Saddle Road was first established during World War II as a rough and ready route for military vehicles to traverse the Big Island. After the war, the road was handed over to civilian authorities. The road got paved after a fashion, but it was never upgraded or maintained to normal civilian standards. Consequently, the two-lane highway was rife with poor paving, potholes, crumbling shoulders, sharp bends, and one lane bridges. Add to this that the upper parts of the road are often cloaked in thick cloud with minimal visibility and it’s no surprise to learn it was considered one of the most dangerous paved roads in the state. Until quite recently rental car companies wouldn’t allow their customers to drive the road.
A little more than 10 years ago, significant upgrading of the highway began. Since then, sections have been realigned, repaved, or newly constructed altogether. In 2013, this new, improved road was connected with Māmalahoa Highway on the western side. Later this year, the last new stretch on the eastern side should be completed.
In 2013, the highway was renamed the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, honoring the longtime senator from Hawaii, but it’s still referred to as Saddle Road by most people. And on the western side, around milepost 44, the old Saddle Road veers off to the north from the new highway, up this hill with its flat spots for the one-lane bridges. This part of the old road was repaved a few years back, but the eastern end is very much in the tradition of the old road. Pockmarked with ill-matching layers of asphalt, it’s a bumpy ride. There are several places where I’ve been unwise enough to pull to the side only to clunk through a deep gulley running beside the pavement.
So, considering all this, it should come as no surprise to hear that it’s one of my favorite stretches of road to drive on the island. The curves, the ups and downs are fun – when the weather’s good. It passes through beautiful pastureland. And it’s a great place to see pueos, the endemic Hawaiian short-eared owl, cruising over the fields, sitting on a post, and, wisely, staying out of traffic.