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5 Days In The Big Island

5 Days In The Big Island

Last updated on November 29th, 2022

Day 5: Akaka Falls, Hilo & Lava Viewing

The final day of your 5 days in Big Island is the grand finale. If all goes well, you’ll wrap up the day walking inches away from the lava. It is an action-packed final day so I recommend, once again, to get an early start. You should have already checked in last night to an accommodation in and around Hilo. Keep in mind that this part of the Big Island gets a lot of rain (that’s why it’s very tropical), so always be prepared for a shower with the right gear.

scenic drive akaka falls to hilo - big Island Hawaii
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Pro Tip

oday’s itinerary up to and including Hilo can be combined with a scenic drive from Kona that includes: Waimea, Waipio Valley Overlook, Akaka Falls, and Hilo, before catching the sunset in Mauna Kea and driving back to Kona. There’s a lot of driving and stops will be brief yet sufficient, plus the coastal road from the Waipio Valley Overlook to Hilo is tropically scenic.

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Update

Due to recent lava eruptions, the Kalapana lava viewing area is likely closed. However, some visitors have been able to unofficially access the spot though keep it mind that this is at your own risk. The facilities and official staff mentioned in the Kalapana lava viewing section of this day may no longer be in operation. Until a new lava viewing area will be set up, I recommend lava boat tours or helicopter tours. Alternatively, should you wish to forgo this experience and extend day five’s itinerary elsewhere, I recommend driving straight to Kalopa State Park after the visit to Rainbow Falls. After a forest hike in Kalopa State Park, you can then make your way down the coast with a visit to the spots mentioned in this section. Alternatively, you can simply follow the itinerary and simply “take it slow”. 

Rainbow Falls

Start your morning with a visit to Rainbow Falls just outside downtown Hilo. This is a very popular stop for tour buses since you can practically park right next to the falls (free parking). So getting here early is a good idea, plus there’s a better chance of actually seeing the famous rainbow hovering above the falls. There is no guarantee, however, but chances are higher in early mornings and on sunny’ish days.

Rainbow Falls - Big Island Hawaii

A further five-minute drive brings you to the Boiling Pots, a series of cascading pools that are only impressive when the flow is strong.

Akaka Falls

Don’t miss visiting the most impressive waterfall on the Big Island that requires little effort. Park your car outside the gate ($1 walk-in fee) or $5 in the parking lot and walk on the paved path to the viewing platform. Akaka Falls perfectly cascades from a height of 135m to a secluded pool.

Akaka Falls - Big Island Hawaii

On the drive back to the main road, stop at one of the fruit stands for an ice-cold coconut or fruit. I also recommend stretching your legs in the sleepy village of Honomu and waking up with a cup of coffee (and something sweet) at one of the cafes.

Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive

Driving south from Akaka Falls to Hilo, this totally-worth-it 4-mile scenic drive is signposted off the main highway. It is not only a scenic detour en route to Hilo, but there are also a few worthwhile stops. The narrow road runs through a thick and very tropical rainforest, crossing a series of one-lane bridges and streams.

For a little adventure, park the car at the first one-lane bridge (if coming from the north end) and look for an unofficial trail running down the stream from the ocean-side (left if facing south). Use the tree roots to scramble down to the river and begin walking for about 10 minutes until you arrive at the top of a waterfall. The views are superb and you’ll likely be the only ones here.

Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_1Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_2Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_3Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_4

A more conventional stop is at Onomea Bay. Look out for signs to the Onomea Bay Trail (there should be lots of cars at the trailhead) and walk for about 20 minutes to a rugged and secluded cove where monk seals are often spotted.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

I hate paying to visit botanical gardens, but Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is worth the steep $25 price of admission. Founded in 1978 by an inspiring couple, the lush gardens slope from the scenic highway to Onomea Bay via a series of paths which are themselves an engineering feat due to the steep elevation.

En route to a section of the bay not accessible to hikers on the public trail, you’ll see native trees and plants along with many international transplants. There are lotuses, palm trees, orchids, birds galore, waterfalls and so many more surprises. Do not miss this visit and plan for at least 90 minutes.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island_1Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island_2Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island_3Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island_4Onomea Bay - Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island

Orchids - Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island

Hilo & Around

The capital of the Big Island, Hilo is more authentic, damp, old-school and rougher than its tourist-magnet sister Kailua-Kona. It’s also a lot poorer, with a higher concentration of native Hawaiians, blue-collar workers, and hippies trying to make a living. You cannot say you’ve been to the Big Island without visiting Hilo, and it is best visited on Wednesdays and Saturdays when it hosts the best farmers market on the Big Island!

The Hilo Farmers Market is technically open every day, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it’s at its liveliest and coolest form. And it’s a proper farmers market, for a change, loaded with stalls selling local produce and food to go. It’s an excellent place to buy food and snacks for the road. Across the street, an annex to the market is mostly devoted to crafts and souvenirs.

Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii_1Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii_2Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii_3Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii_4

For lunch, I highly recommend Suisan Fish Market. This is BY FAR the best place on the Big Island for poke bowls. The selection is incredible (try the spicy ninja poke bowl), the quality is amazing, and the price is more than affordable (about $10). Oh, and there’s very little chance you’ll actually finish your bowl as portions are huge! Suisan is a popular place, aim to arrive here by 1:30 pm or they might not have any poke left (closed Sundays).

A stone’s throw away from Suisan is Liliuokalani Gardens, a lovely patch of green by the ocean. Check out the massive banyan tree and explore the Japanese garden as you digest all that poke.

Giant banyan tree - Liliuokalani Gardens - Hilo Big Island Hawaii

Hilo’s beaches are OK, so if you have some extra time (you probably won’t), feel free to check out Richardson Ocean Park & Carlsmith Beach Park. The latter boasts pretty tidal pools but both are often not safe for swimming.

Puna Scenic Drive

From Hilo, you’ll embark on the final leg of this busy journey on the scenic drive to Puna and the lava viewing area. This remote corner of the Big Island was one of my favorites, isolated and wildly tropical. It was the Hawaii I was waiting to experience and there’s a red-hot cherry on the cake at the end of this scenic drive.

From Hilo, take Highway 130 to the rough town of Pahoa (hippies, locals and drum circles), and turn to Highway 132. If there’s enough time, make a quick stop at Lava Tree State Monument Park (free), and walk the short circular path amid ‘lava trees’. These are scorched tree trunks overrun with lava in 1970. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, a dead tree appearing to rise from the ground only it’s hollow and made of lava!

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Lava Tree State Monument Park - Big Island Hawaii_1
Lava Tree State Monument Park - Big Island Hawaii_2

Turn right at the intersection with Highway 137, and begin the drive south on one of the most beautiful roads on the island. Stop at the Kapoho Tide Pools and walk from the public parking lot into the grounds of the gated community to a series of tide pools. These shallow pools offer some of the best snorkeling in this area but if there isn’t enough time, either skip or stop to have a quick look (about a 15-minute walk from the parking lot).

Highway 137 gets very scenic after the tide pools, with miles of secluded black sand beaches, countless palm trees and a canopy that resembles a tunnel for the lucky drivers passing beneath. This really feels like the end of the line and, in fact, it almost is.

At Ahalanui Beach Park, you can go for a dip in a natural thermal pool heated by Pele herself. The pool is partially enclosed and opens up to the ocean. It is ill-advised to swim here when the pool is crowded or at low tide when the pool’s water supply cannot be replenished by the incoming waves. There have been cases of bacteria so swim at your own risk. When I visited, there were lots of locals and tourists in the water but I just stopped for a quick look.

Ahalanui Beach Park Thermal Pool - Big Island Hawaii

Further south at Isaac Hale Park, you can depart on boat cruises to witness the lava flow from up close or catch a taste of local life on weekends when families gather to bathe and BBQ. At Kehena Beach, it’s worth the quick stop to have a look  (either from the top of the cliff or down at the beach) at one of the prettier black sand beaches on the island. Lastly, if the painted church from day 3 wasn’t enough, stop for a quick peek inside the Star of the Sea Church.  

Kehena Black Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Kilauea Lava Viewing Area

The scenic Highway 137 comes to an end at the Kalapana Viewing Area but the scenic views are about to get even better!

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Update

Due to recent lava eruptions, the Kalapana lava viewing area is likely closed. However, some visitors have been able to unofficially access the spot though keep it mind that this is at your own risk. The facilities and official staff mentioned in the Kalapana lava viewing section of this day may no longer be in operation. Until a new lava viewing area will be set up, I recommend lava boat tours or helicopter tours. Alternatively, should you wish to forgo this experience and extend day five’s itinerary elsewhere, I recommend driving straight to Kalopa State Park after the visit to Rainbow Falls. After a forest hike in Kalopa State Park, you can then make your way down the coast with a visit to the spots mentioned in this section. Alternatively, you can simply follow the itinerary and simply “take it slow”. 

Once parked, you can either begin the long walk to the current lava flow (about 90 mins each way) or rent a bicycle for $15-20 for the night (all vendors include a headlamp and some even a bottle of water). The path to the viewing area is very flat but unpaved, still not a big deal for bicycles. You’ll also find souvenirs and food/drinks at the start of the trail. If you do hire a bicycle, it is paramount that you take down the owner’s phone number. Bicycles often malfunction and owners will happily arrange for a replacement bike or a fix to be delivered to you (surprisingly, there is mobile phone reception around here).

Hiking or cycling to the viewing area is especially memorable as the day turns into night. Right from the start, you should see the flow of lava trickling down from the hills. This totally motivates you to keep going.

Kilauea Lava Flow - Lava viewing area Big Island Hawaii
Lava viewing area - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Reaching the lava flow should be the culmination of these 5 days on the Big Island. Join the crowds and wander around to inspect and admire the scorching force of nature from up close. Staring at the oozing lava is more hypnotizing than staring at a bonfire. The shapes and slow motion of the flow are truly a spectacle and the entire area looks like an image of hell, especially during the last rays of light. Just be careful where you step and listen to your instincts as it is very hot out here and you don’t want to take the wrong step…

Kilauea lava viewing area at night - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Live lava flow from Kilauea - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island
Lava from Kilauea - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

After you’ve explored the mountainside flow, turn to the seaside and witness the flow of the Kilauea Volcano cascading into the Pacific Ocean in a battle of the elements. It’s not exactly clear who is the winner at any given moment, but this experience will last in your memory for a lifetime!

Kilauea lava spilling into Pacific Ocean - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Logistics: bring a good flashlight ( a headlamp is even better), enough water, food, and snacks. Wear sturdy shoes (no sandals or flip-flops) as it will be very hot near the lava. Be cognizant of time and arrive at the parking lot at least 60-90 mins before sunset so that you are not hiking in the dark both ways (call before to check if the viewing area is open). If you’re driving back to Kona it will be a 2.5-hour drive so best to stay overnight around Hilo or mentally prepare for a late night. Take into account that everything mentioned here can quickly change depending on the flow of the lava. At the time of writing this guide, walking or biking to the lava flow are the only options.

Lava viewing boat tour vs. walking vs. helicopter tour

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Update

Due to recent lava eruptions, walking to the lava flow is likely no longer possible. 

Here’s the deal: unless you physically cannot walk or bike the distance from the parking lot to the viewing area (or do not have enough time), I highly recommend skipping the boat and helicopter tours to the lava flow. Why? First of all, they are REALLY expensive ($200+ per person). Moreover, with the helicopter tour you do get awesome views of the flow from above and with the boat tour you get close to the lava-fall into the ocean, but, it will be brief, you’ll likely spend the whole time snapping pictures and, most importantly, you will not get to leisurely stroll in the lava field at your own pace – by far the most memorable experience on the Big Island! Oh, and helicopter and boat tours are prone to cancellations.  

What’s Next?

I hope you’ve found this 5 days in the Big Island sample itinerary useful for planning your own adventure! Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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