Monday, February 24, 2014

Riding The Big Island's Mana Road

On a recent trip to Hawaii I was able to take a little time out for a po'okela dirt road adventure, Hawaiian style. My friend Dave and I rented full squisher mountain bikes and rode Mana Road from the top near the Mauna Kea Visitor Center to the bottom near the town of Waimea.

Mana Road spirals about 4,000 feet down the slopes of Mauna Kea in a little over 45 miles. From those numbers, I expected the ride to include a lot of high speed downhill white-knuckle coasting. And it does, but surprisingly we lost very little elevation in the first half of the ride. For nearly 20 miles it was non-stop steep rollers.

The quality of the road varies from well-graded gravel that rides like pavement, to rocky, rugged washed-out jeep trail that was as challenging as any single track I've ridden. In the first few miles I mentioned to Dave that I thought it might be fun to ride Mana with a randonneur bike with 650b x 42mm tires, but by half-way through I was convinced that the full suspension 29er mountain bikes were a far better choice.

We were in the clouds for much of the trip, and at times the visibility was quite limited. As a result, we never saw the ocean or the top of Mauna Kea, but the immediate surroundings of lush forest with wild turkeys, nenes, pheasant and pigs were other-worldly. 

Not long after riding through some of the roughest sections of road, we encountered a road crew grating the road and laying down fresh gravel. We couldn't quite decide if they made the road better or worse. Smoother, yes...  but with fresh deep gravel in places it was tough going on the uphills.

Note the "670B" on the front. Is this the latest wheel size for serious gravel grinders?
In the last 10 miles we finally got our reward for all those ups and downs in the first half of the ride. We flew down mostly smooth-ish cinder covered roads with ear-to-ear grins. I half expected Tinky-Winky to pop out from behind one of the green grassy knolls.

Overall, I had a great time riding Mana Road, but it wasn't at all what I had expected. I went into the ride ready for a high-adrenaline downhill roller-coaster ride. There were some downhills that scratched my adrenaline itch, but it was the solitude and surreal scenery that left an impression. With the wide range of elevation, Mana Road passes through a variety of ecosystems that you'll miss if you never venture far from the resort beaches of Hawaii. I highly recommend a ride on Mana road the next time you're on the Big Island.

Logistics and other details: 
We rented our bikes from Bike Works in Kailua Kona. They had a good selection of well-maintained bikes and they took good care of us.

My wife, Sarah drove us up to the start and picked us up in Waimea after the ride. It would be a long slow grind to ride to the start from either Kailua Kona or Hilo. Making it a loop from Waimea might not be too bad if you're feeling more ambitious than we were.

The ride from end to end took us about 5 hours. That was at an easy pace with plenty of short rest stops.

The temperature at the start was mid-40s, and it slowly warmed until we got to Waimea where it was high-70s. Dress warmly at the start and make sure you have a place to put the layers as they start to come off.

There's no water to be had anywhere along the route.


  1. Enjoyed it and linked to it:

  2. Hi Steve,
    I'm cyclist from Europe and my name is Boris. I'm looking for some way to contact you!? Best