The Big Island of Hawaii already looks enormous on the map. But when driving on the windy, rough roads, it feels even bigger. Circumventing the Island is a fantastic day trip, but requires meticulous planning as it will likely take around 12 hours. Find out how long your trip will take and learn about convenient attractions along the way!
Can you even do it?
Yes, you can drive around the Big Island, but it’s not a complete coastal drive. You will likely be forced to turn inland at 2 points:
- The Pu’u O Umi Natural Area Reserve in Waimea
This reserve consists of a lush, dense rainforest. While it is a must-visit for hiking to pristine waterfalls, it is impossible to traverse by car or even by jeep. There are no roads between the reserve and the shore, either. So you will be forced to drive inland along Kawaihae Road for around 20 miles.
- Kahaualeʻa Natural Area Reserve
This is one of many stunning reserves on Oahu that features craggy rocks and giant lava tubes. The Kaimu Chain of Craters Road runs through this reserve. This road is very steep and has plenty of large boulders scattered across. It is considered a jeep only road. If you don’t have a jeep, you will need to ditch the coast for another 20-30 miles.
Distance and Duration
The Big Island alone is bigger than all other Hawaiian Islands combined. Therefore, driving around the island is no easy task. It’s around 300 miles of windy, rough roads with plenty of hazards along the way. If you’re in a rush, you can drive these 300 miles in less than 6 hours.
Of course, if you’re reading this article, you are likely visiting Hawaii as a tourist. Therefore, we recommend not just driving around the island as fast as possible, but stopping at various must-see attractions along the way. By skipping these, you will technically circumvent the island, but you will not have truly explored its natural beauty.
Adding various stops, you will likely have to drive 400 to 500 miles during your trip. If you include various sights and stops for lunch and dinner, you will likely end up with a 12-hour itinerary filled to the brim with fun milestones along the way!
Since driving on the Big Island at night can be daunting for tourists, we recommend starting your epic one-day road trip at around 6 or 7 am.
Some itineraries for circumventing the Big Island
There are plenty of ways to drive around the Big Island, and the time to complete these vary greatly.
1. The basic circumvention
This route will take less than 6 hours without any traffic. If you want to avoid thrilling, fierce roads, it is a safe option, and there are plenty of attractions to see along the way.
2. The completionist’s itinerary
This tour includes as many must-see destinations as possible while still being able to finish it within one day. The driving time is around 7 hours, but it took us 12 hours, including a 1-hour stop at the National Park, as well as lunch and dinner.
Attractions along the way:
- Kona: The capital of Big Island.
- Hawi: A lovely small town in the north with small shops and nice restaurants for breakfast that offers great coastal views.
- Waipo Valley Lookout: This is a stunning valley with the tallest waterfall on the island. Unfortunately the road to the valley is often closed, and if it is open, you can only fully explore it on horseback or in a 4WD jeep.
- Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden: You will drive by this Botanical Garden, and the entrance fee is cheap. So why not take a pit stop to take a leisurely, shaded walk to explore the alien-like tropical vegetation? They have over 1,800 plant species and many of which we have never seen or heard of before.
- Hilo: This city has great local vibes and is a fantastic spot for lunch. They have a vibrant and diverse farmers market that is open til the afternoon.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: This park is the highlight of this itinerary! If you are short on time, you can skip some other transactions, but please make time for this quintessential experience. You will have to pay a $20 entrance fee per car. You can spend just half an hour or many hours here, it’s up to you.
- Green Sand Beach: After stumbling around the National Park and hiking for 3 miles to reach this beach, you will be rewarded with fantastic views, actual green sand, and clean, refreshing ocean water to take a swim.
- South Point: This is the southernmost point of the United States. There is not much to do there, but the views of the cliffs are stunning, and it is not much of a detour.
Where do I rent a car on the Big Island?
Renting a car to drive around Big Island was a seamless experience for us. The roads on Big Island are a lot rougher, so the upkeep of the rental cars is more expensive. Thus, the costs for a rental are marginally higher compared to other Hawaiian Islands, but just like on the other Islands, there are plenty of rental companies waiting for you at the airport.
If you want to plan not just the timing of your trip but also your budget, you can get a price estimation for a rental car online. They typically include GPS and insurance. Renting a jeep will cost around twice as much.
You can compare the prices of the following car rentals, which are all stationed at the airport:
- Drive in Hawaii
- Alamo (we rented from them, can’t complain!)
- National Car Rental
- Budget Car Rental
If you’re already in Kona, no problem! Most of the rental companies listed above also have an office there.
How much does it cost?
Besides the costs for the car rental and the entrance fee to the national park, you should also remember to budget for fuel costs, as fuel prices are much higher on Hawaii. Here is an easy calculator using our two routes and the most common types of rental cars on Big Island:
Total fuel cost: $
How many days should you spend exploring the Big Island?
The Big Island is way too big to realistically explore it all in one day. Therefore, we recommend planning at least a few days on the Big Island to make the most of your trip. The average tourist stays for around a week. This is a good length to soak in the Big Island’s rich nature and culture.