5 Days In the Big Island of Hawaii - post cover

5 Days In The Big Island

5 Days In The Big Island

Last updated on November 29th, 2022

Few are the places in the world where you can snorkel in pristine tropical waters and hike on a snowcapped volcano in the same day. But the Big Island of Hawaii is all about contradicting experiences. After all, 11 of the 13 microclimates that exist on our planet can be found on the island. And they don’t call it the Big Island for nothing, a diverse paradise larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together. This 5 days in the Big Island sample itinerary covers the very best the island has to offer. So get ready to do some serious mileage as we explore the Big Island.

I spent three magical months on the Big Island while doing some volunteering work on the Kona Coast. It’s important to note that, like in all Hawaiian islands, there’s a plethora of organized tours and activities offered to visitors. In this sample itinerary, we’ll stick to the basics, and cover the very best of the island with little to no organized activities.

What’s Included in this Big Island Sample Itinerary?
This Big Island sample itinerary is made up of the following sections. Continue reading or click on a particular day that interests you the most.

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Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and lots more are waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

Hawaii Travel Guide - Cover Image

Why Visit The Big Island?

Snow on Mauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii
Diverse Nature

Where else can you visit a tropical rain forest in the morning, play in the snow in the afternoon and enjoy the sunset with a beach cocktail?

Green sea turtle - Kona Harbor Beach Big Island Hawaii
Beach, Hike, Drive

The Big Island offers endless ways to explore nature by car or on foot, not to mention soft sand in every possible shade of color.

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

Home to Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, fire is the Big Island’s dominant element.

5 Days In The Big Island Map

This map contains all the places mentioned in this sample itinerary. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.

5 Days in the Big island of Hawaii sample itinerary - Map

Big Island Travel Tips

Here are a few essential travel tips for the Big Island of Hawaii. Don’t forget to go over the things you need to know before visiting Hawaii, where you’ll find general advice on visiting the Hawaiian Islands including how to save on costs.

Quick Finds

Where to Stay

If your plan is to see all of the Big Island’s top sites (and I do recommend that), it’s best to split your time between the Kona Coast and the Hilo side as noted in this sample itinerary. The reason for this is to minimize driving times and maximize sightseeing times. The Hilo side is close to Volcanoes National Park, the lava fields, and Akaka Falls, while the Kona side is near the best beaches, snorkeling spots, and Pololu and Waipio Valleys.

Here’s a link to a complete list of Big Island accommodations that you can book online.

Kona vs. Hilo

It’s worth mentioning the difference between the west coast (Kona coast) and the east coast (Hilo). The West is where you’ll find the island’s top beaches, resorts, dining, and snorkeling. It is also the drier side of the island which means more sunshine! The east coast is wetter and more tropical, with many of its residents living off organic farming. It offers more of that stereotypical Hawaiian island feel but also requires navigating through rainy periods of the day.

Beach Resorts

With a few exceptions, the Big Island’s top beach resorts are located in Waikoloa, about 45 minutes north of Kailua-Kona. It is here that you’ll find an array of romantic and family-friendly beach resorts, usually fronting top-notch beaches and offering a wide range of activities ranging from golf to watersports and scenic helicopter flights.

Mauna Lani Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Have a look here to find the Big Island resort that suits your preference.  

Bed & Breakfasts

If you’re looking for a more authentic and laid back setting, I highly recommend the Lilikoi Inn on the Kona side. In fact, I spent here three memorable months and can honestly say that there are few places like this on the island at this affordable price range.

Friendly owners Shai and Trina left a successful catering business in California to fulfill their dream of living in paradise. They have created a lush tropical setting that truly feels like your home away from home. Their four-bedroom bed and breakfast is located in the hills overlooking the Kona coast near the artist village of Holualoa – just a short drive from all the action. This is Kona coffee country, and the bed and breakfast also doubles as a small coffee farm.

Trina and Shai Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii
Sunset - Lilikoi Inn Big Island Hawaii
Passion Fruit Lilikoi Flower - Big Island Hawaii

Rooms are tastefully decorated, the grounds are blooming with tropical fruits, exotic flowers, avocado, and organic vegetables, and sunsets from the wooden lanai are ‘to die for’. Oh and the breakfasts… These are an absolute highlight as Shai – a former chef – uses his magical touch to create delicious ways for guests to wake up. Locally grown ingredients are blended together in a rotating menu while Kona coffee grown on the property is poured like water! Guests are treated like family and you rarely leave for the day empty-handed as Shai will often stock you with fresh fruit and homemade guacamole.  

Exotic lizard - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii
Bed and Breakfast - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii
Shai giving instructions - Lilikoi Inn - Big Island Hawaii
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Update

The Lilikoi Inn is transitioning from a bed- & breakfast to a vacation rental (two units are planned). Check out additional accommodation options in Holualoa that can be booked online.

What to Pack

Together with this 5 days in the Big Island itinerary, I recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet guide to Hawaii to have useful information at your fingertips and to better understand Hawaii’s culture and interesting history.

Lonely Planet Hawaii
Lonely Planet Hawaii the Big Island

As far as packing goes, the Big Island requires you to have the right gear for the island’s myriad of activities and climates. For example, be ready for the beach with reef shoes and snorkeling gear, for the hikes with proper shoes and quick-drying clothing, for the tropical areas with rain gear, and for the high peaks with proper winter clothing (that’s right!). Have a look at this page for more information and recommendations.

Getting Around

They don’t call it the Big Island for nothing! Travel times from point A to point B can sometimes take well over an hour so it is essential to rent a car on the Big Island if proper sightseeing is what you’re here for.

By car: my advice is to 100% rent a car upon arrival at the airport for the entire duration of your visit and to simply drop it off before your return flight. Nearly all car rental companies are located at the airport and competition means decent prices, especially out of season. Renting a 4WD will come in handy (if the price is right) as it will allow you to drive to the very summit of Mauna Kea, Green Sand Beach and down to the floor of the Waipio Valley. If you cannot afford one or if none are available, it’s not the end of the world.

Keep in mind that aside from the long driving times on the Big Island, road conditions may not allow you to drive at the speeds you’re used to from back home. You often find yourself having to either drive at 60-80kph or agonizingly getting stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a one-lane road. Moreover, the roads near Hilo and Kailua can get congested with traffic during rush hour and weekends (but never gridlocked).

Getting around Big Island Hawaii - Saddle Road

By bus: there is a bus service on the Big Island which offers an inexpensive way of getting around. However, it is more suitable for locals traveling between Kona and Hilo and less for tourists. Perhaps backpackers will find it useful.

Cycling: quite common on the Big Island but due to the vast distances and changes in elevation, this is more a sport rather than a means of getting around. Cyclists will find miles of cycling lanes with lots of respect given by drivers.

Hitchhiking: not that common by locals but quite common among backpackers and young tourists. You should have no problem flagging a ride within a few minutes but, as always with hitchhiking, it’s best to avoid if traveling solo and always listen to your gut feeling.

The Weather

The Big Island’s landscape is diverse and so is its weather. As mentioned in the intro, you can experience 11 out of the world’s 13 climate zones on the Big Island. So, as expected, the weather can greatly vary and be hard to forecast. In general, the Kona side (west coast) is sunny and dry while the Hilo side (east coast) is tropical and wet. The middle (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) can experience both snow or extreme sunlight and are very cold once the sun sets.

Your best bet is to check the National Weather Center’s website, where you can drill down by region or zone. However, a word of advice: unless it’s a completely cloud-free day (or completely stormy), take the weather forecast with a big grain of salt. It can change quickly and be highly unreliable. However, do understand which climate zones you’ll be visiting on a particular day and pack accordingly. Another thing to note is the vog (volcanic fog). The volcanic activity from the Kilauea Volcano releases gasses into the air which are typically carried towards the Kona side, resulting in hazy conditions and respiratory challenges for those susceptible to such conditions.

Kona Vig from Kilauea - Big Island Hawaii

Staying Safe

The Big Island is a very safe travel destination but, as always, some caution is required:

  • When sightseeing, do not leave anything visible inside your car or even in the trunk. Car break-ins are unfortunately common in some parts of some of the islands in Hawaii.
  • Driving long distances at night on country roads can be a tiring affair, and the light from oncoming traffic can feel a bit blinding in the absence of street-lighting. Keep this in mind and stop for a stretch here and there.
  • Having access to mobile data and phone calls is highly recommended. This will help with directions, understanding driving times and making calls when needed. T Mobile has good phone and data plans for visitors to the Big Island but in any case, download an offline Google Map of the Big Island to your phone.
  • If hiking off the beaten track (especially Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa), be sure to have proper equipment, to check weather reports, and to inform park rangers or your hosts about your estimated arrival time.
  • Big Island beaches can be dangerous at times with high surf and strong currents. State parks will have proper warning signs but unofficial beaches will not. It’s best to not venture into the water during high surf periods and to avoid swimming in beaches without lifeguards during periods of rough ocean.
  • Take note that in official state and county beach parks, entrance is restricted to specific times. If you don’t want to get locked out, be sure to read the signs before crossing the gate. Don’t worry too much about this though as gates usually close after sunset.
  • If you’re driving from Kona to Hilo (or vice versa) via Saddle Road, be sure to fill up the tank and avoid overheating your brakes by shifting into lower gear in downhill sections.
  • If you’re suffering from asthma or other respiratory condition, stay up to date with the Big Island weather forecast as vog and haze on the Kona coast can make breathing difficult for some people and cause severe headaches.  
  • Always pack accordingly and take extra layers/water/food.
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Update

In late 2022, Mauna Loa erupted for the first time since 1984. This likely affects hiking opportunities in the area and perhaps the traffic as well.


Day 1: Kona Coast Beaches & Kailua Town

Spend the first of your 5 days on the Big Island on the sunny Kona coast. We’ll do a bit of beach-hopping and check out the charming historic town of Kailua-Kona.  

Start your day with a bit of relaxation, bodyboarding or swimming in one of the Kona Coast’s fine beaches. I’ll briefly list a few top choices but have a look at a complete menu of the Big Island’s best beaches for more info on these and other sandy spots. Choose the one (or two, or three) that you fancy the most.

Big Island beach - Hawaii

Cool Lava Tube

If driving north from Kailua to the beaches or coming south from the Waikoloa resorts, pull over around mile marker 90 (you’ll likely see a few cars already parked) and check out a massive lava tube. The noise of the busy highway quickly fades away as you venture inside. It is here that you get your first taste of the maze of volcanic pipelines that crisscross the island. It is said that this particular lava tube runs deep inland but you can just have a quick look and carry on with your day. The kids will love it!

Lava Tube - Kona - Big Island Hawaii

Kua Bay

Manini’owali Beach – better known as Kua Bay – is part of Kekaha Kai State Park, a dreamy section of the Kona Coast that hides four spectacular beaches amid a vast and barren lava field. Kua Bay is the only beach within the park that is accessible via a paved road, which means that parking can be challenging on weekends and holidays.

The beach itself is a beautiful blend of azure waters, rocky outcrops and soft white sand. When the surf is up, swimming is hazardous but bodyboarding is at its best. Need another reason? Where else can you swim in a tropical beach with palm trees around you while in the distance, a snow-capped volcano is looming?

Kua Bay Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Mahai’ula Beach

Mahai’ula Beach is my favorite beach on the Big Island and maybe even all of Hawaii. It is also part of Kekaha Kai State Park but reached via the southern entrance to the park. Once you pull over from the main road, you’ll need to drive for a good 20 minutes or so on a rough unmaintained road, however, a 4WD is not needed (just take it slow). Just before the main parking lot, you’ll see a metal chain restricting access to a dirt road that leads to the beach. Grab your stuff, hop over the chain and head to paradise!

The beach is absolutely worthy of a postcard, with soft sloping salt and pepper sand, clear waters and palm trees galore. But the best part? Because Mahai’ula is harder to reach, it’s a prime destination for escaping the crowds. From this remote spot, you can also further hike to Makalawena Beach. 

Makalawena Beach Big Island Hawaii

Waikoloa Beaches

The Waikoloa resort area is home to a number of fine beaches that are mostly backed by one or more large resorts. An exception to this is Hapuna Beach State Park, a beautiful half-mile stretch of fine golden sand. If you’re not a resident of Hawaii, you’ll need to pay a $5 parking fee and do be cautious of rough swimming conditions during periods of high surf, though lifeguards are on duty. I visited Hapuna on a very windy day when it was just brutal to stay anywhere close to the beach. However, if the seas are calm, the lack of rocks in the water makes Hapuna a perfect swimming spot and snorkeling is even possible in the rocky cove on one of its ends.

Hapuna Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Hang Out with Sea Turtles

After catching some color and before checking out Kailua town, go for a stroll along Honokohau Beach and get acquainted with the Big Island’s cutest residents – the Green Sea Turtles. The beach is part of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park and is free to enter. Just park your car at the small harbor’s lot and walk past the signposted gate onto the trail.

The Green Sea Turtles are VIP residents on the Big Island – a protected species awarded with a 20ft (6m) restraining order from humans. Their favorite activity is to laze on the beach and bake in the warm rays of the sun. Visiting this beach (along with Kiholo Bay) is a sure guarantee of seeing sea turtles from up close so I recommend adding this stop to your list, especially if you are traveling with children. The beach itself is beautiful, less for swimming but more for finding your own space and pondering life’s big questions. It’s also a good spot for watching the sunset.

green sea turtle beach - Kaloko-Honokohau -Big Island Hawaii

Kailua Town

The Big Island’s tourist hub, Kailua-Kona is a laid-back upscale beach town definitely worthy of a visit. I loved coming down here from my mountain home in Holualoa to watch the sunset, grab a bite and a drink, and just do some people-watching. Nowadays, the town is pretty much 100% focused on tourism but it does have a deep historical significance. Kailua was the seat of King Kamehameha the Great’s government prior to his unification of the Hawaiian islands.

Kailua Kona Big Island Hawaii

Kailua’s outskirts are where you’ll find your Walmart, Target and all those other wonderful American wonders, but its charm centers around Ali’i Drive – the seaside thoroughfare where you want to spend most of your time. I recommend parking your vehicle somewhere around the Marriott (near the pier) and begin strolling along Ali’i Drive.

This seaside walk offers a glimpse at local life on the wealthy Kona coast while seeing the town’s main attractions and taking advantage of its dining options. Be sure to check out Mokuaikaua Church – the oldest church on the island, Hulihe‘e Palace (if it’s open) and its adjacent giant banyan tree, and Hale Halawai Park – a great spot for watching the sunset. You’ll also pass a plethora of souvenir shops and tour operator stands.

Kona Hawaii - sunset

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to taste Hawaii’s signature dessert – shave ice! It just so happens that Kailua is home to the island’s best place for shave ice – Scandinavian Shave Ice. We’re basically talking about a large slab of ice that’s mechanically shaved to perfection and topped by your flavored syrup of choice. It doesn’t sound like much but on a warm day, you really can’t beat it!  

Fancy a cocktail over shaved ice? Not a problem! Head to Chill’n On The Bay and enjoy the sweet pace of life with a maitai in your hand. They do serve food as well but I recommend waiting just a bit more. Another good spot for sunset drinks is at Huggo’s On The Rocks – a classic beach bar with a sandy bottom and a generous drinks menu. If you come here after dinner, there’s a good chance to catch some local live music. For a real Polynesian experience, head to Kanaka Kava and experience what it was like to get a ‘buzz’ before alcohol arrived on the islands. Kava is a popular drink in Polynesian and Melanesian islands, a muddy-looking concoction made from the roots of a plant. When drank in the right dosage, it can lead to a wonderfully relaxing sensation (and may lead to a feeling of numbness in your tongue).

Kanaka Kava - Big Island Hawaii

Dinner & Drinks or Luau

It’s been a long day and it’s now time for dinner. For a taste of great Hawaiian food, make reservations at Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill. It’s well worth the five-minute drive from the center of Kailua, especially if you haven’t already gobbled up a poke bowl – my absolute favorite Hawaiian dish. Raw chunks of fresh red tuna are marinated in a variety of yummy flavors (soy, oyster sauce, wasabi, spicy mayonnaise and more) and served on a bed of white rice that’s sprinkled with spices. If beachfront dining is what you’re after, make reservations at either Island Lava Java (facing the beach across Ali’i Drive) or at Huggo’s On The Rocks.

Poke Bowl - Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill - Kona Big Island Hawaii

Another good dinner option is to take part in a luau and treat yourself to a spectacular Polynesian fire and dance show to go along with dinner. The best luau on the Big Island is currently the Island Breeze Luau at the Marriott. The price of admission is a bit steep, like all good luaus, and there’s no way of skipping dinner and just attending the show.

Don’t want to go to sleep quite yet? Head to Sam’s Hideaway and hang out with real locals. There’s nothing fancy about this typical small-town bar, just cheap drinks, chit-chatting with locals and, oh yeah, karaoke!

Day 2: Waimea, Pololu & Waipio Valleys

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.

Waipio Valley Hike - Big Island Hawaii

Kailua-Kona to Waimea

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.

Road to Waimea - Big Island Hawaii

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.

Waimea Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii

Option 1: Hawi and Pololu Valley

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.

Town of Hawi - Big Island Hawaii
Hawi Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii

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!

Keokea Beach Park Big Island Hawaii picnic spot

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.

Pololu Valley Lookout - Big Island Hawaii

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).

Pololu Valley Beach - Big Island Hawaii

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.

Option 2: Waipio Valley

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.

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Pro Tip

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.

Waipio Valley Overlook - Big Island Hawaii

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.

Steep road to Waipio Valley - Big Island Hawaii

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.

Hike to Hi’ilawe Falls

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!

No Trespassing sign in Waipio Valley - Big Island Hawaii
Hiilawe Falls Waipio Valley - Big Island Hawaii
Hiking in Waipio Valley to Hiilawe Falls - Big Island Hawaii

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.

Hi'ilawe Waterfalls - Waipio Valley Big Island HawaiiHi'ilawe Falls 2 - Waipio Valley - Big Island HawaiiHi'ilawe Falls - Wapio Valley - Big Island Hawaii

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

Waipio Beach

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.

Waipio Valley Beach - Big Island Hawaii
Look into Waipio Valley - Big Island Hawaii

Muliwai Trail

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!

Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii

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).

tropical rainforest - Muliwai Trail Hike - Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii
waterfall - Muliwai Trail Hike - Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii.

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.

Day three of your 5 days in the Big Island offers a variety of choices – something for everybody. My personal favorite option is #1 as it includes both the best snorkeling on the Big Island and the spectacular sunset and stargazing on Mauna Kea (suspended as of Jan 2019 due to renovation).

sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii

Option 1: Captain Cook Monument & Sunset on Mauna Kea

Kailua Town

I recommend starting this action-packed day early, out and about by 8:30 am give or take. Start your day in the center of Kailua Town with a visit to the Kona Farmers Market (open every day 7 am-4 pm, free parking). The market is very much geared towards tourists, so you’ll find here all the ‘classic’ Hawaii souvenirs to take home but also lots of locally grown fruits and vegetables. In fact, I used to come down here from the farm I was volunteering on to barter with the vendors for produce we were short on. It’s a decent place to browse and stock up for the rest of the day.

Kailua-Kona farmers market - Big Island Hawaii

You will need to have a packed lunch and plenty of water for the next segment, so do not leave Kailua without these!

Alternatively, if it’s Friday or Sunday, begin the drive south and stop at the Pure Kona Green Markets near Captain Cook Village. The market is oriented around food, Kona coffee, and crafts – a refreshing and quick stop before the hike.

Pure Kona Green Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii
Pure Kona Green Farmers Market - Big Island Hawaii 2

Captain Cook Monument Hike

In 1779, the great Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay and forever changed the history of Hawaii. The first white man to come in contact with native Hawaiians, Cook and his crew were treated to a very warm reception, likely because their visit coincided with a festival – a four-month affair packed with lots of food, sexual activity, games and no tribal violence.

Three weeks later, Cook departed the Big Island but returned after encountering rough seas. By now, the holiday was long over and life returned to normal. There were no parties this time around and tensions were high. In what is considered a huge misunderstanding, the natives – who greatly revered the explorer – violently killed him when Cook fired a warning shot that killed one of the chief’s guards. In his honor, a monument was erected years later at the site and the tiny plot of land was ceded to the British Crown (this is technically UK territory).

You can only reach the monument, and the awesome snorkeling spot in Kealakekua Bay, by hiking down from the coastal road or joining a snorkeling tour from Kailua (or kayaking). I highly recommend the hike if you are fit and the boat tour if you have small children.

To reach the trailhead, park your car at the top of Napopo Road (see accompanying map), don’t leave anything in your car, and look for the Ka’awa Loa Trail sign which marks the start of the hike. For about 45-minutes, you’ll be hiking downhill and the interesting views start after about 20 minutes. In front of you, a barren lava field tumbles down into the blue ocean and to your left, the rugged cliffs that shelter Kealakekua Bay. On a clear day, there is no shade around here so be sure to pack lots of water and always wear a hat (and sunscreen if you easily get burned).

Captain Cook Monument Hike - Big Island Hawaii

The trail ends in a wooded area, the spot where Cook lost his life and where a commemorating obelisk stands today. It is here that it is time to change, put your snorkeling gear on and jump from the decaying cement ledge into the pristine waters of the bay.

Captain Cook Monument- Kealakekua Bay- Big Island Hawaii
Captain Cook Monument - Big Island Hawaii

The Best Snorkeling on the Big Island

This is considered the best place on the Big Island for snorkeling. Visibility is excellent and tropical fish are abundant. If you are extra lucky, you might spot sea turtles and even dolphins. This spot can get very busy on weekends and when boat tours arrive from Kailua. It’s best to get here late afternoon or early morning. Post snorkeling and before the hike back up, this is a good spot for a picnic lunch.

snorkeling - captain-cook-monument-Big-Island-HawaiiSnorkeling Captain Cook Monument - Big Island Hawaii - reef viewSnorkeling Captain Cook Monument - Big Island Hawaii - spikey sea urchin

Logistics: hiking down takes about 45 minutes and back to the top approx 60-90 minutes. Bring plenty of water and sun protection and wear either shoes or waterproof sandals. For the snorkeling part, fins are not a must but do have some foot protection (reef shoes or sandals). Bring a full change of clothes for after the hike.

End of the World Sea Cliffs

Driving back in the direction of Kailua, take the coastal road this time (Mamalahoa Bypass Rd)  and stop at the End Of The World sea cliffs. Despite its close proximity to town, not too many visitors are aware of this beautiful spot. It is here that you’ll witness the shaping powers of the Pacific Ocean, as waves strike the lava cliffs with intense power. Even on the rare calm day, the beauty of the place is totally worth the drive. In fact, I recommend snapping a few photos from the usual spot at the start of the path, and then continuing for a private viewing of the spectacle from the surrounding cliff (brave locals sometimes practice cliff jumping from here).

The End of the World is also a site of historical significance. It is here that King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) battled his cousin after the former broke the traditional kapu system by eating at the same table with females – a highly forbidden act in those days. The battle was bloody and ended with Liholiho’s victory and the end of the rigid system. Rocky terraces near the entrance to the cliffs are all that remain from a battle that shaped the future of Hawaii.

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End of the World sea cliffs - Kona Hawaii Big Island

Takeaway Dinner at Da Poke Shack

Together with Umeke’s (see day 1 itinerary), Da Poke Shack is the best place on the Kona coast for poke (aside from supermarket poke which is really not bad – see Things To Know Before Visiting Hawaii). It’s only open until 6 pm, prices fluctuate daily and they often sell out quickly. Expect to pay $10-15 for a poke bowl: fish, white rice, and a side of salad.  

Da Poke Shack - Kona Hawaii Big Island

Sunset & Stargazing in Mauna Kea

You now have a 75-90 minute drive from Kailua to Mauna Kea (50 minutes from Hilo) and you want to get here at least 45-60 minutes before sunset. This evening is one of those experiences that vividly live in your memory for eternity, and I strongly recommend making the drive.

Rising out of the depths of the ocean to a height of 4,207m, Mauna Kea is the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, if the height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world! It is a shield volcano, one that gradually rises to immense proportions and resembles a shield lying on the ground with its protective-end facing the sky. A sacred site to ancient Hawaiians, Mauna Kea’s summit is often covered in snow. Due to its immense height, the lack of light pollution in the area and the thin air – Mauna Kea is a prime location for observing the heavens. In fact, the summit is home to the largest concentration of high-powered telescopes in the world!

Mauna Kea from road to Waimea - Big Island Hawaii

It is a magical spot to witness a glorious sunset and to observe the night sky. However, do check weather conditions to ensure it is worth the drive. Only come here when the forecast calls for a clear night, preferably one without a strong breeze as it is freezing up here after the sun sets.

To reach Mauna Kea, drive on Saddle Road (Highway 200) – a scenic highway that slices through the mountainous interior of the island on the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If driving from the Kona side, expect to climb what seems to be a never-ending ascent until reaching the saddle and if driving from Hilo, roadwork to realign this section of the highway should be complete by now. The scenery is interesting throughout the journey, with the tropical changing to desert-like and even to green pastures reminiscent of the Irish countryside. The weather is also interesting up here, with storms quickly disappearing as you ascend past the clouds with nothing but intense sun and the bluest of skies.

Drive to Mauna Kea above clouds - Big Island Hawaii

You’ll turn off Saddle Road and drive up to the Mauna Kea Visitors Center where you’ll park your car (2,800m). If you have a proper 4WD and the road to the summit is open, you can drive all the way up and watch the sunset in the company of the massive telescopes. If you do not have a 4WD, change into your winter gear and begin the 20-30 minute hike to sunset hill. Grab a spot, get your camera ready and enjoy the breathtaking views of cinder cones beneath your feet and Mauna Loa in the distance.

Hike to sunset hill Mauna Kea Big Island Hawaii
Mauna Loa and craters from Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii

However, it is the radiating sunset that draws the crowds and it is absolutely worth the trip. As the sun begins to set above the clouds, things quiet down as an inability to utter a word takes over. Truly magical is the sunset in Mauna Kea, not to be missed.

Sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island HawaiiSunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii 3Sun setting above clouds - Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii

People watching sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii
Sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii 2

Once the sun sets, things get even colder. Walk back to the visitor’s center to warm up, watch the informative video, buy some souvenirs or something hot to drink, and wait for darkness to fall. On most days, the volunteers at the visitor’s center set up large telescopes that point to interesting spots in the night sky. Depending on the season, you might get to see Venus, Orion, Jupiter and other celestial bodies that make you realize just how tiny we are. The friendly staff also use ‘magical laser pointers’ to point out the stars while they explain what it is you’re seeing and how it all ties back to ancient Hawaiian history. The stargazing is an absolutely fun experience, especially for kids, unless it’s a busy night with lots of tour groups making the stop.

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Update

In January 2019, the stargazing experience was suspended and visitor center opening hours were shortened in light of a renovation program. Stay up to date via the official website for information about opening hours and activities.

Stargazing on Mauna Kea _ big Island Hawaii
Moon stargazing - Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii

Logistics: check weather conditions before driving up here. Understand that at this altitude, physical activity is much harder so take it easy, listen to your body and drink plenty of water. Pack ultra-warm clothes (think Canadian winter), flashlight, tissues (you’ll have a runny nose), lip balm and comfortable shoes.

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Pro Tip

Bring with you some tea bags or ramen noodles as hot water is available for free (food + drinks can be purchased). When driving back down, put the car into low gear (D2) to avoid unnecessary strain on your breaks.

Hiking Mauna Kea

It is possible to hike to the summit of Mauna Kea from the visitor’s center. This will be a full day hike that takes about 10 hours to complete (16 miles return). It is very (very) challenging since it begins with a 1,400-meter ascent lasting for 8 miles! The trail pretty much parallels the 4WD access road to the summit. The first few miles are a treacherous climb on Mars-like loose sand and rock. The scenery is, however, out of this world, and you’ll likely not see a soul on the trail.

Mauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii - red boulders

After about 3.5 hours of hiking, you’ll reach Lake Wai’au – the third highest lake in the US and a peculiar site amid the desert landscape.

Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii

From here, it’s just a final climb to the observation area and a further 1-mile ascent on the paved road to the summit. The views from here are, needless to say, some of the best in Hawaii. On a clear day, you can see the island of Maui in the distance. To get back down, you can either try your luck with hitchhiking, walk back on the paved road, or hike on the very same trail you used for climbing. Good luck!

Snow on Mauna Kea Hike Big Island HawaiiMauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii - snow and observatoriesObservatories on Mauna Kea Summit Big Island HawaiiMauna Kea Summit Big Island Hawaii - selfieMauna Kea Hike - summit view - Big Island Hawaii

Logistics: check weather conditions at the summit and be at the visitor’s center by no later than 10 am to check-in with the rangers, sign an information sheet, wait 30 minutes to acclimate to the altitude, and grab a trail map. The name of the game here is layering: wear two pairs of socks, long pants, and a few layers of shirts (sweat-repelling t-shirt, long-sleeve t-shirt, fleece and rain jacket). Pack: winter hat, gloves and scarf, 3L of water per person, enough food and snacks, lip balm, tissues, a garbage bag and sun protection. Be aware that the weather can quickly change. When I hiked, the forecast called for a sunny day, however, clouds quickly moved in and it started to snow midway through the hike! Do not hike past the visitors center if you went scuba diving the day before.

Option 2: Green Sand Beach

Start the day with a visit to either the Kona Farmers Market in Kailua or the Pure Kona Green Markets in Captain Cook to shop and buy a packed lunch and snacks for the day. Then, visit the spectacular sea cliffs at the End of the World before beginning the long drive south to Green Sand Beach (see full details in option 1).

The drive south to Green Sand Beach takes about 90 minutes. If you haven’t found anything you fancy for lunch in the markets, there are lots of food and drink options along the way until the turnoff to Highway 160. I recommend stopping for a stretch and fresh juice at the South Kona Fruit Stand before the last leg to the beach.

Eventually, you reach South Point – a peninsula extending to the southernmost spot in the 50 states. Follow South Point Road until it ends. Due to the fragile natural environment, driving to the Green Sand Beach is not permitted, not with your own 4WD or with locals who might offer a paid ride to the beach. From the parking lot, you must hike to the beach.

The hike to the Green Sand Beach takes you along the beautiful coastline for about 1 hour. It’s a flat-going easy hike where the views keep getting better and better. When you round the last corner, you’re rewarded with the ‘money shot’ of Papakolea Beach, a.k.a Green Sand Beach! If it’s a sunny day, you’ll easily understand how the beach gets its name. The greenish colors are the result of finely eroded sand from a volcanic rock somewhere around here.

hike to Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

To reach the beach, walk down the makeshift path and enjoy one of the prettiest beaches in all of Hawaii! As for swimming, it was fantastic. The water was absolutely clear, the waves not too high, and I felt very protected inside the hidden cove. That said. I have read about dangerous currents at this beach. Note that no facilities are present so bring everything you’ll need and take everything out. If swimming, I recommend bringing a change of clothes to ensure a smooth hike back to the parking area.

Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii
The Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Before Driving Back

If there’s still time, stop at Ka Lae – Hawaii’s southernmost tip. If you still fancy more beach, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is one of the best on the island and Honomalino Beach is a favorite with locals (and sea turtles).

Option 3: Snorkeling, Ancient Site & Locals Beach

Just like with option 2, start the day with a visit to either the Kona Farmers Market in Kailua or the Pure Kona Green Markets in Captain Cook to shop and buy a packed lunch and snacks for the day. Then, visit the spectacular sea cliffs at the End of the World before beginning the drive south to Two-Step Beach (see full details in option 1). En route, you’ll find lots of other food options before the turnoff to Highway 160 and Two-Step.

St Benedict’s Painted Church

A few miles after the turnoff from Mamalahoa Highway (HWY 11), look for the easy-to-miss sign on the right to the painted church. Step inside and be whisked away to a tropical version of a holy paradise. The church’s wooden interior is beautifully painted in true Hawaiian fashion by a Belgian missionary John Velghe in 1899.

St Benedict’s Painted Church - Big Island Hawaii

City of Refuge

The combination of easy access and state of preservation makes the visit to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park a worthwhile stop before snorkeling at the adjacent Two-Step Beach. Plus, it’s just $5 to enter with a car or $3 to walk in. Meaning ‘place of refuge’ in Hawaiian, this was a residence of Hawaiian royalty that also doubled beyond its stone walls as a safe haven for ancient Hawaiians who broke the strict kapu system. By taking refuge here and receiving ‘treatments’ from the priests, violators of kapu could avoid a death sentence.

If you’re really interested in the history of the place, park rangers offer free tours. Otherwise, grab a map and explore the grounds at your own pace. Check out the ancient heiaus (stone temples), outrigger canoe and reconstructed tiki statues. It’s nowhere near as impressive as the ancient Polynesian temples of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, but this is one of the best ancient sites I visited in Hawaii.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_1Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_2Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_3Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_4Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_5Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park - City of Refuge - Big Island Hawaii_6

Snorkeling at Two-Step Beach

It’s not actually a proper beach but rather a collection of smooth lava rocks leading down to the secluded bay. Find a spot somewhere on the rocks, put your gear on, and enjoy the vivid marine life. It’s the best place for snorkeling on the Big Island after the Captain Cook Monument (see option 1), but since it is easily accessible by car, it is a popular place.

Snorkeling Two Step Beach - Big Island Hawaii

And why is it called ‘two-step’? Because all you need to do is take two steps beyond the lava ledge and you’re inside the pristine coral garden. Enjoy!

Two Step Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Logistics: I recommend wearing reef shoes at the very least because exiting the water can be a bit tricky, especially in rougher conditions. Fins will make life easy for you but not 100% required. There is no shade or places to buy food, but there are portable toilets across the beach.

Ho’okena Black Sand Beach

Back on the main road, stop for a smoothie at South Kona Fruit Stand and continue on the short drive to one of the best beaches on the Big Island. Ho’okena is a favorite among locals and you’ll hardly find any tourists over here despite the close proximity to Two-Step. The beach’s full facilities (outdoor showers included) and campsite, make this place super popular on weekends.

The sand is a mix of black and gray and the vibe is totally relaxing – the Hawaii you envision. Swimming can be very rough in the winter months, but there’s a good chance of spotting spinner dolphins and humpback whales offshore.

Ho’okena Beach Park - Locals Beach - Big Island Hawaii

On the way back to Kailua, stop at the Original Donkey Balls Factory if they’re still open and buy some quirky chocolates to take back home with you.

Option 4: Dive with Manta Rays

A must for many visitors to the Big Island, diving with manta rays is a popular activity on the Kona Coast. Expect to pay around $190 for a two-tank dive, which includes a ‘regular’ morning dive and a night dive with manta rays.

Manta Ray night dive - Kona Big Island - Mikhail Popov

Between the dives, I recommend spending more time in Kailua Town, grabbing some delicious poke and paying a visit to Magic Sands Beach – one of the prettiest on the Kona Coast and a prime spot for sunsets. The beach gets its name from its ‘disappearing act’ during winter months when currents and waves strip the beach of most of its sand. There’s still enough of it to place a towel on, but the swimming can be rough (and very rocky).

Day 4: Volcanoes National Park

On day four on the Big Island, it’s time to get closely acquainted with the island’s ruling element: fire! You cannot visit Hawaii without paying a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the highlights of every trip. The park is home to the Kilauea Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, enlarging the Big Island at the expense of the ocean since 1983 (learn more about the volcano here).

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Update

Due to recent lava eruptions, quite a few spots seem to be closed as of March 2019. I strongly advise to (1) stay up to date with on the official web page of what’s open and what’s closed inside the national park and (2) stop at the visitor center upon entrance to the national park to finalize your itinerary. Remember, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is centered around a highly active volcano. As such, it will always adapt to the current environment. Closures and re-openings are frequent events, so planning and flexibility are required on your part.  

Volcanoes National Park - Big Island Hawaii - panoramic view

Logistics: to maximize your time on this side of the island (days 4+5), I strongly advise to either stay within the park grounds or book an accommodation in and around Hilo. There is not much in terms of food options within the park so bring with you a packed lunch, snacks, and water. Be prepared for changing weather, with sweat-repelling clothing, rain gear, something warm for after sunset, comfortable hiking gear (walking poles and binoculars are optional). Be aware that toxic vog is present in the air and may cause respiratory problems for some. It is best to always start your visit at the visitor’s center and check on weather/road conditions while stocking up on brochures. Entry fee to the park is currently $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.

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Pro Tip

Note that you could spend multiple days in the national park, hiking, camping and exploring. However, the itinerary presented here allows you to experience the very best of the park in a single full day. It is also worth mentioning that currently, you cannot get close to the lava flow from within park grounds. But not to worry, on day 5 we’ll wrap up your visit to the Big Island with this exceptional experience.  

Kona to Volcanoes National Park

Get a very early start on this day and aim to be on the road by no later than 8 am. It’s a 2.5-hour drive from Kailua-Kona to the park’s entrance and there is one stop to be made on the way. Note that if you’re heading this way on a weekend or holiday, there will be some traffic, especially in one-lane sections of the road. Reaching the park by 11 am is perfectly OK as you’ll hang around here until after sunset.

The only worthwhile stop en route is at the tiny village of Punalu’u. It is here that you can buy the Big Island’s best malasadas and sweetbread at Punalu’u Bake Shop, and grab awesome sandwiches to-go at Hana Hou Restaurant.  

Road to Volcanoes National Park from Kona - Big Island Hawaii

Kilauea Iki Hike

After stretching your legs at the visitor’s center, checking on road/weather conditions and stocking up on brochures, I highly recommend to officially commence your visit with the Kilauea Iki hike. It is the most rewarding and longest highlight of the day so it’s best to do this first. If there’s one hike to be done in the park, it is this one – a moderate hike that basically takes you to the moon and back (4m or 6.5km loop).

Park at the Kilauea Iki Overlook and catch a glimpse of what’s ahead – truly a spectacular view. The trailhead is on the side of the overlook, a well-marked path leading to the crater floor via a misty rainforest.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island - Kilauea Iki Crater

Once you begin the descent down to the crater – the ancient lava lake – things really start to get interesting. Down here, the look and feel is that of an alien landscape, filled with active steam vents, strange rock formations, and a smooth crater floor made of packed volcanic ash.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island - Kilauea Iti Trail
Steam Vents - Kilauea Iki Hike -Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii
Crater Hike - Kilauea Iki Trail - Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii

After walking the length of the crater floor, you begin the ascent back to the car park, actually reaching the entrance of the Thurston Lava Tube – our next stop.

Thurston Lava Tube

This is one of the most popular stops within the park and if you are traveling with children – this is a must. This 480-meter long lava tube was created when the flow of lava ended and all that was left was the exterior ‘pipe’. The tube’s entrance is reached via a flight of steps in the thick rainforest. Once inside, you’ll feel like a proper miner, except this underground cavern is courtesy of mother nature. This is a quick 30-minute (max) stop, after which you will return to the car and begin the scenic Chain of Craters Road.

Thurston Lava Tube Entrance - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island
Thurston Lava Tube view inside - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Chain of Craters Road

This scenic 20-mile drive is another must-do activity in the park – a paved road dropping down the slopes of Kilauea right to the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean (90 minutes return without stops). On the way, there are many stops to be made as you pass several small craters, but the scenic highlights begin with the gradual descent via a not-so-ancient-lava-field. The views are surreal and you can stop and walk on parts of the lava field for close inspection.

Towards the end of the road, you’ll see signs to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. This is a very short and easy hike (2.5km return) that brings you to a viewing area where ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs decorate the basalt boulders.

Hawaiian Petroglyphs - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

At the very end of the road, you’ll clearly see steam rising into the air in the far distance. This is the current Kilauea lava flow meeting the Pacific Ocean. It is possible to hike very close to that spot from right here (10 miles each way), but it is best to do it from ‘the other side’ – something we’ll do tomorrow.

Hardened Lava Art - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

From the end of the road, it’s a very short walk to the Holei Sea Arch, an impressive rock formation shaped by millennia of waves. From here, you can often spot humpback whales (in season). There is also a small ranger station, toilets, and a modest snack bar.

Holei Sea Arch - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Jaggar Museum Lava Viewing Area

By now it is late afternoon and almost time for sunset. Head back up the Chain of Craters Road towards the Jaggar Museum. On the way, stop at the steam vents and warm up a bit, courtesy of Mother Nature (you seriously cannot miss them).

Park the car at the Jaggar Museum and prepare for sunset. The museum itself is a very interesting stop on its own, clearly and visually explaining the park’s geological and mythological history, as well as educating on matters relating to the volcanic activity. It is here that I learned of an underwater volcano not too far from the present-day coastline of the Big Island that will one day rise and add a new ‘chunk’ to the already massive landmass.

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Update

In March 2019, the Jaggar Museum and its post-sunset viewing area were closed. Stay up to date with on the official park website to see what’s open and what’s closed inside the national park. Inquire at the visitor center for alternatives, if needed. 

The museum is also the closest you can presently get to the Kilauea Caldera and the Halema’uma’u Crater – the residence of the fire goddess Pele and the only viewable lava flow within park grounds. So grab a spot (you will not be alone), take out a pair of binoculars (really makes a difference) and soak in spectacular views that are best described as a massive battlefield. And one more thing: though it’s been a long day, do not be tempted to leave until it is fully dark. On a clear day (and even on a cloudy one), the night sky is illuminated by a pillar of lava tossed into the air by Pele!

Lava Viewing - Jaggar Museum - Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii

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!

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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