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Big Island Sightseeing

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Mauna Loa-Kilauea area is referred to as Hawaii's volcano country and is the state's top visitor attraction.  Mauna Loa rises to 13,679 feet above sea level.  It last erupted in 1984, sending lava flows to within five miles of Hilo.  Kilauea is on the southeastern slope of Mauna Loa at approximately 4,000 feet above sea level and to non-geologists is just a part of Mauna Loa.  It has been erupting almost continuously since 1983.  

Plan to spend a full day exploring the park.  Too many visitors allow only a few hours, which only gives time for a short stop at the visitors center, a drive around Kilauea caldera, and a few pictures.  We certainly don't want to discourage anyone from visiting the Park, but keep the following cautions in mind.  Visitors with heart and respiratory problems, infants, young children, and pregnant women should be aware there are noxious fumes, especially near sulfur banks and areas of volcanic fumes.  Everyone should protect themselves from the intense rays of the sun.  Temperatures can, however, be very cool when the sun begins to set and during the winter months.  The weather can change quickly and it can turn rainy and chilly year round.

Active Lava Flow on the Big Island
The park is located 30 miles southwest of Hilo, off Highway 11.  It's a four to five hour drive from the Kohala or Kona area on the west side of the island.  There is an entrance fee of $10 per vehicle which gives you access for seven days.  Just past the park entrance is the Kilauea Visitors Center.  Films of recent eruptions are shown from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and you can get information on self-guided walks.  The park is always open but the visitor center is only open from 7:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Across the street from the Visitors Center is the Volcano House.  From an observation area just outside their restaurant and snack bar you have an excellent view of Kilauea Caldera. 

As you leave the Visitors Center travel counterclockwise on Crater Rim Drive which is an 11 mile drive around Kilauea Caldera that leads to all the Park's scenic spots.  You will very shortly come to the Sulfur Banks on your right and then Steam Vents on the left.  Next is Kilauea Overlook which is worth a stop for a different view of the caldera.  It's a little further to the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum (open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) and the Volcano Observatory with an excellent overlook of Kilauea Caldera and Halemaumau crater.  Here you will find in-depth information about the geology of the park and murals that tell the legend of Pele.  Continuing on you come to Halemaumau Overlook which gives you a good view of the home of Madame Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.  It's about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot to the crater overlook but it's well worth it.  A short drive further brings you to Chain of Craters Road which is discussed below.  If you continue on the Crater Rim Drive you come to Puu Puai Overlook giving you good views of Kilauea Iki Crater and Puu Puai.  From here you can hike 10-15 minutes along Devastation Trail to get further views of Kilauea Iki Crater.  Back on Crater Rim Drive you soon come to Thurston Lava Tube.  The lava tube has been lighted, is easy to visit, and gives you an idea of how rivers of lava flow through such tubes from the site of eruptions to the ocean.  A short distance further is Kilauea Iki Overlook that gives you a look at the other side of Kilauea Iki which was a seething lake of lava as recently as 1959.  If you continue on Crater Rim Drive you soon return to the Visitors Center.  This is a summary of the Park.  Before you leave on your trip, you may want to visit the National Park's web site for more in-depth information.

Chain of Craters Road begins on Crater Rim Drive, as mentioned above.  Until the lava flow of 1995, you could follow this road and return to Hilo.  But now, the road dead-ends after about 20 miles where lava has overrun the road.  We won't list all the overlooks along this road but there are a number which provide views of various craters and previous lava flows.  The reason most people drive this road today is to get a close-up view of the active lava flow just beyond the end of the road.  There is usually a ranger stationed at the end of the road who can provide current information about conditions.  The last time we visited the area, we had to hike about a mile from the end of the road to reach the active lava flow.  The hike is over rough lava but is easy for those in good condition.  If you begin your hike late in the day, be sure to take flashlights or it will difficult and dangerous to hike back after dark.  You won't see rivers of molten lava, but it's still awesome to see the relentless flow of lava, feel the searing heat, and realize that anything in its path will be certainly destroyed.

Hilo and Hamakua Coast

Hilo is the commercial center for most of the Big Island but it doesn't draw the number of tourists that flock to the Kona and Kohala areas.  There are no big-name resorts but there are some nice hotels around town.  It is a good base from which to tour and explore Volcanoes National Park and helicopter tours are available to the volcano or to the valleys, waterfalls, and sea cliffs of Hamakua.  Located on Waianuenue Avenue in northwest Hilo is the Lyman Museum and missionary house.  A little further along is Rainbow Falls where the Wailuku River falls 80 feet into a large pool.  It is famous for its colorful displays as the mists thrown up create rainbows in the air.  The Falls are best in the morning with the sun behind you.  About a mile further up the road is Boiling Pots.  When water flow is heavy, bowl-shaped depressions appear to boil.

Leaving Hilo on highway 19, you head northwest toward Waimea which is about 60 miles away.  Between mile markers 13 and 14 is a road that leads to Akaka Falls, which has the tallest straight drop of any falls in the islands.  It's a 3 1/2 mile drive off highway 19 to the 420 foot high falls and requires a 1/2 mile hike from the parking lot.  There are restrooms and picnic facilities.

Near mile marker 42 you come to the town of Honokaa  which is the second largest city on the Big Island.  The western store fronts are a hold over from the old sugar plantation days.  You can take highway 240 to Waipi'o Valley Lookout.  From the lookout you view the steep cliffs on every side of the valley except the ocean which has a mile-long black sand beach.  Never try to drive into the valley itself unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  Tours will take you into the valley by shuttle, mule-drawn wagon, or on horseback.  Or, you can hike to the bottom.  It's only a mile down, but the grade coming back up will make you think it's ten miles.  We've heard that many of the residents of the valley don't like tourists and are very rude to them.  When you get back on highway 19, it is 15 miles further to the town of Waimea.

Kohala District

The northwest side of the island is the Kohala district.  Waimea is the home of Parker Ranch and Hawaiian cowboys known as paniolo.  Local residents prefer the name Waimea but the town is also often labeled Kamuela on maps, so named by the Post Office long ago to distinguish it from other Waimea's in the state.  The town is 2,600 feet above sea level and located on a cool inland plateau.  It offers a different island experience because you are just as likely to see blue jeans and cowboy boots as aloha wear in town.  It isn't a big tourist town but there is some shopping and we've heard several good restaurants.  In the Parker Ranch Shopping Center you will find the Parker Ranch Visitors Center which has a small museum and shows a video-tape covering some of the history of the Ranch.

In the center of town you will come to an intersection with highway 190.  Continue on highway 19 by turning right and drive about two miles until you come to highway 250.  Turn right on highway 250 in the direction of Hawi for a very scenic drive up the Kohala volcano.  You begin to gain altitude quickly and pass through miles of evergreen trees and cactus.  There are a number of ranches in the area and cattle graze on the slopes of the volcano on either side of the road.  At mile marker nine you reach the crest at 3,564 feet and begin to descend to the coast.   If it's fairly clear, at about mile marker 14 you will begin to see Haleakala volcano on Maui about 30 miles off in the distance.  Continue on highway 250 until it ends at highway 270 in Hawi and turn right.  Hawi has some small shops, restaurants, and art galleries.  As you drive east you will soon enter the little town of Kapa'a.  On the right side of the road you will see a statute of King Kamehameha the Great which is similar to the one in front of the Judiciary building in Honolulu.  

Pololu Valley Lookout
Pololu Valley Lookout

Continue on east for another five miles and the road dead ends at Pololu Valley Lookout.   Just before the end of the road you get a very pretty view of the rugged north shore cliffs.  There is room for about a dozen cars to park.  Several hundred feet below is a black sand beach which is a 15-20 minute hike.  If it has rained recently be cautious because the trail can be slippery.

As you return to Hawi, Keokea Beach Park is located at about mile marker 27.  The beach is just lava rock so it's not worth stopping to swim or sun yourself, but there are picnic tables and rest rooms.  Continue through Hawi on highway 270 toward Kawaihae.  At mile marker 16 is the turnoff to Kapa'a Beach Park and a mile later the turnoff to Mahukona Beach Park.  We don't feel it's worth driving to either of these parks for swimming or snorkeling, but if you are sightseeing it's worth checking them out and both have picnic areas and rest rooms.  

At mile marker 14 is Lapakahi State Historical Park.   You can take a self-guided walking tour of the remains of an old Hawaiian village.  Expect to spend about 45 minutes exploring the village.  Continuing on to mile marker 2 you arrive at the little port town of Kawaihae.  Other than a place to stop for a snack, there isn't much to see or do in the town.  Continuing on to the junction of highway 270 with highway 19, you find the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historical Site. This massive temple was built by King Kamehameha in 1790-1791.  Take highway 19 back toward Waikoloa and you soon come to what we consider two of the best beaches in all of Hawaii.  Kauna'oa Beach is located in front of the Mauna Kea Beach resort at about mile marker 68 and at about mile marker 69 is the entrance to Hapuna Beach Park.  Check out these beaches on the Big Island Beaches page.


The Waikoloa resort area has several luxury hotels and condominium complexes.  It's a very nice alternative to the more congested Kailua-Kona area, although the prices for lodging are higher.  The Outrigger Waikoloa Resort and Hilton Waikoloa Village offer excellent resort accommodations. If you prefer condominiums, the Waikoloa Bay Club and The Shores at Waikoloa both offer excellent units.  

The Kings Shops in the resort area offer a range of shopping alternatives.  If you are staying in a condominium, you may want to drive into Kailua-Kona to do your major shopping at Costco or one of the markets.  After you initially stock up, there is a much closer source for things you've forgotten or run out of during your stay.  Exit the Waikoloa resort and turn left.  After about a mile you come to Waikoloa Road.  At the intersection is the Blue Hawaiian heliport.  Turn right on Waikoloa Road to leave the beach and begin to climb the lower slopes of Mauna Kea toward Waimea.  Ahead is a vast prairie of rangelands and after about six miles you come to Waikoloa Village.  Here, you find a small shopping center that includes Waikoloa Village Market.  It's a much shorter drive for groceries than driving into Kona.

The Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve can be reached by turning off Highway 19 at the Orchid at Mauna Lani.  Before reaching the resort, turn right at the sign for Holoholokai Park.  A half-mile trail will take you from the parking lot to the petroglyph field.  Archaeologists believe the images were carved from about 1200 A.D. into the 1800's A.D.  Viewing the carvings in stone is best in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is not directly overhead.

Kailua-Kona and South Hawaii

In the heart of Kailua-Kona is the north end of Alii Drive which begins at Kailua Bay.  As you drive south on Alii Drive you pass a number of shopping areas targeted at tourists.  During the next eight miles you pass numerous hotels, condominiums, restaurants, and shops.  You will also pass several beaches before you reach the end of Alii Drive at Keauhou.  You will then rejoin highway 11 continuing south.  The road gains altitude eventually passing 1,500 feet above sea level.  There are a number of small towns and you frequently see coffee tasting rooms, some giving insight into the coffee growing business in the Kona area.  

As you pass mile marker 111 you will come to Napoopoo Road which leads to Kealakekua Bay.  It's several miles down winding road to sea level and the Bay and at the end is Hikiau Heiau (a stone structure which was a temple where human sacrifices were offered).  Across the Bay you can see the Captain Cook Monument, which is a white obelisk designating the spot where Captain Cook was killed in 1779.

Travel back to highway 11 and continue until you see the sign to Puuhonua O Honaunau, also called The Place of Refuge.  This is a sacred site where law breakers were purified and ancient Hawaiians sought political asylum.  400 years ago each territory had a spot designated as a place of refuge to which kapu breakers, war refugees, and defeated warriors could escape to be cleansed of their offenses and return, purified, to their tribes.  A self-guided tour gives a good overview of the site and its significance.

Back on highway 11, continue until shortly after mile marker 70 where you will find the road to South Point which is the southernmost spot in the U.S.  The Polynesians who first discovered these islands may have come ashore at South Point because some of the oldest artifacts discovered in Hawaii have been found there.  Exploring South Point is for those in a discovery mood because the road is one lane much of the way and the sights when you arrive aren't spectacular.  But, you will have visited the southern most point in the U.S.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

Continue on highway 11 until after mile marker 56 to reach Punalu'u Black Sand Beach.  This is the most easily accessible black sand beach on the island and well worth the stop.  Tour buses stop here regularly, but they don't stay long and we've found the beach to be relatively uncrowded and very picturesque.  There are many sea turtles in the bay which are easily observed west of the beach where the picnic area and rest rooms are located.

As you continue on highway 11 you gradually climb 4,000 feet to Kilauea Volcano and the Volcanoes National Park where we began this tour of the Big Island.


Sights on Other Islands

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