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A Scenic Road Trip North:
Kailua-Kona to Hilo,
the Long Way

Take the long way from Kailua-Kona to Hilo, embarking on an epic road trip filled with breathtaking landscapes, rich history, and cultural landmarks. This is a full-day drive that will take you across 200 miles in about 4.5 hours (plus stops to explore).

First, you’ll travel across the island’s northern coasts and then through its heart, from the rugged coastlines and lush valleys to charming towns and majestic waterfalls. Experience the unique beauty and spirit of the Big Island of Hawaii as you travel from the sunny shores of Kailua-Kona to the vibrant energy and history of Hilo.

Waimea

42 miles _ 1 hour

Begin your journey with a picturesque drive from Kailua Kona to Waimea. You’ll take the “lower road” along Highway 19, also known as the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, that runs north along the coast, ending just south of Kawaihae. The views are beautiful, with the ocean visible for almost the entire stretch of the road, which cuts through vast volcanic lava fields and is characterized by the stark contrast between the deep blue of the Pacific and the rugged black lava fields.

Once you reach the fork in the road a little before Kawaihae, turn right and begin your climb up the hill into Waimea’s cowboy country. Waimea is a fascinating surprise for most travelers. It’s the heart of the paniolo culture, or Hawaiian cowboys, on the Big Island which date back before the cowboys of the American west.

That will make sense when you see the expansive lands and rolling hills of the area. It sits at about 2700 feet of altitude, so the climate varies dramatically from the coast below. When the coast is dry and hot, Waimea can be much cooler, windy and often blanketed in a mist, making for a beautiful environment.

Its quaint town features several top restaurants on the island including Merriman’s, one of the first locally sourced, farm to table restaurants in the entire country when it was opened in the late 80’s. But, you’ll likely want to grab a coffee and mid-morning snack at Waimea Coffee Co. – a granola vibed coffee shop that’s long been a local’s favorite – or Arvo, a newer trendy cafe with very good food that sits inside of the well-curated Surf Camp.

Waipio Valley Lookout

23 miles _ 30 minutes

From Waimea, you’ll head towards Honokaa and backtrack a little bit to reach the Waipiʻo Valley Lookout. One look and you’ll see why this valley was so important to early Native Hawaiians. The stunning view reveals a lush landscape, waterfalls, and a black sand beach surrounded by soaring valley walls. The valley has a deep history. As a child, King Kamehameha I was hidden in this sacred place to protect him from a rival chief who wanted to prevent his rule.

Surrounded on three sides by nearly 2,500-foot cliffs, the valley is home to the steepest road by length in the United States, rising 800 feet in just 0.6 miles. But, in 2022, the valley was closed due to unsafe conditions along the road, so you’ll take in the views from the lookout for now.

As you head back along Highway 19 through Honokaa, consider a stop for the famous Malasadas at Tex Drive-In, a local favorite which has been a culinary landmark on the Big Island for almost 50 years. Malasadas, the hole-free, pillowy Portuguese doughnuts, were introduced to Hawaii in the late 1870s by Portuguese laborers from Madeira and the Azores.

Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park

32 miles _ 45 minutes

Your next stop, Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park, offers dramatic ocean landscape against a backdrop of jagged lava rocks. This beach park is typically pretty empty since it’s off the beaten path for most, which adds to the dramatic feeling of the landscape.

The park’s name, meaning “leaf of lava,” is derived from the peninsula’s shape, formed by ancient lava flows. This location holds a poignant place in Hawaii’s history, being affected by a devastating tsunami in 1946. The nearby Laupahoehoe Train Museum provides a deeper understanding of the area’s past, especially the sugar era and the impact of the tsunami.

Akaka Falls State Park

18 miles _ 30 minutes

Akaka Falls State Park, home to the stunning 442-foot Akaka Falls, is your next destination. The park, named after a local chief, is not only a natural wonder but also a place steeped in local folklore. The short and accessible loop trail offers a view of Kahuna Falls and other smaller cascades, making it a perfect spot for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike.

We like to stop off at Mana’s Aloha Farm fruit stand to drink a freshly cut coconut and grab some locally fruits for the road. The crew there is a fun time too.

Onomea Bay Scenic Drive

11 miles _ 20 minutes

For a highly recommended detour on your final leg to Hilo, go a little off course to experience the Onomea Bay Scenic Drive, which is 4 mile scenic drive with breathtaking views of the ocean, coast, and the collapsed Onomea Arch. The Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Garden can be found about halfway and a nearby interesting and short hike down the old donkey trail to the ocean provides you with stunning photographic and scenic opportunities.

Hilo

6 miles _ 13 minutes

End your day in Hilo, a town with a rich history dating back to the first Polynesian settlers. Hilo has evolved through the sugar plantation era and has overcome natural disasters like tsunamis. The town now thrives as a cultural center with numerous galleries, museums, and dining options.

For a taste of local cuisine, try Café Pesto or Moon and Turtle for their fresh, island-inspired dishes.The Pacific Tsunami Museum and Lyman Museum provide insightful experiences into the island’s geological and cultural history. And, take a stroll to some of the fun shops and stops in the historic downtown area such as the Hilo Farmer’s Market, Ikaka Falls Trading Post, Blue Hawaii Antiques or Puna Chocolate Company. Sig Zane is great to pick up a stylish Aloha Shirt (we like the pullover style). And, Hana Hou is an amazing boutique for upscale Hawaiian styles, including an incredible selection of hand made hats.

Kailua-Kona

77 miles _ 1.5 hours

Finally, head back to Pacific 19 Kona from Hilo. You’ll take Saddle Road starting from sea level in Hilo to 5,000 feet or so in the “saddle” between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea over the center of the island.

If you have time, take a detour to Mauna Kea at the top. If you’re visiting, you likely won’t have the requisite 4×4 approved vehicle to make it to the top. But, even driving to the paved halfway rest point is an experience, where you can make a short hike to a nearby lookout for some amazing views.

As you continue your way back to Kailua-Kona, you’ll pass through an array of diverse microclimates ranging from the lush gardens of Hilo, to the Mars-esque landscape on Mauna Kea, and back through the rolling hills on the western side as you finally reach Kona’s beaches again. And, hopefully you’ve timed it to catch the sun setting over the Pacific for this last incredible leg of the journey.