A small detour to your destination can help you discover a whole new side of Hawaii. The scenic drives described on this page are made to show some of the beautiful places on the Big Island that you would have missed if you rushed from destination to destination.
If you already know where you want to go you can jump ahead to your destination. Our 5 favorite road trips are:
Table of Contents
- Mauna Loa road scenic drive
- Kapoho Kalapana (red road) scenic drive
- Onomea (Pepe’ekeo) scenic drive
- Chain of craters road
- Coffee country (South Kona) scenic drive
Take your time, drive slowly, and enjoy the views. Stop on the way at a fruit stand or at a small cafe for refreshments, and don’t forget your camera. These scenic routes will bring you closer to the “real Hawaii”.
Scenic drives and roads on the Big Island (map)
Almost all the roads on the Big Island are scenic in their own way, but, as always, some are more special than others. Here is a map our favorite scenic drives on the Big Island. We tell you why they are so scenic and give you recommendations on where to stop on the way.
1: Mauna Loa Road scenic drive (Volcano Village)
Distance: 11.2 miles (one way)
Where is it? Follow highway 11 west from Volcano Village (towards Kona). Turn towards the mountain at the signposted exit to Mauna Loa road (between mile markers 30 and 31).
When to take: If you are staying at least one night in volcano village. Clear skies are a plus.
Recommended stops: Hike the 1-mile scenic trail at the Bird Park (see map), and don’t forget to stop halfway up to look back to the Kilauea Volcano. Once you reach the summit you can make a small hike west of the parking lot to see the unique and endangered Mauna Loa silversword.
Mauna Loa road climbs the slopes of Mauna Loa above the Kilauea Volcano. It takes you across old lava flows and through Koa forests, stopping at the trailhead of the red cabin hike. The unique selling point of this scenic route are the wide views you have of the Hawaii Volcanoes National park and the always changing scenery.
The Mauna loa road scenic drive is the only route on this page that you cannot use to ‘go’ to another place on the Big Island. Instead, it takes you to the trailhead of the multi-day hike up Mauna Kea. We recommend that you go up this trail a few miles to get a feel for yet another face of the Big Island. The best views, however, are on the way up.
There are two trailheads and a picnic pavilion at the parking lot at the end of the road. The trail that starts west of the parking is very much worth your effort. A short hike on it will take you to a place where you can see rare Mauna Loa silversword plants.
Note that in 2018 a wildfire ravaged some of the Koa forests on this drive and that part of the drive might have a somewhat “charred” look for the coming years.
2: Kapoho Kalapana road scenic drive (Puna, close to Hilo)
Distance: 6 miles
Where is it? Highway 137 between mile markers 8 and 14
This is our favorite scenic drive on the Big Island, and we can think of no excuse not to see it. The Kalapana – Kapoho road (also known as “red road”) runs along the coast through tree tunnels in the lush Puna district, passes by a few beach parks and hot ponds which make great stops to take in the surroundings, and abruptly stops at the Isaac Hale beach park where it has been cut off by the most recent lava flow.
Another must-see on this scenic road is Kaimu where the road now terminates after it was overrun by lava in 1990. This lava also covered the world-famous Kalapana black sand beach. After only a short 15-minute stroll from Kaimu you can see a new black sand beach forming. This is a great start/ending of this scenic drive and will leave a deep impression of the destruction that lava is capable of.
In the ‘town’ of Kalapana-Kaimu you can take a break and find a few vendors selling food, drinks, souvenirs and lava pictures.
If you want a preview of the most scenic part of this drive you can have a look at the following video, which shows the stretch of road between Pohoiki and Uncle Roberts. Try finding your favorite spot and bring some snacks for a quick snack and stop at that spot (make sure that you park at an allowed and safe place!).
3: Pepe’ekeo (Onomea) scenic drive (Hilo)
Distance: 4 miles
Where is it? Follow highway 19 north of Hilo. Between mile marker 7 and 8 take the right-hand turn that is marked ‘scenic drive”.
Recommended stop: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens (website).
The Pepe’ekeo (also known as the Onomea bay) scenic drive is the most famous scenic routes on the Big Island. It is a 4 mile stretch of the old Mamalahoa highway that snakes from scenic spot to scenic spot through lush tropical forest and gives some stunning views of Onomea Bay.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens halfway the drive 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 a number of trails and over 2000 species of plants.
Please drive carefully. This road is a bit narrow and has many sharp curves and some one-lane bridges. Drive slowly and with aloha, you are not in a hurry.
4: Chain of craters road (Volcano Village)
Distance: 20 miles (one way)
Where is it? The Chain of Craters road is almost impossible to miss. In the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, follow the crater rim drive towards the south and follow the signs ‘Chain of Craters road’.
When to take: While visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Recommended stops: Many: At least one of the now inactive craters along the road, the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs (if you are up for a few miles of hiking), the end of the road (where the lava flows begin) and as many stops on the way to take in the views.
The Chain of craters road takes you from an elevation of 4000 ft. all the way down to sea level over the lava covered flanks of the Kilauea volcano. The drive itself leads past many trails, old craters (hence the name), scenic spots, a large petroglyph field up to the place where lava covers the road, and ends where 1996 lava flows covered the road.
Plan to use at least 2.5 hours (round trip) for this drive, preferably a bit more. You can literally spend weeks exploring all the sights and things to do along the Chain of Craters road. This drive is best taken when viewing conditions are clear. We like to make the drive either very early (good for hiking) or in the afternoon (sunsets are spectacular at the end of the road).
5: Coffee country (South Kona) scenic drive
Distance: 12 miles
Where is it? Coming from Kona, follow highway 11 south until the junction with highway 160, just south of the town Captain Cook. Follow the road until you enter Napo’opo’o village. Here you can loop the scenic drive either by turning right (northwest) to first go to the Kealakekua bay state historical park or by turning left (southeast) to first go to the painted church and the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau national park.
When to take: When visiting Kealakekua Bay (Capt. Cook) or the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau national park, when you are driving over highway 11 between Kona and Volcano Village, when visiting green sand beach or when visiting coffee farms nearby.
South of Kona the landscape becomes greener and the skies more cloudy. The dry lava fields change into lush green forests and coffee plantations. There are many great snorkeling and diving spots along the coast, and this scenic drive connects two of our favorite snorkeling spots of the Big Island: Kealakekua Bay and Two Step.
There is much history in this scenic drive, with as highlight the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau national park. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau is a park of great historical and cultural significance, and worthy of a visit. The park is also a great place to wander, relax, picnic or snorkel (just outside of the park).
While driving the loop, you will pass some coffee farms and the very picturesque St Benedict painted church.
Self guided driving tours
There are apps available for download that take the planing of a road trip out of your hands in exchange for a few USD. These apps are offline (no extra data charges) and use GPS to guide you with turn-by-turn directions while giving you audio tours of the places you pass.
One example of such an app for Hawaii is the Shaka Guide app. For the Big Island they offer several self guided driving tours to e.g. the Kohala coast and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can find all options on their website.