Hawaiian Airlines transported us from Maui to the Big Island, the largest island in the state of Hawaii. Shaped by active volcanoes of which one was erupting during our visit, the island is home to extremely diverse landscapes and climate zones. We looped around the island on this five-day road trip itinerary.
Day 1: Volcanoes National Park
We arrived at Kona Airport on a short inter-island flight from Maui. The presence of multiple active volcanoes is apparent even before setting foot on the island. Old lava flows dominate the impressive landscape.
The drive to Volcanoes National Park is only two hours, but adding in stops along the way it could easily take a day. We saved the Captain Cook area for later, and headed straight for Volcano Village. Our first poke on the island was served with a tasty side of Hawaiian Mac by Real Aloha Poke and Fish Co.
The road passes by Punaluʻu Beach, a black sand beach known to attract green sea turtles. This big guy ended up as the only green sea turtle we would spot in Hawaii.
Volcanoes National Park encompasses the summits of two active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. Considered among the most active in the world, there is a good chance of witnessing an eruption when visiting the Big Island.
At the time of our trip, Kīlauea had been erupting for six months already. We made it to the crater rim after dinner, a perk of staying the night inside the park. The eruption could be seen from miles away in the dark, lighting up the sky bright orange.
Stay: Nāmakanipaio Campground
We stayed the night at Nāmakanipaio Campground in Volcanoes National Park. With year-round gloomy and cold weather, we reserved one of the rustic cabins in advance. The cabins are basic, but provided a welcome upgrade from tent camping for us.
Day 2: Volcanoes National Park & Hamakua Coast
The next morning, we embarked on the four-mile Kīlauea Iki trail. The trail begins in lush rain forest on the crater rim before descending into the crater. The native Ōhiʻa trees and their red blossoms create a unique contrast on the black crater floor. The Ōhiʻa is an endemic species that can only be found in Hawaii.
We hiked the trail counterclockwise, parking at the Kīlauea Iki Overlook on Crater Rim Drive and passing by the Thurston Lava Tube on the way back. Other stops on the Crater Rim Drive include the Kīlauea Overlook and Volcano House, which has a great gift shop and views of the steaming crater below.
From Crater Rim Drive, we entered the Chain of Craters Road. Starting at 4000 ft. elevation, it runs all the way to sea level over a span of 19 miles. The road cuts right through the lava created by past eruptions. From overlooks above, you can spot the dried lava streams into the ocean.
The only way out of Volcanoes National Park is by retracing your steps, back to Volcano Village. We left the volcanic landscape behind and continued to tropical Hilo, also called the rainiest city in the US. In return for daily rain, the Hilo region offers lush green scenery and the stunning Akaka Falls.
Stay: Laupahoehoe Beach Park
What we didn’t know is that this tropical wet climate extended to our scheduled stay for the night: Laupahoehoe Beach Park. We picked the worst possible moment to set up camp, right when a tropical storm was rolling in. After almost losing our tent to the Pacific Ocean, we shoved everything back into the car and drove off to safer grounds. We ended up staying in an Airbnb in Honokaa.
Day 3: Waipi’o & Pololū Valley
We were preparing to hike the overnight Muliwai trail to Waimanu Campsite, when it was announced that the trail and campsite had been closed until further notice. The trail leaves from the Waipiʻo Valley Overlook and zigzags into the neigboring Waimanu Valley. For a peak into the beautiful valley, we made a quick stop at Waipiʻo Valley Overlook.
The gloominess of Volcano and Hilo make way for blue skies when driving through upcountry Hawaii. The Kohala region is known for its ranching or Paniolo culture. The drive is very scenic, surrounded by green pastures and ocean views.
The Pololū Valley Overlook lies at the other end of Waipi’o Valley Overlook, with seven valleys in between. A short hike leads to the valley floor and the black sand beach.
After mentally preparing for an overnight hike in Waipi’o, I was determined to get some hiking miles in Pololū Valley. The Awini Trail climbs the opposite side of the valley to an amazing lookout point on the ridge. The trail runs behind the black sand beach and can be hard to spot, until a clear path of switchbacks starts leading up.
A bench on the ridge-top marks the Honokane Nui lookout, now end point of the trail that used to go further into the seven valleys. With stunning views all around and a refreshing Kona Island Lager, we were happy to find ourselves on this side of the valley.
For lunch, we stopped in the colorful roadside town of Kapaau. Gill’s Lanai cooked us up a delicious grilled fish with a side of gecko.
Stay: Spencer Beach Park
To reach our stay for the night, we continued south along the Kohala coast. The contrast with our attempted stay on the east coast the night before could not have been bigger: Spencer Beach Park welcomed us with soft yellow sands, tranquil waters and a beautiful sunset. Camping zones are indicated, but there are no marked sites. We pitched our tent on a prime area overlooking the ocean.
The bay is used as a training area for traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe clubs. We got to see them paddling off during breakfast.
Day 4: Kohala Coast & Captain Cook
The Kohala Coast is a sunny stretch of stunning beaches on the northwestern side of the island. From Spencer Beach Park, a segment of the historic Ala Kahakai Trail runs along the coast to Hapuna Bay. We followed the trail-by-the-sea to Mauna Kea Beach. Arriving by foot has a clear advantage over limited public parking at the luxury Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
The trail passes by several beautiful bays before arriving at Mauna Kea, considered one of the best beaches on the Big Island. We even spotted a wedding taking place at a small secluded cove.
After this generous dose of sunshine, we left the Kohala Coast behind and drove south to Captain Cook. To get up close with the Big Island’s underwater life, we picked Two Step Beach at Honaunau Bay.
In reality there is no beach, just lava rocks that make entrance into the water a bit tricky. Once underwater, we were completely mesmerized. Two Step best resembles a tropical, real-life aquarium. This was by far the best snorkeling we’ve experienced in Hawaii. Our underwater camera’s battery decided to die down before reaching the water, but the fish are so abundant they can even be seen from the coast.
Two Step is located adjacent to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, which offers free parking and entrance with a National Park Pass. A self-guided walking tour took us past the sacred sites of these once royal grounds. The park is a must-visit for a peak into ancient Hawaiian culture.
Stay: Ka’awa Loa Plantation
Ka’awa Loa Plantation could easily be the most picture-perfect Airbnb we ever stayed at. Perched on a hill overlooking Kealakekua Bay, this one of a kind property is everything you could wish for on a Hawaiian getaway. We took in ocean views from the jacuzzi and showered under the stars. These lovely perks were even more appreciated after ten days of camping.
Day 5: Kailua-Kona
The tropical garden at Ka’awa Loa Plantation provided the main ingredients for a delicious breakfast, served on the beautiful wrap-around porch. We were sad to leave this heaven on earth behind after just one night.
The slopes of Kona in southeastern Hawaii are home to the Kona Coffee Belt. The combination of a unique climate, volcanic soil and handpicking of the beans makes Kona coffee one of the most exclusive in the world.
We visited Greenwell Farms on our way to Kona airport. They offer free tours of the farm, explaining the growing and harvesting process of Kona coffee. All coffee varieties are available for complimentary tasting.
Sipping on a cup of 100% Kona coffee, we said goodbye to the Big Island of Hawaii. Incredibly diverse and full of surprises, our road trip got better (and sunnier) with each day that passed. For a taste of authentic Hawaii, the Big Island should not be missed.