There’s something about the Big Island that I just love and keeps me writing about it over and over. While you could always just show up and check into a resort, why would you when there are so many things to do on the big island, including some epic scenic drives. We’ve put together 5 beautiful scenic drives on the Big Island that you will love. Whether you’re staying in Hilo or on the Kona Coast, you can plan for each of these mini-road trips.
As you plan your trip to Hawaii, you’ll see that experiencing the Big Island will include a fair amount of driving, and that’s okay. There are plenty of stops to make along the way to break up time in the car. Be sure to check out our awesome Big Island itinerary that will help you see the whole of Hawaii (the island, not the full state), and as you start to make your own plans, take a look at what you’ll find on each of these scenic drives: Kona Coast, Chain of Craters, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and the Eastern Shore.
If you have any questions about planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii or want to add your own thoughts on great stops to make along the way, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more and to share from others who also love and spend a lot of time on the Big Island.
Kona Coast Scenic Drive
The Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is a breathtaking stretch of coastline that offers visitors stunning ocean views, gorgeous beaches, and fascinating historical sites. I am always so torn about if I love the Kona Coast or the Hamakua Coast more. The scenic drive along the western coast is a must-do for any visitor to the island, as it offers an opportunity to experience the natural beauty and cultural of Hawaii.
One of the historic sites that you can’t miss is the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. This park is located south of Kailua-Kona and is home to an ancient Hawaiian sanctuary that served as a place of refuge for lawbreakers and defeated warriors. Before the Kapu ended (the banishment/death practice), if you could make it here to the Place of Refuge, you could live. Today, visitors can explore the park’s beautiful grounds, which include temple platforms, fishponds, tide pools and reconstructed dwellings. The park also has a visitor center with exhibits on Hawaiian history and culture. This is a must-stop and one of the most interesting sites on any Big Island scenic drive.
Another historic site that is worth a visit is the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. This park is located just north of Kailua-Kona and is the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village. When you stop here, you can explore the park’s beautiful beaches, fishponds, and some ruins, but there’s something more that you won’t want to miss. The first time we visited Kaloko-Honokohau we were blown away by the number of honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) that congregate in the tide pools here. It’s amazing!
Another historic site that’s fascinating and easy to stop at on your Kona Coast scenic drive is Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. This is about 40 minutes north of Kailua-Kona, and if you’re trying to do the whole west coast of the Big Island, this part of the drive is really beautiful and is wonderful at the end of the day.
Part of the Kona Coast scenic drive is stopping to snorkel and explore under water. If you’re looking for OUR FAVORITE places to snorkel, two of the best beaches along the Kona Coast are Hapuna Beach and Kahaluu Beach. Hapuna Beach is a gorgeous sandy beach that offers excellent snorkeling because just off shore it’s lava, so it’s super clear. Visitors can swim with colorful fish and sea turtles in the crystal clear water, and enjoy relaxing on the shady beach.
Kahaluu Beach Park is a black sand beach in Kailua-Kona that is home to a variety of creatures, including colorful fish, sea turtles, and even dolphins. The beach is also home to a surf school, making it a great place for visitors to try their hand at surfing. This is very near where you go nighttime snorkeling with manta rays!
Tip: there are picnic facilities here too, so if you need a good lunch spot visit the Poke Shack and come here to eat and snorkel! Totally winning idea!
In addition to its natural beauty and historical sites, the Kona Coast is also known for its coffee farms. Two of the best coffee farms that are open to the public are the Kona Coffee Living History Farm and the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. The Kona Coffee Living History Farm is located south of Kailua-Kona and offers visitors a glimpse into the area’s coffee farming history. Visitors can tour the farm’s historic farmhouse and learn about the coffee farming process. I even met a lady here who grew up on a rustic coffee farm here on the Kona Coast.
The Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is located north of Kailua-Kona and offers visitors a tour of the coffee fields, roasting facilities, and tasting room. Visitors can sample some of the best coffee on the island and learn about the art of coffee roasting. What I really liked about our visit to Mountain Thunder was actually being in the cloud forest. It was wet, but so beautiful.
Can you tell that I really love the scenic drive along the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii? It’s a must-do for any visitor to the island, and you’ll probably be staying on this side anyways, so you might as well explore.
Top Kona Coast Scenic Drive stops to make from South to North:
- Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
- Kona Coffee Living History Farm
- Kahaluu Beach Park
- Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park
- Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
- Hapuna Beach State Park
- Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
There are more stops you can make, for sure, but these are our top picks for experiencing the diversity of the Kona Coast and making sure you can be a part of the current and past cultures of the island.
South Shore Big Island Scenic Drive
The Big Island scenic drive connecting the Kona Coast to the Hilo side is unlike the other five routes we talk about here. The southern shore of the Big Island is both rugged and intriguing. From the Southernmost Point of the USA to an easy-to-miss portion of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the south shore route is my favorite.
Heading east from the Kona Coast, the first interesting sight to see on the South Shore is actually the Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes NP. This red soil area is unlike anywhere else on the island. The grasslands are so lush and green that you’ll have to roll around like a hobbit. Also, the cinder cone and depression are absolutely beautiful.
Continuing onto another phenomenal of the south shore are three awesome stops all on the same road: Local Buzz Farms, Southernmost Point and the Green Sand Beach. Local Buzz is THE place to get amazing honey, locally sourced chocolate products, locally grown Kona Coffee and so much more. You can wander through the coffee trees and see what else is happening at the farm before continuing onto the Southernmost point in the USA. The real highlight though is Papakōlea Beach, the Green Sand Beach.
Papakōlea Beach is my favorite beach on the Big Island. The Green Sand Beach is made from olivine crystals from ancient volcanic activity. The trek to get to the beach is part of what makes this spot so beautiful. Hike 2.5 miles or pay to ride in the back of a truck along one of the most beautifully lush parts of the Big Island. The water at Papakōlea Beach is also amazing, with clarity and colors unlike anywhere else.
The next stop on the Big Island South Shore scenic drive is the Punalu’u Bake Shop for malasadas and iced coffee. The lilikoi is my favorite. This is the perfect stop before getting to the Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. The black sand is unforgettable as you walk through the blazing hot and then icy cold sand. Also, this is a common place to see multiple honu hauled out onto both the sand and into the tide pools.
As you depart, make stops at the Kau Coffee Mill, Volcano Winery and Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center. Soon you’ll get to Hilo where you can rest and enjoy, what I think is, one of the most mellow towns I’ve ever been to.
Best stops on the South Shore scenic drive:
- Kahuku Unit of Hawaii Volcanoes NP
- Local Buzz Coffee and Chocolate
- Southernmost Point of USA
- Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
- Punalu’u Bake Shop
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
- Kau Coffee Mill
- Volcano Winery
- Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts
Driving the Eastern Shore: the Hamakua Coast
The Hamakua Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is a picturesque drive that winds along the coastline, with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and winding through the lush tropical forest. This scenic route is a must-do for visitors who want to see the area north of Hilo and check some waterfalls off their Hawaii bucket list.
One of the best sites that you should not miss is the Waipio Valley Lookout. This lookout point provides a stunning panoramic view of the Waipio Valley, which is unlike anywhere else on the Big Island. Visitors can explore the valley and see the remains of Hawaiian cultural sites, as well as hike to the nearby Hiilawe Falls, which is the tallest waterfall on the island. Another historic site worth visiting is the Laupahoehoe Train Museum, which tells the story of the area’s former sugar plantation industry and the railroad in the area.
For your snorkeking time, two of the best beaches along the Hamakua Coast are Waipio Valley Beach (pictured above) and Honoli’i Beach Park. Waipio Valley Beach is a black sand beach that is known for having calm waters (for being on the north shore) and is an excellent place to snorkel and swim. Honoli’i Beach Park is a rocky beach that is popular with surfers, but also offers great snorkeling opportunities for those who want venture out into the water. It’s not far from Hilo, so if you want to start your driving day with snorkeling, this is your chance.
If there’s one waterfall you must visit, add Akaka Falls State Park to your Big Island scenic drive. Akaka Falls is the perfect Hawaiian waterfall and is a very easy hike. The path is paved and goes through some beautiful tropical forest space, full of flowers, before opening up to the waterfall. This is a little off the main Mamalahoa Highway. If you’re here, you can easily add a visit to Mauna Kea Cacao…
In addition to being such a beautiful Big Island scenic drive, the Hamakua Coast is also known for its cacao farms, and tropical fruit too. There are quite a few cacao farms that are open to the public, but our top picks are the Hamakua Chocolate Farm, Mauna Kea Cacao and, my favorite, Lavaloha Chocolate Farm. Both offer tours and chocolate tastings. I think it’s fascinating to see the cacao growing on trees and then actually witness all the parts of the process to become chocolate. It’s an awesome addition to a scenic drive on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast.
Tip: when you’re on the North Shore, just east of the Waipio Valley is the Hamakua Farmers Market. It goes from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm on Sundays.
One other element you can add to the road trip along the east coast of the Big Island is the Old Mamalahoa Highway. This winds through botanical gardens and farm stands, and past waterfalls and beautiful cliffs. There are some short hikes you to do along the way, including the Onomea Bay Trail, which is so very beautiful. We stopped here one day and climbed out onto the lava in the bay and got soaked with the spray from the crashing waves. The perfect Hawaii experience!
The scenic drive along the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is a must-do for any visitor to the island. With its beautiful ocean views, lush rainforests, fascinating historical sites, and delicious cacao farms, there is something for everyone to enjoy, no matter your level of adventure, along this beautiful stretch of coastline.
Top stops to make on the Hamakua Coast scenic drive:
- Waipio Valley
- Hamakua Farmers Market
- Laupahoehoe Train Museum
- Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve Garden
- Onomea Bay Trail
- Honoli’i Beach Park
- and the town of Hilo
Mauna Kea Scenic Drive: an Epic Visit to the Highest Point in Hawaii
The scenic drive from Hilo to Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most diverse drives in the Hawaiian Islands. It takes you through some beautiful and surprising landscapes, including lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, stunning coastline views, and sometimes even SNOW! Along the way, there are several historic sites, hiking opportunities, and farms that are open to the public, making it a must-do adventure for anyone visiting the island, even if you weren’t planning on splitting your time between coasts.
Starting on the Hilo side of the Island, head towards the Saddle Road. It immediately starts winding up through the hills away from the water, taking you past Rainbow Falls and the Kaumana Caves. Make stops for these, as they’re pretty and unique, even though they are some of the most popular tourist spots in Hilo. Rainbow Falls comes first and is a simple viewpoint, but it’s often crowded.
The Kaumana Caves are less popular and really cool. These lava tubes can actually be hiked through (a guide is recommended) and are full or vines and ferns. I think the caves are one of the coolest things to do on the Big Island.
For those looking to hike, two of the best lava flows to explore are the Kaumana Trail and Mauna Loa lava flow. The Kaumana Trail is 3 miles round trip and fairly easy, crossing a lava flow through newers forested areas in the shadow of Mauna Kea. Another volcanic stop is at the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone. This is best for getting amazing views of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
Across the street from the Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone parking area is the Mauna Kea Access Road. Wow. This road has a 17% grade (super steep) and takes you up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center. Here you’ll learn about the many observatories on the slopes and peaks of the mountain, including the many ecosystems here. There is also a unique nature trail that goes through a protected area full of the silversword plants, which are unique to this type of habitat and Hawaii itself.
You’ll drive across lava, through what looks like a California coast forest, then higher to the barren alpine habitat that is reminiscent of Mount Rainier National Park. The Visitor Center is located at an elevation of 9,200 feet and has breathtaking views of the Big Island. Visitors can also learn about the observatory and its research, and enjoy stargazing on the clear nights. However, it is important to note that the road to the summit is steep and can be challenging to drive, so it’s essential to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and check the weather and road conditions before heading up.
The scenic drive from Hilo to Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii is an unforgettable experience that really showcases the beauty and diversity of this incredible island. With its lava flows and cool things to do there is something for everyone to enjoy on this drive, making it a must-do adventure for anyone visiting Hawaii.
Best stops to make on the Saddle Road / Mauna Kea scenic drive:
- Rainbow Falls
- Kaumana Caves
- Kaumana Trail
- Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone
- Mauna Kea Visitor Center and silversword trail
Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes NP
The Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful drive that offers visitors an unforgettable experience of the volcanic landscape of Hawaii. The road stretches for 20 miles from the park entrance to the coastline, and it offers a variety of scenic viewpoints, historic sites, and easy hikes that make it a must-visit destination on the Big Island of Hawaii. This is one of my favorite National Park Scenic Drives!
One of the historic sites worth visiting on the Chain of Craters Road is the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. This ancient site contains over 23,000 petroglyphs, or rock carvings, that were created by the indigenous people of Hawaii over hundreds of years. It’s easy to park just off the road, and then you can take a short hike to see these carvings.
Another historic site to visit is the Devastation Trail. This trail offers a unique perspective of the destructive power of the 1959 Kilauea Iki eruption. Visitors can walk through the barren landscape and see the remains of the trees that were destroyed in the eruption. The trail is short and easy, making it accessible to visitors of all ages and fitness levels. This is just one of the various trails, between Kilauea Iki and the Keanakako’i Overlook, where you can see both past and current eruption impacts.
For those looking to hike, two of the easiest and most popular hikes on the Chain of Craters Road are the Kilauea Iki Trail and the Mauna Ulu Trail. The Kilauea Iki Trail is a four-mile round trip hike that takes visitors through a lush rainforest, across a crater floor, and up to the overlook of the Kilauea Iki eruption. The Mauna Ulu Trail is a two-mile round trip hike that takes visitors through a field of lava flows and up to the rim of the Mauna Ulu eruption. Both of these hikes offer stunning views of the volcanic landscape and are easy enough for most visitors to complete.
In addition to its historic sites and hiking trails, the Chain of Craters Road also offers two scenic viewpoints that should not be missed. The first is the Pu’u Huluhulu (different from the cinder cone trail on the Saddle Road scenic drive) overlook, which has panoramic views of the volcanic landscape, including Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and the Pacific Ocean. The second viewpoint is the Holei Sea Arch, which is a natural arch formed by the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean against the lava cliffs. Visitors can take a short hike to see this beautiful natural wonder, which is a popular spot for photography.
The Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an incredible experience that really does give such a unique perspective of the volcanic landscape of the Big Island of Hawaii. With its historic petroglyphs, easy hikes, and scenic viewpoints, there are lots of ways to enjoy this drive, making it a must-drive for anyone visiting the Big Island of Hawaii.
Main stops on the Chain of Craters Scenic Drive:
- Kilauea Iki trail
- Thurston Lava Tube
- Keanakako’i Overlook and Devastation Trail
- the many crater stops and overlooks along the drive
- Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
- Holei Sea Arch at the end of Chain of Craters Road
Driving up Mauna Loa for Views and Hiking
The Mauna Loa Road is a scenic drive that winds its way up the slopes of Mauna Loa, the largest volcano in the world. This drive offers visitors an opportunity to experience the stunning beauty of what becomes of a volcanic landscape over time, while also providing opportunities for short hikes and wildlife viewing.
Note: in 2022 Mauna Loa had an eruption after being silent for many years. This is NOT visible from the Mauna Loa Lookout Road, but is on the north side of Mauna Loa.
One of the short hikes worth taking on the Mauna Loa Road is the Kipuka Puaulu Trail. Known as the Bird Trail, this half-mile trail winds through a lush forest that has been spared from lava flows. Along the way, hikers can see a variety of native birds and plants, including the ‘Apapane (red and black bird), the ‘I‘iwi (also red and black, related to the ‘apapane), and the Koa tree. This short hike is perfect for families with young children or anyone looking for an easy walk in a beautiful natural setting.
Mauna Loa is home to a variety of birds and wildlife that are unique to Hawaii. The most colorful native birds found on Mauna Loa include the ‘Apapane and the ‘I‘iwi (mentioned above), and the ‘Amakihi, which can be bright yellow. Bird watchers may also be able to spot the ‘Elepaio, which is a small forest bird similar to a chickadee, that is found only in Hawaii.
Note: my favorite bird to spot along the Mauna Loa Road scenic drive is tied between Erckel’s francolin (looks like a grouse) and the kalij pheasant. They’re both large birds and are just beautiful!
It is important to respect the wildlife on Mauna Loa and keep a safe distance from any animals encountered. Although uncommon, there are a lot of wild pigs within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and they may be seen on Mauna Loa, so beware.
Another short hike on the Mauna Loa Road is the Mauna Loa Lookout Trail. This half-mile trail takes visitors to a viewpoint that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, including Mauna Kea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Kilauea Caldera. The trail is relatively easy, making it accessible to most visitors.
Note: The Mauna Loa Lookout is currently closed (2023) to hiking due to hazardous conditions on the trail caused by seismic activity. Visitors should check the current status of the trail before planning to hike to the lookout.
Even if the Lookout Trail is closed when you visit, you can still enjoy the scenic drive up the Mauna Loa Road, which offers stunning views of the volcanic landscape of Hawaii at different points along the drive. When you’re at the top, if the Lookout Trail is closed, do the Silversword Trail (to the left) or just enjoy a picnic looking out across Kilauea and the Halemaumau Crater.
The road is open year-round, but visitors should check for road closures or any volcanic or weather-related hazards before starting on their drive up Mauna Loa. With its short hikes, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and stunning views from the Mauna Loa Lookout, this is a great Big Island scenic drive!
Stops on the Mauna Loa Road scenic drive:
- Kipuka Puaulu Trail
- Mauna Loa Lookout (picnics)
- Mauna Loa Lookout Trail
- Mauna Loa Summit Trail – I didn’t talk about this because it’s epic and I haven’t gotten to complete it. This is on my bucket list, but until the trail is stabilized, it’s closed to visitors.
I literally could write about the Big Island of Hawaii all day everyday. It’s such a beautiful place, and Big Island scenic drives are the best way to explore beyond the main tourist sites. Remember, whether you’re staying on the Kona Coast or the Hamakua coast, there are three roads to connect both sides of the island, so a scenic drive is never too far or too complicated to enjoy.
If you have any questions or additional thoughts, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re happy to share more and love helping other plan their travels!