The Big Island surprised us with its much diverse landscapes. From the volcanic beaches of Kona to the Hilo rainforest, you will be amazed to see nature change through your windows. The Big Island is home to white, green, and black sand beaches as well as Volcanoes National Park. It also offers amazing snorkeling and turtle-sighting opportunities. All of which make it the perfect destination for those looking to relax and enjoy nature’s raw beauty.
This 5-day itinerary is designed to show you how to see the best the Big Island of Hawai’i has to offer while still enjoying a restful vacation. You could alter it to spend as little as 3 days or up to a week depending on your preference. We typically hike and explore from sunup to sundown. We love traveling this way, but we know that is not how most people enjoy their vacation time. If you are a busy traveler like us, know that it is possible to cram it all in if you have limited time on the Big Island or would rather see other islands like we did.
See also: The Perfect 5-Day Maui Itinerary
When to go?
As with any other island in Hawai’i, there is no bad time to visit because the weather is extremely pleasant year round. During the winter months, you will enjoy a soothing breeze and see tons of Alaskan whales wintering in the warm Hawaiian waters. I would only suggest to avoid school breaks as Hawai’i can get quite busy during those times. Airfare is also much more expensive during the summer and winter holidays.
Where to stay?
There are two large hubs on the Big Island of Hawai’i: Kona on the west coast and Hilo on the east coast. Both are home to an airport though Kona International Airport is the largest of the two. The Kona Coast is where you’ll find many hotels and resorts while Hilo is more quaint with plenty of cute and affordable Airbnbs. We stayed in Papaikou, just 15 miles from Hilo for only $97 a night!
Where to go?
The island of Hawai’i is the largest of all Hawaiian islands. I recommend exploring the whole island as it features such diversity from east to west, but if you have limited time, focus your time on the Kona coast and Hilo rainforest. In my opinion, you haven’t truly enjoyed the Big Island if you don’t road trip along the South coast between Kona and Hilo. That is where you’ll find the black and green sand beaches as well as Volcanoes National Park. The itinerary below takes you on a loop around the whole island and allows you to see the very best it has to offer!
How to get around?
Unless you are staying in a resort in Kona, you will need a car to get around. In my opinion, you would miss out tremendously by staying on the resort’s private beach all day and not taking advantage of the many excursions available on the island.
Day 1 – Kona Coast
There are tons of gorgeous beaches on the Kona Coast that feature crystal clear waters incessantly crashing on a bed of white sand and volcanic rocks. Mahai’ula and Makalawena Beaches were among my favorite Kona beaches! Both beaches are located within the Kekaha Kai State Beach Park, but be advised that the road to the beach is horrendous and definitely requires 4-wheel drive! At the end of this rut-filled road, you’ll reach the Mahai’ula trailhead that leads to Mahai’ula and Makalawena Beach. It is a 2.7 mi (4.3 km) out-and-back walk to Makalawena Beach. Make sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water as most of this trail is fully exposed! Thanks to the pitiful state of the road and the short hike required, these are some of the quieter beaches on the Kona coast.
If I had to choose the most beautiful beach we saw during our entire trip, it would be Kua Bay Beach. We saw plenty of gorgeous beaches across the Hawaiian islands, but the water of Kua Bay was just unbelievably blue and clear! We arrived around 9 am, and the beach was already getting full. This is a very popular location for swimming but definitely worth a stop.
The Puako Petroglyph Park is located just 18 miles (25 minutes) north of Kua Bay within the Mauna Lani Resort. It features a short 1.2 mi (2 km) hike to the final viewing platform and more than 3,000 ki’i pōhaku, better known as petroglyphs. I highly recommend making a stop here on your way to Waipio Valley. Make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water as the midday sun is scorching hot on the Big Island!
After your visit of the petroglyphs, continue on to Beach 69 for some amazing snorkeling. Beach 69 is named that way because it is located near mile marker 69 along Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway also known as State Highway 19.
At the end of this beautiful day, you can either choose to stay back in Kailua-Kona and enjoy a nice dinner at Umekes or continue on to Waimea, closer to Waipio Valley and the Hilo rainforest. The latter allows you to cut driving time in half as you’ll be headed across the island on tomorrow’s adventures.
Day 2 – Waipi’o Valley & Hilo Rainforest
Your first stop of the day is Waipio Valley Lookout. This lookout is located 1h30 minutes from Kailua-Kona but only 30 minutes from Waimea. Make sure to stop at Lilinoe Fruit Stand on the way in for some delicious, local fresh fruits. The stand is located on the right side of the road just a few miles before the lookout.
As you get closer to Waipio Valley, you’ll see signs indicating that the road and hike into the valley are closed. Keep driving to the Lookout parking lot where you can get out to enjoy the view.
This area used to feature a strenuous 4.7 mile (7.5 km) out-and-back trail, but it has closed closed indefinitely in February 2022 due to dangerous rockfall. Rumor has it the trail will remain closed until 2025. This trail was famous for leading hikers by many waterfalls all the way down to the black sand beach at the bottom of the valley. The road that goes into the valley is closed to all non-local traffic as well.
From Waipio Valley, you’ll make your way to Hilo along the Big Island’s rainforest. It is unbelievable to see the landscape change from barren volcanic land to lush green rainforest in a just a few hours. The contrast between the western and eastern side of Hawai’i is quite shocking. You may notice that the change of scenery is often accompanied with a drastic change in the weather as well.
The Hilo Rainforest is home to innumerable waterfalls, hikes, and activities. Here is my top 5!
1. Laupahoehoe Beach Park
I love driving along a scenic route and making frequent stops to enjoy the view. And that’s just what we did at Laupahoehoe Beach Park. We were stunned by its treacherous waters and once again recognized the tremendous power of the Hawaiian waters.
2. Umauma Falls
The Umauma Falls Experience offers ziplining, ATV tours, waterfall rappelling, and horseback riding along the picturesque Umauma Stream. Make sure not to miss this gorgeous three-tiered waterfall, located just a short drive from the main road. If you aren’t feeling adventurous, you can pay a $10 fee simply to view the falls from the park’s observation deck. No hiking is required!
As you head out to Akaka Falls State Park, make sure not to miss out on the views. I pretty much had my face glued to the window admiring the numerous streams cascading into the ocean from the thick rainforest. My favorite view was from the bridge atop Hakalau Stream, the first one you will drive through after leaving The Umauma Falls Experience.
3. Akaka Falls State Park
The staple $10 fee per vehicle and $5 fee per person is applicable at this state park, but no reservation is required. The park features an easy 0.5 mi (0.8 km) paved loop trail with gorgeous views of the rainforest flora and Akaka Falls.
4. Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens
If you love flowers as much as I do, you won’t mind paying the $25 entry fee to admire the vegetation in Hawai’i’s unique Bioreserve, cosily nestled in Onomea Bay. The story of Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse is unbelievably inspiring and will leave you very thankful that their far-fetched dream and hard manual labor turned this then impenetrable jungle into a mesmerizing 17 acre park, home to more than 2.500 tropical plants.
5. Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is free to visit and located in Wailuku River State Park in Hilo. It is known for its remarkable rainbows, but come early if you want to catch the colored arch spanning across the waterfall.
Where to stay?
I highly recommend this adorable and very cheap Airbnb in Papaikou. Glen and Mary were amazing hosts and made our stay so enjoyable! The suite they provide for guests is loaded with toiletries and personal touches. You’ll also find tons of local-travel literature, and Mary will gladly give you recommendations for her favorite restaurants and things to do in the area!
WHEATHERThis area of the island gets lots of rain, so make sure you come ready with a rain jacket and a smile because the likelihood of getting drenched may be quite high. Keep in mind that the high levels of water are what the rainforest needs to stay healthy and beautiful.
Day 3 – Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
There are tons of things to do in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, but let me show you how to would spend one perfect day in the park!
First, I would recommend you pack a lunch, lots of water and some good hiking shoes! There are few restaurants around, and you would waste a lot of time going in and out of the park. Plus there are plenty of picnic areas for you to enjoy lunch with a view!
Your first stop should always be the visitor center to inquire about current lava flow and possible road closures. Plan your itinerary accordingly, but keep in mind that the lava flow is much more impressive in the evening/ night. After getting a map and all the information you need, head to Kilauea Overlook. On the way back, enjoy a few extra stops at the overlooks along Crater Rim Drive.
If the skies are clear, I recommend hiking Kilauea Iki trail next. The sky tends to be clearer in the morning than in the afternoons, so don’t wait too long to begin this 3.2 mi (5.1 km) loop trail. You’ll walk through a volcanic rainforest along the Kilauea Iki crater before climbing down onto the old lava floor. There you’ll see tons of ahu (stacked rocks) marking the way as well as beautifully green and red tinted plants that have survived in adversity.
After climbing out of the crater, you’ll reach the parking lot of Thurston lava tube. Cross the parking lot and walk an additional 0.4 mile (0.6 km) loop into the lava tube. You’ll then take the 0.5 mile (0.8 km) trail to the right of the lava tube parking lot, which leads back to your vehicle.
Get back in the car and drive all the way down to the shore to view Holei Sea Arch at the very end of Chain of Craters Road. This area was probably my favorite in the park. I found it fascinating to contemplate how much each lava flow had affected the landscape over the last decades and centuries. Using the national park map, you can identify exactly how old each flow really is. It probably helped that this is where we were also able to enjoy blue sky for the first time that day.
After walking along the shore to admire the waves crashing below the sea arch, we drove back up Chain of Craters Road and stopped at the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs pullout. This short 0.7 mile (1.5 km) hike will take you through the lava floor onto a viewing platform. If you did not make it to Puako Petroglyphs near Kona, I highly recommend you do this hike to learn more about native Hawaiian history and this sacred site.
When we visited in March 2022, the only location to view the lava flow was along the old Crater Rim Drive about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the parking lot. This was a unique experience that I recommend to anyone visiting the Big Island and this national park. However, make sure you arrive early as parking lots tend to get full quickly! We learned this the hard way…
Where to stay?
There are two locations I would recommend to those wanting to visit Volcanoes National Park.
If you are looking to travel on a budget, I highly recommend the Holo Holo Inn, just 5 minutes from the entrance of the national park. It was perfect for us as we left the national park quite late after viewing the lava flow and having dinner. Satoshi’s hostel is located in a secluded area and offers both private bedrooms and gender-specific dorms for a bargain price.
If you are looking for more modern and luxurious accommodations, splurge on a stay at the Volcano House, the only hotel restaurant in the national park. The food is great, and the proximity to the lava flow simply cannot be beat.
See also: Hawaiian Food Bucket List
Day 4 – South Coast (Ka’u)
Start this beautiful day on the south coast of the Big Island by heading to Punaluu’u black sand beach, about 35 minutes from the national park entrance. We arrived early and only saw a few other tourists, but the highlight of our visit was watching a sea turtle emerge from the water and lounge on the beach just a few feet away from us. I snapped the above picture with my telephoto lens as it is recommended you stay at least 10 ft away from wildlife at all times.
After leaving the black sand beach, head to Punalu’u Bake Shop for a delicious breakfast. The bakery is open every day from 8:30am to 5:00pm. Note that opening hours may vary depending on the season.
After breakfast, get back in the car for your next colorful beach of the day: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach. I suggest arriving earlier rather than later to avoid the crowds. The hike to the beach is 5.6 miles round trip, but there is a possibility to ride there in a truck. The ride is technically free, but a tip is obviously very much appreciated. We hiked to the beach and rode back. The hike features gorgeous views of the coast but can get quite windy. The hike down to the beach is very, very steep, and the water too rough to swim, so we didn’t linger long. Still, visiting this green sand beach should absolutely be on your Big Island bucket list.
By now you are probably more than ready for lunch, so it is time to head to the Coffee Shack for some amazing pizzas and fresh baked goods. This quaint little cafe also offers a balcony with an amazing view over the beaches below. If you get lucky, a colorful little gecko may even join you at the table!
As you make your way back to Kona, check out the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. This Historic Site lets you walk through a typical native Hawaiian village and features live commentary throughout the day. The entrance is free with a national park pass, but you can also purchase a tri-park pass, which grants you entry into Volcanoes and Haleakalā National Park as well.
Day 5 – Kona
You have been all over the Big Island and enjoyed the very best the island has to offer. It’s time to enjoy some much needed rest! And what better way to rest than to head to the beach with your favorite book? There are tons of beautiful beaches on the Kona coast, but if you’re looking for great snorkeling, you need to head south to the Kahalu’u and Captain Cook area.
The Big Island was the most budget-friendly island we visited. There are so many free things to do and natural sites to enjoy. Snorkeling just happens to be my favorite!
Related: 6 Amazing Hawaii Budget Tips
The breathtaking coral reefs of Kahalu’u Beach Park are where I shot the pictures you see above. Everywhere you look, you’ll see bright yellow fish swimming about your legs in a mere 3 ft of water. The beach is also lifeguarded making it possible for families with younger children to enjoy the gorgeous marine life safely.
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I highly recommend you include a night manta ray snorkel in your Kona itinerary. This night might be ideal for it as you might be more acclimated to the time change and less likely to tire early. This adventure is very much unique to the Kona Coast of the Big Island. Indeed, Lefty, a local and disabled manta ray unable to feed herself due to a malformation once realized that the lighting from the Kona Airport construction site attracted large amounts of plankton to the lit waters. She quickly taught other local manta rays how to feed from the lit up oceans, and when construction ended, tourism took over. Each day, thousands of people flock to the Kona waters when the sun sets to go admire the manta rays up close.
We chose Hang Loose Boat Tours as they offered competitive prices ($105 per person) and guaranteed a 95% chance to spot manta rays or a chance to reschedule. They also provide snacks and bottled water as well as a warm “shower” once you get back on the boat. Garrett and I were the first to swim to the floatation device and expected to wait a while before the manta rays showed up, but the second we put our faces underwater, about a dozen manta rays were already swimming and feeding below us. It was absolutely incredible, and a memory we will cherish forever.
GOOD TO KNOWmake sure to enter the address given to you in your confirmation email to get to the dock as Google maps will take you to the wrong location. avoid parking your car in a locked lot as it may be inaccessible when you get back from your night snorkel. don’t forget to bring a warm long-sleeved shirt or hoodie. I overstayed in the water and could not stop shivering after getting back on the boat.
I hope you thoroughly enjoyed this detailed Big Island itinerary and that you now feel ready to plan your dream vacation to the Big Island of Hawai’i! Make sure to check out our other Hawaii articles, and pin this one for later!