13 Best Stops on the Kona to Hilo Drive

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by Audrey Webster


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It should come as no surprise that one of the best ways you can spend your time on Hawaii’s Big Island is by taking a Kona to Hilo drive.

You can find plenty of stops throughout the entire island. However, if you’re planning to drive from Kona to Hilo, you can take one of three routes. One goes directly through the center of the island, the second follows the southern coast, and the third goes along the northern coastline. 

Here, we’re taking a look at all the stops you can make while driving from these two major towns on the Big Island to ensure you don’t have to choose between Hilo or Kona!

Planning a Kona to Hilo Drive

The best route from Kona to Hilo depends on what you want to see during your drive. If you’re pressed for time, take the Saddle Road through the center of the island. It takes about one and a half hours to get between cities. 

Now, if you’re looking to have a more leisurely and scenic drive, consider taking one of the coastal routes. The sites you’ll see along the way vary between routes. If you’re ending your trip back in Kona, consider taking the opposite coastal route on the return journey. This way you can get all the way around the island and see the top sites.

You should budget a full day to make the drive and stop to admire the landmarks along the way. You’ll encounter a few small towns where you can find bites to eat as well as gas stations. Start your day with a full tank of gas and you’ll likely have enough for the full drive.

If you need to rent a car for your trip you can browse Rentalcars.com to compare prices on car rentals on the island.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

How Far is Kona from Hilo?

The distance from Kona to Hilo is 77.1 miles. This applies if you take Saddle Road across the middle of the island which takes you along the base of Mauna Kea. Driving along the southern route, it would take you about 3 hours to get from Kona to Hilo if you drove nonstop.

It takes about the same time to take the northern coastline route. Expect to encounter some traffic, but drive carefully overall. The coastal highways are curvy and sudden sharp turns aren’t uncommon. Besides, driving slower gives you more time to admire the scenery as you pass. 

In total, estimate around 3 hours for your total drive time. Of course, exactly how long it takes will depend on how many stops you make. 

Mauna Kea at sunset
Mauna Kea at sunset

Best Kona to Hilo Drive Stops

There are three routes that you can take for this drive. Below, we’re covering the northern and southern routes that follow the coastline. Note that Saddle Road through the middle of the island is the fastest route, but doesn’t have many stops to make for an interesting road trip. 

Southern Route

While driving along the southern coastal route from Kona to Hilo, expect to find everything from sea turtles, great snorkel spots to ocean cliff jumping at South Point.

You’re passing through the best area to grow coffee on the island, so don’t pass up the opportunity to tour a coffee farm. End the day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see the lava flow from Kilauea before heading into Hilo. 

Greenwell Farms

Your first stop while taking the southern coastline route is Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua just north of the town of Captain Cook. If you’re a coffee person, you may want to spend more time visiting coffee farms in this area, but Greenwell is worth a visit if you only have time for one.

They offer a free coffee farm tour. During the tour, a guide will walk you around the plantation explaining the process of making Kona coffee all while showing off the coffee trees and machinery that makes a delicious cup of joe possible.

And of course, at the end of the tour, you can head over to their shop to leave with as many bags of coffee as you please. 

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Once you’re fully caffeinated, head to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. This landmark is one of the more popular ones that you’ll encounter. It’s also known as The City of Refuge and it’s estimated to be about 450 years old.

You can watch an introductory video to learn about the site before setting out on foot to explore it.

The lava tidepools here are some of the best on the island. Come prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and good walking shoes because it can get really hot as you’re walking around the park. 

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Paradise Meadows

Paradise Meadows is hard to spot. After you turn off South Point Road to Hwy 11, you’ll see it almost immediately.

Here you can find some of the best chocolate, coffee, macadamia nuts, and honey on the island. You’ll also be handed free samples from vendors before wandering away to explore the farm.

Check out the fruit trees, aquaponics system, and art gallery located inside the house on the property. 

Southernmost Point in the United States

Driving from Kona to Hilo isn’t complete without taking a slight detour to the Southernmost Point in the United States. Veer off the main highway to drive another 15 minutes before you reach the cliff.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a cliff famous for being the southernmost tip of the U.S. If you’re feeling brave, you can leap off the cliff into the bright blue water below. Even if you don’t plan to jump, the view from the cliff is amazing on a clear day.

You can walk a 5-mile trail from here to reach Green Sands Beach — one of the lesser-known beaches on the Big Island. 

Green Sands Beach
Green Sands Beach

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is one of the most popular black sand beaches along the southern Big Island coast. This is largely due to the fact it’s one of the most reliable places to spot sea turtles.

You can lounge or go for a swim. You can explore the lava tidepools or marvel at the sea turtles sunbathing on the shore. While visiting any black sand beach on the island, keep your shoe choice in mind. Black sand gets much hotter much faster than other kinds of sand.

Make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes and pack sun protection. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is a highlight of any Big Island itinerary. After all, it’s an inside look at the volcanoes that brought the Hawaiian Islands into existence.

Located in the foothills of Mauna Loa, it’s worth it to spend an entire day or two exploring the park. However, if you don’t have time, you can also stop in to get views of the volcano.

If it’s approaching nighttime, don’t miss the park. You can visit for an after dark viewing of the craters and see the lava glowing within them. It’s a view you can’t get during the day and an amazing sight, especially if it’s a clear starry night. 

From the park, it’s about 40 minutes more along the way to Hilo.

View of Mauna Loa
View of Mauna Loa

Northern Route

The northern coastal route from Kona to Hilo passes by the island’s iconic valleys and overlooks. You’ll find waterfalls, rainforests, black-sand beaches, and historic landmarks.

Hapuna Beach

Start your day by grabbing Kona coffee and a pastry from in town and heading to Hapuna Beach. This is one of the most popular beaches on the island and it’s not hard to see why.

Its white sand beaches and crystal blue waters look like a postcard you’d see in a Kona airport gift shop. Visit first thing in the morning to experience it during quieter hours. Enjoy the view and eat your breakfast before continuing on your journey.

If you want to skip some of the coastal stops (or you want to make a detour to go horseback riding in the mountains), then consider heading inland toward Wimea here rather than to the coastal stops on the way to Hilo.

Hapuna Beach near Kona
Hapuna Beach

Lapakahi State Historical Park

The Lapakahi State Historical Park is the perfect stop after you leave Hapuna Beach. This ancient fishing village is an estimated 600 years old.

Most of the remaining structures are rock walls, but there are a handful of buildings with roofs and walls that have been reconstructed to give visitors a look at what the village looked like hundreds of years ago.

Keep an eye out for the salt bowls within the huts where sea salt used to be made.

Hawi 

Hawi is a small and unassuming town along the highway you’re driving. It’s a great stop to grab a bite to eat or another cup of delicious coffee before you continue your route. It’s also notorious for its shopping.

Local shops line the streets of Hawi and feature everything from fine arts to clothing to groceries. Take your time, stretch your legs, and check out all the unique shops Hawi has to offer. If you’ve been on the lookout for souvenirs from your trip to Hawaii, this is the place to find them. 

Pololu Valley Lookout

Pololu Valley is well-known, but less visited by tourists, which makes it a great stop if you’re aiming to break away from the Big Island crowds.

You’ll turn off the main highway to reach the parking lot. Keep in mind that the lot is tight and the road dead ends, so it’s more convenient to park further up the road and walk down. The view of the valley is stunning — lush green forests, rolling hills, and bright blue waves crashing against a black sand beach.

It’s worth the hike to the beach below, but be wary of the trail. It’s steep and uneven, so sturdy shoes are necessary and watch where you step. Once you reach the bottom, it feels like stepping into a scene from Jurassic Park.

Expect to take about 20 minutes to hike either way. 

Pololu Valley
Pololu Valley

Waipi’o Valley Lookout

If you’re pressed for time and want to select one valley lookout, you should prioritize Pololu Valley. It’s more impressive and sees fewer people overall. However, if you have an extra hour to take a slight detour, head to Waipi’o Valley Lookout.

This lookout is on the opposite side of the ridgeline where you just were. You can’t quite see the back of the valley, but it’s still an impressive site. If there has been heavy rainfall, keep your eyes peeled for thin waterfalls falling from the opposite cliffside.

You’re no longer allowed to walk down to the beach due to unsafe hiking conditions. 

Akaka Falls State Park

Your Kona to Hilo scenic drive is rapidly coming to an end. However, you can’t miss a stop at Akaka Falls State Park once you get past the town of Hamakua. This is one of the tallest waterfalls on the Big Island and one you’ll be happy you visited.

There’s a small parking fee to enter the parking lot. Once you park, take the 0.5-mile paved path to the outlook. You’ll instantly see a towering waterfall plummeting 442 feet into a pool below.

The surrounding cliffs are covered in green flora, making the entire sight an iconic one for the “wet” side of the Big Island. You can also experience some of the local floral at one of Hilo’s many botanical gardens.

Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

Rainbow Falls

You’ve nearly arrived in Hilo. After a long day spent driving along the northern coast and exploring the many landmarks it has to offer, make one last stop at Rainbow Falls. Rainbow Falls is a broad waterfall, at times appearing like two waterfalls that join in the middle.

It’s where the Wailuku River cascades 80 feet into a dark pool below. Similar to Akaka Falls, the surrounding cliffside is covered in bright green plants.

This side of the island is where you’ll see its most impressive waterfalls, so spend some time exploring these state parks before returning to Kona. 

Where to Stay in Kona

Kona Tiki Hotel – Located in the center of Kona, this hotel is an excellent option for mid-range travelers. They have a range of clean and comfortable rooms available along with a great swimming pool to splash around in.

Aston Kona By the Sea – This hotel is a great luxury option in Kailua-Kona. They have delightfully bright and comfortable rooms to choose from, a private beach and a wonderful swimming pool and plenty of other great amenities for guests.

Private Rental – Those looking for their own space while in Kona – such as this fully-furnished condo – will find that there are countless options to choose from across a wide array of platforms.

My Hawaii Hostel – If you’re traveling solo or on a tight budget while on the Island of Hawaii, then you’re sure to love this cool hostel. They have a range of rooms to choose from along with a great location for exploring all Kona has to offer.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Kona hotels!

Kona Coastline
Kona Coastline

Where to Stay in Hilo

Hilo Bay Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast – Situated in downtown Hilo, this cosy bed and breakfast makes for an excellent base in this Hawaiian city. They have several great rooms to choose from along with a hearty breakfast each morning.

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls – THis swanky hotel situated a bit outside of Hilo is an excellent base for those looking for something a bit more secluded and upscale. They have both cabins and regular rooms to choose from along with a fantastic breakfast on offer.

Private Rental – Like in Kona, there are lots of private rentals in Hilo – like this beach studio – if you’d rather have your own, self-catering space while visiting this side of the island.

Big Island Hostel – This hostel in downtown Hilo is a great choice for budget and solo travelers. They have a range of dorms to choose from along with excellent common areas and a great location for exploring this side of the island.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Hilo hotels!

And there you have it – the best stops to make during your drive from Kona to Hilo. Pick and choose destinations based on whatever you’re most interested in to build a scenic road trip itinerary you’ll love. 

Are you planning a Kona to Hilo road trip? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

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