Hawaii. I could write 10,000 words on how much I love this state. From Maui’s Road to Hana to the spectacular cliffs of Kauai, Hawaii is a magical destination. It is also one of the most expensive places to visit in the United States (that’s what you get for being in the middle of the ocean).
Because of the high price tag, many travelers never make it to the islands. They see the price of the fancy resorts and luaus, hug their bank accounts, and decide this is another great year to visit the in-laws (family first…unless it’s Hawaii.)
However, Hawaii doesn’t have to break the bank for you to bask in some beautiful waterfalls and dip your toes in crystal waters. Hawaii has seven main islands- most travelers visit Oahu (the island with Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) or Maui (picture golf courses and fancy resorts). Those are the big dogs of tourism, which also means they are the most crowded and most expensive. If you’re looking for adventure that won’t make you have major credit card hangover once you return, the Big Island is the destination for you. This island also offers more as far as eco-diversity and outdoor adventure!
We chose to fly into Kona and rent a car to explore the island for a week. While a car rental may seem expensive (especially in the age of Covid), it is the best way to see the island without having to follow a bus schedule or depend on taxis (Uber is not always available). We rented through Budget, but all the car rentals are just a short shuttle ride from the airport, so pick the agency with the best price.
This itinerary covers 5 days on the island, but you could squeeze it into 3 if you have less time. However, keep in mind that the driving estimates are estimates, so you may have to skip a few items to fit a shorter schedule. (The Big Island is big. It is 95 miles from the northern tip to the southern tip and 80 miles across with the average speed being around 45 mph).
We started and ended at Kona International Airport. If you are flying into Hilo, you could still follow this plan, just in reverse. (Hint: If you are going in reverse, be sure to check the times on some of the attractions because you will be arriving later in the day).
The driving times are actual times on the road and do not include time spent on stops or possible traffic. Use them as a rough estimate as you plan your adventure. If you’re into history or local legends, download the Shaka app to listen to stories about the sights along the way!
Day 1: Kona (1 hour of driving total)
We flew into Kona International Airport around midday and picked up our rental car from Budget. You can catch the car rental shuttle just outside the arrival gate for all rental agencies.
Kona is on the west side of the Big Island, which is also the dry side. You are surrounded by lava flows cast in the shadow of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes. This is the side of sunshine, beaches, and lava rock.
From the airport, we headed north about 10 minutes to Kekaha Kai State Park. This is a great place to say hello Hawaii! The park features lava flows, a beautiful beach, bathrooms, coastal hiking trails, and a hike to the summit of Pu’u Ku’ili, a 342-foot high cinder cone which offers great views along the coast (bring water!) The turn can be hard to spot on the highway, so be sure to have it in your Google Maps before you leave the rental lot (Here’s a pin to put into your navigation).
The Kekaha Kai State Park road is part road, part lava flow. It makes for a fun driving experience, but take it slow to avoid bottoming out in one of the many ditches. Once you arrive, prepare for one of the most beautiful beaches on the Big Island complete with lava rock that dips into the ocean, great snorkeling, and beautiful walks along the coast. If you have a keen eye, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle amongst the surf in Mahaiula Bay. If you have time, take the coast walk to Makalawena Beach. It’s 2 miles from the parking lot (4 miles roundtrip), but the reward is a beach that can’t be reached by the road, and it is wonderfully seclusive and serene. Be careful if swimming, as rip currents are always a risk.
After leaving the park, we headed south towards the town of Kona (15 minute drive). Warning, Kona does have tight roads, so just drive slowly and be patient when it comes to parking. We went to the downtown area on Alii Drive for some sunset viewing, dinner, and shopping. Hulihe’e Palace is located within walking distance of the restaurant area. You can tour the palace Tuesday-Saturday for $10.
We spent the evening in Kona and had an amazing Hawaiian dinner at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill. Kona is a great place to catch the sunset, so be sure to be downtown for the golden hour to celebrate in the final rays of a beautiful day on Hawaii.
Day 2: Kona to Pololū Valley Lookout to Kona (3 hours of driving total)
Starting from our hotel in Kona, we headed back north along highway 19 for Day 2 of our Big Island Adventure. Passing the state park we visited the day before, we continued north to Kiholo Bay. This is another beautiful coastal area featuring black sand and rocks. We didn’t have time, but if you’re here later in the day, plan to take a swim into The Queen’s Bay, a flooded lava tube located a short walk away from the small parking lot.
From there, we continued north to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Entrance to the park is free and open from 7:30am-5pm. (While entrance is free, I recommend buying a National Park Annual Pass before leaving the mainland. The $80 fee will pay for itself by the end of the trip and you’ll have free entrance to all NPS sites for the rest of the year!). We spent about an hour walking among structures left from Hawaii’s original inhabitants. There isn’t much as far as a visitor center, but for $2 you can sign up for a guided tour or try your best to go off the details on the map they give you (I had a history teacher with me, so I cheated). We also chose to pack a picnic and have lunch on one of the many picnic tables over-looking the Pacific Ocean (Pro Tip: Picnics save money and time when road-tripping!)
From the historic park, we continued north on Highway 270 along the coast towards Māhukona Beach Park. This portion of the drive is breathtaking as the road rises up along the highlands and gives spectacular views of the ocean. Have your passengers keep an eye on the water as this is one of the best places on the island to catch sight of humpback whales in the winter/spring season (we were there in March). Look for a spray of water above the waves or even watch the whale-watching helicopters buzz over. Just try not to crash when you start squealing with excitement at your sighting (not from experience at all….)
You can stop at the beach park, but we continued onwards to the town of Hawi. This is also a great option for lunch if you’re not a picnic person, as the town is small but adorable with cute little cafes and stores. This is also one of the few places to get gas along this route, so if you’re running low, better fill up. After stopping at a few tourist shops in Hawi, we finished up our northern route at the main attraction of the day, Pololū Valley Lookout. The route between the town and lookout features breathtaking views of waterfalls and cliffs, so take your time and enjoy!
This lookout provides one of the best views on the entire island. Parked at the north edge of the island, you can stand at the view point and see down the eastern coast. With the jungle-covered hills and dropping seaside cliffs, it is a sight that challenges even the most spectacular views on Kauai and Maui. (Read more about the geological significance of this area here.)
If you get here early (or even plan to spend the night in this area), do the hike into the Pololu Valley. It’s only a mile to the black sand beach at the bottom, but that’s a mile with a 350 ft elevation change (think stairs. Lots of stairs). Be careful if you plan on swimming here. The beach is known of dangerous jellies and large waves (this is the windward side of the island, after all).
After enjoying the sights, we headed back towards Kona, taking highway 250 (Known as the “Kohala Mountain Rd”) toward Waimea. This is a beautiful route to take in the afternoon. You’ll be passing Mauna Kea on the left (don’t worry, you’ll get a closer view later on in the trip).
The area of Waimea looks more like a picture out of a western than a Hawaiian island (it’s also a white guy’s cattle ranch…so it makes sense). If you happen to get there when the clouds are rolling through, prepare to feel like you’re on another planet. This is truly one of the best drives on the island.
You can stop in Waimea for dinner (steak, anyone?). We chose to continue on, staying along Route 190 for the entire way back to Kona. This meant we didn’t have to backtrack on 19, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the highland road. We finished up the day with another dinner in the town of Kona before heading to bed.
Day 3: Kona to Hilo (4-5 hours of driving total)
You could easily spend a few more days around Kona, but our time schedule didn’t allow for it. The next morning we woke up bright and early to drive the Coastal Highway 11 from Kona to Pahoa (where we had an AirBnB booked for the week). If you are driving the coastal route from Kona to Hilo, plan to spend the entire day along the route. There’s so much to see and do that you may even want to consider stopping halfway (as we did), and continuing on or going back to places the next day. I’ve listed today’s itineraries into separate stops so you can pick and choose which one catch your interest.
Stop 1: Kahalu’u Beach Park (Google Map Pin here)
This stop is just south of Kona, so we hit it very early in the morning. Typically, this beach is a great place to snorkel and a great spot to see sea turtles. However, we were there too early to snorkel (and I’m vain enough not to want salty hair all day). We stopped for about 20 minutes to walk around the park, look at some tide pools, and play in the black sand.
Stop 2: Captain Cook Town
20 minutes south of Kona is the town of Captain Cook. Situated in the heart of coffee country, the town has a fantastic view of the ocean. Things start getting greener on the drive here as we leave behind lava fields in exchange for giant ferns, dropping sea cliffs, and twisting roads. We only spent a few minutes in this town, because we had a deadline to meet our Airbnb host. However, if you have more time, stop by and visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (open 10am-2pm, so plan accordingly). If you have even more time, spend an hour walking the 4-mile Captain Cook Monument Trail for some great ocean views and coffee field vistas.
Stop 3: St. Benedict Catholic Church (Google Map Pin here)
This was a random stop we made on our way to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and it was worth it! Tucked into the hillside overlooking the ocean, this painted church is the perfect stop to stop and reflect on the beauty around you (or you know, repent for sins. I’m not religious but pretty buildings are pretty buildings).
This tiny church has been around since 1899, and the paintings are still vibrant and colorful. Around the church is a gorgeous garden featuring flowers and plants local to the island (ok, there might be a few invasives in there). It’s free to enter the church, but you can donate at the unmanned booth in the front. Or you can purchase a souvenir, placing your money into the donation box (be sure to bring cash!)
Stop 4: Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Google Map Pin here)
This was the second historical stop we made on our trip, and it was by far my favorite. More established, with an actual visitor center, Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a great place to learn more about the native Hawaiian culture and history. Estimated to be over 450 years old, this ceremonial site features remnants of a great wall, reconstructed buildings, and cultural demonstrations. Open from 8:15am to sunset, the entrance fee is $20 per a vehicle (or free if you have that Annual Park Pass I mentioned before.)
We spent a couple hours here, but you could spend all day. Just outside the park is Honaunau Bay, which has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Based on the amount of colorful fish I saw in the water, I believe it! It is also worth it to walk out onto the lava rocks around the park. The waves crashing over the black rocks are stunning. You also get the extra perk of seeing some cool tidal pools (just leave the fancy shoes at home. You’re going to want sturdy sandals or tennis shoes for this outing).
Stop 5: Manuka State Wayside (Google Map Pin here)
This is the longest portion of the drive so far on this trip, so I like to break things up a bit. This small park offers a great place to have a picnic or stretch your legs. Nestled on the side of Mauna Loa, this roadside park has picnic tables, a two-mile walking trail, and beautiful flora to admire. We didn’t stop due to Covid restrictions, but check it out and tell me how it is! (I’m always looking for a reason to go back). If you’re interested in lava tubes, Kula Kai Caverns is right down the road. You have to pay to tour these ancient caves, so I prefer to do my lava-tube exploring in the national park.
Stop 6: Punalu’u Bake Shop (Google Map Pin here)
I’m hungry just writing this, so chances are you will be starving by the time you get here (we definitely were!). Located in the town of Naalehu is one of the greatest gems on the island, Punalu’u Bake Shop. If you’re on a diet then consider this your cheat day, and it is worth it. Pop in and grab yourself a chunk of their famous Hawaiian sweet bread (or several loaves…). They also have sweet Malasadas that pair perfectly with that afternoon coffee. I had the apple-filled one, and I still dream about it.
Stop 7: Volcanoes National Park
Forcing away a sugar coma, we continued 30 minutes down the road towards Volcanoes National Park. The park is open 24/7 and it costs $30 per a car to enter (unless you bought that annual pass. See? It’s mostly paid for itself already). At the time of writing, the visitor center was under limited hours for Covid, so be sure to check the site linked above for hours when you visit.
Because it was later in the day, we only planned on a short stop here. I recommend giving this park at least 2 days in your itinerary, as there is so much to see here and the park is huge. If you only have a day, here are the highlights we hit in about 2 hours:
- Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center of the park and a great place to get oriented. You’re going to want to pack a jacket for this part of the day, as Volcano, Hawaii is 3,700 feet in elevation and it gets chilly in the evenings (if you spend the night here or camp, definitely pack some warm clothes).
- Walk from the visitor center to the Sulphur Banks and Steam Vents. You can also drive there to save time. Plan for about 30 minutes to walk through this area, admiring an active volcano scene and sweeping vistas into the Kīlauea crater (an active volcano!).
- Drive down Crater Rim Drive to the Kilauea Overlook for another great viewpoint.
- Turn around and head past the visitor center to Thurston Lava Tubes. There is limited parking at the tubes so park here and walk the 10 minute trail to the lava tubes (you’ll be rewarded with some great views along the way). Plan to spend about an hour exploring this amazing geological feature. Be warned there are stairs and some dark spots, so talk with a ranger at the visitor center if you have concerns.
From here, we left the park for the day, with plans on coming back the next day. You can chose to stay in the park, stay in Volcano (the town), or continue on to Hilo or Pahoa and circle back. Our AirBnB was in Pahoa, so we were only about an hour away. (Check out the link if you want an awesome place to stay!) We finished up our long day of sightseeing by picking up groceries in Pahoa’s center, making dinner at our AirBnB to save money, and wrapped up the day by drinking wine on our gorgeous porch overlooking the ocean.
Day 4: Volcanoes National Park (at least 2 hours of driving in the park)
We went back for more the next day, and I definitely recommend planning to spend a full day in the park. Beyond the stops mentioned above, some of my other favorite things to do in the park include:
- Kīlauea Iki Trail: 4 mile trail that goes down into the crater (stair warning)
- Devastation Trail: .5 mile stroller-friendly trail that goes through site of 1959 eruption
- Chain of Craters Road: 19-mile park road that goes past numerous craters before ending at the ocean. Plan on spending a couple hours for all the stops and photo ops available. Check at the visitor center for any road closures. (Full list of stops can be found here.)
- Puʻuloa Petroglyphs: largest petroglyph field on Hawaii (over 23,000 petroglyphs!)
- Hōlei Sea Arch: The end of the road at the ocean (it used to go further, but then lava covered it). Take a minute to admire the arch, breathe in the ocean air, then head back the way you came.
Day 5: Hilo to Kona (4 hours of driving with side trips)
Hilo is on the wet side of the island, so it’s the polar opposite of where we started in this journey (pack a rain jacket and bug spray for this day). Instead of lava fields, you are rewarded with lush rainforests that make you feel like you’ve traveled back into the Jurassic period (original idea, I know). The drive back to Kona is an hour and a half, so you can have a full day exploring this side of the island.
We started our day with a stroll through Hilo’s Farmers Market (open 7 days a week from 6am-3pm. “Big Market Days” are Wednesday and Saturday). The market is a great place to pick up custom-made Hawaiian jewelry or blankets, sample some locally-grown fruit, or grab more of that delicious Hawaiian bread you keep thinking about. Check here for more information on the market. As you munch on the yummy things you bought, spend some time walking around downtown (located right by the market). There are plenty of quirky shops and cozy cafes to dip into should it start to rain.
Next, we grabbed our hiking shoes and headed to Akaka Falls State Park. This .4 mile loop leads to a 442-foot waterfall, and you can instantly cause instagram-jealously with the endless photo ops here. (Parking is limited, so get there early or be prepared to walk up the road).
From the falls, we continued up the windward side of the island toward Laupahoehoe Point. It’s only 30 Google Map minutes from Akaka Falls, but we spent over an hour on the drive there. The road is one of the prettiest in all of Hawaii, and hugs the coastline the entire way. Once you get to the sharp turn down to Laupahoehoe, you are rewarded with vistas spanning the entire Hilo coast. At the bottom of the road is a beautiful beach park with picnic tables, old trees, surging waves, and lava rocks (this is not a beach for swimming). We had a nice picnic here and enjoyed the sound of crashing waves on the rocks. There is also a memorial here for 1941 tsunami that struck this coast, destroying a school that was here. Looking up at the towering cliffs, it’s a chilling reminder of nature’s power.
After getting our daily dose of morbid, we headed back towards Hilo to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. At $25 a person, this is an expensive stop, but a must-do for any orchid-lovers out there. Even if you don’t want to stop at the garden, take the turn off of 19 onto Old Mamalahowa Highway. This narrow, winding road goes through beautiful lush forest and over crystal rivers. Stop at the small bridge for a great photo op along the route.
From here, we went back into the heart of Hilo to Wailuku River State Park. This 80-foot waterfall park is easily accessible for everyone, and the waterfalls are right by the parking lot. From here, you can continue onto the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. Due to Covid, these sights were closed when we visited (so, go check them out and send me some pictures!)
After finishing up in Hilo, we headed back towards Kona on highway 200. If you have extra time and an itch for adventure, check out Kaumana Caves on your way out of town. If you have sturdy shoes and a flashlight, you can descend into these massive lava tubes and explore away (no admission fee into this state park).
Along highway 200 towards Hilo, we drove between Hawaii’s main landmarks, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If you have extra time, plan to do this drive in the early evening so you can drive up to the Mauna Kea Observatory and catch a truly spectacular view of the night sky (this is one of the darkest and clearest observation points in the world!). The Visitor Information Center offers astronomy talks, stargazing tours, and science-nerd galore. Be on the lookout for the endangered Nene bird on your way up Mauna Kea, as they can usually be spotted along the road or in the surrounding fields.
While this itinerary does hit some highlights of the Big Island, there is always more to see. I like to focus on outdoor activities and sightseeing on my adventures, but there is something for everyone on the Big Island.
If you’re a major beach goer, you could end this itinerary with a day of sun-soaking at Hapuna Beach State Park. If you enjoy shore diving, Beach 69 is a great location to grab a tank and dive under the waves. All of these adventures are fun, memorable, and affordable. If you have more time in Kona and a bit of extra cash, opt for a whale watching tour to get a closer sight of these beautiful mammals.
Hawaii has a reputation for being incredibly expensive, saved for those special honeymoons or retirement trips only. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By being flexible in your island-selection, willing to opt for outdoor adventures over shopping (perk, outdoor stuff is usually free), and skipping the restaurants for picnics and airbnb-cooked meals, you can enjoy a beautiful location without counting every dollar going out.
Have a location or a tip I missed? Drop a comment below about what you love about Hawaii’s Big Island! Like, share, and spread the love so we can all get out there and explore. Aloha!