Kona to Hilo day trip: see waterfalls, volcanoes and lava!

View of lava flowing into the ocean

Viewing lava flowing into the ocean is one of those wow moments.

One of the most exciting attractions in Hawaii, the Big Island, is the active volcano Kilauea. The challenge that many first time Hawaii visitors discover is that the volcano activity is on the Hilo side of the island while the beach resorts are situated on the Kona side of the island.

The Big Island is big indeed. It’s bigger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined.  With much to explore on each side of the island, ideally we recommend visitors split their Hawaii stay between the Kona and HIlo sides of the island. Though, we know that a split stay doesn’t always happen. That’s why we’re creating these tips for a day trip from the Kona side to the Hilo side.

Prepare for a long, but exciting day of exploring.
On one of our trips to the Big Island, we set out on the road to the Hilo side at about 7:30am and didn’t get back to our Kohala resort until about 10pm. Go ahead and get your mind set that you’re going to have a long day and make the most of it.

Though your day trip may be long, it will not be boring. There’s much to see and many stops along the way that will keep you energized as you’ll see further in these tips.

Lava viewing is best at dawn, dusk and dark. Our tips will provide you with a full day of activities with the aim of seeing lava at dusk and dark. If you’ve traveled across the Pacific Ocean to see lava, you might as well make a point of seeing lava at its best.


This comparison of lava viewing shows the daytime view (left) to the exact view at dusk.

What do you wear and bring?
Sunscreen, mosquito repellant, hiking shoes or sneakers with good tread, flashlight and water are all musts. It’s also useful to bring binoculars, camera, GPS device and wear long trousers. Read more detailed tips on our post with advice for viewing the Big Island lava.

Get an early start.
The earlier you can set out, the more you can see and explore in daylight. Try to start your day trip before 9am.

Which way do you go?
We recommend you drive Highway 19 around the northern end of the island — going through Waimea and the lushly undeveloped Hamakua Coast. By following this route, you get to enjoy some short diversions to gorgeous scenery, which we will describe further in these tips.

We’ve driven this northern route many times. It’s beautiful to see the morning sun waking up this part of the island.

Enjoy many scenic spots on the way
By following our recommended route and stops, you catch some of the Big Island’s most beautiful scenery– from valley views to cascading waterfalls. We’ll list the stops in order. Check each link for additional information, photos and tips.

–  Waipio Valley is located off the main highway. Turn onto Plumeria Street between mile markers 44 and 43. Then turn left at Highway 240 and follow the road until it ends.

– At mile marker 43, if you need a snack, try a malasada from Tex Drive-In. They’re famous for them.

Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls are located off the main highway between mile markers 14 and 13, turn off on Highway 220 towards the mountain. Follow Hwy 220 until it ends at the parking area. A $5 parking fee is required.

Four Mile Scenic Drive is located off the main highway between mile markers 11 and 10. Turn left, towards the ocean, at Kulaimano Road. Four Mile Scenic Drive will connect back to Highway 19 at the end. If you have the time, we recommend visiting Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden off Four Mile Scenic Drive. (Admission fee required.) It’s our favorite Hawaii garden. We have visited this garden during a day trip from the Kona side.

– See Rainbow Falls and Pe’epe’e Falls in Hilo. Between mile markers 3 and 2, turn right onto Highway 200 (Waianuenue Avenue). Bear right at the fork in the road. Follow the signs to stop and see Rainbow Fall. Get back onto Waianuenue Avenue heading further inland for Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots.

– If you are hungry for lunch and would like to try local food, Cafe 100 in Hilo is a great little place to stop. They are credited with the creation of the Loco Moco. They’re located at 969 Kilauea Avenue (click the address link to create your own directions on Google Maps) near the intersection of Mohouli Avenue.

Views like these along the way will keep you energized for the long day ahead.

Views like these along the way will keep you energized for the long day ahead.

Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Out of Hilo, take the main highway, which has now become Highway 11. The drive from Hilo to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will take approximately 45 minutes.

You could easily spend a few days exploring all that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has to offer. Unfortunately, you only have a few hours here, so I will list a few highlights and tips for you to see during your visit.

– Be prepared to pay an entrance fee, which is currently $10 per car. When you pay at the gate, the park ranger will provide a useful brochure that includes a park map and highlights. You may want to make the visitor center your first stop to ask for advice for your short stay. I recommend you also ask a park ranger where the lava is visible or flowing — making sure that you ask them how to see it both inside and outside the park boundaries.

– See Thurston Lava Tube off of Crater Rim Drive

– See the steam vents off Crater Rim Drive.

– See Halemaumau Crater, which has been emitting a billow of volcano smoke since 2008. Ideally, try to see this crater at dusk, where the red glow from the lava lake below is visible. Pop into Jaggar Museum.

– Drive the Chain of Craters Road until it ends. You’ll see the lava flow that closed this road that previously continued for miles along the coast. Holei Sea Arch is located here at the end of the road.

Taking a walk through Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a unique experience.

Taking a walk through Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a unique experience.

See lava flowing
[If seeing the red glow at Halemaumau Crater at dusk satisfied you thirst for seeing lava, then head back to your Kona side accommodation.]

During your Big Island visit, lava activity may or may not be visible and accessible. Over our many years of visiting the Big Island, we have been amazed at where the lava pops up, flows, stops flowing and then pops up in a new location. We cannot provide directions or say drive to such and such spot because it’s impossible to predict where lava will be flowing, glowing or visibile for your visit.

You’ll want to find out what’s going on with the lava, where is it and can you view it once you’re close to your visit and/or on island. Use these resources to find the current status of lava activity:

  • Check the latest Kilauea Status Reports that are updated each morning. There’s a lot of volcano-ese in these reports, but you can glean useful viewing information from them. 
  • Call the county viewing hotline 808-961-8093. In 2008, the county of Hawaii set up a viewing location at the end of highway 130. Lava has been visible off and on along this coast. A recording on the hotline provides the details of current lava viewing.
  • Check the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s website that’s generally kept up-to-date.

Which way do you return?
If you’ve stayed past sunset to see lava and/or lava glows, you’ll be driving back in the dark. Therefore, scenery will not be a factor. I recommend you use a GPS device to determine your quickest route back to your accomodation.

In years past, Saddle Road was not accessible to rental car drivers, however it has recently opened. If you do take Saddle Road, you may have an opportunity to do some stargazing, particularly on a moonless night.

About Sheila Beal

Sheila Beal is the founder and editor of Go Visit Hawaii. You can connect with Sheila Beal on Twitter, Go Visit Hawaii on Facebook, or Sheila Beal on Google+.


  1. we followed your itinerary today and had a great day. Thank you so much.

  2. IS this doable with a 2 yr old?? Need suggestions for trip planning on November with a 2 yr old.

    • It’s a lot of getting in and out of a car. There’s probably not much a 2 yr old would find that interesting.

  3. Going to Hawaii for 11 days how many are needed for Kauai, Oahu, Maui,and the Big Island? We do not swim so the beach thing is not a factor. I was thinking 2 days for Kauai, 2 days for Maui, 3 days for the Big Island, and 3 days for Oahu. What do you recommend?

  4. Question on the trip back to Kona. How dark will the road be/how is the road in general? Worried about it being unsafe to drive at night and/or getting lost (we have GPS on our phones, but i’m wondering if I should bring a device in case).

    • The road is in excellent condition — paved, markings and road signs are visible, and the road is sized well for two-way traffic. There are a few curvy parts, but nothing too difficult or dangerous. Even if you don’t have GPS, there aren’t many routes to choose from so it is easily navigated by map.

  5. Great trip plan from Kailua-Kona to Hilo! Made the stops for grinds at Tex Drive-In and Cafe 100. Mahalo!

  6. Maricar Xerez-Burgos

    Hi we are a family of 9, I have 4 kids and I have a 69 year old mom who will be on a wheelchair will she be able to visit the Lava Cave? What website do I look for for the Lava Cave at Hilo. Let me know. What else can we do aside from the Lava Cave in Hilo? I have a 15 yr old boy,17,11 and 7 year old girls. Also for Kona if you have suggestions.

    thank you,

  7. We are heading to Oahu for 2 days then deciding Maui or big island for 5 days what do you recommend? With a tour like this car is needed … Any deal places?

  8. Geraldine McBride

    We have a 6-hour layover in the Kona airport on our way to Honolulu. What sites can we see with a rental car within driving distance from Kona and get back to the airport in time for our flight?

    • Make sure that you allow time to return the rental car, go back through security, board the plane, etc.

      What you can see really depends on your interests. There’s a lot you could see. For less than $15, you can purchase a guidebook to help you identify sites that interest you. One that we recommend is Hawaii the Big Island Revealed. It has excellent maps to help you identify where things are.

  9. Can you enter the Lava Tubes on your own? Or do you have to go with a tour or guide? We just don’t have the extra 12 hours to do the tour, and we aren’t there the days the Park Rangers do the tour.

  10. Hi, I am visiting big island for 4 nights and oahu for 2 nights with family (2+2) in August. Planning to stay on Kona side and take day trips to VNP, Mauna Kea Observatory, some waterfalls. We are not planning to book any tours. Do you think we need to book any tours? are 4 days enough to visit above mentioned places?


  11. We will be staying in Kona for 7 days and then heading to Hilo for 3 nights (we have a 7 year old that has his heart set on seeing lava flow.) We may need to cut our trip day short by one day and I’m wondering how long it will take to get from Hilo to Kona and if we could realistically leave Hilo in the morning for an afternoon flight out of Kona.

  12. This is exactly what I was looking for, Sheila! Thanks a bunch! Very excited for our first trip to Hawaii and can’t wait to see the beauty of it all!

  13. Hi

    We are spending 3 nights in Oahu, 3 nights on the big island ( landing at Hilo International airport), 2 nights in Maui and back. Is that enough in the big island to see the volcanoes and the waterfalls. Do the trip companies pick up from Hilo? If we land at Hilo international airport. Should we stay in Hilo or should we stay on the kuhala coast? Should we do the Lau on the big island or in Oahu? We are doing the Haleakala sunrise trip in Maui too. We are also vining Pearl Harbor in Oahu. Please advice. Thanks

  14. Hi,
    This was a super helpful post! We’re headed to the Big Island and Oahu for our honeymoon and were looking for tips on how to do a day trip around the island. We definitely didn’t plan enough time, so I guess we’ll have to come back 🙂
    Are there plenty of gas stations along the way? We’ve rented a Jeep to get around and I know the gas mileage won’t be great. Just want to make sure we don’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank!

    • I wouldn’t say there are plenty of gas stations, but there should be enough for you to keep gassed up. Just keep an eye on your gas gauge and take advantage of stations when you see them.

  15. Hi Sheila,

    This day trip is exactly what I’m looking for! Can you please share more details as to the timing of each league of the trip (the drive and duration of each activity), approximations would suffice. I’m just trying to getting a feel for recommended time to spend at each location and factor in the travel between locations as well. Just as reference point and use to customize as needed.

    • It would be best for you to create your own customized drive plan in google maps or other map application.

      Within each link, most or all will suggest time allowances.but really, there’s no one size fits all as some people like to dwell at sites longer than others.

  16. do you recommend stopping at “green beach”?

  17. We are planning a 5 days trip to Big Island at end of May & early June. It will be a family vacation to celebrate two graduates, one high school and one college. We will split our stay between Hilo and Kona like 2 or 3 nights at each town. Are there easy hiking trails along the scenic drives that are suitable for seniors? Do you have other driving day trip recommendations?

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