The Big Island is made up of five volcanoes. Kohala in the north is the oldest. Next came Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa, and finally Kilauea. None of them are truly dead, but only Mauna Loa and Kilauea make regular appearances, with an occasional walk-on by Hualalai. Nearly the size of Connecticut, the Big Island’s 4,000 square miles can easily hold all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. And it’s the only state in the union that can get bigger every year (thanks to Kilauea’s land-making machine).

Big Island Map

Big Island Map

Gentle slopes are the trademark of this young island. It hasn’t had time to develop the dramatic, razor-sharp ridges that older islands, such as Kaua‘i, possess. The exception is the windward side of Kohala Mountain where erosion and fault collapses have created a series of dramatic valleys. Two of our mountains rise to over 13,000 feet. Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet, is the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its base, eclipsing lightweights such as Mount Everest and K-2. Mauna Loa, though slightly shorter, is much broader, earning it the moniker as the largest mountain in the world. It contains a mind-numbing 10,000 cubic miles of rock.

Another of our mountains is not really a mountain at all. Kilauea, looking more like a gaping wound on Mauna Loa, is the undisputed volcano show-off of the planet. When it’s erupting, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of lava per day create and repave the land.

North Shore Hawaii


Kohala is the oldest volcano on the island, having last sputtered 60,000 years ago. It contains lush forest, dry lava desert, windswept grassy plains and outrageous beaches. Some of the most expensive resorts on the island are along the Kohala Coast.

This is a large, diverse area to cover in one section, but because of the way the island’s resorts are distributed and the roads are laid out, most will see this area in a circular driving tour, so that’s how we’ll describe it. We’re going to start as you leave Kona heading up Hwy 190. If you’re staying in Kohala, you can come up Waikoloa Village Road and pick up the description on Hwy 190 heading north. If staying in Hilo, pick it up from Waimea.


Kailua was a tiny fishing village in days gone by. Fishermen would haul in giants from the deep, bountiful waters, while farmers tended their fields up the slopes of Hualalai. Many of the great chiefs of old chose this part of the island as their home. Kona weather and Kona waters were known throughout the islands as the very best, and that hasn’t changed. Though no longer the sleepy little village of yesteryear, this is a charming seaside town where the strolling is pleasant, the sunsets are mesmerizing, the food is diverse, and the activities are plentiful. Some people badmouth Kona because it’s not the same as it was 20 years ago—what is? Kona is still great; there are simply more people who know it.

The town is alternately referred to as Kailua-Kona, Kona, Kailua, or sometimes Kailua Town


The southern end of the island from Honaunau (near mile marker 104 on Highway 11) to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park is the least developed part of the Big Island. Long stretches of lava fields on the western side of Mauna Loa’s flank give way to green as you round the southern part of the island, where rain is allowed to fall with less interference from Mauna Loa volcano. Along the way you’ll pass roads leading to, among other things, a (usually) deserted black sand beach, a lightly inhabited 11,000-plus acre housing subdivision and the southernmost place in the United States. Since most people drive this stretch on their way to the volcano from Kailua-Kona or Kohala, we’ll describe it from that direction.

Kilauea Volcano

Kilauea is an enigma—you can’t really see the mountain from anywhere on the island, or even recognize it when you are standing on it. It seems more like a wound on the flanks of Mauna Loa. In the past, everyone thought that it was part of Mauna Loa, but today we know that it is separate and distinct, with its own separate (though possibly interrelated) magma chamber. One part of Kilauea, the actual Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent itself, is teasingly inaccessible.

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We feel strongly that most people allow far too little time for visiting Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Many simply blow through on an around-the-island driving frenzy, barely stopping long enough to snap a photo of Kilauea Caldera. There is much more here than meets the eye, and this might be the highlight of your Hawaiian trip. Whether Kilauea is erupting or not, this park may be the most fascinating place you ever visit, and you surely don’t have anything like this back home. The finest hiking on the island is here.

Hilo & Puna

Lava began erupting on May 3, 2018 from Leilani Estates, a residential area below the intersection of Highways 130 and 132 in Puna. It ran for over 3 months and caused major damage and disruptions. The lava has stopped now but everything past Pahoa on Hwy 132 is not accessible until further notice. However, Hwy 130 from Pahoa leading to Kaimu, Kalapana is open and Highway 137 along the coast is open to Kehena Black Sand Beach, ultimately stopping at MacKenzie State Recreation Area. See the section on Exploring Puna for more.

Hamakua & Waimea

When local residents speak of driving between Hilo and Kona, they either “drive the saddle” or they “take the upper road.” The upper road is the stretch of Highway 19 between Hilo and Waimea. It passes through magnificent country reminiscent of old Hawai‘i. Along the way you can check out numerous waterfalls, drive along stunning gorges, gaze over (or go into) an Eden-like valley, or check out Hawai‘i’s premiere ranch town, home to one of the country’s largest private ranches, Parker Ranch. Part of this drive is actually in the districts of North and South Hilo, but that distinction is lost on the driver.

Saddle Road

Saddle Road runs between our largest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The entire area is called the Saddle because of the saddle-shaped valley between the two mountains. It travels through some unpopulated and very surreal-looking country and is the fastest way between the two sides.

The saddle crests at an impressive 6,578 feet. That’s some saddle. The 52-mile-long road has a bad and outdated reputation. It was hastily built by the military in 1942 for strategic purposes. This was wartime, and they wanted a road connecting the two sides of the island, and they wanted it fast. They didn’t design it with general traffic in mind; it was meant for military vehicles. Until 2013, The Saddle was a bumpy, winding, hilly road with blind turns that weren’t banked and had been paved by Sadists-R-Us. Driving on it could void your rental agreement. But it’s been improved and rerouted in areas. Today it’s probably the smoothest stretch to drive on the island and is the only way to get to Mauna Kea

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