Do I need a 4-wheel drive in Hawaii?

A four-wheel drive on a car rental is unnecessary on any Hawaiian Islands, although they can come in handy on Molokai. Incidentally, car rental companies DO NOT allow any of their cars to be taken off the pavement, even if they are 4-wheel drive (4WD). Therefore, going onto any unpaved area in Hawaii is a car rental contract violation. So as long as you stay on the paved portion, all is good.

Can I drive my rental car on Saddle Road?

Yes. Our rental partners allow their rental cars on Saddle Road. Saddle Road, which is State Route 200 on the Big Island, is now completely paved from the Kona side to the Hilo side of the Big Island. Therefore, it takes approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel Saddle Road between the Big Island’s Hilo and Kailua Kona sides.

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The Mauna Kea Observatory Access Road:

This road between Saddle Road and the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center is paved. However, it is not paved beyond the visitor’s center and all the way up to the observatory. Traveling beyond the visitor’s center can be very dangerous, especially in foggy conditions. It is forbidden to take rental cars on this portion of the road.

How to get to the Mauna Kea Observatory:

If you want to go up to the Mauna Kea Observatory past the Visitor Center, you will need to find a commercial tour company. You can also find a company in Hilo to rent you a 4WD, allowing their vehicles on this unpaved portion. But be advised that this section can be treacherous, especially in inclement weather. Take care, as Mauna Kea is a 14,000 mountain and you can also get altitude sickness.

Saddle Rd sign

Company policies for the Mauna Kea Observatory Access Road to the Visitor Center:

Saddle Road Driving Restrictions
Where is it okay to drive a rental car?

Avis Saddle Road Policies Budget Saddle Road Policies Dollar Saddle Road Policies Enterprise Saddle Road Policies Hertz Saddle Road Policies Thrifty Saddle Road Policies
On Saddle Road between Hilo and Kona: Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok
From Saddle Road to the Visitor’s Center:
This road is called the “ Mauna Kea Observatory Access Road.” It is the paved road that goes between between Saddle Road and the Visitor’s Center.
Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok Ok
From the Visitor’s Center up to the Observatory:
This road is not paved and can be hazardous in poor weather conditions such as rain, fog, sleet, snow. See Saddle Road Cautions below.
No No No No No No

Saddle Road Cautions:

Please be advised of these possible road conditions and challenges:

  • There are no street lights.
  • There are no services whatsoever; no gas, no food, nothing. It’s a country road.
  • Repair and construction:
  • The older paved section of Saddle Road can be hazardous because of rough pavement and possible potholes.
  • Wild critters like goats, cattle, turkeys and pigs wander on the road, day and night.
  • Visibility can be poor due to weather conditions, heavy rain, flooding, and fog with zero visibility.
  • Little to no cell phone reception.
  • If you break down, it could be hours before a tow truck arrives to help.
  • Military vehicles cross, enter and leave this road. You may also encounter slow-moving military convoys.

Does car rental insurance cover me on Saddle Road?

You’re covered as long as there is no evidence of going off the pavement. Going off the pavement is considered a contract violation at which time the coverages would be null and void.

What if my rental car breaks down on Saddle Road?

If a rental car breaks down, stalls out, quits running, or won’t start on Saddle Road, does the rental car company pay to come and get it? If the customer purchases roadside assistance protection and there are no contract violations, then yes. But be aware that Saddle Road is in a fairly remote area of the island so it would be hours before anyone would be able to get to you. If the tow service company that is called doesn’t take the insurance coverage then the customer may be charged for the tow depending on the situation. It is suggested that the customer call their own insurance company or auto club for a tow. The Rental locations really try to discourage customers from going this way because it is dangerous and so far from anything. Mobile phones don’t good reception in this area.

Is there an alternate route to Saddle Road?

If you’re traveling between Hilo to Kona and you enjoy beautiful tropical Hawaiian scenery, Saddle Road is not the way to go. Though it has its own special scenic beauty, it is quite barren, dry and rocky. It’s probably better to take the north coast highway so you can stop off along the way in the small towns, botanical gardens and small beach parks along the way.

Saddle Road construction

Saddle Road, or Hawaii Route 200, has a significant history on the Big Island. It began as a traditional footpath used by native Hawaiians for travel and trade. Over time, it transformed into a vital cross-island route connecting the eastern and western sides. Saddle Road served as a lifeline, facilitating cultural interactions, the exchange of goods, and navigation through rugged terrain.