Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must on any Big Island itinerary and makes for a great day trip. The volcanoes in Hawaii are a rare treat to explore as the landscape is ever-changing and is home to seven of the world’s thirteen climates. You will pass through a lush rain forest known for precipitation to a desert filled with lava rocks, see the active crater and hopefully some glowing lava, stand next to steam vents, and drive along the crater roads while exploring this fantastic park.
The road trip to the Volcano is an adventure in itself, and we will cover everything you need to know about it in this blog post.
Which route to choose and how to prepare
You can take several routes to get to the Volcano National Park: through the north part of the island (through Waimea), through the middle via the new Saddle road, and through the south. We recommend taking the north route if you plan on staying in one of the Kohala Coasts resorts, and here is why.
Going through the north is probably the most scenic way to get to the Volcano. You will be driving along the historic Hamakua Coast on the eastern side of the island with expansive ocean views, lush vegetation, and several exciting stops on the way. The north route is also not as long as the south one, so you will not be completely exhausted when you get back.
Plan to spend all day on the trip and leave in the morning. Pack some warmer clothes as the park is located at a higher elevation, and the weather can be unpredictable there. Colder temperatures and occasional rain are pretty typical.
You can stop in Waimea for a cup of coffee and some breakfast at the Waimea Coffee Shop, then drive along Hwy 19 towards Hamakua. Once you get to the other side of the island, you will see the small town of Honokaa – a quiet, charming place with a few good restaurants and shops on its main street.
‘Akaka Falls State Park
Following down the Hamakua coast, enjoy breathtaking ocean views on the left and eucalyptus forests on your right side. About 11 miles north of Hilo is a famous Akaka Falls State Park, home to the cascading Kahuna Falls and the free-falling ‘Akaka Falls, which plunges 442 feet into a stream-eroded gorge. The paved route, which includes multiple steps in places (not wheelchair accessible), makes an easy-to-follow loop offering stunning viewpoints of the two waterfalls. The park is open daily from 8 am till 5 pm, and for more info about their entrance and parking fees, visit their website.
Pepe’ekeo (Onomea) Scenic Drive
As you get closer to Hilo (about 7-8 miles from the city), don’t miss this hidden gem on your way. The turn is rather inconspicuous and is marked as a “scenic drive.” The Pepe’ekeo (also known as the Onomea bay) scenic drive is the most famous scenic route on the Big Island. It is a 4 mile stretch of the old Mamalahoa highway that snakes from scenic spot to scenic spot through wild, lush tropical forest and gives some stunning views of Onomea Bay.
Half the drive, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens are a must-see if you like tropical plants and flowers and are one of our favorite short hikes on the Big Island. They are often described as a “walk in paradise” and “stunningly beautiful” and host many trails and over 2000 species of plants.
You can stop for lunch or some refreshments in downtown Hilo, the largest population center on the Big Island. Reminiscent of old Hawaii, the town never fully recovered from the 1960 tsunami, but it still bears its old Hawaiian charm. Our favorite place for lunch is Cafe Pesto, located on the main street. This award-winning restaurant serves world-class pizzas, specialty seafood dishes, amazing salads, classic comfort foods, and delectable desserts. The restaurant offers plenty of seating, and you can almost always get a table for lunch without a reservation.
Hilo’s city market, steps away from the restaurant, offers an excellent selection of local produce and goods for half the price you would pay in the resorts and is worth checking out.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
After leaving Hilo, head to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Since the 2018 eruption of the Kilauea volcano, parts of the park have been closed. Either consult the National Park Service website to confirm what is open, or you can visit the Kilauea Visitor Center. There you can get the newest information about what you can access. The Jaggar Museum and Thurston Lava Tubes are fun parts of the park to explore.
Crater Rim Drive
After the visitor center, head to the steam vents and steaming bluff. The steam is the result of hot rocks boiling rainwater below the surface. The Caldera Rim Path is an easy trail that is about ¼ mile. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible. There are great views of Kilauea here as well.
The steam vents through the Devastation Trail are part of the Crater Rim Drive. It is an 11-mile stretch of road that circles the Kilauea Caldera. Unfortunately, some of the attractions along the route are closed due to the recent volcanic activity, but it is still worth driving along as far as you can.
Next, head to the Ka’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) Trail. It is an easy walk that is about 1.2 miles round trip. The trail starts across the street from the Steam Vents. Here volcanic gases ooze out of the ground producing a smell of rotten eggs. The gas then crystallizes into colorful mineral deposits.
After that, head to the Kilauea Iki Overlook. This crater was the site of a lava lake that erupted in 1959 in Volcanoes National Park.
Chain of Craters Road
The Chain of Craters Road will take you about 90 minutes, depending on how long and how often you stop. Craters and other volcanic highlights are found in the first four miles. It is a fun area to drive through and get out of the car when something catches your eye. Mauna Ulu stop is especially enjoyable. There are lava flows from as recent as 1979.
The Chain of Craters Road ends at the Holei Sea Arch. The arch is about 90 feet tall and was cut into the cliff of an ancient lava flow from approximately 500 years ago.
Punalu’u Black Sands Beach
After exploring Volcanoes National Park, visit the nearby Punalu’u Black Sands Beach if you have some time left. It is the most famous black sand beach in Hawaii. Small pieces of lava make up the sand. There are strong currents here, so be careful if you plan on swimming. You also have a good chance of seeing the endangered Hawksbill and green turtles sunbathing on the beach.
The best and shortest way to come back to the west side is by taking the new Saddle Road, aka Highway 200 or Daniel K. Inouye Highway. However, you would have to go back to Hilo, as the road starts there. Built a few years ago, the highway goes through the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes (hence the name) and is one of the best roads on the island. Once you cross the path, you may see the sunset from a higher elevation, which is quite stunning. If you have to drive back after dark, be mindful of the driving conditions. Sometimes you can encounter thick fog or rain going through the mountains, and there are not many street lights along the way, so using caution is always recommended.
If you don’t get to see everything you want, no worries! Save it for your next visit to the island. The most important thing is to enjoy your trip, have fun, and learn something new while doing so.
Save on your Hawaii vacation rental
Remember, you can always save 10% on your vacation rental when you book direct with us and mention “Aloha escape” in your reservation.
We hope to see you soon – a hui hou!