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The Big Island is exactly that – big! It can be overwhelming to work out what areas to visit together and how much time everything is going to take to see. With so many choices, you will need a plan!
Below, we have divided the island into 4 driving trips that range from half day to full day. These provide a logical way to explore all of the best things to see and do all over the island. It’s strongly suggested to read the descriptions of how to enjoy each section.
Most visitors stay on the Kona side of the island and join the tour by driving on Hwy 19 or 11. Or From Hilo, drive north or south on 19. Read our suggestions below about how to divide up exploring different areas on the island.
The Big Island’s most famous and popular place to visit is Volcanoes National Park.
Allow a full day and head to the most active volcano on the planet. From the Kona side of the island, we follow around the bottom of the island along Highway 11 all the way to the Park. We’ll have time to review the volcanic forces at work behind the creation of the Hawaiian Islands, or you may prefer to embrace the Hawaiian legends version as it takes approximately 2.5 hours to arrive.
You can also tour directly from Hilo on Hwy 11.
Inside the park, the commentary continues on all park roads, from Halema’uma’u down to the ocean and back. There are many amazing formations created by eruptions spread over hundreds and thousands of years. There are 2 driving routes in the Park and expect to spend minimum 2-3 hours exploring.
Please note: after the volcanic events of 2018, the Park is reopening in phases. Best to check for latest status and updates with the NPS link in FAQ below.
For the true adventurers, a full Island Circle itinerary adds touring to the green or east side of the Island. From the panoramic views along the Hamakua Coast and the 442ft Akaka Falls State Park to peeks into the lush Waipio Valley. Not much has changed since its plantation days, though you won’t see donkeys plodding down to the shore with sugar bags strapped either side anymore.
Plan for time in and around Hilo with its Liliuokalani Gardens, and follow the Hilo loop tour route for nearby waterfalls and lava tube caves.
Don’t try to include Volcanoes National Park to this day, there is just too much to see and do and you’ll run out of daylight hours.
Driving from Kona to Hawi is an amazing journey with beaches, a surprisingly arid coast at times, views to Maui, black sand beaches from cliff viewpoints and driving over an old volcanic mountain makes for an excellent 1/2 day or longer of sightseeing. Follow the tour as it drives a loop itinerary that gives us a fantastic sample of old Hawaii, modern Hawaii, awesome beaches and huge ranches.
Relax at the end of the road at the Pololu Valley lookout, and spot the black sand beach way below. On the return drive, as we climb over the Kohala Mountain, you’ll discover Hawaii’s wild wild west and the Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) around the rural and ranching areas of Waimea before connecting back to the coast.
Pack your swimsuit and snorkeling gear for another half day itinerary, this time driving south of Kona.
Kailua-Kona is the active hub of the western side of Hawaii and features energetic shopping and dining choices, mixed with historic landmarks and fun beaches like Magic Sands. Follow the road that heads south along the coast to tour through this vibrant area.
But then, we’ll quickly transition to areas of incredible Hawaiian cultural importance and sites that have been preserved for prosperity. Bring your snorkel gear for some excellent places to get close to fish and turtles too, especially at 2 Step.
We might enjoy a jolt of world famous Kona coffee right from a plantation before we connect with some of Hawaii’s significant cultural sites, the sanctuary at the Place of Refuge and at Kealakekua Bay. Then we’ll use Hwy 11 to circle back to Kailua-Kona.
Kohala, Kailua Kona or Hilo – join anywhere along the route.
Volcanoes National Park – Full Day
Island Circle – Full Day
Kohala North Loop – 1/2 Day
Kona Coffee Coast – 1/2 Day
The island is very large! There’s more than 350 miles of driving to explore.
Since the the volcanic eruption events of 2018 finished, there are no active lava flows anywhere on the island. Volcanoes are unpredictable, and this can change at any time.
Please visit the National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/lava2.htm for current status.
We do not recommend this. There are too many excellent things to see and do.
Most visitors spend 2-3 hours minimum inside Volcanoes National Park. You will most likely run out of daylight before you get to see everything on other part of the island.
Allocate one day for Volcanoes. Then allow separate day to explore the Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Waipio etc.
The Saddle Road is the route that cuts across the island – route 200. There are no recommended sightseeing stops along this road, so we do not have sightseeing commentary on it.
The tradewinds often cause the road to be shrouded in clouds and rain, but if you catch a clear day, the view is interesting from the road. The road itself has had major upgrades and is comfortable to drive, compared to pre-upgrade.
It is OK to use the Saddle Rd if you want to cut across the island and you want to not re-drive a section of the coastal highways that you have done before and the commentary includes instructions to help you get on and off the Saddle Rd to re-join the main tour. Depending where you are staying on the island, the Saddle Rd does not make travel times much faster, eg if driving from Kona to Volcanoes.
Mauna Kea is a culturally important location for Hawaiians. Please respect their heritage and wishes with regards to visiting the area.
The commentary points are set all over the island. There is no need to select a particular tour – essentially it is all one big tour!
All you need to do is drive the sections that you are interested in. The commentary seamlessly transitions from place to place. And all necessary driving directions are included in the commentary.
It is recommended to quickly read the “Where to Start” suggestions for each tour section.