For many years, car rental companies did not allow their cars on Saddle Road (Hwy 200) – the road that crosses along the slope of Mauna Kea from east to west. Recently some rental car companies have relaxed that policy. That’s great news for us visitors who want to check out Hawaii’s excellent stargazing.
The car rental company policies vary on how far off of Saddle Road, their renters can drive. The Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB) provided this helpful list detailing permissible road access by car rental company:
Saddle Road (Hwy 200) access only
- Alamo Rent A Car
- Avis Rent A Car
- Budget Car Rental
- Enterprise Rent-A-Car
- National Car Rental
Saddle Road (Hwy 200) plus access up to the Onizuka (Mauna Kea) Visitor Center, but not beyond
- Thrifty Car Rental
- Hertz *
- Dollar Rent a Car **
Saddle Road (Hwy 200) plus Onizuka Visitor Center and all the way up to the summit (4-wheel drive only)
- Harper Car & Truck Rentals of Hawaii
All the rental car companies listed allow access to Saddle Road, which in turn, allows access to Mauna Kea State Recreational Area as well as other turn out points off the road. From there, you could do your own stargazing.
As you can see from the list, only a few car rental companies provide access up to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station on Mauna Kea at 9300-foot above sea level. This center offers a free nightly star gazing program.
Though one car rental company permits access all the way to the summit at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, I advise you refrain from driving to the summit on your own. The atmosphere at the summit has 40% less oxygen than sea level. This lower oxygen level could have unpredictable effects on your mind and body.
If you don’t want to drive Saddle Road, you can always take a guided tour which goes all the way up to the summit for sunset and then stargazing. We did that in 2008 and loved it. See: Advice for Mauna Kea sunset and stargazing tours.
Rental car policies are subject to change. Therefore, we advise you verify road access directly with the rental company of your choice.
Thanks to the BIVB for list detailing rental car road access.
We tried to confirm Hertz’ policy, but could not reach a contact at Hertz after repeatedly trying and the BIVB did not reply to follow up questions. If the Hertz Never Lost program is any indicator, their planning tool lists Mauna Kea Information Center as an attraction that can be added to individual trip plans, but that’s only an assumption at this point. Update: we were able to confirm with Hertz that they do permit their cars as far as the Mauna Kea Visitors Center.
** We are reluctant to recommend Dollar Rent a Car because our last rental car from them was roach infested. That happened nearly four years ago, so perhaps things have changed now, but after a nightmarish experience, we are scared to risk trying them again.