, taking the south road through Oceanview and Naalehu).
When you're in Hilo, I recommend camping at Arnott's lodge. For a nominal fee, they'll let you camp on their lawn, and they're right on the waterfront. It’s much safer than trying to stealth camp near Hilo... there's a pretty big population of homeless folks that live in the jungles and beaches close to town. You never know who you’ll run into.
Food & Water
Hawaii has the best food in the world! Farmers Markets occur weekly, all year long, in all the major communities (and even some of the tiny ones).
Just always make sure to wash every single thing before you eat it: rat lung-worm is a disease spread by slugs onto island produce. It's nasty stuff and you don't want to get it. Google "rat lungworm Hawaii" for the latest updates, and only drink water from approved sources.
By all means, you need to protect yourself from the tropical sun, but check out this article before buying a tube of sunscreen. Hawaii’s coral reefs are dying, and it turns out a key ingredient in most sunscreens is partly to blame. Thank you for doing your part to keep our oceans safe.
Hawaii is a magical place of rainbows, waterfalls, blue ocean and active volcanoes. You're going to have an amazing bike tour here! Be safe, and enjoy this beautiful island.