Last updated on November 29th, 2022
On the second of your 5 days in the Big Island, embark on a scenic road trip to the northern tip of the island. Today’s itinerary offers two options to choose from after the first stop in Waimea. It is best to follow this itinerary on Saturdays, as you’ll get a chance to visit a number of farmers’ markets.
From Kailua, link up with Highway 190 and head north towards Waimea. This scenic mountain road boasts awesome views of eroded lava fields meeting the Kona coast on one side and snow-capped Mauna Kea on the other. As you pass the Saddle Road intersection, the scenery quickly changes to that of large cattle ranches in paniolo country – the oddity of the Hawaiian Cowboy – and rolling green hills reminiscent of Europe as you inch closer to Waimea.
The Kohala region’s largest town, Waimea looks like something out of the Old West. These days, it’s a hub for cattle ranchers, organic farmers, and astronomers working in Mauna Kea. Waimea’s main appeal, in my opinion, is its choice of Saturday farmer’s markets. On any other day, it’s a good pit stop en route to the valleys.
You’ll find the first farmers market – Kamuela – on the outskirts of town just after you pass the small airport. This market springs to life on one of the many Parker Ranch properties and is open from early morning until 1 pm. Disappointingly, there were far more artsy souvenir stalls than fresh produce when I visited, but there were good takeaway lunch options (like awesome Korean kimchi and Thai food). The second farmers market worth visiting is in ‘downtown’ Waimea on the grounds of the Parker School. This market is larger and more geared towards locally grown produce and takeaway food.
From Waimea, take Highway 250 for the scenic drive to Hawi. This forested and sparsely populated part of the peninsula is home to cattle ranchers and beloved monster pickup trucks.
The tiny town of Hawi is seriously charming and, like Waimea, seems to have little changed over the last 100 plus years. If you’re visiting on a Saturday, start your visit in the ‘(almost) everything’s organic’ farmers market by the hard-to-miss giant Banyan tree. I found this to be one of the best farmers’ markets on the Big Island (topped only by the one in Hilo) and I highly recommend buying a picnic lunch and something to drink because we’re about to visit a special spot. If you fancy an indoor lunch, main street Hawi has a few good options.
From Hawi, drive on Highway 270 and take the turnoff to Keokea Beach Park. This is one of the best picnic spots on the Big Island, well worth the hungry wait. Park the car and grab a spot but do refrain from swimming in the rough waters even if you see the locals taking a dip!
The highlight on this leg is without a doubt is Pololu Valley – one of the seven majestic valleys that carve the lush Kohala and Hamakua coasts. The view from the Pololu Valley Lookout is breathtaking, the Hawaii you’ve probably envisioned.
Meaning ‘the Valley of the Long Spear’, you can easily hike down to the valley and its majestic beach via a well-marked trail. It might be very muddy and not worth the effort after days of heavy downpour, but if conditions are good, it will only take about 30 minutes to hike down.
The beach itself is a mix of black sand, rounded lava rocks, and very rough seas – not safe at all for swimming. While exploring the interior of Pololu Valley is not really possible, you can simply picnic or chill on the beach. If you seek more action, walk to the edge of the beach and pick up the hiking trail that climbs the overlooking ridge and continues to the next valley. This challenging hike warrants a full day, but fit hikers can simply climb the ridge and enjoy additional fine vistas (about 1 hour each way).
It’s now time to drive back to Kona and we’ll do so via the scenic coastal section of Highway 270. Keep your eyes peeled for whales breaching off the coast (in season) as this section of the Kona coast is frequented by the marine giants. If there’s time, catch the sunset in one of the beach parks, stop at the Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company for a tasting, and finish off the long (and hopefully fulfilling) day with some shave ice at Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice.
My personal favorite, Waipio Valley is the grandest of all Big Island valleys. It is ‘the mother of all valleys’ and not a sight you can afford to miss. The valley runs inland for over 10kms of thick jungle, freshwater streams and giant waterfalls. Sacred to ancient Hawaiians, Waipio (meaning ‘curving water’ in Hawaiian) was known as the Valley of the Kings – the seat of the highest ali’i (chief) and home to over 1,000 residents. It’s also the site of one of the best hikes in Hawaii.
Waipio Valley can be seen from its overlook as part of a rapid road trip from Kona to Hilo via Saddle Road. Stops include Waimea, Waipio Valley, Akaka Falls, Hilo and the Mauna Kea Visitors Center for sunset and stargazing.
Start your visit at the Waipio Valley Overlook for your first glimpse of this beauty. Note that parking is limited to 20 minutes in the small lot but may not be limited on the residential street. Aside from million-dollar views, you’ll find here picnic tables and bathrooms.
From the overlook, the rest of the day’s itinerary really depends on your level of fitness… or if you’re driving a 4WD. To get down to the beach and valley floor, you must either drive a proper 4WD vehicle or walk down one of the steepest roads in the entire U.S. Allow for about 30 minutes to slowly walk down from the overlook to the valley floor and to enjoy the spectacular views along the way without damaging your knees. In case you’re wondering, the hike back up is easier on the body and takes 45-60 minutes. You can theoretically hitch a ride but I didn’t spot too many ‘nice drivers’ when I visited on three separate occasions.
Once you reach the bottom of the road, you are faced with two options. Option A includes a hike to Hi’ilawe Falls and then a visit to the beach. Option B includes a visit to the beach and a hike up the ridge on the Muliwai Trail. Of course, you can create an option C which simply involves visiting the beach and heading back up to the overlook. My favorite option is the hike to Hi’ilawe Falls but it’s not for everyone. So keep reading and make your own choice.
The hike to Hi’ilawe Falls is one of the most rewarding and least attempted hikes on the Big Island. Though flat-going, it is a difficult hike that involves several river crossings on an unmarked trail. Unfortunately, local residents claim that the path leading up to the falls is on private land and they do not want tourists hiking there, to say the least (though many locals do). So you must ask locals for permission before undertaking this hike. After crossing the Hi’ilawe Stream at several points (sometimes in neck-deep water), you’ll reach the base of the falls (1450 ft, 442m) and likely be the only ones there!
Your (wet) effort will be rewarding once you reach Hi’ilawe Falls – the highest waterfall on the Big Island (442m). There is a very good chance you’ll be the only ones here, further adding to the feeling of elation and sudden appreciation of the beauty of life. Go for a swim, chill for a few hours and enjoy a picnic lunch before heading back.
Logistics: allow one hour each way for the hike (not including the walk down from the overlook) plus at least 30 minutes at the waterfall. Wear waterproof sandals and bathing suits. Pack: mosquito repellent, a full change of clothes, dry bags to place valuables inside when crossing the stream, water and food. Do not forget to ask locals for permission before undertaking this.
Closely resembling the beach at Pololu Valley, this rocky black sand beach is another rugged beauty. Though you’ll see locals going for a swim and a surf, it’s best to avoid the temptation. Do look around for small waterfalls cascading down into the ocean. If you fancy getting wet, the Waipio Stream spills into the ocean about halfway along the beach.
To get an even better view of Waipio Valley, I recommend hiking the first section of the Muliwai Trail. The 16-miles trail requires two days of hiking, camping gear, and a permit, but the first (and hardest) leg will take you up the ridgeline opposite the overlook for amazing interior views of the valley.
To reach the trailhead, walk the entire length of Waipio Beach where a sign points to the right direction. For the next 45-60 minutes, you’ll be faced with a challenging ascent that zig-zags its way to the top of the cliff and seems to never end. However, the views keep getting better and better – with a wide-angle far more rewarding than that from the overlook. If the visibility is good, you can even see Hi’ilawe Falls – a magical sight!
Once at the top of the ridge, the trail heads inland through a thick and misty rainforest. It crosses many glitches and doesn’t offer much of a view until you reach the very end, so it’s really not worth it unless you’re planning to camp at Waimana Bay. Instead, enjoy the views from up here and head back down to the beach before the climb back to your car (unless you drove down with a 4WD).
Logistics: it will take about 2 hours from the parking lot to the top of the cliff. Wear good hiking shoes, a hat, and be prepared for rain. Pack: plenty of water, food and a full change of clothes.
Before heading back to Kona, stop at the Tex Drive In for a well deserved greasy meal and malasada – a donut brought to the island by Portuguese workers way back in the day.