What to see on Hawaii’s Big Island in One Day – Part Two from the Hilo Side

Hawaii’s Big Island is truly big and much too large to see the island’s highlights in a days time.  As there are two major airports and cruise ship stops on the Big Island – one in Kona and one in Hilo – I’m creating two separate one day sight-seeing itineraries for the Big Island. We’ve already looked at my recommendations for what to see in one day from the Kona side.  Now, let’s look at what to see from the Hilo side.

Before we dive into the details, I’d like to say that I think the Hilo side of Hawaii tends to be underrated.  The Hilo side is rich in beauty and culture. The pace tends to move a bit slower around here and personally, I like it.  Another point I want to mention is that it is a bit of a challenge trying to narrow all the great sight-seeing plans to just one day.  I’ve found that the Hilo side has been particularly challenging.  So, I’m going to focus in on my top choice and then mention some other ideas for you to consider.

Kilauea Iki Trail

Okay, now for some details.  One of the most fascinating natural wonders of the Big Island would have to Kilauea Volcano.  So, with only one day on the Hilo side, I’d recommend you focus your time at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  Just rent a car and then head south on the Hawaii Belt Road, Hwy 11, to the park. The park’s website has some good suggestions of what to see if you have between one to five hours. Basically stop at all the open view points along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road.  If you love to hike and you can arrange the time, then I’d recommend you plan in a 3 hour hike of the Kilauea Iki trail.  It’s one of my favorites in Hawaii.

Since Kilauea is an active volcano, you can never predict what you might see.  Check the daily updates provided by the Hawaii Volcano Observatory to find out what’s going on with the volcano.  (The national park’s website also provides updates, but sometimes it seems that their updates are not reported as timely.) The day of your visit, stop in at the park’s visitor center for the latest information, closures and advisories.

If you plan to spend your day at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, please be aware of these tips:

  • You’ll have to pay a fee to access the park.  At the present time, the fee for a vehicle is $30. The fee is subject to change, so check their site for any changes for their fees.
  • Do stop in at the visitor’s center to pick up a park map, learn of any closures and get pointers of what to see that day.  The park rangers can be very helpful in helping you plan the most from your brief visit.
  • Make sure you know the hazards of visiting the park.  Volcanic gasses can be particularly dangerous for young children, pregnant women, and people with heart or breathing problems. If you have questions, call the park directly at (808) 985-6000.
  • You’d be wise to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.
  • There’s only one restaurant in the park. In the nearby town of Volcano, you’ll find more dining options.  Here’s a link to the reviews of restaurants in Volcano.
  • Bring sunscreen, a hat, water and snacks.
  • If you have time on the way back to the airport or cruse ship, stop in at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory.  As you return back to Hilo on Highway 11, it will be on your right at Macadamia Road. It’s open until 5pm. If you have even more time,
  • If you can manage staying overnight and the lava is flowing at a viewable point, then do yourself a favor and see lava flowing at night.  It is simply amazing.  At the present time, there is a viewing point at the end of Highway 130.  Follow this link for more on viewing the lava flow.

If you don’t feel that visiting the Volcanoes National Park is for you, then here are some alternative suggestions:


  • This area of the Big Island has some of Hawaii’s most picturesque waterfalls.  You could make your own waterfall tour with stops at Akaka Falls, the Four Mile Scenic Drive, Rainbow Falls, Peepee Falls and Boiling Pots.  For garden buffs, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden located along the Four Mile Scenic Drive is fantastic. There is a fee required for the garden and you need to make sure you wear mosquito repellant.
  • Kauai and the Big Island are my top recommendations for a helicopter tour. Depending on where the lava is flowing, a helicopter tour may give you the best daytime lava flow view. Try to get a tour first thing in the morning, then, if time permits, rent a car and head over to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or check out some of the waterfalls (mentioned above).
  • Hilo is a lovely town.  You could walk along the shops and get a loco moco.  (I like the loco moco from Cafe 100)  See this post with a video and a hint of what Hilo town is like.
  • There are plenty of packaged tours that will take you to the highlights of the Hilo area.  So, if you don’t want to do the driving, you’ll have options. One tour company that we’ve used and enjoyed is the Hoppa On Hoppa Off tours. They’re very convenient for the cruise passengers as they have a terminal located just steps outside of the cruise gate. They have some nice combination tours to help you see additional sights.

Have you visited the Big Island?  What do you think of these recommendations of what to see in just one day on the Hilo side?  What suggestions would you add?  What would you skip?  This was one of the more difficult one day itineraries to write, so I’d love to get your input.

  1. Spot on on all accounts! Although, I can’t imagine just one day. We did the “waterfall tour” on our drive from the Kohala Coast to Volcano and also did not have time for the Botanical Gardens.

    In Volcano we ate at Kiawe Kitchen & Lava Rock Cafe both Ok with spotty service. We discovered on our last night, that the Grocery store next to Lava Rock Cafe sells take out pizza, hot soups and sandwiches which is a great & quick alternative to the restaurants.

  2. Hi Lissete – thanks for adding those Volcano area restaurant tips. With only 5 restaurants in the area, any extra alternatives are definitely welcomed!

  3. I would def. recommend the helicopter tour. I did it last year on vacation and you truely will not be able to see the islands this way. Well worth the money even if youdo it just once in your life.

  4. Yes, GOC, a helicopter tour is a wonderful way to see the islands from a whole new perspective. Plus, you’ll see remote areas that don’t even have roads or trails within miles. I’d be willing to guess that a helicopter tour is THE highlight for the people who take a helicopter tour on their Hawaii vacation

  5. I live on the Hilo side and I think Sheila has done a wonderful job of what to do in a day. I tried to think of what to add and couldn’t think of anything. I will add that you can skip the Panaewa Zoo–it is small and not that remarkable. This is something to do only if you will be on the east side of the Big Island for a long time.

  6. Hi HVG – I’m glad you like this one day plan of what to see in your backyard. 🙂

    Thanks for letting us know we should skip the Panaewa Zoo. With such precious little time in such a beautiful place, we need tips like that to maximize our time.

  7. Nicely done and nicely written tips and photos. Having been to the Big Island twice I totally agree with your observations. A helicopter ride is the best bet for understanding the enormity of the place and hopefully you’ll get a good pilot narrator. Our first one was pretty dull, second ride a whole geography and history lesson. Try to do this the day after your arrival. Second piece of advice I can offer: buy the Hawaii Big Island Trailblazer for even more places to go. Their directions get big bonus points and for us it was a big timesaver to do our research before we got there.

  8. Hi Gail – I can see how a pilot can really enhance your tour. Fortunately I’ve been lucky with the helicopter pilots so far.

    I’ll have to look for the Big Island Trailblazer. I’ve not heard of it. Is that just for hiking?

  9. Please do not take any helicopter tours to the lava flow. These tours are flying over a residential subdivision every ten minutes, and destroying the peace and privacy of the residents. Please walk or drive around our island and enjoy the beauty and the people. Boycott helicopter tours until they act like good neighbors.

  10. Hi Sheila, We’ve never been able to afford a helicopter tour and on our last two visits toured the whole island by car and on foot. I saw the comments about the Big Island Trailblazer guide and can vouch for its usefulness for hiking and snorkeling venues. Since we were beach hungry we followed their directions to some pretty awesome spots off the normal tourist radar. Like just out of Hilo is a stretch of public beaches with beautiful ponds and grassy zones and good swimming. The hike to Pololu Valley we also recommend. There is a total description of this book on Amazon.com and we noticed it for sale at the Borders store near Kona.

  11. Hi Merilee – Thanks for sharing your opinion on the Trailblazer guide. I’ve ordered one for Kauai to review it.

    This particular post was based on having only one day on the Hilo side. I’ve also written suggestions for having only one day on the Kona side. From the Kona side post , I recommend seeing the stunning Pololu Valley and hike down to the beach if you have time.

    A helicopter tour is certainly not necessary in order to appreciate Hawaii’s beauty. But, if you are short on time, it’s a great way to see a lot in a short amount of time.

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