5 Perfect Days on Hawaii Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii is the perfect place for the adventurer who wants to do a little bit of everything. Beaches, snorkeling, surfing, hiking, climbing mountains, star-gazing, visting a national park – all of this is possible on the Big Island and more. But due to its size, the Big Island requires careful planning so you don’t waste valuable hours driving from one side to the other. This 5-day itinerary includes the must-sees but you can always extend for more adventures!

How to Get There

There are two airports on Hawaii island – Kona, on the west side, and Hilo, on the east side. We used Kona and did a giant counter-clockwise loop around the island, but Hilo would be just fine as well for this itinerary.

Where to Stay

I AirBnBed it on both my visits to the Big Island and I recommend doing that. The most important thing about accommodations in Hawaii, though, is actually to split your time between Kona and Hilo. This will save you valuable time driving! Hilo is closer to Hawaii Volcanoes national park and Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano that gave birth to the island. You’ll be also much better positioned to adventure up the Hamakua coast on the east side of the island, which is chock-full of waterfalls and amazing valleys carved into the coastline. Kona is way more developed and has better weather but I recommend spending as much time as you can in Hilo, then saving Kona for a couple of days of beach, snorkeling, swimming with manta rays and relaxation. This itinerary includes 3 nights in Hilo and 2 nights in Kona.

DayItinerary Overnight location
1Arrival; southern side of the islandHilo
2Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkHilo
3Hilo & environs; Mauna KeaHilo
4Travel to Kona via northern side of the islandKona
5Beach/snorkel/manta ray day in KonaKona

Day 1: Points of interest between Kona and Hilo on the southern side of the island

On your first day, check out the main points of interest between Kona and Hilo on the southern side of the island. I recommend a full day for this although I did it on the day we landed in Kona as we drove to our accommodations for the first 3 nights in Hilo. Because we ran out of daylight (we visited in December), we had to skip the green beach but it’s a must-do if you have time! You can also do this as a day trip from either Kona or Hilo.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park

The park provided refuge for those who violated kapu – the taboo system that regulated every waking moment in ancient Hawaiian life.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park

South Point Park

The southernmost point in the US (not just contiguous, which is in Florida). This is on a dirt road which reaches a fork – southernmost point to the right, green beach to the left. I can’t describe how hard it was to get so close to the green beach and not see it!

Selfie at the turnoff for Ka Lae

Papakolea Green Sand Beach

It shouldn’t take long to get there from Ka Lae, the southernmost point. Be prepared to park and pay around $20 for a local to bring you down to the actual beach – unless you have a four-wheel drive and are very experienced with it, don’t do it yourself!

Shared from David Laporte on Flickr via Creative Commons Licens

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach & Punalu’u Bakery

This beach is easily accessible with a parking lot right next to the road! You will also encounter sea turtles here if the time is right! Nearby is the best bakery on the island – not to miss if they’re open!

Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Spend a full day in this national park! I recommend driving down the length of the Chain of Craters road to the this scenic arch.

On the way back. stop by the Thurston Lava Tube – you can walk its length – and do the Kilauea Iki Trail, which will take you 4 miles through a crater that erupted in 1959. They share a trailhead, so it’s easy to do both!

Thurston Lava Tube
Kilauea Iki trail – you can see the trail traversing the middle of this crater!

To cap off your visit, grab lunch at the Volcano House, the hotel on park grounds overlooking Halema‘uma‘u Crater at the summit of Kilauea.

Prior to 2018 you could also visit the overlook at the Jagger Museum for better views of the Halema’uma’u crater, but an eruption that year caused instability in this area and the museum and overlook are now permanently closed. Because this is an active volcano area, be prepared for closures based on new eruptions.

Overlook at Jagger Museum – now closed! I was upset my friends didn’t tell me my hair was acting crazy in the wind 🙂

Day 3: Hilo & environs; sunset at Mauna Kea

Spend the morning exploring Hilo and its environs. The following stops should be on your list:

Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls

Hawaii Tropical Botanical garden

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Imiloa Astronomy center

Imiloa Astronomy Center

In the afternoon, either drive yourself to or book a tour of Mauna Kea. The road to the top can be steep and we were warned that inexperienced drivers can burn out their breaks. We booked a tour with Arnott’s Lodging and Adventures in Hilo. We couldn’t get to the very top where the telescopes are because of windy weather, but viewing the sunset from the visitor center at 9,000 ft was still a magical experience.

Day 4: Travel to Kona via the northern side of the island

Time for another road trip! This time you will be completing the circle by getting back to Kona via the northern side of the island. There is lots to see, so allow as much time as you can!

Start the day going up the Hamakua coast with mandatory stops to visit Waipio Valley (another location where you’ll need a local to bring you down to the beach) and Pololu Valley (here you can descend to the black beach on your own two feet).

Waipio Valley – image via Paul Hirst, Creative Commons License
Pololu Valley

The road that connects Waipio Valley and Pololu Valley is Kohala Mountain road and is one of the most scenic drives I’ve done. Plenty of stops for views will eat up your time!

Views from Kohala Mountain Road

Once you decend the Kohala mountain on the west side of the island, stop by Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site.

If you have the time and energy, watch the sunset at Holoholokai Beach Park and visit the nearby Petroglyph park.

Hoholokai Beach
Puako Petroglyphs

Day 5: Beach/snorkel day in Kona

Time to relax a bit after all the adventuring! For snorkeling in shallow waters with lots of amazing fish, I highly recommend Kahalu’u Beach Park. It’s one of the best spots on the island due to its accessbility. Do bring water shoes with a rubber sole; otherwise you will cut your feet on the lava that covers the ocean bed (which was my experience!).

A school of Lau-Lpala (Yellow Tang)

For snorkeling, diving, and swimming with manta rays, I recommend booking a boat outing with Jack’s Diving Locker. Snorkeling with Manta Rays was one of my favorite experiences!

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