Last updated on April 29th, 2022
One of the prime ingredients to every memorable holiday is that feeling of freedom when you hit the road and drive into unchartered territory as you discover beautiful new places. The good news when it comes to a vacation in Hawaii is that every island has this “secret ingredient”. I spent four months exploring the major Hawaiian Islands, hopping from one to another and driving hundreds of miles on a quest to find the best scenic drives. Though with all the gasoline that was burned this wasn’t exactly an eco-friendly task, here are the best scenic drives in Hawaii!
Visiting Hawaii? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
Watch this video countdown of the top 5 islands in Hawaii (you might need to disable your ad blocker).
Larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together, the sheer size and climatic diversity of the Big Island of Hawaii are the keys for its long and enjoyable scenic drives >> See how to spend 5 days or less on the Big Island
Slicing through the Big Island’s high interior and reaching an elevation of 6,632 feet (2,021 m), Saddle Road connects the sunny Kona Coast with the tropical Hilo side, taking advantage of the relatively flat surface between the mammoth shield volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The road shaves well over an hour from the shortest alternative route and has come a long way from its days as “the last resort”.
Saddle Road is the best way to experience the Big Island’s diversity within the shortest possible time. Climbing from the Hilo side, it is likely raining and foggy but just like magic, when you reach the high lava desert of the saddle, the clouds vanish and it is nothing but sunshine until your descent beneath the cloud line and down to the Kona Coast – which is likely sunny anyway. Combine this drive with sunset viewing and stargazing on Mauna Kea or a challenging hike to the summit to Mauna Loa (though, as of July 2019, Mauna Loa is showing some signs of activity so it’s best to check before heading out).
Isolated and wildly tropical, Highway 137 eventually ends at Kalapana where it is blocked by the current lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano. A relatively short scenic drive, take it slow, stop in several places where you can get wet, and tune into the road’s end-of-the-line vibe. At the Kapoho Tide Pools, put on your mask and snorkel and check out the rich underwater life. At Ahalanui Beach Park, go for a dip in natural thermal pools heated by Pele and cleaned by incoming waves. At Kehena Beach, visit one of the east coast’s better black sand beaches, before admiring the interior decoration of the Star of the Sea Church. This scenic drive culminates in the Kalapana viewing area. It is here that you’ll park your car before sunset and enter “the gates of hell” as you either walk or cycle to the lava flow!
Inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this 20-mile scenic drive is not to be missed. In the far distance, steam rising high into the sky from the current lava flow “monitors” your every move as the scenic road drops from the slopes of the Kilauea Volcano to the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean. On the way, stop to check out several pit craters, take short walks on the immense lava field, and hike to the impressive Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. The Chain of Craters Road ends at the Holei Sea Arch. From this spot, be on the lookout for humpback whales and embark on a long walk to the current lava flow, though it is recommended to do so “from the other side” in Kalapana (see “Highway 137”).
Geologically speaking, the Big Island’s Kohala region is also its oldest, and scenery-wise, it’s one of the most rewarding. From Kailua-Kona, link up with Highway 190 and head north towards Waimea – the region’s largest town and home to several farmers’ markets. This scenic mountain road boasts awesome views of eroded lava fields tumbling down to the blue ocean 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 and paniolos riding their horses.
As you inch closer to Waimea, rolling green hills “teleport” you to somewhere in Northern Europe, after which Highway 250 leads you through sparsely populated land to the charming little town of Hawi. After a stroll along “Main Street”, go for a picnic lunch with an ocean view at Keokea Beach Park, before hiking down to the majestic Pololu Valley.
“The Garden Isle” is perhaps Hawaii’s most stunning island, well known for its lush valleys and the eroded peaks of the Na Pali Coast >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Kauai
Extending for just over 10 miles (16 km) but easily filling up an entire day, Highway 560 links the posh resort community of Princeville with Ke’e Beach, beyond which is the impenetrable Na Pali Coast. Though it’s understandably always congested with tourists, calling this road a highway is very misleading, as 560 is a one-lane road that often narrows down to a single lane when crossing streams.
From the Hanalei Valley Lookout, admire patterns created by the string of taro patches and descend to the valley, eventually reaching the charming village of Hanalei. Go for a long stroll or a dip in picturesque Hanalei Bay – Kauai’s largest bay – before heading west for some snorkeling in stunning Tunnels Beach. Wrap up this scenic drive at Ke’e Beach, where you can hike part of the Kalalau Trail – one of the best hikes in Hawaii – for awesome views of the beach, before heading back down to catch the sunset (access permits now required).
Totally worthy of its nickname – “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” – it’s hard to believe a natural wonder like Waimea Canyon can exist on such a small island like Kauai. Formed in ancient times by the collapse of Kauai’s shield volcano and subsequent millennia of rainfall and erosion, the red canyon follows the bending contours of the Waimea River, dropping in certain sections to a depth of over 3,500 feet (1,000m). Snaking its way for 14 miles above this gem, Waimea Canyon Drive is one of those scenic drives where the views just keep getting better and better. Along the way, stop at scenic lookouts to admire the views, venture on long or short hikes to explore the canyon, and wrap things up with stunning views of the Na Pali Coast from Koke’e State Park.
One of the least visited and sparsely populated islands in Hawaii, over 50% of Molokai’s residents possess native Hawaiian heritage. The island is also home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world and the longest barrier in Hawaii, making it one of the chain’s best-kept secrets! >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Molokai
You’ll need to get your hands on a proper 4WD for this one, but I guarantee it’ll totally pay off. Start things off with sweeping views of the south coast’s coral reef and the desert-like surroundings of Central Molokai, before heading east on a dirt road deep into the island’s high and uninhabited tree-covered interior. With temperatures dropping as you gain elevation, treat yourself to billion-dollar views from the Waikolu Lookout (3,600 feet or 1100m), before continuing your slow-going quest inland to the start of the PepeOpae Trail. Park the car, put your hiking shoes on, and march on a metal-covered wooden boardwalk over who-knows-how-many centuries of rotting vegetation. At the jaw-dropping Pelekunu Valley Overlook, admire the views of Molokai’s highest peaks and, if it has been raining lately, the symphony of cascading waterfalls.
From Kaunakakai to the end of the line in Halawa Beach Park, Molokai’s Highway 450 is the epitome of a Polynesian scenic drive. With hardly anyone on the road aside from a few fallen coconuts, stop at historical sites such as ancient fishponds and churches, splash and snorkel in pristine Mile 20 and Sandy Beach, chit chat with the locals at Mana’e Goods & Grindz, and head down to the Halawa Valley where you can bathe in one its twin beaches or hike with a guide deep inside the valley to a natural swimming pool fed by waterfalls.
One of the most visited islands in Hawaii, Maui’s diverse landscapes – ranging from the Mars-like to the super tropical – are the ingredients for a number of classic scenic drives >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Maui
One of the most famous scenic drives in the U.S, Highway 360 snakes its way along the sea cliffs of East Maui’s tropical and wet north shore, connecting the island’s most remote settlements with “civilization”. The Hana Highway is part of a 16th-century trail that encircled Maui, but with a paved road, came the tourists and to call this scenic drive merely “popular” would be a huge understatement. The 44-mile (70 km) journey is beautifully slow going, crossing 54 one-lane bridges and nearly as many waterfalls. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the giant bamboo forest of the Pipiwai Trail, the Red Sand Beach in Hana, and the black sand beach in Waianapanapa (advanced reservations required).
Haleakala is the volcano that created East Maui, so immense that it is roughly the size of Manhattan! Known as “the world’s largest dormant volcano”, Haleakala reaches a staggering height of 10,023 ft (3,055m) and is responsible for much of the bizarre weather on the island. The road leading to its summit offers incredible views of the Central Valley and West Maui, but you’ll need to dress warmly as temperatures quickly plummet.
A popular spot for watching the sunrise, the Mars-like summit of Haleakala hosts several large scientific instruments as well as a viewing shelter to help overcome the ferocious winds. The best way to truly experience the crater is by hiking part of the Sliding Sands Trail, but you can also begin the drive back down while making frequent stops in scenic lookouts, the finest of which is the Kalahaku Overlook.
The scenic road to Hana might get all the glory but if you want to have Maui’s awesome coastal scenery all to yourself, hit the road and drive (very slowly) along the scenic Kahekili Highway (Highway 340). There’s barely any cell phone reception out here or residents for that matter, just pristine beauty and… strong winds! To call this road a “highway” is to give highways a bad name but seeing as you want to take things slow when the view is this nice, who cares about doing 5-10 mph and sharing the road with oncoming traffic for a few miles? En route, visit exceptional sights such as the Olivine Pools, Nakalele Blowhole, and Kahakuloa Head, before wrapping the day with some snorkeling in Honolua Bay.
Oahu is indeed the most populated island in Hawaii and often gets a bad rap for that, but it is also one of the prettiest in the chain, offering a good mix between urban and country life >> See how to spend 4 days or less in Oahu
This ain’t exactly the Hollywood Hills, but believe it or not, Honolulu has a pretty spectacular scenic drive just minutes away from downtown. Pick up Tantalus Drive and snake your way up the forested mountains, home to million-dollar homes and panoramic views of Honolulu and Diamond Head. The winding road, which is crossed by several hiking trails, then becomes Round Top Road and eventually heads back down completing sort of a loop. Tantalus Drive can easily be combined with the short hike to Manoa Falls.
Oahu’s windward coast is a reminder of what life may have looked like in the pre-development days. Signs of “keep the country, country” greet you as you exit the engineering marvel that is the scenic Interstate H-3, and as you head north on the coastal Kamehameha Highway, the gravitational pull of Honolulu is slowly replaced by a relaxing mixture of mountains, ranches, and lots of blue. Begin this scenic road trip in one of Kailua’s fine beaches (Lanikai Beach is the best) and continue north as you meander through sleepy villages.
If you feel the itch, stop at one of a handful of beautiful and relatively empty beaches but don’t forget to taste the locally grown shrimp at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck. After marveling at the perfect sea arch in Laʻie Point, round the northern tip of the island and enter the Mecca of surfing. These legendary north shore beaches are some of the best surfing spots on the planet, and as you head back to Honolulu, wrap up this scenic drive in sweet style with a visit to Matsumoto Shave Ice.
Oahu is among the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands and this means that Mother Nature has had millennia of rain and wind with which to sculpt and paint the island’s peaks – the prettiest of which form the Ko’olau Mountain Range. Highway 61 – better known as the Pali Highway – slices through this mountain range and connects Honolulu with the windward side of the island. Unless you’ll be hiking in this area, the Pali Highway can be driven on the way to or back from the windward side.
Whatever your plan may be, don’t forget to stop at the Nu‘uanu Pali Lookout, where you can admire the beauty of the eroded peaks, the lush valley beneath your feet, and the blue of the Pacific Ocean. At a height of 1,200 feet, the lookout is also of historical significance. It is from here that the winning forces of King Kamehameha the Great literally tossed about 500 enemy soldiers to their death – an act that led to King K’s victory and eventual unification of the Hawaiian Islands under his crown.
Now that you know where the best scenic drives in Hawaii are to be found, it is just a matter of getting a set of wheels and hitting the road. Want to see more of paradise or plan a visit to the islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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