A Tropical Travel Blog
by Cate Lincoln

Planning a trip to Hawaii can seem like a lot of work! Flights, accommodations, rental car…there’s a lot to book! But once you’ve got all of that sorted you’re basically done, right? Well…it depends. A lot of people are fine just bumming around the beach or hotel pool and booking one or two last minute excursions once they arrive, but if you’re wanting to get out and really explore the island, you’re going to want to have a plan before you arrive. So let’s get started planning that Big Island itinerary!

First up, a quick breakdown of the island…

Island Breakdown

You need to know a little bit about how the Big Island is laid out. The Big Island is the largest Hawaiian Island by…a lot. You could actually fit ALL of the other Hawaiian Islands inside the Big Island TWICE. It’s the most ecologically diverse of all the Hawaiian Islands and is home to 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones. It’s more or less divided into “Kona side” (sunny, beaches) and “Hilo side” (jungle, volcano), but here’s a more detailed breakdown:

Kona: While “Kona side” refers to roughly the entire West side of the island, there’s also the town of Kona (where the airport, Costco, Target, etc. are). This is the dryer side of the island (no lush jungles or rainforests here) and it’s mostly barren lava fields as far as the eye can see. But no rain also means the best beaches (the vast majority on the Big Island are found on the Kona side) and therefore all of the resorts and condos. If you’re wanting to do a lot of exploring on the Kona side of the island, staying close to town is pretty convenient. You can easily drive to beaches located north and south of town and you’ll be close to most of the island’s cultural and historic sites. You can also easily day trip to the Pololu and Waipo valleys from here. One of the downsides of staying in Kona is how touristy it is. This is where the cruise ships dock so you can imagine what that entails but on the upside there are a lot of shopping and dining options.

Kohala Coast: This stretch of coast (often called the Gold Coast) stretches out north of Kona and is home to the island’s best resorts. This is where you’ll find the best beaches on the Big Island. Because it’s one long stretch of resorts, you’ll also find a lot of shops and restaurants. It has the same type of landscape you’ll find all across the Kona side of the island (lava fields) but you’ll be a little bit closer to spots on the north shore including the Kohala Forest, Waipo Valley, and Hamakua.

Waimea/Upcountry: This charming paniolo (cowboy) town is in Parker Ranch country and offers a completely different experience than either Kona or Hilo. Unless you’ve been to the Big Island numerous times and you’re looking for something unique, I wouldn’t recommend staying here (it’s a little remote and not a good home base) but it’s definitely worth a day trip.

Hilo: “Hilo side” refers to roughly the eastern half of the Big Island and it’s as lush a place as you’ll find anywhere in Hawaii. This inside is all jungles and rainforests and it’s green, green, green. And it’s that way because it rains a lot. Like, all the time. Which is why you’ll find some of Hawaii’s most spectacular waterfalls right outside of Hilo. But the rain situation is why most visitors forgo staying Hilo side and opt for sunnier Kona instead. Also, there are practically no swimmable beaches on Hilo side. But, Hilo has some of the Big Island’s absolutely must see spots so you HAVE to spend some time here. Hilo will likely be your base for exploring Hawaii Volcano National Park, driving Saddle Road to the summit of Mauna Kea, and seeing the north shore sites. The town of Hilo is one of the most charming towns in Hawaii. It was originally built to be the capital but because it rains all the time here, that honor went to Honolulu. Hilo is not near as touristy as Kona and you won’t find any big resorts here but you will find plenty of budget options that make a great home base from which to explore this part of the island. Hilo also has an airport, which you can access via flights from Maui and Oahu so it’s always an option to fly into one side of the island and out the other.

Volcano: The little town of Volcano is nestled right outside the gates of Hawaii Volcano National Park and is basically basecamp for park explorations. This area is very lush and jungly (is that a word??) but pretty remote and not too convenient for anything other than exploring the park, which is a pretty major thing to do.

RELATED: Not very familiar with the Big Island? Read up on the lay of the (is)land and my favorite condos (under $100/night!!), luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.

Before I get into what I would suggest for a Big Island itinerary, I’ll address a few common questions I get:

Big Island FAQs

How many days on the Big Island? I rarely ever suggest spending less than one full week on any one Hawaiian island. On most islands, if you have a week you can see and do a lot and still have plenty of time to relax. On the Big Island it’s a bit different though. There’s not necessarily more to see and do on the Big Island than the other islands, but everything is soooo spread apart that it’s just harder to experience the same amount of activities/adventures in the same amount of time as when you’re on another island. So if you’re wanting to explore the island pretty well and still have plenty of time to relax, I’d ideally suggest 10 days. If you only have a week, you can still see plenty…you just might have to make choices. 

Stay in one place or split it up? If you’ve read my itinerary posts for other islands, you probably know that I don’t usually recommend staying in more than one place on an island for the sake of saving time, BUT the Big Island is a different story. While it’s possible to stay in Kona and do a day trip to Hilo side to see the volcano and black sand beach, you’ll be spending most of your day in the car and probably leave with a lack luster impression of Hawaii Volcano National Park. I suggest splitting your time between both sides of the island to really feel like you’ve seen it all while still having a vacation.  Spend at least two nights either in Volcano or in Hilo and then the rest of your time in Kona or Kohala. If you’re set on staying in Kona the entire time, I suggest doing TWO day trips to the east side of the island (drive the south road once and the north road once, returning by Saddle Road each time) to make sure you get to spend plenty of time exploring.

What about visiting multiple islands in one trip? Go for it! I still recommend at least one week per island, but there are some exceptions. If there’s something you REALLY want to see or do (i.e. Pearl Harbor, etc) you could justify spending only a couple days on that island in addition to another island, but usually when people try to spend 3-4 days per island and hop around a lot they end up seeing more of the airports or just the super touristy parts of each island. 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

What are the “must dos” on the Big Island?

I could give you a list of 100 things you absolutely don’t want to miss on the Big Island (and believe me I have on this blog), but I’m going to keep it short and sweet here. You can go to ANY Hawaiian island and find beautiful beaches and fun adventures like snorkeling, surfing, paddleboarding, horseback riding, tennis, golf, ziplining, etc. So here I’m going to lay out things that are unique to the Big Island and that I think shouldn’t be missed. This should help you out whether you’re spending 7+ days on the Big Island or you’ve only got 3-4 days. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: This is easily the #1 MUST DO on the Big Island. There is a LOT to see and do at the national park (don’t miss the Crater Rim Drive Tour and the Chain of Craters Road Tour). The National Park has self guided driving tours available here and here and it’s also a good idea to check out their website in advance because conditions in the park can change quickly.

See Lava: Just because you visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park does NOT mean that you’ll automatically see lava. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of work to see an active lava flow (don’t expect to just drive right up and see it). Depending on conditions at the time, there are three major ways to see lava (if there’s any to be seen): 1) On a hike and I would strongly recommend doing a guided one. If the flow is on private property it’ll be your only option. 2) On a boat tour. This is a really cool way to see it if it’s flowing into the ocean. But not always an option. 3) On a helicopter tour. If there’s any lava to be seen, this is the most guaranteed way to see it. Blue Hawaiian offers a tour out of Hilo that’s a good one. 

Colorful Sand Beaches: The Big Island has two of the most famous colored sand beaches in Hawaii! First up, the green sand: the trip isn’t easy but the journey to get to the famous green sand beach is well worth the adventure! Located near the southernmost point (of the island and entire US), the spectacular green sand beach (it gets its color from peridot deposits) is only accessible by a two-hour hike (WARNING WARNING: do not drive your rental car across the lava beds even if the gate is open!!!). If you get lucky, there may be locals hanging out in the parking lot offering to shuttle tourists across the rocky terrain in their ATVs and trucks (for a small fee of course). Take them up on their offer-it’s well worth the cost! Next up, the black sand beach (Punalu’u): Hawaii’s most famous black sand beach is a sight that you shouldn’t miss. This rare phenomenon is created when molten lava meets the cool ocean water. The lava shatters on impact creating the black sand. Sea turtles can often be found here. 

Snorkeling with Manta Rays: Diving with manta rays is an experience that’s unique to the Big Island (none of the other Hawaiian Islands have this phenomenon). I’ll admit…I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to do this yet (being in the ocean at night seems a little scary haha), but everyone who does this absolutely RAVES about it and it’s at the very tip top of my list next time I’m on the Big Island. Book your tour here.

Sunset & Stargazing at Mauna Kea: At 14,000 ft., Mauna Kea is home to some of the best observatories in the world for a reason. Plan a trip up for sunset and be sure to pack plenty of warm clothes! If you want to go all the way to the summit for sunset (as opposed to the visitor’s center at 10,000ft), you’ll probably want to book a tour (the road requires 4WD) which also includes dinner and star gazing. Read all about my experience at Mauna Kea summit here. I recommend booking this Mauna Kea tour. I promise it will be the highlight of your trip. It’s something my family still talks about years later.

How to Plan the Best Big Island Itinerary

So let’s talk about planning YOUR perfect itinerary…

Know your vacation style. How you like to vacation will have a huge impact on how you plan your trip and how much you’ll be able to see and do. So what exactly is a “vacation style?” Well, simply put, it’s how you like to spend your vacation!

Are you the type that’s up with the sun and out about adventuring all day only to return to your room to shower and sleep? Are you the type who enjoys spending the majority of your time hanging out at your beach resort? Or do you like a bit of both?

Everyone has a different idea of vacation so the first thing you’ll have to do is decide which suits you best. Are you always on the go, do you spend most of your time beach bumming, or do you do a combo of both? Part of your decision will be based on your personality and likely part will be based on where you’re staying.

For me personally, when I’m staying in a condo or budget hotel, I’m more likely to be out and about everyday, but when I’m staying at a nice beach resort, I’m more inclined to spend time lounging by the pool or on the beach. If you’re the type who’s always on the go, you’ll be able to see a lot of the island. If you want beach time too, I recommend renting beach gear (chairs, umbrella, snorkels, cooler, etc.) for the length of your stay and throwing them in the car so you’ll have them wherever you end up. If you’re staying at a nice beach resort, I would suggest planning a different activity each morning and spending each afternoon at the resort. You may need to set aside an entire day for certain adventures, especially if you’re driving to the other side of the island. Or you may decide to split your trip up like I mentioned earlier and do the bulk of your exploring while you’re staying in a condo or vacation rental and then move to a nice beach resort when you’re ready to just relax. 

RELATED: 15 Things to Do on the Big Island

25 Things to Do in Kona, Big Island

25 Things to Do in Hilo

Big Island Travel Tips (Things to Know Before You Go)

Come up with a game plan, but don’t overplan! If I could only give you one piece of advice about planning your trip to Hawaii, this would be it. I know…it costs a lot of money to get to Hawaii (and it’s so far away). For a lot of people, it’s a once in a lifetime trip and of course you want to see absolutely EVERYTHING. But trying to cram it all into one trip will likely leave you feeling like you spent your whole trip in the car (or in airports) and now need a rest from your vacation upon returning home. 

Here’s how I always lay out my trips:

As I’m researching my destination (yes, I do a LOT of research), I keep a running list of things I want to do, places I want to visit, restaurants I want to eat at, shops I want to go to, etc. From my main list, I break it down into three categories:

A “don’t miss” list: This could be anything from visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to snorkeling with manta rays. These are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to see/do or you’ll return home heartbroken. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but you get my point. 

A “nice to see” list: These are things that you really want to see and experience, but they might be a little more minor. For example, seeing the Waipio Valley or visiting the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. These are just examples, obviously, what might be a “nice to see” for somebody may be a “don’t miss” for you.

An “if there’s time” list: I think you can guess what this list is for. Things that you’d like to see or do if there’s time, but won’t be upset about if you miss.

As you lay out each day, plan ONE thing from your “don’t miss” list each day. Combine it with one or two things from your “nice to see” list, and a smattering of things from your “if there’s time” list. Prioritize your “don’t miss” item every day (whether it’s doing it first thing or making sure you have a reservation for it) and fill in the rest of the day with things from the other categories.

Get familiar with Google Maps. Once you have your lists of activities and things to do, the best way to sort them into days is by their location on the island. Many people underestimate how big the Big Island is (it’s REALLY BIG y’all!). So don’t waste time crisscrossing all over the island, and try to plan each day’s activities on one part of the island.

My favorite way to start sorting activities and sites into days is by using a Google Maps. Plot all of your locations on a Google Map and then you’ll be able to see which ones are near each other and start planning your days that way. Of course, this can also be done on a paper map, but on a Google Map, you can create layers for different days or different types of activities and sites and organize things that way.

Be flexible. I think this tip is the secret to making a good vacation great!  It’s so simple, yet key to really having the best experience in Hawaii. I think that a good plan is essential, but you have to know when it’s time to go to plan B. Or do something else entirely.

The major thing you’ll have to be flexible about in Hawaii is the weather. While the temperature is always pretty balmy (unless you’re in the upcountry area of the Big Island), a good rainstorm can change your plans pretty quick! A word of warning: it’s not unusual for a 10-14 day forecast to predict rain everyday in Hawaii so don’t panic and think your trip is going to be a total wash! It’ll likely just be quick storms that roll in and roll out. But for days where the local forecast truly is predicting rain, you might have to mix things up! One good thing about the Hawaiian Islands is that they’re pretty large so except in the case of a major storm system, the weather will likely be different on different sides of the island. Check the weather forecast the night before (or morning of) and you may decide to rearrange your days based on the weather. Obviously this may not work if you have activities or tours booked, but otherwise, don’t be afraid to swap out days in your itinerary to go chasing the sunshine!

The Best Big Island Itinerary

Okay, let’s get to some recommendations…instead of putting together an entire 6+ day itinerary, I’m going to lay out a bunch of different daily itineraries so you can pick and choose what interests you and put together your own weekly itinerary (these days are listed in no particular order):

Okay, let’s get to some recommendations…instead of putting together an entire 6+ day itinerary, I’m going to lay out a bunch of different daily itineraries so you can pick and choose what interests you and put together your own weekly itinerary (or however many days you have to spend). 

These days aren’t listed in any particular order however, as a general rule of thumb, I like to schedule any activities/tours that are contingent on the weather for the first part of the trip or the middle so if it gets cancelled you have room to reschedule. 

Arrival Day

Most flights from the US mainland arrive midday which is great because you’ll have plenty of time to get situated and have a good dinner, but I wouldn’t make any big plans (air travel is so unreliable these days!).

Plan to check in, get settled, and spend whatever time is left in the day at the pool or beach near where you’re staying. Check out this post for recommendations on places to eat. 

Day 1: Explore Kona & the Seahorse Farm

Plan to spend the day exploring historic downtown Kona, touring a seahorse farm, and chilling on the beach.

Have breakfast at Daylight Mind Coffee Co on the water in downtown Kona (next to Bubba Gump’s) and spend the morning exploring the downtown area. Check out Hulihee Palace and Mokuaikaua Church on Alii Drive. There is a LOT of touristy shopping in downtown Kona, but most of it’s cheap stuff made in China. You can find some good shops mixed in though. Pueo Boutique has cute local products. Also try Tropical Heatwave.

Once you’re finished in downtown Kona, head over to Oceanrider Seahorse Farm. The tour of the farm lasts about an hour and reservations are recommended. You’ll learn so much about seahorses and the farm’s conservation efforts and you’ll even be able to hold a seahorse at the end of the tour!

After your tour, head back to your resort or condo to enjoy the pool and the beach. If you’re not staying on the beach, I suggest renting chairs and umbrellas for the week so you can pack them up and explore some of the island’s best beaches. Head to Kua Bay for the afternoon.

Have an early dinner (make reservations for before sunset) at Lava Lava Beach Club in Waikoloa either do dinner at Lava Lava Beach Club in Waikoloa.

Day 2: Snorkel Kealakekua Bay

Get ready to kayak and snorkel in pristine Kealakekua Bay and see the Captain Cook monument.

The best way to see Kealakekua and land at Captain Cook’s is with a guided our since it requires a permit. If you’d like to do a kayak tour (including snorkeling, a stop at Captain Cook’s, and snacks and drinks), I suggest booking with Big Island Kayaks on their Deluxe Kayak Kealakekua Bay and Snorkel Tour. The 4-hour tour runs 7-11AM (conditions are better in the morning) and costs $99.95/person.  If you’re more comfortable in a boat than a kayak, they also do boat snorkel tours.

If you’re more adventurous (or on a budget), it’s a 3.8 mile roundtrip hike down to Captain Cook’s monument where the snorkeling is good. The hike isn’t particularly challenging, but it is a pretty good ascent coming back in direct sunlight so it may feel harder/longer than it is. It’s about 45 minutes going down, but will probably take longer going back up.

You’ll find the trailhead on Napo’opo’o Road (milemarker 111) off highway 11. Park about 500 feet down the road near telephone pole #4. You’ll find an old road to the right of #4. That’s the trail. If you’re going to hike and snorkel, do it early. By 10AM the bay is filled with tour boats and snorkelers. And of course, if you do the hike, you’ll need to bring your own snorkel gear.

After your tour, keep heading south to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau or the City of Refuge. This sacred site is run by the National Park Service and is a must do if you’re interested in Hawaiian culture. The cost is $5/vehicle to enter the park (check your receipt form Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as it covers admission). While you’ll learn a lot about Hawaiian culture (consider doing one of the guided tours with a park ranger), this place is flat out beautiful. It’s also really common to see turtles on the north end of the park.

While you’re in the area, you’ve got to take advantage of one of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island. Bring your own gear and here’s how to get there: turn into the entrance of the national park but instead of actually driving all the way in, take a right turn. Hang right until you reach the parking lot. The entry point is all smooth lava rock but you’ll still want to take your shoes right to the edge with you. The best entry point is the farthest point of lava rock jutting out into the ocean. There are two natural little steps formed here (hence the name) that makes for easy access. If you can’t find it, just hang back and watch where everybody else is going.

When you’ve had your fill with snorkeling, spend the rest of the afternoon lounging at the beach near your hotel. If you’d like to experience a luau, the Island Breeze Luau at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is a good one.

Day 3: Hiking & Manta Snorkel

Get up and at ‘em bright and early with a hike to Pololu Valley. If you follow the Kohala Coast as far north as you can go, you’ll pass through several cute little towns and end up at the Pololu Valley overlook. It’s pretty spectacular. From the parking area for the overlook, you can hike down into the valley and the black sand beach. If you’re in pretty good shape, it may only take you about an hour down and back.

After that steep hike, you’ve earned an afternoon relaxing at the beach. If you’re staying at an oceanfront resort or condo, take advantage of the amenities. If not, or you want to check out the best beach on the Big Island, head to Hapuna Beach Park. There is some shade available back by the trees, but you may be more comfortable with your own chairs and umbrella so you can get closer to the water. This beach is great for swimming, boogie boarding, and there’s a nice little snorkeling spot around the northern edge. There’s also a spot to rent gear at the beach if you don’t have your own.

If chilling at the beach isn’t adventurous enough for you, you could spend the afternoon hiking the Waikoloa Petroglyphs instead. Take plenty of water!

Tonight you’re going to experience one of the Big Island’s best adventures (it’s also unique to this island)…swimming with manta rays! If you’re a certified scuba diver, you’ll definitely want to book a scuba excursion. But if you’re not, don’t worry! You can snorkel with these magnificent creatures as well. I recommend booking with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii. The 3-hour excursion leaves at 5:30 from Honokohau Marina. It costs $110/adult. They serve drinks and snacks on the boat, but if you want dinner after, head to Huggo’s on the Rocks in Kona.

 Day 4: Waimea & Waipio Valley

Head to Waimea early to have breakfast at Hawaiian Style Café (the portions here are HUGE), and then head out to the north shore to see the Waipio Valley.

There are a few options for doing this: 1) you can view it from the overlook, 2) you can hike down into the valley, 3) if you have 4WD you can drive down into the valley, and 4) you can go as part of a guided tour and ride horses back into the valley. Unless you’re just an avid hiker, I would probably go with a tour. The road down into the valley is pretty steep, and once you get into the valley it’s mostly private property so you can’t just go wondering around by yourself.   

From here it’s about 30 minutes back to Waimea. Waimea is cowboy country and home to Parker Ranch, which was once the largest ranch in the US. If you’re interested, stop by and tour the two historic homes on the property. You can do a self-guided tour and watch a 20-minute video free of charge. It’s open 8-4, Monday through Friday.

There are quite a few boutiques and art galleries to check out in this cute town. The Isaacs Art Center is free and the Parker Shops Complex has quite a few shops worth stopping by.

When you’re ready for lunch, try Village Burger (regularly voted one of the best burgers in the country and serves pasture raised Big Island beef).

When you’re done exploring Waimea, head back to the resort for some beach/pool time.

Day 5: Mauna Kea Summit

Sunset and stargazing are the big draw to Mauna Kea, so plan to head up the mountain mid-late afternoon.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

If you want to do an organized tour to Mauna Kea for sunset and stargazing, this tour lasts 7-8 hours and picks up mid-afternoon. You’ll have dinner at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center while you acclimate to the altitude (the summit is 13,000+ feet), learn all about the astronomers and get outfitted with snow parkas and gloves for the drive up to the summit. The summit is only accessible via a steep, gravel, 4WD road. At the summit, you’ll see the observatories open and rotate as the sunsets. You’ll learn about the famous observatories located here before descending back down to the visitor’s center for stargazing. A guide will set up telescopes and explain what you’re looking at and you’ll also get cookies and cocoa. This really is a once in a lifetime experience. I recommend booking with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures.

If you’re not up for the tour, but still want to experience stargazing, local volunteers set up telescopes for visitors on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Depending on how your trip falls, you may have to shuffle days around to accommodate this. You won’t be able to visit the summit on your own though. Parking at the visitor center is first come first serve and there’s only 115 spots so it gets pretty crowded around sunset. You’ll also want to check on updates to the star gazing set up at the visitor center as your date nears because it frequently changes due to construction and funding.

Day 6: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 

Today you’re going to see the Big Island’s most impressive sites, an active volcano!

To get to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from the Kona side of the island, it’s about a two hour drive. If you’re staying south of Kona, it’ll be quickest to take Highway 11 along the south side of the island. If you’re staying north of Kona (on the Kohala Coast), it’ll be quickest to take Saddle Road to Hilo and then drive south. Plan an early start so you’ll have plenty of time in the park. It’s $25/vehicle to enter the park.

Please keep in mind that conditions in the park (and with the volcano) change often so it’s possible that there might not be an active lava flow during your trip and it’s also possible that it could be gushing. Things like helicopter tours, lava hikes, and lava boat tours are all subject to conditions, but hopefully a couple of weeks before your trip you will have a decent idea of what will be possible to see. The National Park website and Instagram account are the best places to stay up to date leading up to your trip.

Stop at Kilauea Visitor’s center just inside the park to get updates on park conditions from the rangers and view the 25 minute “Born of Fire, Born of Sea” video. It’s shown on the hour, so try to plan your arrival accordingly.

There are two main roads/drives in the park. 1) Crater Rim Drive, and 2) Chain of Craters Road. I recommend doing Crater Rim Drive and then Chain of Craters Road. The National Park Service has excellent “tours” of both roads including the order of stops to make and I recommend following those. I’ll include the links to both drive tours for you to follow. You’ll want to be finished with Chain of Craters Road before dark, but if you’re still in the park around dusk/sunset or after dark, I would double back to the Kilauea Overlook to see the glow of the lava. It’s much more impressive in the evening/dark than the middle of the day.

If seeing lava up close and personal is on your bucket list, this is one of the best places to do it. I would recommend doing this as part of a guided tour. The most popular tour is a sunset hike so you’ll really get to see the lava glow. Of course, the lava flow (as well as if it’s flowing or not) is always changing so your options will depend on conditions during your trip.

If you’re down for a nice dinner, make reservations for dinner at Volcano House (or at least stop by for a drink). You’ll see the glow of the crater from your table!

You’re going to cover a LOT of ground this day (especially if you’re driving over from the Kona side)! The trick to making it work is getting an early start (the earlier the better) and not staying in any one spot too long. And keep in mind that you’ll be making the drive back to your resort in the dark.

Day 7: Hilo

Plan to spend the day waterfall gazing and wandering around Hawaii’s prettiest city.

Get an early start and drive along the north shore towards Hilo. It should take about two hours to get there from Kona side. Stop at any overlooks that strike your fancy. Your first big stop should be Akaka Falls State Park to see the 400+ foot waterfall that’s one of the most famous in Hawaii. It’s about a half-mile hike from the parking lot to the rainforest to view the falls. It’s $5 to park.

Next, you’ll head into Hilo and I strongly recommend planning this day on a Wednesday or Saturday so that you can visit the lovely Hilo Farmer’s Market. It’s packed with local food vendors and you’ll more than likely be able to find some great souvenirs and gifts to bring home.

If you’re hungry after the Farmer’s Market, try lunch at Paul’s Place or Pineapples Restaurant and spend some time walking around the historic part of the town.

If you’re interested in taking a helicopter tour of this side of the island (including the chance to see the volcano) this is the day to do it! The vast majority of helicopter tours on the island leave out of Hilo. I usually fly with Blue Hawaiian. 

Rainbow Falls is located right in Hilo and is definitely worth checking out. It’s just a short hike to the top of the falls.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is by far the best botanical garden in Hawaii. It’s practically brimming with orchids and it’s a must do. It’s located in a lush valley right on the ocean. It’s $20/adult and open from 9-5 (although entry stops at 4).

Make a dinner reservation at one of Hilo’s trendiest spots, Moon and Turtle.

Day 8: Green Sand Beach & Black Sand Beach

Today you’ll see Hawaii’s most unique beaches!

From Kona/Kohala, drive south until you reach the southern most point in the US! This is a big trek! It’ll take you about 1.5 hours from downtown Kona. The parking lot at the end of south point road is also how you’ll access the green sand beach. While you can hike to the beach (it’s a long, hot hike out in the open), bring cash and catch a ride from one of the locals. There are always a hodge podge of locals with ATVs or trucks driving tourists across the lava fields right up to the edge of the beach. Don’t try to do it in your car! This is one of my favorite spots on the Big Island.

Next you’ll keep heading down the road (towards volcano) to Punalu’u where the island’s most famous black sand beach is located. Depending on timing, you may want to stop for lunch first (pack some snacks to hold you over). Stop for lunch at Hana Hou Restaurant and don’t miss the Punalu’u Bake Shop. After lunch, stop by the Punalu’u beach to see one of the most magnificent black sand beaches in all of Hawaii. It’s also not uncommon to see turtles resting on the beach!

If you got an early start and moved at a decent pace today, you should still have plenty of daylight left.

Start the drive back north and stop at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau or the City of Refuge. This sacred site is run by the National Park Service and is a must do if you’re interested in Hawaiian culture. The cost is $5/vehicle to enter the park (check your receipt form Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as it covers admission). While you’ll learn a lot about Hawaiian culture (consider doing one of the guided tours with a park ranger), this place is flat out beautiful. It’s also really common to see turtles on the north end of the park. If you’re still in a snorkeling mood and you have your own gear, the area just north of the park (Two Step) is definitely worth checking out.

Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! It’s always my goal to provide a TON of value to YOU. To that end, lately I’ve been packing my Instagram (@hula.land) FULL of content and adventures that you might want to check out. A lot of my post captions are like mini blog posts with travel info, I’ve got IGTV review videos for luaus and excursions, and helpful story highlights like grocery store prices and hotel reviews. Not to mention that my feed is pretty much the ultimate tropical eye candy! You can follow me here and share my account with your friends! Your support really helps me to keep this blog running!

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