Talk to many travelers who have been to the islands of Hawaii, and a majority of them will have spent most of their time soaking up the sun on the beaches of Maui or Oahu. While those are both beautiful islands, you’ll want to plan a drive around the Big Island of Hawaii. The island is so massive you could fit several other Hawaiian islands in it.
When I was on vacation with my family several years ago, we had nothing on our schedule for several days. That made me curious if we could spend a long day driving around Hawaii. As you see, it was possible, and thus I created this post.
While I recommend having a 5 day Big Island itinerary to truly experience the island, it’s fun to spend a day driving around it. I put Kona as the starting destination, as that’s where the main airport is, and most people tend to gravitate to that area. If you’re staying in a different part of the island, just start at that part of the itinerary in the morning and add on the rest as you go.
Tips for a Hawaii Road Trip
Here are a few common questions you might have about your Big Island road trip.
How long does it take to drive around the Big Island of Hawaii?
To drive around Hawaii based on my itinerary, it’ll take about eight hours. However, that’s without making many stops, and you’ll want to spend time at these places.
To adequately see everything on this list and have enough time for meals, I would allow about 12 hours to drive around the Big Island. This itinerary for one day in Hawaii is lengthy but has you stop at the best places. Similar to a Big Sur day trip, you can see a ton in a day, but it’ll just be quite a lengthy day.
How many miles is it around the Big Island of Hawaii?
It’s about 300 miles to drive around the Big Island, and that’s just staying on the edge of it. You can easily add miles as you stop at random places or cut across the island.
Where do I rent a car on the Big Island?
It’s easy to rent a car in Hawaii, especially from the Kona International Airport. You can book directly on the car rental websites in advance so you’re ready to go once you get there.
Just take note that you’ll get an estimate online of how much it’ll be to rent per day, but the company will offer add-ons at the counter. They include GPS, which I recommend in the more remote parts of the island, and insurance. If you have auto insurance from your car in the United States, this may already cover rental cars, and make sure to check before you go.
What do I pack for a Hawaii road trip?
I loved exploring the Big Island in one day, but there are a few tips I have to make sure you’re comfortable. You may find my list of the best things to pack for Hawaii helpful before you go.
The west side of Hawaii is dry, while the east side is wet. There are also multiple elevation changes as you’re going around the island. While I made a road trip essentials list that I use for all road trips, here are a few things to add to your Hawaii packing list.
- Waterproof phone case – Take it from someone who’s ruined their phone on day one of a beach vacation – a waterproof phone case is a lifesaver in a place like Hawaii. LifeProof | Amazon
- Sneakers – cute, comfortable, and supportive for when you’re exploring (I personally wear my Skechers GoWalks on every single trip I take)
- Cooler – make sure you pack a cooler full of snacks and water so you don’t go searching desperately for a shop when your blood sugar gets a little too low
- Rain jacket – It may sound strange, but you’ll want to bring a waterproof jacket and a change of clothes. I was driving around in beautiful weather when out of nowhere came a complete downpour that drenched me. Amazon | Backcountry.com
I love using Roadtrippers for all my road trips because they show you all the fun stops to make along the way. You can get $5 off if you sign up with my code BTR5QTP.
Where to Stay on the Big Island
These places are an excellent base to start and end your Hawaii road trip at.
- King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel – For a mid-range hotel on the water, stay at this hotel. It’s right in town so you can walk to plenty of stores and restaurants during your stay. (rates start at $230 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Hilton Waikoloa Village – This is a little north of Kona, but you’ll love how much privacy you have here. It’s a hotel you stay in when you want to treat yourself. They have fantastic views, restaurants, and even a little boat to take you around the canal that goes through the property. (rates start at $225 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Oceanfront Apartment – Enjoy beautiful sunsets from the lanai at this oceanfront condo. Oceanfront pool, jacuzzi, and poolside barbecue areas are available on the property too. (Rates start at $270/night)
- Oceanfront Condo – A cozy 2 bedroom apartment with marvellous ocean views. Amenities such as Wi-Fi, washer and dryer, and beach towels are provided for your stay. Sleeps 4. (Rates start at $141/night)
- 3-Bedroom Penthouse – This newly renovated penthouse is great for families (4-6 guests.) Amenities include an air conditioning unit, full kitchen with appliances, comfortable beds, and free Wi-Fi. (Rates start at $275/night)
How to Drive Around the Big Island in One Day
This is the 1 day Big Island itinerary I used during my trip, and I felt I was able to see most of the island. Here’s a quick itinerary of where to stop on the Big Island and how long it will take to drive to each point. This itinerary for one day in Hawaii has eight stops, and you can adjust them as needed by skipping some if you’re short on time.
- Kona to South Point (1.5 hours)
- South Point to Green Sand Beach (driving 10 minutes, walking 1-1.5 hours)
- Green Sand Beach to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (1 hour)
- Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to Hilo (1 hour)
- Hilo to Waipio Valley Lookout (1.5 hours)
- Waipio Valley Lookout to Hawi (1.25 hours)
- Hawi to Kona (1.5 hours)
Need help planning out your road trip? I’ve been using Roadtrippers for years to see exactly how long it’ll take from one point to the next and find new places to add to my itinerary!
Stop 1 – Kona
While it’s a massive tourist hub, Kona has a charm that I love. There are so many amazing things to do in Kona that you could spend several days here. Stop at one of the cafes here for breakfast in the morning, and take a casual stroll as the sleepy shops start to open up for the day.
Load up on flowing maxi dresses, or get leis made of real flowers. You can even send a real coconut home in the mail – they just put postage on it and off it goes! Kona is a great first stop for your drive around the Big Island.
The farmer’s market is my favorite part of the town. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 7 AM to 4 PM and has a wide variety of vendors selling their items.
You can buy beautiful handmade jewelry, wood-carved Hawaiian statues, and colorful flowers to name a few.
I recommend buying some fresh fruit for your trip here. Hawaiian fruit tastes so much better and sweeter than anywhere else I’ve ever had it. I’d also grab a sandwich at a nearby shop for lunch later.
Stop 2 – South Point
Once you’re done with the market, head south to visit the southernmost point in the United States to continue your drive around the Big Island. This will take you about 1.5 hours to get to the main highway.
You’ll see a sign for South Point once you get towards the end, which you’ll take a right on and follow for about 10 miles.
The road takes you through some beautiful pastures full of cows and houses that are spread out. Once you get to the end of the road, park and carefully walk out to the edge to see nothing but the ocean for thousands of miles. This reminded me of visiting the north shore of Oahu, which was more remote than other parts.
What caught me off guard was all the people who had set up their fishing lines and were sitting in lawn chairs, patiently waiting to feel a fish pulling on their line.
I’m not sure if they ended up catching anything, but they seemed to be just fine relaxing with their buddies, beer in hand. You can also jump off the cliffs at a designated point, but it was closed for some reason when I was there. I recommend adding this peaceful spot to your Big Island 1 day itinerary.
Stop 3 – Green Sand Beach
Hopefully, you’re wearing your tennis shoes and comfortable clothing, as this is the part of your drive around Hawaii where you finally get your steps in. A few minutes’ drive from South Point, follow the sign for Green Sand Beach and park in the small lot.
Grab your lunch and a water bottle, and start to walk straight towards the water. The trail isn’t marked well at all, but you’ll see a road once you get close to the ocean, which you’ll take a left on.
This isn’t the most leisurely hike, so be in somewhat good physical condition. The two ways to get there are either following the very dusty road (but you have to move for cars constantly) or following the shoreline along the water (look where you’re walking, as it gets pretty jagged in parts).
One tip – do NOT try to drive your rental car on this road because you’ll ruin it. This is strictly for off-road vehicles due to the harsh conditions of the road. Parts of it get extremely narrow, and there are many significant dips in the road, so there’s no way an average car can get over them.
The hike is about three miles one way, after which a tiny beach will appear over the hill. Head to the back of the hill to go down the combination of ladders and rocks and then pick a spot to relax and enjoy your lunch.
The sand doesn’t look green from far away, but you can see the green color shine through when you pick it up. I couldn’t quite capture the color in my pictures, but trust me – it’s worth seeing in person! It’s one of the more unique stops on your drive around the Big Island.
Stop 4 – Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
You’ll probably be tired from your six-mile hike, so enjoy the rest you’ll get on the drive to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. You continue up the main highway going north on the east side of the island, and the signs for the park are pretty obvious.
The entrance fee is $15 per motorcycle and $20 per car, and this covers everything in the park. You can also use it for up to seven days if you choose to come back later.
This National Park has plenty to do, so you can decide how long you want to spend here based on when you want to get back home. Lava vents are all over the park, which are just small vents the volcanoes let steam off through.
There are several overlooks with small visitor centers that are great ways to learn more about the area, and you can even see live cameras from the lava flow far below. There are also viewing platforms to see the steam coming up from the volcanoes.
I went during the day, but I heard you can see the lava’s glow in the crater at night. This is one of my favorite stops on the drive around the Big Island.
If you go through the National Park all the way east towards the water (take the road on the right just before the booth where you paid to get in), you can see the site of Mauna Uluʻs 1969 eruption.
Houses and streets used to be here, and you can see how the lava just demolished everything in its path on its journey to the sea. New life is growing among the hardened lava, which was an odd yet beautiful sight to see.
I love volcanoes, so this was one of my favorite stops on my drive around the Big Island. If you’re curious about other national parks in the United States, check out this list of national parks by state.
Stop 5 – Hilo
This city is the other central town on the island. You could spend a whole day here exploring the boutique stores, so consider coming back if you have more time on your drive around Hawaii.
They have a wide variety of restaurants to choose from for dinner, which is perfect since you’ll likely be starving by now. I like going downtown by the water to choose from the line of restaurants and bars that line the street across from the sea.
Hilo is right on the water on the northeastern side of the island, so pick a spot in one of the many parks to watch the sunset.
There’s a farmer’s market full of local goodies for those who haven’t done enough shopping yet. If you go on the first Friday of the month, they also have a night market which I’ve heard is a fun experience.
Just a note – the drive time from Hilo to Kona is two hours. If you’re getting tired at this point, it’s probably best to end your Hawaii road trip and take Saddle Road back. The road cuts through the island, so you don’t have to go all the way up and around.
This ends up saving you a ton of time. However, if you still have some energy left from your drive around the Big Island, stop at the observatory on the way back!
Stop 6 – Mauna Kea Observatory
Have you ever watched the stars from the top of a volcano? Now you can! This observatory is about 45 minutes from downtown Hilo and is on the way home if you’re staying in Kona. When figuring out your itinerary for how long to drive across Hawaii, this is something you can add if you have all night or skip if you want to get back.
Go here when it’s starting to get dark out and wait for the sky to darken to see the stars pop. One part of what I couldn’t get over in Hawaii was how dark it gets due to the lack of light population. I’ve never been able to see the stars so easily every single night.
If you’re continuing from Hilo and headed north, continue with the following stops.
Stop 7 – Waipio Valley Lookout
King Kamehameha I grew up in this area and played a significant role in the island’s history. Due to this, it’s called the Valley of the Kings and is five miles deep and one mile long. Make sure to stop by Hiilawe Falls on your drive around the Big Island, the island’s tallest waterfall. It’s a unique area to put on your Big Island 1 day itinerary.
You can access Waipio Valley Overlook by driving to the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor. If you want to go into the valley, you’ll need to be with a guide to hike or go on a horseback ride. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles can go into the steep area, and most rental car agreements won’t let you go in this section.
Stop 8 – Hawi
For your last stop of seeing the Big Island in a day, visit the northern part of the island, Hawi. This small town is a great place to watch the sunset go down. If you look hard enough, you can almost see Maui. There are several small shops, restaurants, and even a post office here.
Congratulations – you now know what it’s like to drive around the Big Island in one day! While this is a long day, it’s amazing to see everything the island has to offer on your Hawaii road trip.