Tropical flora, idyllic beaches, and the world's most active volcano
|Mileage||254 miles (410 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||5 hours, 13 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||All Seasons|
|Roadways||Hawaii Highways 11, 19, 19, 250, and 270, Alii Highway, Banyan Drive, Hau Street, Hawaii Belt Road, Indian Tree Road, Kaahumanu Road, Kamehameha III Road, Kawaihae Street, Kuakini Highway, Lihiwai Street, Lindsey Road, Mamalahoa Bypass Road, and Palani Road|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Kailua-Kona, HI▼, Holualoa, HI▼, Kealakekua, HI▼, Captain Cook, HI▼, Naalehu, HI▼, Pahala, HI▼, Volcano, HI▼, Mountain View, HI▼, more...Kurtistown, HI▼, Keaau, HI▼, Pahoa, HI▼, Hilo, HI▼, Papaikou, HI▼, Pepeekeo, HI▼, Honomu, HI▼, Hakalau, HI▼, Ninole, HI▼, Papaaloa, HI▼, Laupahoehoe, HI▼, Paauilo, HI▼, Honokaa, HI▼, Waikoloa, HI▼, Hawi, HI▼, Kapaau, HI▼, Kalaoa, HI▼, Kaupulehu, HI▼, Kiholo, HI▼, Makalawena, HI▼, Keauhou, HI▼, Honalo, HI▼, Kainaliu, HI▼, Waihou, HI▼, Kealia, HI▼, Papa, HI▼, Kapu‘a, HI▼, Waiohinu, HI▼, Glenwood, HI▼, Pu‘u‘eo, HI▼, Honohina, HI▼, Weloka, HI▼, ‘O‘okala, HI▼, Mana, HI▼, Kawaihae, HI▼, and Puako, HI▼|
2.6 average from 5 votes
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Imagine scenes of palm trees swaying in a warm breeze, the delicate beauty of tropical flowers, idyllic beaches, and volcanoes steaming and lava streaming. Exploring the “Big Island”, the largest of the six Hawaiian Islands, reveals a diverse landscape, rich culture, and exotic flavors. Whether you want to relax and unwind on sun-drenched beaches or kick it up with exhilarating activities, Hawaii offers everything you need to create your perfect dream vacation.
This scenic drive loops around the Big Island of Hawaii. We describe the drive beginning in Kona as most visitors will arrive at this airport, but feel free to start anywhere on the loop, or customize your adventure with daytrips from your base location. We recommend a minimum of three days to explore.
The Big Island is peppered with resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops, and glorious beaches. Whether you want to rent gear and head out on your own or join a guided tour — you’ll find a myriad of outfitters and tour operators for sport-fishing, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, whale-watching, manta ray excursions, jeep rentals, and so much more.
Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark (A1) preserves the site where King Kamehameha the Great lived from 1813 until his death in 1819. His legacy lies in the unification of all the Hawaiian Islands, by battle, under one ruling dynasty in 1810. Explore his reconstructed Heiau, dedicated to the god, Lono. The sheltered King Kam Beach is perfect for snorkeling and swimming with young children as there are no waves. Equipment rentals available on-site. Take in the views by day, and come back to watch the sunset.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park (H2) overlooks a gorgeous bay. Enjoy the views and park from the bluff, or hike the challenging downhill trail to the beach and the Captain Cook Monument. Not for the casual hiker, the 4.25-mile round trip drops 1,500-feet — and yes, you have to hike back up. If you do hike down, we suggest you go early and have water, sunscreen, a hat, and sturdy shoes. The translucent water of Kealakekua Bay is home to multicolored fish, turtles, and coral reefs which makes for incredible snorkeling. You can skip the hike, and explore Kealakekua Bay by taking a guided snorkel or kayak tour. When Captain Cook arrived here in 1778, he was honored by the native people, but during a conflict over a theft, Cook was killed in 1779. The obelisk to Captain Cook was erected in 1878. Also located here are the remnants of Hiki-au Heiau, a temple for human sacrifices. Note, having your own snorkel gear while in Hawaii will come in handy as there are a multitude of great locations to dive in. The park is free.
The Kona Coast boasts majestic ocean views and quaint, rural towns known for world-famous Kona coffee. Around Highway 160 are approximately 600 coffee farms. Many are open for tours where you can learn about coffee production and enjoy a tasting. Along the way, visit art galleries, shops and roadside stands offering local produce.
The H.N. Greenwell Store Museum (M1) was built in 1870. Today, walk through the restored general store stocked as it was in the past, and peruse photos and artifacts. On Thursdays, the scent of fresh-baked Portuguese bread wafts. Loaves are available for sale and they are delicious! The Portuguese originally came to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800’s. There is a small entrance fee and a discount if you visit the Kona Coffee Living History Farm as well. Both are owned by the Kona Historical Society. The Kona Historical Society also maintains the Jean Greenwell Library and Archives, which boasts a large collection of photos, maps, rare and out-of-print books, oral history interviews, video, and much more about Kona.
At the Kona Coffee Living History Farm (A2) learn about the life of Japanese coffee farmers through the original farm and farmhouse of the Uchida family who lived here in the 1930’s. Costumed-historians share the stories and depict the history behind Kona’s coffee industry and the multi-cultural generations of people who produced it.
Pu`uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (H3) preserves a “City of Refuge". Over 700-years ago, this was the place where no physical harm could come to those who reached its boundaries, offering peace and a second chance at life to those who broke laws punishable by death. Explore the Royal Grounds, historic structures, and the Great Wall which was constructed by hand over 400 years ago, and stands at 12-feet tall, 18-feet wide, and 965-feet long. Take part in ranger-led programs such as basket weaving demonstrations and native plant tours to learn more about ancient Polynesian culture. Visitors are asked to treat this sacred site with respect. Please do not bring beach umbrellas, coolers, picnics, pets, or play ball or Frisbee. The is an entrance fee or use your America The Beautiful Pass.
Adjacent, is Honaunau Bay (W2) a premier snorkel destination renowned for its shallow, calm water teeming with fish, moray eels, turtles, and if you’re lucky, octopus. In the distance look for frolicking dolphins. It is a very popular spot, so arrive early. Parking or entering from Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park is not permitted.
Milolii is a traditional fishing village shaped by the lava flows of Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on earth. It is remote, and offers few services, so be sure to have a full tank of gas if you intend to explore here. There are a few buildings on the Register of Historic Places, including The Magoon House built in the late 19th-century and most famous now as the house Elvis Presley stayed in when filming “Girls, Girl’s, Girls”, the St. Peter’s Catholic Church built in 1932 and the Hau’oli Kamana’o Church built in 1865. Then relax on the secluded Honomolino Beach.
The road winds its way to South Point Cliff Dive (A7) where brave thrill-seekers jump off the cliff into the water below, a distance of approximately 45-feet! Of course, you can just watch the action and immerse yourself in the beautiful, rugged, windswept views of the southernmost point of the Big Island of Hawaii.
One of Hawaii’s treasures is the variety of sand colors; black, green, white, or salt and pepper. Papakōlea Green Sand Beach (W3) simply dazzles due to green volcanic olivine crystals that blend with black and white sand. The 4.8-mile round trip hike to the beach does not make it the most accessible, but it is well worth the effort. Or catch a lift from locals with trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles that offer rides down, or up for a fee. Bring cash. Go early as there no shade and bring water. One of only four green sand beaches in the world, it is illegal to take any sand.
Just a few miles north is Punaluu Black Sand Beach (W4), the most famous black sand beach in Hawaii. While not the best swimming beach, the views are simply outstanding. Picnic in the shade of palm trees, observe hawksbill and green turtles, and a lily-covered lagoon. Nearby Ninole Cove offers a sheltered bay for snorkeling and a small snack shop.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (H4) is fascinating. Standing before the world’s most active volcano and a landscape that tells the story of previous eruptions is a lesson no geology classroom can teach, nor can art express. Viewing billowing steam and a boiling dance of molten rock is a humbling and beautiful experience. Begin at the Kilauea Visitor Center which showcases exhibits on volcanology, flora and fauna, and the island’s indigenous people. The film, “Born of Fire, Born of the Sea”, is shown on the hour. Get information on choosing a day hike from easy to challenging, or take part in ranger-led programs. Take the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive Tour which skirts around the caldera of the Kilauea volcano, passing highlights that include sulfur banks, steam vents, crater overlooks, the Thomas A. Jagger Museum, and the 600-foot Thurston lava tube. Chain of Craters Road is a 38-mile round trip adventure which descends 3,700-feet to where lava meets the Pacific Ocean. Along the way are trails and overlooks that explore the Pu‘u Huluhulu Cinder Cone, petroglyphs, the Holei Sea Arch and more. Have a full tank of gas water and food before heading out as there are no services along this road. Camp nearby at Namakanipaio Campground or the more rustic (no water) Kulanaokuaiki Campground, or stay in the historic Volcano House, the only lodging available inside the park. Please stay out of closed areas and be alert for unpredictable eruptions which can happen every day. Plan to watch the orange glow of molten lava at sunset or even later as the park is open 24/7. There is an entrance fee or use your America The Beautiful Pass.
The road continues. The Kapoho Tidepools (A8) offer superb snorkeling or just marvel at the bounty of fish that can be easily seen while standing on the wide, rocky lava slabs.
The city of Hilo is chock full of amenities, lodging, restaurants, museums, art galleries, shops, and services. Known as the “Orchid Capital”, thanks to an average rainfall of over 100 inches, discover a lush, tropical landscape. At Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (A4), admire over 2,000 species of exotic flowering plants, towering moss-covered palms, orchids, waterfalls, dramatic ocean views and more. There is a fee to enter.
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens (H6) is a 30-acre authentic Edo-style Japanese garden. It was created in 1917 as a tribute to Japanese immigrants who worked in Hawaii’s sugar cane fields. Meander the pathways and footbridges observing pagodas, sculptures, and plants such as bamboo, banyan and umbrella trees amid expansive views of Hilo Bay. The park is free.
Stop at Wailuku River State Park (H5) to gaze upon the 80-foot cascade of Rainbow Falls, and a rich tapestry of plants, trees and flowers. You can swim in the river below — always heed warnings of high winds and surf.
At Imiloa Astronomy Center (A3) explore our vast universe through informative and interactive exhibits. Learn about the night sky at the planetarium, delve into Hawaiian cultural beliefs, stroll through the outdoor native plant garden, and much more.
To see the stars just a little closer, head up to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station (I1). Views both celestial and terrestrial are sensational. The free, public star-gazing program from 6 -10pm is usually crowded and parking is scarce. Be patient and arrive early. A solar telescope is available for viewing the sun during the day, and there are interactive exhibits, a bookstore, and snack shop. Temperatures dip quite a bit at night, so bring a jacket. Be aware of altitude sickness. 9,200-feet of elevation can make people dizzy. Simply go back down if you feel unwell.
Close to downtown Hilo is Richardson’s Ocean Park (H7). Bask on the black sand beach and enjoy swimming, snorkeling, and surfing.
Walk the Akaka Falls Loop Trail to see both the 100-foot Kahuna Falls and the dramatic 422-foot cascade of Akaka Falls at Akaka Falls State Park (H8). Draped in lush plants, trees, and flowers, this is a picture-perfect excursion. There is an entrance day use fee.
Don’t miss the steep, winding road down to Laupahoehoe Beach Park (H9). Due to strong currents, swimming is not recommended, but pack a picnic and simply relax and prepare to be mesmerized as brilliant turquoise waters crash into jagged black lava rocks. Of historical note, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in a tsunami tidal wave in 1946. If you want to camp here, a permit is required.
The Kalopa State Recreation Area (H10) is an arboretum of native trees. Due to the altitude, the weather may be damp and cold but that just adds to the magical beauty of this rainforest environment. Free entrance. There are cabin rentals and camping with permit.
The Waipo Valley Lookout (V1) offers bounteous vistas of the valley, taro fields, black sand beach, and a chance to spot whales. Catch a glimpse of water-spouts or whale tails as they dip back into the ocean. Hiking down to the beach is recommended for seasoned hikers only with proper shoes and ample water. You can take a horseback or 4x4 tour to beach — or simply sit on the bluff with a picnic, inhale deeply, and relish the view.
Waimea is the largest town on the north side of the Big Island. Sample Hawaii’s delicious bounty at one of four farmers markets. Three are open on Saturday: the Waimea Town Market, 7:30am — noon, the Waimea Homestead Farmers Market, 7:00am — noon, and the Kamuela Farmers Market, 7:30am — 1:00pm. Hit the Waimea Mid-Week Market on Wednesday from 9:00am — 4:00pm.
The Parker Ranch (H11) is a working cattle ranch and was once the largest ranch in the U.S. Tour the beautiful historic homes, grounds, and stables. The ranch is free to visit and is host to a variety of events such as a 4th of July Rodeo. Or take a guided horseback or ATV tour.
The Pololu Valley Lookout (V2) offers another phenomenal view. You can take the steep hiking trail down to the beach, but have water and sturdy shoes. Swimming and snorkeling is not recommended here due to rough ocean conditions.
Examine Mo’okini Heiau, one of the oldest and most sacred temples at Kohala Historical Sites State Monument (A6). The Heiau was erected in approximately 480 A.D. and dedicated to Ku, the Hawaiian god of war. This site is also the birthplace of King Kamehameha I. The road can be rough and is best suited for a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Entrance is free, closed Weds.
Mahukona Beach Park (H16) is a sweet spot for snorkeling and scuba diving in the calm waters of an abandoned sugar company harbor.
Discover the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village at Lapakahi State Historical Park (H15). Walk short trails on a self-guided tour of reconstructed and original remnants of village huts, stone foundations to learn about the settlers who lived here over 700-years ago. Revel in sweeping ocean views. The site is free.
Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site (H12) is home to Hawaii’s largest Heiau. Constructed in 1791, learn more at the Visitor Center through exhibits, art, and artifacts, including tools of war made from stone and wood. Then walk in the footsteps of King Kamehameha I to explore. The trail is not shaded so bring a sunhat and sunscreen. Also located here is access to the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, a 175-mile trail network across the island. Even a short walk here is a delight for bird-watching, observing plants, and geology. There are two other Heiau, one of which is now submerged offshore, and a chance to spot sharks, whales, and dolphins. Entrance is free.
Spencer County Beach Park (H13) is a haven for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. The water is calmer here, making it a great beach for kids, especially as it has a lifeguard on-duty.
Beautiful white sand beach awaits at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area (H14). A life-guarded swimming area and picnic shelters make this a perfect spot for a family day at the beach. Walk the coastal trail which leads to Mauna Key Beach, a 2.75-mile round trip. There is a day use fee to enter and cabin rentals.
Waialea Beach (W5), aka Beach 69 is known for great snorkeling and scuba diving. Waialea Bay is a designated a marine life conservation district. In winter, humpback whales can often be seen in the distance.
History and culture abounds. The 223-acre Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve (A5) boasts more than 3,000 fascinating petroglyphs, carved into large flat slabs of lava stone between 1000 and 1800 A.D. Please respect the site by not touching or defacing the petroglyphs, while walking the 1.4-mile roundtrip trail. Entrance is free.
Gentle waves lap on fine, white sand at Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay) (W1), another dreamy locale for swimming and relaxing.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park (H1) features marvelous coastal views, unique native plants, and wildlife watching. Along Honokohau Beach, you’ll see many sea turtles, and in the distance, humpback whales. Stop at the Visitor Center for information on trails such as a short walk to petroglyphs, or a section of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail which skirts the beach. Entrance is free.
The drive from here heads back to Kailua-Kona. With so many incredible places on the Big Island, there’s no way to see and do everything. Just relax, enjoy where you’re at, and hope for the chance to return.