The Big Island is home to amazing hikes and endless backcountry adventures that you could spend years exploring. But in order to experience some of the most breathtaking views on the island, you need hardly leave your car. If you just want to enjoy your day by taking a cruise in a convertible with the top down, or if you plan to take one of these routes to reach your destination, we are sure these drives will be memorable experiences.
1. Napo’opo’o Rd (4.3 miles)
You don’t even have to go far to find spectacular driving on the Big Island. The top of Napo’opo’o Rd is just 20 minutes’ drive from our Big Island bed and breakfast. The road itself winds down the steep slope above Kealakekua Bay and makes it’s way to the oceanside village of Napo’opo’o. Along the route you’ll take in sweeping views of Honaunau Valley’s lush coffee farms, the blue gem of Kealakekua Bay, and the rugged coastline all the way to Miloli’i in the south. The road itself is a beautiful (and slightly harrowing!) journey through a tropical paradise, with flowering plants on all sides and twisting banyans growing out of sheer rock faces and over the road. Be sure to drive slow for safety and for maximum enjoyment of the sights along the way. There are a few small pull-offs along the route. Use these for photo opportunities or to let local drivers pass by.
When you take this drive, you are retracing the path that generations of Hawaiians used to reach the heiau, or temple, to the Hawaiian god Lono that now stands at the bottom of Napo’opo’o Rd. It was at this temple on the shore of Kealakekua Bay that the ancient Hawaiians gathered each winter to celebrate Makahiki, the end of the harvest and the start of a season of peace between enemies. Directly across the bay stands the gleaming Captain Cook’s monument, dedicated to the British explorer who lead the first European expedition to the Hawaiian Islands. In between is the glistening bay, a focal point of Hawaiian history and a place of incredible scenic beauty.
2. Hwy 250, the Mountain Road from Waimea to Hawi (19.3 miles)
The Mountain Road between Waimea and Hawi is not well marked and is easy to bypass since most visitors will stick to the coastal route when driving to North Kohala. But the scenery on Hwy 250 merits a detour, and it can even be a shortcut to Hawi if you drive the upper highway (route 190) from our Big Island bed and breakfast. From Waimea, the Mountain Road begins by winding its way up the verdant flanks of Kohala Mountain. Before the road reaches its crest, there is a viewpoint on the left with several parking spots. From here you can take in a vista that stretches from Waimea town all the way to Kaupulehu, and includes the peaks of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai. No panoramic photo can do justice to the breadth of landscape that is visible from this point on the island.
After stopping for several minutes (or hours) at the viewpoint, you can continue Highway 250 through ranch lands of rolling green hills. While the road does not cross the summit of Kohala, it does reach over 3200′ above sea level. Up there the air is cool, crisp, and carries the scent of eucalyptus and pines. The road gently descends from the crest, eventually winding through tropical forests before ending at a junction in the adorable town of Hawi.
3. Hilo Farmers Market to Waipio Valley Lookout (~50 miles)
Open every day from 7 am to 3 pm, (with a bigger market on Wednesdays and Saturdays) the Hilo Farmers Market is a great place to start your journey. Don’t forget to grab some of the island’s best souvenirs and get some seasonal snacks for the road. The first part of the drive takes you past Hilo’s charming waterfront, featuring centuries-old wooden storefronts — many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places — and a variety of galleries, shops, restaurants and cultural sites that deserve a peruse.
From Hilo, head north along the Hamakua Heritage Corridor. The area’s bountiful rainfall keeps the area lush with thick tropical foliage and feeds stunning waterfalls, rich rainforests, and deep scenic valleys. Historic bridges get you above the canopy with vantage points to see hidden waterfalls or the beckoning blue of the Pacific Ocean. Make sure to take a detour to Akaka Falls, a towering 442 ft waterfall cascading into a stream-eroded gorge.
Honoka’a town is the gateway to Waipio and a great spot to stop on your way. Its main street features local boutiques, antique stores, gift shops and restaurants. People come from all over the island to savor the malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) at Tex Drive in.
Finally, find your way to the scenic overlook at Waipio Valley, once home to the old kings of Hawaii. The spot boasts one of the most scenic views on the Big Island and overlooks the green fertile valley and the dramatic sea cliffs sprawling to the west. You can end your drive here or, if you have a 4WD vehicle (and know how to use it!) you can continue into the valley and its unforgettable black sand beach. However, this road is one of the steepest on the island and features narrow roads with 2-way traffic. Take it slow, proceed with caution and be courteous to fellow drivers.
4. Old Onomea Route (~4 miles)
This gem can easily be done in combination with #2. The modern Highway 19 bypasses much of the old Mamalahoa Highway, where previous generations spent hours twisting and turning along a narrow road just to make it the 40+ miles from Honoka’a to Hilo (about an hour today). Sections of this old road are still there, just off the main thoroughfare, buried in the dense rainforest of the North Hilo Coast. One such section that is worth your time is the stretch that passes by Onomea Bay between Pepeekeo and Papaikou. Taking this drive will truly give you a feel for old Hawaii, as the road is so narrow, overgrown, winding and rutted that speeding is impossible.
Tropical flowers adorn every branch, the smell of salt air wafts on the gentle breeze, beams of misty sunlight shimmer down through the treetops above. Hungry? Tired? Just pull over at one the many roadside fruit stands or cafes, grab a bite to eat, relax, and let your thoughts wander.
The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden sits halfway along the drive and can be a destination in and of itself. Shortly after is a spectacular view across the rugged and treacherous Onomea Bay. Take this drive slow, enjoy every moment. Just don’t be surprised when you find you have spent the better part of a lazy afternoon on a four-mile detour.
5. Chain of Craters Road (18.8 miles)
Of these scenic drives, Chain of Craters Road is the only one that was created with the specific intention of taking in as many interesting landscape features as possible. Chain of Craters Road is one of two main roads within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, descending from near the summit of Kilauea Volcano to just above sea level along its 18.8-mile length. It is an out-and-back drive which takes about 1.5 hours straight through, but you will want to put aside much more time to make stops along the way.
Just to name a small selection of the things you can see on this drive, there is: a native rainforest full of endemic (Hawaii only!) plants and birds, a lava tube, massive volcanic craters, vast lava flow fields (now cooled!) a 14-mile long, thousand-foot-high cliff, views of Mauna Loa, endangered Hawaiian geese, and a sea arch made of eroded lava. There are simply too many features along this scenic drive to list here. Kilauea Iki, the Turston Lava Tube, and the Holei Sea Arch are must-visit stops along the route.
The most breathtaking vista comes into view about two-thirds of the way down as the road nears the edge of the Hilina Pali. The massive escarpment formed thousands of years ago as the flank of Kilauea gradually collapsed to form a coastal plain below a 1000’+ drop-off. The view takes in the flow fields from the 1983-present eruption from Pu’u O’o cone and the 1969-1974 eruption of Mauna Ulu, the wild, rocky coastline, and, on a clear day, the southern tip of the island. If you only get the chance to drive one of these routes on your trip, let this be it.
A self-driving tour is a fun and safe way to see what the Big Island has to offer. Be sure to ask us about lunches to go from the Holualoa Inn so you can have a delicious and healthy meal to take on your drive. With so much spectacular scenery to take in, all that’s left for you to do is hit the road!