Mauna Loa Scenic Drive

The Mauna Loa Scenic Drive: The Hidden Treasure of the Big Island
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

While there are many notable scenic drives throughout Hawaii on the Big Island, the Mauna Loa Scenic Drive is a bit of a hidden treasure that many island guests simply don’t know exists. Make sure to add a trip up this scenic path along with a walk down the various trails a must-do part of your vacation itinerary. 

- The Local Expert Team

The Mauna Loa Scenic Drive is 17 miles one way and traverses the side of Mauna Loa. The world’s most massive mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii. The beginning of this scenic drive is located just outside the main entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A few of the many notable aspects of the scenic drive include hiking trails, bird-watching opportunities, and lava tree molds. Furthermore, a beautiful, scenic overlook at the summit. In addition to the many views and sites you will enjoy when taking the Mauna Loa Scenic Drive, you will also come to the trailhead of the world’s largest active volcano. 

The first clue that you have arrived at the Mauna Loa Scenic Drive is the presence of the lava tree molds. After following Hwy 11, around mile 30.5, you will see Mauna Loa Road. This is where you will begin to note fences that are squared off around what looks like round holes similar to wells in the ground. These might look like wells that were formed out of rock. They are in actuality, footprints of tree trunks, or lava tree molds. 

When you head up Mauna Loa Road after taking time to look at the lava tree molds, you will see a gravel pullout to the right.  Here, you will see the Kipukapuaula Trailhead. This is a 1.5 miles trail that goes through a lava field and ohia trees. This mostly flat but rocky walk ends near picnic tables, pit toilets, and a covered awning. 

As you move further up the Mauna Loa Scenic Drive, you will see a roundabout. This is the trailhead to the Kipuka Paula Trail. While there are no marked parking spaces, guests note that the roundabout is wide enough to allow you to pull off and park along the edges. This trail spans 1.2 miles and takes you up and then down a loop. You can purchase a trail guide to help you follow the markers along the trail. 

To better explain what to expect, it’s important to understand that the word kipuka means an “island in a sea of lava”. In other words, this Mauna Loa trail represents an oasis of life among death. Make special note of how the desert-like terrain quickly turns into a richly dense forest. Guests also note that the Kipuka Puaulu Trail is an especially great trail to see birds. The apapane, iiwi, elepaio and the amakhi have all been spotted here. 

When you get to marker six on this trail, you will note a lava tube. Though, it is not forbidden to enter, neither is it encouraged. Lava tubes can be dangerous. Once you make your way back on the roadway and continue your journey you will drive past a yellow gate. When it is closed, you know it’s not safe to continue. If it’s unlocked and open, you can continue as planned. As you ascend elevations, you will begin to notice a significant change in scenery. The ohia trees will change to koa trees and the forest will get denser as the road becomes windier. 

After traveling upwards and feeling as if you have just “backroaded” through the rugged countryside you will finally make your way to the pinnacle of your journey when you arrive at the Mauna Loa Lookout. Here, there are picnic tables, a pit toilet, and even paved parking spaces. In addition, there is a beautiful rock pavilion that was constructed in 1937. 

After arriving at your destination, the lookout, follow the path laid out to view the mountain you just climbed. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the ocean. Also, be sure to look for the Kilauea Volcano about halfway down that will be smoking from the ground.

Insider Tips:
-Guests claim that the Mauna Loa Scenic Drive road is a bit bumpy. Be prepared for that when venturing up this trail. 
-The Mauna Loa, the mountain this scenic loop takes you up, has an elevation of 11,141 feet. This means you should not make this drive if you have respiratory problems. The elevation at the highest point is 13,679, which means about 40% less oxygen than at sea level. 
-It’s important to note that it is cold and windy up on the summit. So make sure you dress in warm clothing and bring a jacket.