A Road Trip Guide for the Big Island
Road Trips on the Big Island
Big Island Hawaii is the largest and the youngest of the Hawaiian islands, hence the name ‘Big Island’. It is larger than all other Hawaiian islands put together and it covers 8 of the world’s 13 climate zones. From desert dry tundra area, to wet tropical jungle, to a snow capped mountain, this island has a variety of environments, and with the active Kilauea volcano and the Mauna Loa volcano, the Big Island of Hawaii is literally alive and awaiting exploration.
When planning a road trip on the diverse Big Island Hawaii you can find various types of beaches: white sand, black sand and even green sand beaches and each has its own story to tell. From the leeward side, Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa, to the windward side of Hilo, the Big Island of Hawaii has many areas to discover as you plan your road trips.
Some travelers may consider staying part of their time on one side of the island and then move to the other side. This plan will provide a more diverse Big Island road trip itinerary, as you won’t have to return to the other side of the island at night and possibly miss some areas you might want to explore further.
plan your big island road trip
How long does it take to drive around Big Island Hawaii?
To drive the entire island in one day will take you at least 8 hours, however that is with no stopping. With breaks for eating, getting fuel and just stretching, it is best to give yourself up to 12 hours. By taking Hwy 19 and Hwy 11 you can do a complete circle tour of Big Island Hawaii.
Is it hard to drive on Big Island Hawaii?
The main roads and highways of Big Island are well maintained and have good signage. There are many roads off the beaten track that are in rougher shape, many with potholes. Weather is a factor when driving around the Big Island, as the rain storms can be extreme at times with very low visibility. Plan ahead, and check the weather forecast for the best days to travel around.
How many days do you need on Big Island Hawaii?
The more the better, is always the answer when planning a Big Island vacation. It's recommended to visit for at least 7 days as this will give you some time to relax and adequate time for some day long road trips.
Regions of Big Island Hawaii
There are nine districts on Big Island Hawaii, but it is also broken down into six regions. You could plan a road trip itinerary for each region and experience the best adventures for you and your family. Some areas are more popular and will attract more tourists, but in other areas you may find yourself the only visitor at that time.
- Southernmost area, it is home to Hawaii Volcano National Park and the mighty Kilauea volcano.
- Popular with hikers and backpackers, there are no large resorts or golf courses in this area.
- Home to the famous Punaluu Black Sand Beach.
- Towns like Pahala and Naalehu are home to artists and writers who crave isolation.
Kailua – Kona
- One of the bigger towns, it has great weather, many resorts and accommodations. It is a very popular area to use as your home base.
- Home to many historical Hawaiian locations; Captain Cooks Monument at Kealakekua Bay, Hulihee Palace, Mokuaikaua Church and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park (Place of Refuge).
- Coffee farms dot the inner highway for tours and tastings of the famous Kona coffee.
- Restaurants, shopping and nightlife, this region will have the best the island has to offer.
- With calmer waters to South, Kona is great for snorkeling with dolphins, honu (turtles) and especially manta rays at night.
- Kona Farmers Market is a great place to find local produce and homemade local crafts.
- Located North of KOA Kona airport, this area has some of the finest resorts the island has to offer.
- Some of the best golf courses in the world.
- Very dry area with little rain, the landscape is covered with black and rust colored lava rock.
- Home to Hapuna Beach, one of the island’s largest white sand beaches.
- Historical landmark of Puukohola Heiau National site.
- Upcountry towns include; Waimea where paniolo’s (Hawaiian cowboys) put on a rodeo each year or the quaint little town of Hawi.
- North of Hilo, this Northeastern side of Big Island is a lush tropical rainforest.
- Home to many waterfalls, taro farms and black sand beaches.
- Honokaa Town is a great place for some local flavor shopping.
- Drive to the Waipio Valley lookout for a fabulous view on the Hamakua Heritage Corridor.
- Abundance of exotic plants at the many botanical and tropical gardens you can visit and tour.
- A city of peaceful natural beauty, Hilo is the largest city and the capital of Big Island Hawaii.
- Home to the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in April of each year. This competition brings hula dancers from all the Hawaiian islands and is popular for both locals and guests to the island..
- For many years running, Hilo has been the wettest city in the US.
- Home to gardens and parks that contain many of the most beautiful and exotic plants from around the world.
- Not as touristy as the West side of the big island, many fall in love with the slower, laid back pace Hilo has to offer.
- Hilo’s history is preserved with its plantation style buildings and museums.
- Located Southeast of Hilo, the Puna area is a mixture of lava fields, rainforests and a rocky rugged shoreline.
- With recent volcanic eruptions, Puna’s landscape has been and continues to be altered by the Kilauea lava flow.
- Home to the Lava Tree Park, where the trees were covered in lava and their molds still remain.
- Visit the outlaw town of Pahoa, where the funky shops and restaurants are worth a visit.
Road trips from Kailua-Kona
As most tourists stay on the windward, (western) side of the Big Island Hawaii, there are a few road trip itineraries that won’t take up your whole day. Some can be combined, allowing you to see and do more in one day. Mileage listed is the roundtrip distance between Kailua-Kona and the destination.
- Captain Cook monument: (24 miles) Located near Kealakekua Bay, this historic site marks the place that Captain Cook first arrived on the island of Hawaii in 1778. Not long after that, he lost his life in a battle with Native Hawaiians in the same area. Kealakekua Bay is protected as a Marine Life Conservation area that attracts many tourists who snorkel the beautiful coral reef the bay has to offer.
- Coffee plantations: (15-20 miles) For the coffee lovers, this will be a day to indulge in your love of java. With over 600 coffee farms on the island, you may want to visit more than one. From tours to tastings, this will be educational as well as delicious. The minute you exit your car, the smell of coffee will keep you wanting more.
- Mauna Kea Visitors Center: (110 miles) For the budding astronomer or stargazer, this would be a great day or night drive to add to your Big Island Hawaii itinerary. Located at the 9,200 ft elevation, it’s best to bring some warmer clothing as it can get quite chilly. Take the infamous Saddle Road to get up there, and any Big Island rental car can make this trip. Check their website for hours of operation and if any closures are happening due to weather.
- Waikoloa; (64 miles) A drier desert-like area, it is home to some larger resorts and world class golf courses. This area has the least amount of rainfall and attracts many tourists to this warm climate zone. Some of the larger resorts offer day passes to visit for the day and use all their amenities or maybe take in a luau. As well, Waikoloa does offer a couple of shopping plazas with casual or fine dining options.
- Hawi; (106 miles) Located at the Northern tip of Big Island Hawaii, this quaint little town is a little piece of paradise. With the trees all blown in one direction, the power of mother nature does not go unnoticed. From small eateries to locally made souvenirs, this is a great place to buy yourself a treat. Driving back you can head up into the hills and come down into Waimea (Cowboy town), this route will give you a gorgeous view of the coastline below.
Plan Your Big Island Road Trip
It’s time to get out the notepad and map, and plan your Big Island Hawaii road trip itinerary.
Ask your fellow travelers what or where they want to see or do.
Keep some days open for spur of the moment ideas or just to get some pool or beach time in.
Big island Hawaii is a very magical place and worth it to go explore on a self driven tour of this diverse island.