Road Trip from Kona to Hilo (and 3 Awesome Places to Explore on the East Side of the Big Island)

The Kona Coast on Hawai'i Island gets the most play in terms of tourist visitation to the Big Island. And not for nothing – Kona is beautiful and lively and is for sure an awesome place to hang ten. It is also a perfect jumping off point for an island road trip.

In remote and rural areas between Kona and Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, visitors cross into ancient lands that remain relatively untouched by modern development. The main passage into the area is via Hawaii Belt Rd (HI-11), an 83-mile scenic drive between Kona and the national park with panoramic coastal views by your side nearly the entire way.

As you approach the park, you will enter the Kau region, home to the southernmost point in the United States. Kau is premier Hawai'ian coffee country – reason alone for a leisurely drive to Kau!

After Kau comes Volcanoes, the mythical goddess Pele's volcanic sanctuary and one of the first national parks to be established in the U.S. Many end their journey at Volcanoes and turn back to Kona from there... we suggest heading on east toward Hilo.

Because Hilo is on the rainy side of the island, many don’t make the effort to see it which is a real shame because the area is very special. In that spirit, we are highlighting three places on the east side of the Big Island where you can explore beyond the national park while digging into the soul of the island a little bit deeper. Read on! 

Made a gecko friend on Highway 11. 

Made a gecko friend on Highway 11. 

Hawai'ian kitsch at a thrift store on Highway 11.

Hawai'ian kitsch at a thrift store on Highway 11.

A cup of pure Kau coffee! ...with milk. ;) 


Rainbow Falls

Cascading water at Rainbow Falls!

Keep your eyes out for fragrant and colorful hibiscus – Hawai’i’s state flower.

Rainbow Falls, Waianuenue, in the Wailuku River State Park just west of Hilo is a lauded spot on the Big Island. The 80-foot falls are surrounded by tropical plant life, native birds, and glimmering rainbows that are spun by the sun and spray – reaching peak activity during the dawn hours. There is a short hike to the top of the falls overlooking dense vegetation and groves of banyan trees. 

The cascading falls pour into an ancient lava tube that according to legend, is home to Hina, the goddess of the moon. Waianuenue means “rainbow seen in water.”


Onomea Bay and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Located 8-miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast is the Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Garden – a hidden jungle universe whose history is without a doubt a big part of its charm.

Prior to 1977, the area was an overgrown wilderness until it was purchased by Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse who transformed it into the tropical paradise that it is today. It was opened to the public in 1984. From on-site park sign:

When they were shown the for-sale, 17-acre property sitting on the ocean, it was so overgrown that a machete was needed to walk only a few feet through it, and filled with old cars, machinery, appliances, and trash of all kinds - but breathtaking… Dan immediately fell in love with this valley on the ocean and he envisioned his dream: he would purchase the land and plant a unique and welcoming garden of serenity in this beautiful valley on the ocean for people to enjoy. 

This place is amazing. The 40-acre valley is home to more than 2,000 plant species that can be enjoyed along a series of nature walks in the once overgrown forest. Every step from the parking lot to the shore leads you through natural beauties that the island is known for – orchid gardens, waterfalls, mango trees (here, they are centuries old and 100-feet tall,) coconut palms – until you reach the shore of Onomea Bay where the Pacific Ocean crashes into the volcanic shores.

This is one of those “get lost” places where you forget entirely that your car awaits at the top of the garden a relatively short walk away (and one of our new favorite spots on the Big Island.) 


Kipuka Guest Houses

Under a jungle canopy at Kipuka in the area of Pahoa, four bamboo guest houses powered by solar and watered by rain provide a completely unique place to stay in an off-grid setting. From the moment you are let into the gates and drive onto the sprawling grounds, you are greeted by the sights and sounds of the islands – it is very peaceful. Wraparound lenais with hammocks bring the grounds to your doorstep while tropical birdlife sings from the trees. With its jungle environment and elegant design, it is a meeting of an ancient landscape with a modern (yet humble) Hawai'i. It fit perfectly with our desire to have an off-the-beaten path experience during our national park adventure!

In Pahoa, stop at the Tin Shack for breakfast before hitting the road to the the next stop on your adventure. The café’s classic Hawaiian transplant hippie vibe is in full force and the food and local Hawai’ian coffee is perfection. Thanks to Mark, the owner of Kipuka, for the suggestion! 


Aloha and happy road tripping!