2020-3-2 | Chevy New Roads Magazine
Driving the Big Island
Driving on the Island of Hawaii is unlike driving just about anywhere else on the planet. The landscape underneath the roadways is animated (and often edited) by volcanic activity, when not encroached upon by the irrepressible plant life that carpets this place. As a result, narrow highways roll across the Big Island almost as if they’d grown there, not been paved in place. Find the right stretch of road, with a willing car as a companion, and the Hawaiian island turns from simple paradise to driver’s paradise.
The 2020 Camaro SS is just the tool for roads like these. Of course, the potent 455-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8 engine makes the Camaro SS magical anytime a straight stretch of road opens up. And on the many beautiful, twisting stretches of Hawaiian roadway, the excellent steering response and supple suspension make cruising a joy.
You can reliably find fun driving roads the world over by heading to the coast, or into the hills, and the same is true of Hawaii. Point your car toward geological activity, and you’re bound to find a few curves. But for some of the most interesting driving, along with jaw-dropping views on the Big Island, set aside a few days to explore these locations—you won’t regret it.
Kalapana-Kapoho Road / State Route 137
Hawaii State Route 137 is still named Kalapana-Kapoho Road on many signs and maps, but that is a misnomer. Head northeast on 137 out of the funky little village of Kalapana and you will indeed be pointing toward Kapoho, but the road won’t get you there anymore. In 2018, earthquakes hit the Puna region, opening fissures in the earth through which lava erupted. The flow cut off Route 137 just north of Isaac Hale Park, which today is an unmissable reminder that this is a landscape in constant flux.
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2020 Camaro SS
The 14 miles or so between Kalapana and Isaac Hale are worth the excursion. The road skirts the coast, regularly opening up for the kinds of views that only Hawaii can offer. Palm trees lounge on rocky cliffsides, looking for all the world like a postcard come to life. Grassy hills to the south give way to jungle scenery, especially through the Malama-Ki Forest Reserve, where one might slow down for a pass through tunnels of overhanging trees. It’s wise to slow down here, partly because of the many blind crests on undulating hills, but also for frequent wildlife crossings—darting mongooses, stray chickens, and even the occasional feral pigs.
The Camaro’s available 10-speed automatic transmission, which offers individual gear control by way of paddle shifters, is a perfect fit for a morning drive up and down 137. Even at modest speeds this setup is satisfying to use, allowing the driver to keep the engine in the sweet spot of the rev range with the flex of a finger. Don’t forget to roll the windows down for the double pleasure of hearing the sweet V8 burble and taking in the green smells of the forest all around you. If you feel like lingering on the Puna coast for a bit longer, downshift and turn into any of the parks or little beaches that dot this route.
Saddle Road / State Route 200
Resting between Mauna Kea to its north and Mauna Loa to its south, Saddle Road seems like a more fitting descriptor than its official map designation of State Route 200. The road climbs westward out of Hilo and connects with Route 190 to form the central east-west corridor on the Big Island. Though the ride up from the coast doesn’t scale the heights of the peaks that stand guard to either side, having 455 pound-feet of torque on tap does not go amiss on the ascent to more than 6,600 feet.
Saddle moves quickly from merely picturesque to fascinating after its northern split toward Waimea. Here the roadsides roll out into green fields and verdant hillocks to either side, evoking a buckled version of the Great Plains.
For years after its construction in the 1940s, this stretch of road was considered downright dangerous, with narrow shoulders, wicked elevation changes, and generally poor upkeep. These days the surface is well attended to and wider, leaving a ribbon-like stretch of asphalt seemingly custom-made for sports cars and driving enthusiasts. The rolling road steams over big hills and around fence lines, making Saddle hugely entertaining even at the posted 55- and 60-mile-per-hour speed limits.
This high portion of the island is also prone to rapidly changing weather conditions. Cloudless blue skies can give way to menacing fog in short order. So while Saddle Road is almost custom-made to exploit the Camaro SS’s quick steering, athletic chassis, great grip, and Brembo® performance-tuned brakes, it still pays to keep your head on a swivel. The very same conditions that provide such a thrilling drive also make this hilly stretch of blacktop utterly jaw dropping, with moody skies and never-ending vistas. It’s worth the effort to find one of the few safe places to pull off and take some photos.
Observatory Road / Mauna Loa
By far the slowest and most isolated of our recommended routes, the single-lane trace know as Observatory Road (which winds 11,141 feet up to the Mauna Loa Observatory) is akin to embarking on an alien planet. The effects of volcanic activity can be seen everywhere on Hawaii, but few places lay the story simmering under the ground quite so bare as these slopes.
The road itself is improbable—almost fantastic—when you consider the task of paving a path on one of Earth’s most active volcanoes. Mauna Loa has erupted some 33 times since 1843, and though the last event was in 1984, the landscape around the road writes that history large. The road surface is a surprisingly flawless strip of blacktop straddling pulverized lava rock and surrounded by unending reddish-black fields of char.
Speed isn’t advisable on Observatory; the posted limit of 25 miles per hour is entirely sensible considering the way the road twists over rises and turns unexpectedly, to say nothing of the occasional intrepid cyclist you’ll encounter. The Camaro proves a willing companion, though, smoothly gliding through this moonscape with excellent road manners.
The available Head-Up Display is also quite useful here, allowing the driver to keep eyes focused firmly ahead to scout for sometimes fast-arriving oncoming traffic. If you do encounter someone headed down while you’re driving up, don’t panic: Road engineers allowed for frequent pull-off spots to get out of harm’s way.
It can take nearly an hour to drive the 17 or so miles from Saddle Road to the observatory, but it’s worthwhile to stop along the way. Cut the engine and step out of the car, and you’re rewarded with an unbroken silence that’s unusual in the modern world, incredible views of the epic landscape below, and air quality that will make you breathe deep.
There are also sightseeing and hiking to be done once you’ve reached the observatory, but remember to dress warmly, bring sun protection, and drink lots of water—at over 11,000 feet, the views are great but the environment can quickly become overwhelming in a variety of ways.
Three spectacular roadways, one incredible driver’s car, and a singular island full of possibilities. The Chevrolet Camaro SS was engineered for the spectacular places of the world, and the Big Island is a still-evolving paradise that offers a million different ways to enjoy the journey.
STORY: SEYTH MIERSMA / PHOTOGRAPHY: JUSTIN WIRTALLA / DRONE PHOTOGRAPHY: BAYLY BUCK