Having traveled cross country numerous times, the total of states I’ve visited began growing in my teen years continuing into adulthood. Some I traveled to several times and others just once or twice. Outside the continental USA, my travels took me to the far north to Alaska which I fell in love with at first sight returning for a total of four big Alaskan adventures. But one state remained elusive until a few weeks ago.
My 62nd birthday looming, I decided the time had arrived for me to check that missing state off my list. My husband, Greg and I boarded our flight in New York and roughly 10 hours later we landed in Honolulu. But that wasn’t our destination. We had our eyes on the Big Island—Hawai’i where smoldering volcanoes, lava fields, dark skies, free-falling waterfalls and the southernmost point in the USA beckoned. A short 55-minute flight landed us in Hilo where we picked up our rental—a Chevy Colorado pick-up equipped with 4-wheel drive. This was to be a road trip like none other.
A Scenic Drive Around the Island
The Hawai’i Belt Road loops around the edge of this fascinating island providing an ideal way to road trip and catch all the jaw-dropping sites along the way. Venturing from Hilo to the northern section of the island, your route is lined with beaches to the right and more varieties of trees than I’ve ever seen anywhere.
As you make your way across the island, the landscape changes. The north and northwestern corner of this stunning piece of land boasts a higher elevation and comfortable temperatures especially when the sun goes down.
The 130,000-acre Parker Ranch continues a historic legacy that began 175 years ago. This working cattle ranch remains committed to preserving the Paniolo (cowboy) culture and legacy by operating a sustainable business where cattle graze on acres of rich natural volcanic grasslands, on the slopes of the majestic Mauna Kea and Kohala Mountains. The combined visual of bucolic ranch land flanked by the deep blue shades from the Pacific Ocean keeps those stellar views coming mile after mile!
Moving along the western edge of the island, we drove along the volcanic Kohala Coast. Here miles of lava fields cover the landscape adding yet another scenic element.
The entire island covers about 300 miles if you drive along the Hawai’i Belt Road. But as any good road trip requires, we detoured off in several sections to explore backroads and find new discoveries. Here are a few not to be missed.
Akaka Falls State Park
We began our exploration with a stop at Akaka Falls State Park. Located just 11 miles north of Hilo, the park is home to two waterfalls perfectly situated in a lush tropical rainforest. An easy .4-mile Akaka Falls Loop Trail leads you to both the Kahuna and Akaka Falls. Known as a free-falling waterfall, Akaka drops 422 feet making it one of the tallest on the island of Hawai’i.
Waipi’O Valley Overlook
Once the boyhood home of King Kamechameha, the sacred Waipi’o Valley is an important site for Hawaiian history and culture. A fertile valley approximately one mile across and over five miles deep, the Waipi’o sits amid cliffs soaring up 2,000 feet. Views of the coastal valley unfold from the Waipi’o Valley Overlook at the end of the Hāmākua Heritage Corridor Drive.
Note: The road down to the beach was temporarily closed during our visit as locals strive to limit visitors to allow the valley time to heal from over-tourism. Please respect their wishes if you go.
Venturing off the Hawai’i Belt, we drove along Kohala Mountain Road (Highway 250) north from Waimea to Pololū Valley Lookout where breathtaking views of the Hāmākua Coast unfold. A steep rocky trail led down to the valley floor where a black sand beach met the waves of the Pacific. The hike down and back up took some effort but it was worth every breathless moment to experience this unforgettable beach and dip our toes in the cool water of the ocean.
Kala‘e (South Point)
In the south, we detoured onto the narrow South Point Road driving through 12 miles of open ranch land to reach Kala‘e, the southernmost point of the United States. Known as South Point, this National Historical Landmark is believed to be the place where the first Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands somewhere between 400 and 800 A.D. The site features ruins of temples and other sacred cultural artifacts strewn along the sandy beach.
Standing at the edge of South Point, we gazed at the endless deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. From this point, the next land mass is Antarctica!
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
No visit to the Big Island is complete without a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. We began our exploration with a short hike through a lava tube. From there we ventured along the Chain of Craters Road stopping at stunning overlooks where miles of lava beds stretched out before us with the Pacific Ocean serving as a backdrop. Along the way, we hiked through a lava bed along the petroglyph trail where Native Hawaiians left messages from the past carved in the rocks.
The still-active volcano, Kilauea, introduced herself as we strolled through steam rising from fissures in the earth. After dark, we hiked to a lookout point and witnessed her fiery lava lake under a star-studded sky and the elusive Milky Way.
Sunset on Mauna Kea
We chose to hang out above the clouds on our final day in Hawai’i. And there’s no better way to do that than to drive to the summit of Mauna Kea. This now dormant volcano stretches 13,803 feet into the sky, but another 19,698 feet lie underwater! The drive to and from the summit requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle. It was somewhat terrifying but definitely worth the white knuckling required.
If you’re looking for a cold Hawaii destination, this would be the place to go. It was 32 degrees at the summit. We layered up and watched as the brilliant orange sun sank into a bed of white fluffy clouds–an unforgettable sight!
Reflecting on the natural wonders we witnessed during our brief time on Hawaii’s Big Island, I’m left with two questions. 1) What took me so long to get to the 50th state? 2) When can I return? I’m smitten!