Mauna Kea Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

29.2
FIETS
42.6 mi
DISTANCE
13,863 ft
GAINED
6.1 %
AVG. GRADE

FULL CLIMB STATS

Page Contributor(s): Ron Hawks, USA; Ties Arts, Netherlands; Mark Manner, Nashville, TN, USA

INTRO

This is hands down and by far the hardest bike climb in the world. The climb begins with the waves of the Pacific Ocean lapping at the shore behind us and ends 42 miles later, 13,842' above sea level at Mauna Kea Summit. In those 42 miles we descend less than 100'. We travel through five climate zones -- from the lush rainforest environment of Hilo, Hawaii to the lunar landscape that surrounds us the final 10 miles of the climb. At the top, you will have 42% less oxygen available as you climb the final miles at grades reaching 16%. Climb above the clouds to the top of the bike climbing world.  This is the "Biggest Climb" you can ever do on Strava (Strava Mauna Kea Segment).
It's all about altitude and gradient on Mauna Kea.  There is 42% less oxygen at the summit than start (3% less each 1000'). The 14.5 miles on Mauna Kea Access Road from 6,588' to the summit at 13,842' averages 9.5% (this segment alone qualifies as the #4 hardest world bike climb).  

Average grade for 42.6 miles is 6.1%.  We climb 13,863' and descend only 98'.  46% (19.6 miles) of the climb is at 0-5%, 37% (15.6 miles) is at 5-10%, 12% (5.2 miles) is at 10-15%, 3% (1.2 miles) is at 15-20%, and a fraction is above 20%.  The steepest quarter-mile is 16.5% and steepest continuous mile is 14%

See more details and tools regarding this climb's grade via the “Profile Tool” button.
Roadway:  The roadway is in excellent condition but there are 4.7 miles of gravel and sand to contend with just past the visitor center. 

Traffic:  For the first nine miles and the final fourteen miles, traffic is not a problem.  However, 20 miles on Highway 200 (Saddle Road) can be harrowing with traffic whizzing by often above the posted 55 mph, including commercial trucks traveling the primary east-west traffic artery across the island.  There is always a very wide shoulder and deep rumble strips (you'll know what I mean if you ride over them on your bike) that separate the "slow" highway lane from the shoulder.  This is a tough section for the traffic averse.

Parking:  There is street parking near the start, or parking on 301 Kamehameha Ave near the start which also is home to the Hilo Visitor Center (Map; Street View).   
Clothing:  We have been snowed on atop Mauna Kea.  It will almost always be around 70 degrees in Hilo and probably raining.  The temperature nearly 14,000' higher will be quite different, particularly during the winter. Review the PJAMM weather tool for summit forecast before you begin your ride.

Cycling Gear:  You either need to bring a gravel bike with 40mm tires or mountain bike to swap to for the 4.7 mile sand-gravel section. Bring MTB shoes for hike-a-bike on the impossibly steep and sandy portions.

4WD: Required above the Visitor Center.  Use SAG/photographer Christian James (christianjamesphoto@gmail.com), or rent a bigger 2WD vehicle for SAG to MK Visitor Center and one of the Jeep 4WD rentals on the Big Island for the segment above the VC.   

Provisions:  There are sandwiches, chips, water, Gatorade, and the like at VC. 
Before heading out on any cycling adventure check out our Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip and use our interactive check list to ensure you don't forget anything.
An exceptional hike is Mauna Kea-Humu'ula Trail, which takes you from the Visitor Center to the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands - 11.2 miles gaining 4,783'.  You can also hike to this point after your ride from our finish point - 2/10's of a mile gaining 77' at 19.3% grade - Map.

While you are on the Island to do the hardest bike climb in the world, you might as well do one of the longest, too - Mauna Loa

Stay in Hilo, where the climb starts, where there are many accommodation options including hotels and private vacation rentals.

Use the “Routes in Area” button on the menu bar to see other bike climbs in this area. 

ROUTE MAP

MEMBER RATING

Difficulty: Extreme
4.3
Road
4.5
Traffic
4.8
Scenery

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MEMBER REVIEWS & COMMENTS

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Jul 15, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
Jul 15, 2021
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
'Rode' this 6/23/21 from Waikoloa Beach unassisted. Ritchey breakaway, 30C, 50/34 X 11-34, 3L camelbak (12 lbs full). Without support, go Kona side as you can pit stop at the Kahehe rest area off Inouye Hwy. Take Old Saddle Rd - much quieter and absolutely beautiful - best part of whole ride imo. Phone coverage is good all the way so you can call for bail-out. Part above VC at 9000ft is as bad as most ppl say. Probably doable on road tires if you are >4-5 W/kg FTP. I'm not - ergo did 'some' high altitude bike hiking. Normal-ish riders need >35c tires + MTB gearing imo. Above 11000ft, altitude really hit and could not push 34/34 @ >10%. Don't know if it was just me, me that day, or something physiologically fundamental. Been up that high before and not had problems. Have small rain jacket for descent. Sort of sketch dodging tour vehicles coming up gravel part and got wet below VC to Hwy. Weather tends to come in late day. Would not want to descend Hwy to Hilo.
May 26, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 4
May 26, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 4
Completed 5/19/2021 Gear: Fuji Sportif 2.0LE | Shimano Tiagra | Compact Crank 50-34t | 11t-36t cassette (w/ Wolf Tooth Road Link) | 35mm Clement XPlor Ush tires. Such a sufferfest. First 7 miles from Hilo was great. Then a steady Hawaiian rain from mile 7-22ish. Fortunately it was warm rain and I had a rain jacket. From Mauna Kea Access Road to finish the weather was perfect - sunny and 50-60ºF. The Pjamm summary is spot on: it only gets increasingly more difficult from Saddle Rd to the summit. Gravel section was near impossible - sand/gravel mix. Walked a good portion of it. From end of gravel to summit is still brutally steep, requiring plenty of breaks to breathe (despite my living at elevation in Denver). The last mile has a few easier spots which provide just enough hope to finish out the climb. I was self-supported from Hilo to Access Road. Had support vehicle (i.e. family) for food/water from Saddle Rd to Summit. Thanks to PJamm for all the great info and inspiration!
May 6, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 5
traffic: 4
road: 5
May 6, 2021
scenery: 5
traffic: 4
road: 5
If you love climbing on a bike, this is the most you could probably get, from Waikoloa Village Resorts to summit it’s 85km almost continuous climb. Gravel section didn’t feel as bad as others posted, but the 3mi after the gravel is the hardest sucker I’ve ever climbed. Seriously, it takes everything out of you. PERFECT
May 6, 2021
If you want to make it not only a long climb but also a long ride, you can start at Waikoloa Village. That gives you 53 miles and 4300+m to the summit. Best ride ever, incredibly demanding, 67 finishers on STRAVA as of May 2021.
Mar 5, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
Mar 5, 2021
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
Once in a lifetime! The last part from above Visitors center is hell! Loosely lava gravel and last 7km altitude impact, postman technique is required. The view at the summit is magnificent!!!
ROUTE MAP
PROFILE TOOL

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CLIMB SUMMARY

Cycling Mauna Kea, Hawaii - cyclist climbing Mauna Kea, above the cloudline, Mauna Loa can be seen in the distance

Mauna Kea -- THE hardest bike climb in the world.

Mauna Loa across “the saddle” in background

Cycling Mauna Kea, Hawaii - photo collage, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner, PJAMM Cycling's summits of Mauna Kea as seen over the years

We have climbed Mauna Kea 4 times - 2011, 2013, 2014, 2018. [1]

Mauna Kea is the most difficult bike climb in the world and one of the most epic.  Adjectives do not describe this climb.  Distinguished by the highest Fiets Index in the world, Mauna Kea is a monstrous, nearly impossible ascent.  In addition to the daunting climb, cyclists must be mentally and physically prepared for changing weather conditions, altitude sickness and varying terrain on this extremely challenging 42 mile climb.  

Cycling Mauna Kea - view of clouds, road and volcano near top

Not much vegetation on a volcano.

Before heading to Hawaii for your Mauna Kea cycling adventure, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.

PJAMM May 2018 Great Hawaiian Adventure Blog and Trip Page.

Tips from cycling adventurer Helmuth Dekkers, Netherlands.

What Makes This the World’s Hardest Road Bike Climb:  The sheer elevation ascended (13,000+ feet), the average grade (9.9% for the last half of the ride), dealing with the gravel for 4.7 miles, the altitude (be prepared for the possibility of altitude sickness, as it commonly occurs above 8,000 feet; Wikipedia), and dramatically ​changing weather (for example, rain and 80 degree weather in Hilo, followed by wind, snow, and sub 40 degrees at the top, depending on the season).  We climbed the volcano December 20; it was 73 degrees in Hilo when we started, and we endured as low as 34 degrees and blustery snow towards the summit.

Cycling Mauna Kea, Hawaii - photo collage, various road signs warning of hazardous road conditions ahead, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner

Well . . . you can’t say they didn’t warn you . . . . 😨

When to Climb Mauna Kea:  We have taken on Mauna Kea once in May, twice in June, and once (foolishly) in December.  We recommend going in May or June, as these are the lowest rainfall months for the start of the climb in Hilo.  The highest rainfall months there are March, April and November.  The temperature throughout the year always averages in the 70s so it will always be warm in Hilo when you start but often extremely cold (in the 30’s and snowing in December, 2013 when we rode to the top).

Warning signs at Mauna Kea Visitor Center with bicycle. 

Mauna Kea summit, December 20, 2013.

Checking Road and Weather Conditions on Mauna Kea:  The best resource for Mauna Kea road conditions and status is the Mauna Kea Weather Center.  For example, it is January 14, 2020 as I type this note from my hotel in Kona, I just checked the MKWC site and the road from the VC to the summit is closed due to snow and ice - good to know!  Thus, I’m off to Mauna Loa which is 4,000’ lower with milder grades.  

How to Climb Mauna Kea by Bike:  There are more tips below, but in a nutshell--

  • Train, train, train.  Be in the absolute best shape you can be before even thinking about this climb;
  • Choose the right time to try the climb, we suggest May-early June (better weather, cheaper prices);
  • We finish at about 13,800’.  To the extent possible, altitude train, either using an altitude tent or riding up Mauna Loa or to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center days before the full MK climb.  Perhaps that’s just psychological because the studies indicate it takes at least three weeks to “fully acclimate” to altitude, but we recommend it anyway.  Regardless of what studies say, we have always ridden Haleakala (Maui) and Mauna Loa on the same trip before riding Mauna Kea and that seemed to help us.  One of our cyclists used an altitude tent in preparation and he felt that was an advantage;
  • Be prepared to swap out to a mountain bike or at least change wheels/tires on your cross bike to 38-40mm (only for very strong riders) at the Visitor Center (mile 34) for the 4.7 miles of sand/gravel beginning at mile 34.2 (the pavement begins again at about mile 39 and the last three miles are paved).  We do recommend a mountain bike or a bike that can handle 2.25” size tires (that is 57mm as a comparison to the 40mm gravel tire mentioned above);

End of the gravel. May 2018.

40mm gravel tires on a Specialized Crux cross bike.

  • Make absolutely certain you have warm clothes for the trip above the visitor center.  The temperature will be between 25-40℉ (14-22℃) colder  at the top than in Hilo at the start.

Riding up Mauna Loa - Mauna Kea is in the background.

  • Have SAG support.  If you do not have your own, as of December, 2020:
  • Bruce Hamilton’s tips for an unsupported climb (not recommended):  If you’re really riding it all solo with no equipment changes, I’d ride something like 38-42mm tires with knobbies on the sides and a slick stripe down the middle. Pump them to max pressure to start and then take them down to maybe 25 psi at the visitor center. If you are riding down, remember that it’s not just a screaming descent – adjust your time to account for going very slowly on the dirt even when coming down. It’s quite rough on an unsuspended bike and adds substantial time (and discomfort) to your descent.

What Gear to Bring to Climb Mauna Kea by Bike:  

We have always done the paved portion of the climb with a compact disk and in 2011 (28t cassette at age 55), 2013 (30t age 57), 2014 (32t age 58), 2018 (28t chainring and 42t cassette - age 61 - see a trend here . . )  In 2018 I used a specially fitted Roubaix Crux cross bike that I used 30mm tires for pavement and 40mm knobby tires for the gravel.  As noted above, bring very warm clothes for the top.  You may also wish to bring breathable rain gear because there is a good chance of rain in Hilo, regardless of the month you pick to tackle the climb.

Micah Ling’s bike:  1. Moots Routt RSL -- same bike all the way up. I started with about 55 psi, lowered to about 30 for the gravel, did not reinflate.    Maxxis Rambler tubeless tires, size 38.    I'd ride this setup again, just because I'm so used to it. The bike did me well even though I had to walk a couple sections. I might go up to 42 for the tires.  

Cycling Mauna Kea, Hawaii - photo collage, various colors of the sky while cycling Mauna Kea, PJAMM Cycling logo in corner

Bottom right photo:  Mauna Kea as seen from Waikoloa Road (55 miles - MK on left);

Other 4 photos are Mauna Kea as seen from Mauna Loa.

RIDE SEGMENTS

Where to Start:  The traditional start for Mauna Kea, and the location that ranks Mauna Kea as the highest rated bike climb in the world, is Hilo, Hawaii.  We have always used Airbnb or VRBO for our rental accomodations.  In 2018 we stayed in Hilo within one mile of the start which was perfect for the Mauna Kea climb.

Hilo is the traditional start for the Mauna Kea climb.

The alternate route from the west side of the Island (Mauna Kea West; commonly known as the “Kona side”) is 59 miles (15 miles longer than from Hilo) and thus necessarily ranks lower on the Fiets scale (21.82 v. 28.9 from Hilo).  The comparative statistics for the western approach are:  Miles:  59 v. 42.6, average grade 4.6% v. 6.1%. The first 44 miles from the west are at 3.3%.  The final 14.8 miles from the start of Mauna Kea Access Road to Summit are at 9.2% and go from 6,579’ to 13,771’; that stretch alone is a 23.4 Fiets which would rank the final leg of Mauna Kea at #4 in the world if we only rated that fraction of the entire climb.  What does that tell us?  Save your energy for the last 14 miles of the climb.  

View of Mauna Kea Summit from Mauna Loa as framed by cyclist.

Alternate start - Anaehoomalu Point, Waikoloa

First Leg, Hilo to Mauna Kea Access Road:  The first leg of this journey is the "easiest" part of the ascent.  With a Fiets score of 10 for this segment alone, it would rank #37 in the U.S. Top 100 (equal to Mt. Lemmon in Arizona).

Top left photo - Amazing banyan tree on Waianuenue Ave ½ mile up from the start.

Remaining photos:  Saddle Road (Hwy 200) miles 8.7 to 27.8 at 4.4% average grade)

  • Beginning elevation is nearly sea level, ending elevation for first segment is 6,584';
  • 4.5% average grade over 27.8 miles;
  • Includes the only two turns on this epic 42 mile adventure;    
  • The first three miles of the climb take us along the only urban portion of the route (along Waianuenue Avenue). Make sure to bend left at about mile 1.3 onto Kaumana Dr. which merges into Saddle Road (Highway 200) about five miles further up the volcano.​

Stacy Topping riding her bike on the Mauna Kea gravel.

Traffic flies by, but there is a very wide shoulder with rumble strip.

Second Leg, Mauna Kea Access Road to Visitor Center:  While the climb from Hilo to Mauna Kea Access Road is challenging, the section of this climb that makes it the most difficult in the world starts just after you begin your climb up the Access Road.  The Access Road part of the climb is broken into 3 parts and includes segments 2-4 of the full climb.

The grueling segment from Saddle Road to Visitor Center

  • 6.3 miles;
  • 8.5% average grade (some sections are 16%);
  • 2,586' gained;      
  • Begin 6,577', end 9,163';
  • 0' descended.

A couple of interesting signs along this segment.

Visitor Center - Swap out to a mountain bike here (these can be rented in Kailua at the Bike Works), or swap from road to cross bike tires. 

 Visitor Center at 9,200’ and 34 miles into the climb.

Some decent provisions at the Visitor Center: pre-made sandwiches, drinks, etc.

Warning signs at the Mauna Kea VC for altitude sickness, headaches etc.

Warning Signs, they don’t give you much incentive to continue past the Visitor Center.

   

Third Leg, Gravel Section: 2/10th mile after Visitor Center - you must have 4 wheel drive (Harpers Rentals in Kona and Hilo are great!).


Beginning of the gravel - 300 yards up from the Visitor Center 

           

  • 4.7 miles;
  • 11.1% average grade;
  • 2,408' gained;      
  • Begin 9,348’, end 11,756’
  • Five switchbacks that are murderous -- they are generally steeper than the straight road and at the steepest sections cause your rear wheel to slide towards the inside of the turn.

     

It’s a long, lonely grind up this segment.

Stacy Topping riding her bike on the Mauna Kea gravel.

Stacy Topping riding her bike on the Mauna Kea gravel.

Sorry for the shaky video, but . . . well . . . I was a bit shaky at the time . . .

   

4th and Final Leg, End of Gravel to the Summit:

  • 3.7 miles;
  • 9.3% average grade;
  • 2,020' gained;
  • Begin 11,756’, end 13,771';
  • At the end of the gravel, you may wish to  swap back to the road bike, or continue on the mountain bike with its lower gears as the final stretch presents a serious challenge to the climber with its altitude and extreme gradient in places.

Mt. Evans (14,125’), Pikes Peak (14,110’) and Mauna Kea (13,771’)

 are the only paved roads topping 13,000’ in the U.S.

The last brutal three miles -- the steepest segments of the climb are along this stretch:  ½ mile 15.9%, 1 mi 13.9%, 2.5 mi 12.6%.

 On top of the world!

Note, the full section from Mauna Kea Access Road to the Summit:   Approximately 14.8 miles, 9.9% average grade, 7,189' gained, 0' descended, 23.38 Fiets Index (by itself would rank this ride as #1 in the US, even eliminating the first 28 miles and 6,500' of climbing, that's how much of an absolute beast this part of the climb is. ​

From the finish of our ride you can hike to Mauna Kea Summit which is the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands

Mauna Kea Summit:  13,803’ (from its base under the sea = 33,500’ - tallest mountain in the world)

Bottom right photo:  view from Mauna Kea Summit back to cycling finish.

A comparison of the european cycling club BIG's top climbs confirms that Mauna Kea is THE world’s BIGest bike climb.

Riding the road bike at the top of Mauna Kea.

Thank you to Helmuth Dekkers, Netherlands for providing us this BIG climb comparison[2].

Helmuth’s summary of the climb is located further down this page.

Roadway and Traffic:  The roadway surface is always from very good to excellent (except for the 4.7 mile gravel section from miles 34-39).  Traffic is another matter.  The first six miles and last fourteen are fine.  The 22 miles on Saddle Road (Highway 200) are a bit more daunting as you are on a major highway which connects the east and west sides of the Island of Hawaii (the Big Island).  There is almost always a wide shoulder and deep rumble strips, but there are plenty of vehicles that whiz by at highway speed, so beware of that (bring flashing red taillights with backups and extra batteries in case your first set run out of power).

Supplies and Provisions:  After the convenience store on the south side of Waianuenue Avenue one mile from the start, there are no supply stops until 34 miles later at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center.  The four times we have climbed Mauna Kea we have gone unsupported to the Mauna Kea Access Road (mile 27.5), then unsupported again to the Visitor Center (6.3 miles) and then had SAG support intermittently from the Visitor Center to Summit.  

PJAMM cycling by bike to Mauna Kea Summit June 2011

Summit June, 2011.

    John and Rochelle Johnson at the top of Mauna Kea in 2011.

                                               Yes, that is Snow in the background . . . in June . . . in Hawaii!!!!

PJAMM Mauna Kea Summit 2013 climb by bike with Gemini Telescope in the background.

December, 2013 -- encountered snow. 

 PJAMM with Gemini telescope at Mauna Kea Summit 2014 at end of bike climb.

June, 2014. A perfect day, but still very windy and chilly -- high 40’s at top.

PJAMM cycling tour to Mauna Kea Summit 2017.

May 2018.

It does snow in Hawaii -

Top of Mauna Kea during winter 2020 with Mauna Loa in the background.

JOHN SUMMERSON SUMMARY

“Mauna Kea is another gian ascent on the Big Island of Hawaii and one of the most difficult and spectacular climbs in the world. After just over one mile in town turn left on Kaumana Road (which becomes Saddle Road). You soon leave the city over moderate grade along with a short flat. Rolling miles follow and signs of civilization (including traffic) soon end. The route becomes tree lined about 6 miles in as you continue to ride over mostly shallow grade. Laa slowly and eventually replaces trees as you ride between two massive shield volcanoes over a long section characterised by mostly shallow and rolling grade...Soon the grade eases within the magnificent saddle between the two giant mountains and just beyond mile 28 turn right for the top.

This is quite isolated and spectacular territory and the next section continues as shallow and through grassy fields (there were a few cattle hanging around this area when the author was on this hill) and then gradually gets steeper as you ride. Just over 3 miles into this upper section you encounter the first of two steep ramps. The initial one lasts for over one mile and then the slope moderates. Very soon the 3nd and steeper ramp appears and lasts for one mile and is one of the steepest paved miles in the U.S. It also provides spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and lava fields in places as you ascend. Soon the grade eases, there is a small descent, climbing resumes over moderate grade and you reach the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center (on the right) which is an interesting place to spend some time (and fuel up for the return trip as needed). Just beyond the Visitor’s Center the pavement and listed climb mercifully ends within a lunar like landscape with long views from high points. If you reach this point you hae come a long way.

A somewhat soft (mountain bike) gravel road heads to the very top of the mountain (pavement reappears a few miles from the summit) and its high altitude and world famous observatories. Snow occasionally accumulates on top in winter which is quite a sight. If and when the unpaved section is paved this hill may well become the world’s most difficult paved road climb. It is tough enough as is so go prepared if you tackle it (there are no services onces you leave Hilo). Keep in mind Mauna Kea is a giant descent as well.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 178.)

That’s a wrap!!


[1] Note to readers (post date 1-21-20):  As of January 23, 2020 bicycles are “officially” no longer allowed on Mauna Kea past the Visitor Center.  We have heard from successful rides to the top that this prohibition is not strictly enforced. To double check the prohibition in the future, call Mauna Kea Visitor Center at 808 934-4550.  However, please also note that one group has contacted us to advise that they rode to the top after 1-21-20 without incident and as of  May 16, 2020 Todd Marohnic (Volcano, Hawaii) advises:

“We didn't summit Mauna Kea, just to the Visitor's Center BUT the good news is I talked to a Ranger and we can still ride to the summit! Just have to stop in and fill out a hikers permit at the Visitor's Center.”

[2] These are Helmuth’s personal comments, not as a representative of BIG.