My Mauna Kea Adventure-
My boyfriend and I rode to the summit of Mauna Kea from the Kona side! After hours of research, this is how we accomplished the ride self-supported:
We were originally going to ride gravel bikes all the way, but Daniel's bike didn't get to Seattle in time. We ended up bringing our road bikes and renting full suspension mountain bikes from Bike Works Kona. We wanted hardtails, but they didn't have any. Since we were staying at the Westin in Waikoloa beach (at the beginning of the segment), we had the bikes transferred to Bike Works Beach & Sports (in Waikoloa village) for a $50 fee, so we didn't have to drive 30 minutes to pick up and drop off the bikes. Rich at Bike Works Beach and Sports is great and flexible with rental periods. I put SPD pedals on my road bike and requested SPD pedals be put on the mountain bike (mtb) so that I didn't have to swap shoes. Also, I wanted to wear mtb shoes for the Mauna Kea access road in case I had to walk. I rented a small carbon mtb. Daniel's was aluminum, which made it quite a bit heavier. Not ideal, but it's what they had available.
The day before the ascent, we spent half a day prepping for the ride. We put our road bikes and mtbs in the Jeep. We dropped water/Gatorade at 2 spots along the route (approximately at miles 20 and 40). Then we drove to the visitors center (VC), left the car with the mtbs in it parked there overnight, and rode down from the VC to our hotel on our road bikes. We left cold weather gear (gloves, shoe covers, long sleeved jersey), a change of clothes, water, and snacks in the Jeep as well. Since we left the car at the VC, we knew we had to make it up the next day no matter what . We checked with the ranger at the VC and he said it was fine to leave the car there.
The next day, we rode our road bikes from Waikoloa beach to the VC. We started at 6:45am and got to the VC in about 5 hours. Then, we swapped onto mtbs and rode to the summit and then back down to the Jeep. It was nice having the Jeep at the VC so we didn't have to carry all the cold weather gear, and so that we could drive home from the VC when we were tired. (The descent from the VC to the hotel the previous day took ~2 hrs.)
We got lucky because the ~5 miles of gravel after the VC is usually silt, but it had rained the night before and was packed down. Gravel tires might struggle a bit, but the mtb tires were perfect because they were so wide.
- Altitude sickness is real. I was fine, but Daniel got sick. Taking medicine with you if you're unsure of how you'll react to the altitude is a good idea.
- Cold weather gear is essential for the VC to summit. Luckily, we didn't get rain, snow, or much wind, but it was still very cold.
- The weather is super variable. It was 70 degrees when we started at Waikoloa beach and mid 30s at the summit. The night prior to the ride, the Mauna Kea website said the road was closed due to snow, so we weren't even sure we'd be able to make it to the summit. The next day we checked the website around 12pm and it said the road was open. (Apparently the road doesn't stay closed for very long.)
- Drink a lot of water, take salt tablets (it's hot at the beginning), eat a lot. The ride is only 55 miles, but it's all uphill with basically no recovery.
- Know the route! The Mauna Kea access road is very steep. Since we drove it the day prior, we knew there were 3 extremely steep sections, with a bit of recovery (~10% haha) in between them. I know people who had to walk a bunch of this section. After the dirt section, it is also very steep, but the last mile to the top isn't as bad.
The question I get asked the most is, can I do the whole ride on a gravel bike?
- You'd need really good gearing on the gravel bike. It is so steep and I was still grinding with the mtb gearing. I would have really struggled with my gravel bike (40T crank, 11-42).
- I liked the super wide tires on the mtb for the gravel section. My wheels didn't slip, but they might have with 40mm gravel tires. You might be fine with gravel tires if you are better at bike handling than I am. I have trouble getting back on the bike on a hill but was fine with the mtb tires.
- Riding the first 2/3 of the ride on the heavier gravel bike (mine is aluminum) would have taken quite a bit longer. But if you have a lighter gravel bike, that's not really a problem. Daniel felt like most of his power was lost with the full suspension heavy mtb. I didn't feel that way since my bike was lighter and I weigh less (125 lbs).
In summary, if you have a properly geared gravel bike, I think doing the whole ride on it would be fine. Not having to deal with bike rentals is a plus. And doing the Mauna Kea access road with gravel gearing (compared to road gearing) is also a plus.
Even though doing the ride self-supported was a logistical nightmare to figure out, I wouldn't have wanted to do it any other way. Not having SAG and knowing we couldn't just get in a car and bail past the VC was an added challenge. It may have been risky (especially if you get sick from the altitude), but there were plenty of cars driving up and down (plus multiple rangers) and we could have asked for help. (I did end up asking someone for water!)
- We were wondering why the road isn't paved for the 4 miles of dirt (because it's paved for the ~3 miles after the dirt to the top). Turns out, they want to deter people from driving up to the top because it's dangerous (altitude, no provisions, etc.) so they intentionally left the dirt and only paved the rest so the snowplows can pave the road to the observatories/telescopes.
- I saw my professor from school at the summit! Totally unplanned!
Here is the link to the video I made:
It is a truly epic climb. You should do it!