Explore Hawaii’s beauty on these 5 scenic road trips

With tropical rainforests, year-round balmy temperatures, and jagged cliffs straight out of Jurassic Park, taking a road trip around Hawaii is a completely different experience from what you’ll find on the mainland US.

The best part is that each drive is easy to tackle as roads are well maintained, and the islands are only so big, after all. Here are the five best road trips in Hawaii.

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1. From coast to volcanic cones on the Big Island

Best road trip for volcanoes

Hilo–Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; 52 miles; half a day

Hawai’i (the Big Island) is a massive canvas for natural wonders, including snow-capped mountains and epic waterfalls, to name a few. This route heads inland from Hilo on the east coast, making a beeline to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Before setting off, check the Volcanoes National Park site for the latest volcanic activity. Eruptions can happen frequently. If walking in the park, pack a rain jacket.

Start before sunrise, so you can walk the Sulphur Banks Trail as the sun comes up, its rays poking through billowing steam vents. Next, head to Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube), formed 500 years ago by a river of lava; the trail is a 0.4-mile loop.

Explore further by driving the 19-mile-long Chain of Craters Road. The dramatic Holei Sea Arch at the end of the road is well worth it and won’t last forever. Formed when lava poured into the ocean about 550 years ago, the 90ft arch will naturally crumble over time. Nearby, the Puu Loa Petroglyph Field features ancient rock carvings depicting people, cultural objects and animals. Take the 1.4-mile hike through the lava fields. 

Drive slowly through the park to protect the nene (Hawaiian geese) who might be crossing the roads and head back to Hilo for food.

A woman leans on a camper van as she soaks up the view of hills rising around herThere are rewarding views wherever you look in Maui © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

2. Upcountry Maui

Best road trip for unexpected Maui

Makawao–Haleakala; 34 miles; half day

Exploring Maui’s Upcountry, which includes the towns of Kula, Haiku, Pukalani and Makawao, is a surefire way to get to know a different side of the island. Start in Makawao, rising early for stick donuts and guava malasadas (Portuguese donuts) at T. Komoda Store & Bakery that sell out by noon. Doors open at 7am, and there is always a line.

Next, hit the winding road to Haleakalā National Park’s summit, which tops out above 10,000ft. Skip sunrise crowds (and the permit that goes along with it).  Arrive mid-morning instead when much fewer people are in the park. From the top of Sliding Sands Trail (aka the Keoneheehee Trail), you will have a great view of the crater; it’s so large the island of Manhattan could fit inside, and the cinder desert looks an awful lot like the moon’s surface.

If you plan to walk around the park, bring layers. The weather at the summit is unpredictable and sometimes goes down to 30°F. The road has hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, so those prone to motion sickness might not be keen on this trip. Afterward, reward yourself with lavender scones and views of Maui’s westside at Alii Kula Lavender.

A jungle-like landscape with high peaks covered in dense vegetation rising up highTake a tour at Kualoa Ranch, the filming location for several blockbuster movies © Kirkikis / Getty Images

3. The Windward O’ahu coastal wander

Best road trip for dramatic mountain scenery

Honolulu–Kualoa Ranch; 39 miles; half day 

Driving Interstate H-3 is reason enough to visit O’ahu, Hawaii’s most well-known island. This insanely scenic highway is home to towering sea cliffs, sweeping valleys, and vast forests.

Start in Honolulu and head to the windward side of the island. Keep your camera ready: The Tetsuo Harano Tunnels slice through the Koolau Mountain range. These green-fluted cliffs rise some 3000ft above sea level. For dreamy views of Lanikai Beach and the Mokulua Islands, burn some calories on the challenging Lanikai Pillbox Hike. Parking is limited, so get there before 9am. 

Next, reward yourself with some lunch in Kailua Town – local favorites include Beet Box Cafe and Cinnamon’s Restaurant – before continuing onto Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve, “Hollywood’s backlot.” An hour-long tour here takes you to filming locations from movies including Jurassic Park, Jumanji and Godzilla.

A man gazes out on a red and green canyon landscape that stretches out to the blue of the oceanThe views of Waimea Canyon from mile marker 10 are remarkable © MNStudio / Shutterstock

4. Kaua’i’s wild westside

Best road trip for adventure

Lihuʻe–Kokee State Park; 49 miles; half day

The rural island of Kaua’i is the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands and the most isolated. Beginning in Lihue, head to Waimea Canyon State Park, a mini version of the Grand Canyon. The 3600ft-deep gorge is a mix of crested buttes, waterfalls and jagged crags often punctuated by rainbows. 

At mile marker 10, stop at the Waimea Canyon Lookout for a panoramic view of this natural wonder. Also, pause at mile marker 12 for a view of the impressive 800ft Waipoo Falls. Go early since afternoons are often cloudy. Afterward, see protected valleys and ridgelines at Kokee State Park and stop at Kokee Lodge for kalua roasted pork, chili and cornbread. 

5. Join a tour of Maui’s road to Hana

Best road trip for waterfalls

Kahului Airport–Hana; 46 miles; full day

With its 600 hairpin turns and 59 narrow bridges, the road to Hana on Maui’s remote east side is one of the most scenic drives in Hawaii. Because it’s such a popular drive, going on a guided tour with an outfitter like Valley Isle Excursions is recommended as it reduces the pressure on this local road which can regularly get congested. 

The all-day tour begins at Maui Tropical Plantation for breakfast and heads to mile marker 6.7, where there’s a grove of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees that any nature-love will appreciate. After that, the Keanae Peninsula is a chance to stretch your legs and snack on Aunty Sandy’s famous banana bread. Made with local apple bananas (and sometimes also with chocolate chips, mangos or macadamia nuts), it has quite the following. At Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park, taking a dip by the waterfall is the thing to do. Next, you’ll tour Hana Farms to learn about how the farmers grow organic veggies in the rich volcanic soil. The tour then passes by Koki Beach, known for its red sand, and through Hana town and Hana Bay. Last but not least is Wai’anapanapa State Park, a black-sand beach complete with sea arches and blowholes. It’s a lovely spot to rest and hike. Note that the road is notoriously curvy and often narrow; travelers who get motion sickness may want to opt-out. 

Self-driving tips: If driving independently, start around 8am to avoid traffic. Also, pull over to let faster drivers pass. Get a full tank of gas in Paia (the next stop for gas is not until you reach Hana).


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