On our third day on Hawaii’s Big Island, we decided to drive across the island to see waterfalls near Hilo. Given that we were traveling as a multi-generational family, we knew that we were knew that we were going to be somewhat limited in our hiking capabilities, so we decided to limit the walking and focus on seeing as much as we could by car.
Big Island Geography
When looking at the geography of most of the Hawaiian islands, you will quickly see that there are big volcanic mountains in the middle. This has the effect of a wet side and a dry side. On Big Island, with its size, the differences are particularly big.
Most people will choose to stay on the dry side (Kailua-Kona), which has better beaches. The upside is that you will have a lot of accommodation choices and won’t have to deal with as much moisture. The downside is that much of the landscape, particularly along the highway, will be an almost moonscape-like dry feeling.
For those that are more interested in hiking to waterfalls, the wet side (Hilo) may be a better bet. Accommodations are a little harder to find and the beaches are not as plentiful, but there are many more options for hiking through lush rainforests.
Volcanoes National Park is in the middle of the south side of the island and is equally far from most of the accommodations on either side of the island. If this is the area that you expect to spend most of your time, you may want to investigate less common lodging.
While you could hop around the island and stay in different hotels, our preference is to get rent a condo for a full week and spend more time in the car. Depending on your accommodation style and tolerance for long car rides – ours is exceptionally high, you may make different trade-offs than we did.
We started our drive from a little south of Kailua-Kona, in Keauhou. Keauhou is quite beautiful, but as soon as we got on the highway, the landscape turned very dry and barren. There was evidence of past volcanic vegetation, which we though would make great soil, but the winds whisk away any moisture happens to fall on the ground.
Looking at the map, we thought we would get a lot of beach views on the way north. As it turns out, the highway is quite far from the water. While you can see the water for at least part of the drive, the barren landscape makes it much less interesting than expected.
One unexpected surprise was that most gas stations did not have public bathrooms. We finally found some in a park, but you may want to start your drive with the expectation that bathrooms may be few and far between. While we didn’t use the Flush App in Hawaii, it has definitely come in handy a few times.
We decided that going all the way up the northern peninsula to Hawi would be too far out of the way. So, we turned east. The towns were small and we didn’t end up making any stops. There was one shave ice place that we had considered, but we drove past it and decided not to turn back.
Eventually, we reached the wet side of the island and felt like we were in Hawaii!
Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive
As we reached Honokaa on the eastern side of Big Island, the drive was quite pleasant. Approaching Pepe’ekeo, we saw a sign advertising a scenic drive and remembered that this was on of the top recommended drives on the island. Beautiful! If you make it to Hilo, make sure you head to the Old Mamalahoa Highway and drive this 4 mile stretch through a lush rainforest with fabulous views of the ocean.
Next up was we made it to Akaka Falls State Park. Beautiful! There is an entrance fee, which ended up being higher than our guide book indicated. When we visited it was $10 to park in the lot (but it was full, so we parked on the street) plus $5/person.
While the path has quite a few steps, there are few other waterfalls that will require a shorter hike. At only 0.4 miles, it is a great choice if you are traveling with people who want to get into nature, but cannot do a longer hike.
Eventually, we made it to the lookout point and enjoyed views of Akaka Falls!
Not being sure where we would be able to get lunch, we had packed a picnic. We couldn’t find any picnic tables, we ended up eating it in the car.
Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens
We drove by the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Gardens and thought about coming back later in the day, but we never did. Big mistake! I think it could have been a highlight of our day.
Eventually we made it to Hilo. For a major town in Hawaii, we were taken aback by how relatively run down it felt. Our conclusion was that we were glad that we chose to stay on the other side of the island.
We did stop by the Hilo Farmer’s Market, but since it wasn’t a Wednesday or Saturday, there weren’t very many vendors. If you are looking for fruit, it is reasonable any day of the week, but if crafts are your thing, time your visit to coincide with the busy days.
On the plus side, there is a beautiful Japanese Garden called Liliʻuokalani Gardens. This is well worth a visit!
As we walked back to the car, we decided to get some Hawaiian Shave Ice. A basic Shave Ice is a fancy snow cone. If you want an amazing Shave Ice, get it with ice cream and toppings!
On the way out of Hilo we decided to stop at Rainbow Falls. It is quite beautiful, and if you are mobility impaired, this is the perfect waterfall for you. There is no hiking required to get to the main lookout.
From here, we decided to drive the Saddle Road back to the Kailua-Kona side of the island. We briefly considered driving up the Maunakea Volcano, but given that it was raining at low elevation, we were concerned about what we would find at the Visitor Information Station, located at 9,200 feet. Plus, the view probably wouldn’t be all that great on a rainy day.
So, we simply enjoyed the drive.
Sunset on the Lanai
After reaching our apartment, we used up our fish leftovers from the previous night, cooked up some ground beef, and had some lovely tacos for dinner. For dessert, we enjoyed some macadamia nut chocolates on the lanai while watching the sunset!