5 Days In The Big Island Itinerary

Day 5: Hilo, Akaka Falls & Lava

The final day of this Big Island itinerary is split between the tropical and the volcanic. It’s another action-packed day that centers around the Hilo region of the island. Rise early and cover everything described in this section, or take it slow and pick and choose the day’s highlights that appeal to you the most. Remember that the Hilo coast gets a lot of rain, so be prepared for a shower with the right gear.

Pro Tip

Exploring the Hilo region from the Kona coast: if you don’t want to switch accommodations midway through your visit, get an early start and drive from Kona to Hilo in the morning via Saddle Road. From Hilo, head north up to Akaka Falls and then south up to Lava Tree State Monument. From here, return to the Kona coast via the shortest available route.

Lava Viewing Options

Scenic helicopter tours are the only “guaranteed” way of seeing lava eruptions and lava flow on the Big Island. Of course, this also depends on Kilauea’s current mood, but scenic flights are more dependable than lava boat tours and walking trails to lava fields.

Rainbow Falls

Start your day at Rainbow Falls if the sun is shining. This is a top-rated stop for tour buses, so make this your first point of call for the day. There is no guarantee of spotting the rainbow above the falls, but chances are higher in the early mornings and on clear 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.


Hilo is the Big Island’s capital. It is more authentic, damp, old-school, and rougher than its tourist-magnet sister, Kailua-Kona. Hilo is also less wealthy than Kona, 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 the main market days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you plan to cover this daily itinerary, I recommend spending 1-2 hours max in Hilo, focusing on the market.

Downtown Hilo - Big Island

Hilo Farmers Market

The Hilo Farmers Market is open daily but at its liveliest on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This is 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 day. Across the street, an annex to the market is mainly devoted to crafts and souvenirs.

Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island
Shoppers at the Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island
Vendor at the Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island
Sarongs at the Hilo Farmers Market - Big Island

Tsnumai Museum & Liliuokalani Gardens

If you’re taking it slow today, extend your visit to Hilo beyond the farmers market. Head to the Pacific Tsunami Museum to learn about tragic past events, primarily the devastating 1946 tsunami that destroyed Hilo. From the museum, continue along the waterfront to the Liliuokalani Gardens, a lovely patch of green by the ocean. Check out the massive banyan tree and explore the lovely Japanese garden.

Giant banyan tree - Liliuokalani Gardens - Hilo Big Island Hawaii

Hilo’s Beaches

Hilo’s beaches are OK, so if you have extra time, check out Richardson Ocean Park & Carlsmith Beach Park. The latter boasts pretty tidal pools, but both are often unsafe for swimming.

Fish Lunch

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), and the quality is unbeatable. There’s little chance you’ll 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.

Akaka Falls

The Akaka Falls State Park is home to the most accessible waterfall on the Big Island. Park your car outside the gate or 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

To spice things up, take the Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive to return to Hilo from Akaka Falls. This totally-worth-it 4-mile scenic drive is signposted off the main highway. It is not only a scenic detour back to Hilo, but there are also a few worthwhile stops. The narrow road runs through a thick tropical rainforest, crossing one-lane bridges and streams.

For some adventure, park the car at the first one-lane bridge (heading southbound) 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 the river and walk 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_1
Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_2
Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive - hike to secret waterfall - Big Island Hawaii_3

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

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Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

I usually dislike paying to visit botanical gardens, but Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is worth the steep 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, 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 many more surprises. Do not miss this visit, and plan for at least 90 minutes.

Foot bridge in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Islandjpg
Waterfall in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island
Palm trees in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island
Purple orchid in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island
Bright orchid in Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island
Onomea Bay from Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens - Big Island

Optional Scenic Helicopter Tour or Lava Boat Tour

In the past, visitors to the Big Island had several ways to see fresh lava flow from Kilauea. When updating this Big Island itinerary, lava boat tours are currently suspended. These tours usually depart from Isaac Hale Park and bring you as close to the “lava waterfall” as possible (see if they are back). The Kalapana lava viewing area is closed indefinitely. Here, visitors used a walking path to reach the lava flow.

Your best bet for seeing Mother Nature at work (without trespassing on private land) is on a scenic helicopter tour. Aim for a later afternoon departure, ending the sightseeing portion of your day at this point.

Fresh lava flow on the Big Island
The Kalapana lava flow area - Big Island
Lava flow from Kilauea - Big Island

Puna Scenic Drive

If you are not joining a helicopter or lava boat tour, you have the rest of the afternoon for another exciting road trip. The Big Island’s remote Puna, an isolated and wildly tropical region, was one of my favorites. From Hilo, take Highway 130 to the rough town of Pahoa (hippies, locals and drum circles), and turn to Highway 132.

Lava Trees

Stop at Lava Tree State Monument Park, 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, but it’s hollow and made of lava! This would be the tropical version of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Lava Tree State Monument Park - Big Island Hawaii_1
Hollow trunk at Lava Tree State Monument Park - Big Island Hawaii

Kapoho Tide Pools

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.

Ahalanui Beach Park

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 feels like the end of the line. It almost is.

Tunnel of Trees on the Big Island of Hawaii - Puna

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

Ahalanui Beach Park Thermal Pool - Big Island Hawaii

Local Beaches

Wrap up this busy sightseeing day at the beach. At Isaac Hale Park, taste local life on weekends when families gather to bathe and BBQ. Kehena Beach is worth the quick stop to 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 before calling it a day.  

Kehena Black Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

What’s Next?

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

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