The Perfect South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: 7 Days of Wonder

Little-known fact: South Dakota is seriously awesome! So if you are considering a South Dakota road trip, I highly recommend it.

The first time I drove through the state, I was on a bit of an open schedule and spent five days there because I loved it so much. 

I was surprised by how much there was to do and see in South Dakota: it is an unassuming gem of the United States!

While road tripping South Dakota, you will have the opportunity to explore mountain pinnacles, ancient seabeds, and prairie land. 

Beautiful wilderness in custer state park - trees and sun setting over the mountains

Along the way, you’ll also have opportunities to learn about Native American culture and their history of stewardship over these beautiful lands. 

And of course, you will see one of the most famous landmarks in the US — and perhaps what South Dakota is best known for — Mount Rushmore.

In this South Dakota itinerary, we will primarily be exploring the southwestern side of the state: it’s where all the bucket list-worthy action is!

The main attractions on this road trip flow off Interstate 90, a significant route you may already be taking if you are on an extended road trip across the US. It is a straightforward route with insane views and beautiful experiences!

PLANNING FOR SOUTH DAKOTA AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: Since some attractions close during winter, the best time to visit South Dakota is in summer, spring and fall. But if you're into winter sports, then consider visiting during winter.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Keystone, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, and Deadwood. 

In Keystone, I recommend staying at Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore for budget travelers, or Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone, an IHG Hotel (boutique hotel). 

Near Wind Cave National Park, I suggest staying at El Dorado Ranch which is just a 20 minutes drive to the park.

While you're in Cluster State Park, I suggest staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge at Custer State Park Resort or Bavarian Inn if you prefer staying outside the park.

For an overnight stay near Badlands National Park, I recommend staying at Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner). 

And for Deadwood, Bullock Hotel is a great thrilling option.

How to Get Around: A car is a must-have for a road trip in South Dakota — there is just no way around it except if you want to spend a lot of money on private tours. If you don't know where to rent a car from, you can compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations.

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a Mount Rushmore and Black Hills Full-Day Tour, or this Private Devils Tower Tour and Hike.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (especially in Badlands National park since it's an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini.

Road trip pro tip: Purchase an annual pass (AKA the America the Beautiful Pass) to save money on the entrance fees for the multiple locations in this itinerary run by the NPS!

How This South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Works

This South Dakota road trip route both starts and stops from Rapid City, SD. This is because the most beautiful and interesting parts of the state are all clustered in the Western part of the state.

While you could fly into Sioux Falls, most of the sights you want to see are clustered around Rapid City, so you should just make your way there after you fly in.

You will definitely need to rent a car if you are flying into South Dakota.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars as the best site to rent with in the USA – it searches dozens of rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare car rentals for your trip here!

South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary, Day By Day

Day 1: Rapid City

Start your journey in Rapid City.

Arriving in Rapid City, with a roadside attraction with the word 'rapid city' on it

Rapid City is at the threshold of western South Dakota, about an hour from the border with Wyoming. 

Rapid City is the best airport to fly into if you are visiting South Dakota from a state that is out of driving range. 

While it’s a small airport, it’s the most central to all the most worthwhile things on this South Dakota itinerary.

Of course, you could fly into a different South Dakota airport, like Sioux City, but you’ll have to drive to Rapid City anyway to start this road trip.

So, if possible, start in Rapid City, in the western part of the state. This is where you will find the most enticing attractions of South Dakota!

It is a great place to fuel up and acquire groceries/snacks for your South Dakota road trip… after all, a road trip is not complete without snacks!

Plus, you can explore museums and parks in the downtown of Rapid City, too, which is a fun city worthy of an afternoon of exploration.

Explore the downtown.

A view of downtown Rapid City buildings and trees

Once you’re in Downtown Rapid City, there are a few cool places you should make sure you check out during your quick whistle-stop tour of the city.

One such spot in downtown Rapid City is the Perfect Hanging Gallery. You will find prints and unique gifts to enjoy — they make great souvenirs, for yourself or others!

Additionally, Armadillos Ice Cream Shoppe is not to be missed. They have unique flavors not found in most other ice cream shops, so be sure to try out the “flavor of the day.” 

If they have their black cherry “flavor of the day”, get it! It is one of their most celebrated.

I also recommend that you explore the Berlin Wall Memorial where you can see a piece of the infamous wall…. yes, in Rapid City, South Dakota. The world is wild.

The Museum of Geology is also pretty cool, and free! You can see, dinosaur bones, gems, and minerals. Plus, they have a really interesting exhibit on the geology of the Badlands.

Check into your hotel for the night.

the lights of Rapid City after dark in downtown

In and around Rapid City, you will find some of the central South Dakota attractions. There are day hikes and historical points of interest around every corner.

Plus, it’s easy to venture out from here, deep into the Black Hills and east to Badlands National Park.

Rapid City is your doorway to the incredible things in store for your SD adventure.

After exploring the city, check into your hotel for the night so you can rest up for future adventures!

You could also make your way to Keystone, SD which would set you up in a prime position to start your day in Mount Rushmore bright and early!

Where to Stay in Keystone

BOUTIQUE | If you want a cozy and comfortable place to stay while still taking advantage of the mid-range budget, then I recommend staying at Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone. With comfortable beds, large rooms, a swimming pool, and a hot tub, you can’t find anything better at this price. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you prefer spending money on activities to accommodation, then Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore is a perfect choice. It’s located in a prime location with stunning mountain views, and it also has an indoor swimming pool and a jacuzzi perfect for unwinding after a busy day of exploring. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | Encompassed by the Black Hills forest, this highly-rated woody cozy cabin is the ultimate private escape in Keystone while still being near all the major attractions. The cabin gives the ultimate forest living — from waking up to deers, enjoying the fire pit at night to chilling on the deck, it can’t get any better than this. | Book on Vrbo

Day 2: Mount Rushmore to Wind Cave

Make your way to Mount Rushmore.

the faces of four presidents of the USA carved into a large mountain

Head west on Route 16 and enjoy the short 30-minute drive to view the most significant landmark of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore! You will have to veer off onto Route 244 to reach the park.

Mount Rushmore National Monument is a not-to-be-missed spot as you traverse in the footsteps of many thrill-seekers of the great American road trip. You will walk lovely boardwalks as you look up at the massive sculptures which have been carved into the side of the mountain.

You will see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

There is a restaurant on-site, Carvers Cafe, but the real gem is Memorial Team Ice Cream, where you can sample Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe.

A Note on Mount Rushmore

A further away view of the four faces of Mt Rushmore so that you can see the scale of the sculpture against mountain and trees

However interested you are in Mount Rushmore, it is important to note that this landmark is not without controversy. This article is a fascinating primer on the issues raised by the existence of Mount Rushmore.

To simplify an incredibly complex problem, there are two main issues at stake. Number one is the issue of the United States’ violation of their treaty with the Lakota (one of three Sioux nations). 

The story is a familiar one in US history. The USA agreed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which gave the Lakota tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills. Less than a decade later, after gold was discovered, the US broke their treaty and overtook the land. 

The Black Hills are an important site to the Lakota, and particularly, the mountain on which Mount Rushmore was carved holds particular significance to Native Americans.

The mountain now named “Mt Rushmore” was once called Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain by the Lakota. It is indescribably vital for you to remember that this was once a mountain sacred to the Lakota.

The other issue at stake with Mount Rushmore is the story it tells. It was designed by Gutzon Borglum, a man with ties to the KKK, the same man who dreamed up the Confederate version of Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain. 

So there’s that, plus the fact that Mount Rushmore celebrates four important but flawed presidents — two of whom owned slaves, and virtually all of whom displaced and disregarded Native Americans (including Lincoln) during their tenure– all while violating Native land rights.

This is not to condemn Mount Rushmore nor to say that it should not be visited, but that it should be visited with an open mind and critical eye, aware of the hypocrisies and nuances of the story, but also aware of its importance in our country’s history.

Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial under construction

I suggest that you balance out your time visiting a place like Mount Rushmore with sites that represent Native American culture, such as the Crazy Horse Memorial. 

You can reach the memorial by continuing west from Mount Rushmore on 244 and then heading south on 385.

Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest rock carving. Their mission states, “… to protect and preserve the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the North American Indians.”

It was conceptualized as a response to Mount Rushmore, a way of reminding people of the Native history of the land, a counterpoint to the four presidents on stolen land.

But it, too, has been met with controversy, and opinions about this memorial among the Lakota are split (this fascinating article explains some of the issues at stake.)

If you’re hungry, stop at Laughing Water Restaurant. Your visit to this restaurant benefits the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Head towards Wind Cave National Park.

inside one of the caves at wind cave national park. sedimentary rock layers in the cave.

As you head south on 385, you’ll make your way to Wind Cave National Park, which is the final stop on day 2 of your South Dakota road trip.

They offer cave tours in this unique cave formed by the wind. The tour will take you to an opening in the cave where you can feel the breeze that rips through this cave, which is pretty amazing!

The rock formations in the cave will also blow your mind, as well!

Find a place to stay the night.

Trees on the plains of Wind Cave National Park in the afternoon light with shadow

This park is a perfect place to camp for the night, too. There are spots open often. You could also stay in Buffalo Gap or Hot Springs.

If you’re not camping, there are a lot of accommodation options in nearby Custer, SD. 

I suggest El Dorado Ranch which is highly rated and just outside of Custer, close to Wind Cave National Park, about a 20-minute drive away.

Where to stay in Custer

RANCH | Get a chance to sleep on a ranch by staying at El Dorado Ranch. Seated on a 5-acre, this holiday home is large enough to host big families or groups of people who want to experience farm life while still having all the amenities they need in a home. Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | If you love rustic finished-off with modern amenities, then you’ll love this lovely log cabin. There are lots of cabins in Custer but this one is my personal favorite for its large deck that offers amazing views on Crazy Horse Monument not forgetting how cozy each room feels — I am talking exposed wooden beams, various pieces of art, cute lighting features, I could go on and on raving about this cabin. | Book on Vrbo

MOTEL | If you wondered why I was raving about the previous cabin and you just want to stick to the familiar options, then Bavarian Inn, Black Hills is what I recommend. With 2 swimming pools (one indoor, one outdoor), and a chic interior vibe, this motel has a French charm of overflowing flower pots that can’t be found in any of the previous options. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

Day 3: Incredibly Scenic Drives

Continue your incredible South Dakota road trip with some of the most scenic drives of your life.

The Needles highway in South Dakota open road around rocks

The following roads are going to blow your mind. Now we’re really getting into the good stuff of this South Dakota itinerary!

One thing I’d like to note, it is virtually impossible to drive the entirety of these roads without doing a little backtracking, but I promise, it is worth every mile.

Optional: Make a stop at Jewel Cave National Monument.

It’s a little out of the way, but if you’re interested in caves and geology and the Wind Caves wasn’t enough cave action for you, Jewel Cave National Monument is located about 20 miles west of Custer.

It’s a beautiful cave system that you can take a tour of by lantern light, but it isn’t the best for those with a fear of the dark or for claustrophobia!

Drive the Needles Highway.

A road going through the Needles highway

From Wind Cave, head north on 385 and pick up Route 87- the Needles Highway. This is by far one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on, aside from the scenic byway in Custer State Park (your next stop).

You will pass Sylvan Lake and the highway’s namesake, the Needle’s Eye, a unique rock formation. You will also pass the Cathedral Spires.

Keep an eye out for Black Elk Peak on this road, which is the highest point in South Dakota!

The spires are a significant rock climbing destination in the US. Plus, you can hit the trail in this spot to get up and personal with these remarkable formations.

Take the Iron Mountain Road to Custer State Park.

Three pronghorn aka american antelope in a field

From the Needles Highway, you will hop onto Iron Mountain Road (Route 16-A) initially. 

You will head west on 16-A, then back on 385 North, where you will then go right onto Needles Highway again (87 South). 

Then pick up 16-A East again, where you will enter Custer State Park and can spend the night.

This route is kind of a roundabout way to get to Custer State Park. However, it will allow you to see all that these scenic routes have to offer.

Iron Mountain Road will wind you through glorious tunnels carved right through the mountains. I’ve never been on roads quite like these.

They like to describe Iron Mountain Road as 17 miles, 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtails, three tunnels, two splits, and four presidents.

Tip: You can enjoy a portion of Iron Mountain Road as you enter the park and then use it to exit the next day to see the entire road.

After exploring a portion of the road, enjoy the scenic route that winds through Custer State Park, too, for more tunnels and endless wildlife. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is 70 miles of engaging wonder.

You will 100% see bison and may even get stuck in a “bison jam” — the South Dakota version of a traffic jam — as the park is packed with them! 

Note: Do not get closer than 25 yards of bison (and 50 is safer). Take photos with a zoom lens.

There will also be a plethora of adorable prairie dogs. For even more animal-spotting, such as pronghorns and wild burros, tack on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of your favorite days road tripping South Dakota!

Choose one of the many camping or cabin spots around the park to enjoy. Hit the hiking trails, swimming, fishing, or enjoy some time just straight chilling. It’s a great way to end the day.

Plus, when you wake in the morning, you will have the chance to head back out on the scenic roads as you make your way to another absolutely stunning South Dakota destination.

Day 4: Badlands National Park

Make your way towards the Badlands through the Black Hills.

Driving through the Badlands along Sage Creek Road, seeing hills of beautiful colors

Badlands National Park is your destination for your fourth day on the road in South Dakota! 

But first, you will finish adventuring on the scenic roads of the Black Hills National Forest before you head east.

Hop back on 16-A, Iron Mountain Road, and take it all the way up to Route 16. Then take the 16 Bypass to pick up Route 44 east.

Take a left from 44 to hit Sage Creek Road. This is another beautiful drive with spacious prairie views! There are more prairie dogs and bison that call this area home. You may also get to see Badlands bighorn sheep, too!

Note: Sage Creek Road is a dirt road, so take it cautiously, especially if you have a low-clearance vehicle!

Arrive at Badlands and take a scenic drive through the park.

Driving the badlands loop road, winding street on a sunny day in South Dakota road tripping

You will enter the park at the Pinnacles Entrance Station. From there, hop on the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road to enjoy many overlooks and incredible short hikes. 

Go check out our article on the Badlands for an extensive list of recommendations of what to do in the park!

One of the coolest things about the Badlands is that it is an Open Hike park. That means you can hike virtually anywhere unless otherwise stated. 

It also gives open reign for camping!

You can camp wherever you like in the park as long as it is half a mile from any trailhead or road. You should never camp within 100 feet of any water source.

There are also two campgrounds in the park, plus a lodge. Cedar Pass Lodge also has a restaurant that is open seasonally.

If you want, you can find free dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The camping is located just north of the Pinnacles Entrance Station. Once you exit the park boundary, make a right onto the first dirt road. You will find a plethora of free campsites here.

One crucial thing to note: The Badlands are named so because of the rapidly changing weather. It can bring rain and high winds at the drop of a dime. If you are going to camp, make sure you have a very sturdy tent.

Day 5: Wall Drug Store and Other South Dakota historical sites.

See a spectacular Badlands sunrise, then make your way to Wall.

Sun rising over the Pinnacles of Badlands National park

Because of the colorful majesty of the Badlands Pinnacles, you can bet it will be one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life!

The Big Badlands Overlook is an excellent spot for sunrise. Also, the Castle Trail or the Door Trail will bring excellent sunrise views.

The Castle Trail is about 10 miles out and back, but you don’t have to hike the whole thing to get the views you want. The Door Trail is 0.8 miles, giving way to a nice and short sunrise hike.

Trail sign leading to different viewpoints in badlands NP

From your glorious morning views, stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn a bit of history of the Badlands. 

Then, head north from the Northeast Entrance Station on Route 240. There, you can make a stop at the Minute Man Missle National Historic Site.

This historic site once was a major player in the Cold War Era. There are still over 1000 nuclear weapons under the ground of the vast prairie. When you come here, you will be able to learn about the history of the Cold War and check out the Delta-09 missile.

Stop in the town of Wall, home to Wall Drug Store, a historic roadside attraction famous for its free ice water and delicious donuts!

Then, begin heading west on I-90 to Sturgis where you can pick up US Alt-14, Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

Hop on US Alt-14 at Sturgis and begin heading northwest.

Sturgis is best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which was started by Native American bikers in 1938. It usually happens in August. 

For obvious reasons during the pandemic, we don’t suggest you attend (and you might want to stay clear of Sturgis for now), but keep it in mind for future travels.

You might want to check out the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame if you’re into motorcycles!

Personally, my favorite stop in Sturgis is Uncle Louie’s Diner! It offers by far the best pancakes in the state. Feel like a challenge? In this case, you should tackle on Uncle Louie’s Challenge.

“Eat a 6-pound burger and fries meal within 30 minutes, get it for free, and a t-shirt.” No one has ever completed this challenge. Classic.

You could also continue another 20 minutes on from Sturgis to the beautiful Bear Butte State Park.

Enjoy Gold Rush history with a stop in Deadwood.

The historic downtown of Deadwood South Dakota with bars and restuarants

Deadwood was established in 1876 when gold was discovered there. It is one of the most quintessential Gold Rush Era towns of the United States.

Deadwood was once home to some of the most infamous of the Wild West outlaws. You can find the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, among others. You can even visit some of their graves at Mount Moriah Cemetary.

You can also enjoy the many luxuries that Deadwood provides, such as breweries, wineries, and spas.

Be sure to visit Buffalo Bodega Complex, the oldest saloon in South Dakota. You will find an Old West experience as you gamble and gobble down some juicy steak. You can undoubtedly spend a night here as they have a super active nightlife.

Deadwood is a great place to spend the night. There are numerous hotels and campgrounds to choose from.

For those brave enough, a stay at Bullock Hotel will surely excite your senses, and your nerves, as this hotel is said to be haunted! Supposedly, it is haunted by the ghost of the former sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock, who built the hotel in 1895.

It has been said one can smell the smoke of his cigar from time to time. It is also said that there was a hanging in room 211. Sometimes the faint figure of the person who passed can be seen.

Day 6: Black Hills

Go north to Spearfish and enjoy scenic Route US Alt-14.

Waterfall in green oasis in Spearfish, South Dakota

Before you head northwest, grab a hangover cure in Deadwood at Nugget Saloon for “the world’s best Bloody Mary.”

In the morning, you may also want to hop on the George S. Mickelson Trail before hopping back on the road. It is always nice to get a nice stretch of the legs before spending a lot of time in a car.

You can make your way along the remainder of the Spearfish Canyon Byway scenic drive.

Spearfish Canyon Byway (US Alt-14) will be a great way to fill your scenic road trip desires. Take in the beauty of the Black Hills and all the great things South Dakota has to offer.

It will take you through a beautiful canyon with the option to view lakes and Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls (located 2 miles off the highway up a dirt road), and Spearfish Falls. Plus, you can see areas where they filmed Dances with Wolves.

There are numerous campgrounds, including the Spearfish Campground which lends itself to lovely creekside camping.

Day 7: Devil’s Tower & Back to Rapid City

Take an excursion to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

The mysterious rock formation of Devils Tower in Wyoming near South Dakota

While the Devil’s Tower is not in South Dakota, it is a worthwhile detour on your journey.

This structure was clearly once a volcano. Adventurers from around the world come here to challenge themselves on the rock climbing routes!

The Devil’s Tower was once known by natives as Bear Lodge. It was a major meeting place for many of the tribes in the area, including the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. 

Each tribe has a unique story about Bear Lodge. It was often a place to gather to honor the Great Spirit.

While it is not in South Dakota, it is only an hour from Spearfish and is just too cool to pass up!

To get there, you will take I-90 West to Route 14 West. On the way, you will want to stop at Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, which is easily accessible right off I-90. It is a famous landmark, a sinkhole to be precise.

Known for an old Native American hunting tradition of chasing buffalo to their demise into the hole, you will find this stop quite interesting. 

The area was once home to the Shoshone, Hidatsa, Crow, Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne tribes, all of whom have contributed greatly to the area of the region.

You will also pass through the town of Sundance, WY. It is a great frontier town to make a stop in. You can even do some hiking in Bearlodge Mountain Recreation Area if you so choose.

After making your way to the Devil’s Tower, you can head back right where you started in Rapid City if you are finishing your trip up.

Whether you will continue on west from Wyoming to Yellowstone and Grand Teton or fly back home from Rapid City. Either way, you will have successfully seen the best of what South Dakota has to offer.

***

the pinnacles of the badlands of south dakota

South Dakota is an enchanting land of mountain peaks, prairie land, and pinnacles. You will see uncountable amounts of native flora and fauna. You will enjoy lakes, creeks, and waterfalls. Yes, South Dakota has it all!

As you travel through South Dakota, you’ll see the interplay of Amerian history writ large: the long, deep-rooted Native American connections to the land meeting with the “Wild West” history of pioneers. 

Monuments such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse speak to the uncomfortable truths of Westward Expansion, and it’s important to be mindful of what was lost — lives, land, languages, lore — as a result of European-American settlement on the Americas.

As always, I urge you to be conscientious of the land and its history. It is truly your honor and privilege to be able to travel, so approach it with an open heart and open mind.

Your Road Trip Checklist

road tripping through the green forest of south dakota

Before embarking, get your oil changed if needed, and check your tires and fluid levels. Here are a few things you should have in your car for a road trip:

  • One gallon of emergency water per person
  • Jumper cables, or better yet, a portable car jump starter. I highly recommend you get one with an air compressor and USB charging capabilities
  • Snacks, snacks, and more snacks!
  • Cooler for perishables
  • Metallic sunscreens to keep your car cool when parked
  • Knife
  • Tire plugs
  • First-aid kit
  • Road atlas — National Geographic makes a great one which shows the public land and camping spots.
  • Books and games
  • Emergency supplies for stranding: such as chains and tracks to help you get out if you are stuck.
  • Road flares
  • Extra clothes and blankets

If you get stranded:

  • Make sure your car can be seen by anyone coming to help. This is where road flares will come in handy. You can also keep the internal dome light on to help yourself be seen if it is nighttime. It doesn’t use a whole lot of battery power.
  • If your tires are stuck in the snow or mud, attempt to shovel them out. You can also place road salt under your tires to help melt snow. Tracks will also help will mud/snow.
  • Stay with your car. Heading out to seek help in cold/hot conditions can lead to hypothermia, frostbite, or heat-related injuries.
  • Be conservative with fuel, and fill up often, especially on long stretches of road. You don’t want to run out of gas.

Don’t forget travel insurance!
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7 Days in Puerto Rico: Itinerary for a Magical Trip

Ah, Puerto Rico. It is appropriately called “La Isla del Encanto” — in English, the Island of Enchantment.

This small Caribbean island is vibrant and truly enchanting with its stunning beaches and wonderful people. Puerto Ricans are welcoming, lively, and resilient.

Puerto Rico is not always an easy place to live — scars from hurricanes, colonization, and poverty will tell that story — but it is a beautiful one.

Above all, Puerto Rico is alive. You will find incredible street art and the rumble of music on the streets of San Juan. You will be amazed as you snorkel above magnificent coral reefs with colorful fish darting below. The food is delicious, especially for fans of mariscos (seafood), plantains, and tropical fruits.

While Puerto Rico is a beautiful place, there is quite a complex history. While we can’t cover the subject with any hope of comprehensiveness in a short blog post like this one, we’ll quickly try to introduce it.

PLANNING FOR PUERTO RICO AT A GLANCE:  

When to Go: Puerto Rico has a beautiful tropical weather almost throughout the entire year but it's between December and April that it shines the most. 

It's perfect for relaxing on the beach and participating in other major activities, this is Puerto Rico's high season so you can expect prices to be high. 

If you want to beat the crowds and pay a bit less, then you can consider visiting between mid-April to June. Avoid late summer as this is hurricane season.

Where to Stay: Puerto Rico is beautiful on every turn but for this itinerary, I recommend staying in these areas —  San Juan, Fajardo, and Vieques. 

In San Juan I recommend staying at Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton for a luxurious experience, O: Live Boutique Hotel if you love Mediterranean-inspired details and Nomada Urban Beach Hostel for budget travelers. 

When in Fajardo, I suggest staying at a private villa at the Rio Mar Beach Resort if you love staying in villas, St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort for a luxurious stay in a resort-style hotel, or Surfing Turtle Inn if you're looking for a budget-friendly hostel.  

In Vieques, opt for Finca Victoria for a boutique eco farm stay, Tranquility by the Sea for a seaside cottage, and Lazy Hostel for a budget-friendly hostel.

How to Get Around: While driving in Puerto Rico can be a bit tricky (especially for nervous drivers) since drivers can be a bit aggressive here, I think it's worth it. I like the freedom that comes with deciding where and when to make a stop without feeling rushed or delayed. 

Alternatively, you can choose to take tours but that can get expensive pretty fast. If you do choose to rent a car, compare car rentals and prices from hereBest Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a food tour, a craft rum cocktail tour, or Old San Juan Sunset Cruise.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Since you'll spend plenty of time on the beach, I recommend taking this Dock & Bay travel towel which is 100% made from recycled materials. You'll need a swimsuit to fully enjoy the beaches -- this is my favorite swimwear  -- and of course sunscreen -- I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you and also harmless for marine life! 

A Quick History of Puerto Rico

Beautiful trees creating a shaded canopy over the boardwalk Paseo de la Princesa

The island that is now known as Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taíno people. Their name for the island was Borikén, which meant “land of the brave lord”, in their native tongue, Arawak.

Today, many Puerto Ricans identify themselves as “boriqua”, the adjective deriving from the land’s original name. When you consider the fact that Puerto Rico translates to “rich port” in Spanish, you can see how the Spanish saw the land: a place to be conquered and looted, rather than respected.

Unfortunately for the Taíno people, Christopher Columbus made his way to Puerto Rico in 1493. Like many other Caribbean nations, the Taíno way of life was changed drastically by this unwelcome arrival. Columbus placed the island under an encomienda system, similar to the feudal systems of Europe, which essentially enslaved the Taíno people on their own land, forcing them to work in gold mines and on plantations.

The Taíno population quickly started declining due to the introduction of European diseases that never existed on the island previously, such as smallpox, measles, and typhus, as well as through the harsh conditions of slavery.

Who remained of the Taíno people were subject to cultural genocide practices, such as the Complementary Declaration of July 28th, 1513, which “freed” only the Taíno who were “clothed, Christian, and capable”, further chipping away at Taíno identity.

By 1530, the effect of 40 years of European colonization had taken an enormous toll. The original population of an estimated 50,000 Taíno dwindled down to just 1,148 survivors in the 1530 census. The remaining Taíno were still oppressed, and many Taíno women intermarried with the Spanish conquistadors and assimilated.

There’s no denying that the Taíno people as a distinct Indigenous group are a shadow of what they used to be. However, Taíno blood runs in the veins of many Puerto Ricans, and Taíno identity is being shaped and defined by the descendants of these Indigenous people living today.

There are ancient sites all over the island to visit and honor these unforgotten people. There are a few towns in Puerto Rico that still retain their Taíno names: for example, Yauco and Utuado.

After over 300 years of Spanish colonization, the United States claimed Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Today, the questions of statehood and Puerto Rican independence are thorny ones, and the path forward for Puerto Rico is not entirely clear.

Today, many Puerto Ricans call the island Borinquen, to honor their Taíno roots and acknowledge the Taíno, Caribbean, African, and Spanish influences on the island’s ethnicity and culture in a way that is more inclusive than the Spanish-given name of Puerto Rico.

How this Puerto Rico Itinerary Works

a mural of the puerto rican flag surrounded by colorful walls and cobblestones

Now that you have a bit of knowledge of the history of the island, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this Puerto Rico itinerary.

The following suggestions only cover a small portion of the east side of the island, since this itinerary only covers 7 days in Puerto Rico.

We’ve highlighted all the most popular touristic hotspots in Puerto Rico and given some off-the-beaten-path suggestions where it makes sense to best maximize the time on your trip to Puerto Rico.

However, if you have more than a week in Puerto Rico, we strongly suggest you make your way around the entire island; you will be amazed at the variety of climates. Explore desolate salt flats, lush rainforest, coral reefs, mountain waterfalls, lakes, and countless beaches that would make a postcard weep.

What to Pack for Puerto Rico

Allison wearing a swimsuit in Puerto Rico
Enjoying Puerto Rico in a cute high-waisted swimsuit!

I’m in the process of creating a full Puerto Rico packing list, but here are 5 things not to forget before your trip.

An awesome travel towel. A proper travel towel is a game-changer. I’m not talking about a sad little microfiber square that might as well be a washcloth. I’m talking a true microfiber beach towel that serves you just as well on a beach day as it does after a long shower. I’m obsessed with this classic red and white striped travel towel from Dock & Bay, which easily knocks off sand in a single shake-out and is made of 100% recycled materials. Order it on Amazon here.

Bathing suits you love. On an island trip, you’ve got to have swimwear you can stand behind! I love wearing a two-piece, but I hate feeling bloated while I travel and feeling awkward in my swimwear after too much mofongo. Solution? High-waisted swimsuits! I love this one, and this one is a great plus-size option with a high waist and a classic shape. I would bring 3 swimsuits for one week in Puerto Rico so I never have to suffer the indignity of putting on a wet bathing suit. Ick.

Reef-safe sunscreen. This is so essential! The future of marine life in Puerto Rico depends on the actions visitors and locals take now, so do your part to keep Puerto Rico’s reefs pristine for generations to come. I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you, and harmless for the animals who call Puerto Rico’s waters their home!

Comfortable travel sandals. I will be buried with my Birkenstocks, or you can try to pry them from my cold, dead hands. Dramatic? Maybe. But they’re a must for travel! I love the Birkenstock Gizeh leather thong style personally, but the classic two-buckle Arizona slides are really cute as well. These are the exact shoes I have and love!

One tip, though: Break them in for 2-3 days before you travel, as they form to the exact shape of your foot! They’ll be slightly uncomfortable at first, but nothing major (I just bought a second pair and they fit like a glove after a day of use), but they’re not shoes I’d want to walk around a cobblestoned city in on their first day!

Chemical-free insect repellent: Like reef-safe sunscreen, it’s important that the bug spray you use won’t harm the sensitive ecosystems of Puerto Rico, particularly when you get in the water! A simple lemon eucalyptus spray like this will keep most mosquitos away without the harsh chemicals which can mess up delicate ecosystems.

Where to Stay in Puerto Rico

This Puerto Rico itinerary has you staying overnight in three separate destinations: San Juan, Fajardo, and Vieques. We’ll give you some suggestions for each!

San Juan

the colorful buildings of old san juan in a rainbow of colors

BOUTIQUE | I love the Small Luxury Hotels of the World brand and I’ve stayed at many a property of theirs over the years! They have a gorgeous offering called O:Live Boutique Hotel located in vibey Condado that I’m looking forward to staying at on my next trip to the island! Gorgeously designed rooms with Mediterranean-inspired details, rain showers with hydromassage jets, a roof terrace with an infinity pool with views of the Condado Lagoon? Swoon. Sold.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

LUXURY | Nothing says luxury quite like the Ritz-Carlton brand! At Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton, we’re talking on-site golf course, multiple swimming pools, 4 on-site restaurants, and spa and fitness centers. Plus, some rooms even have their own private plunge pools for the ultimate luxury vacation! It’s not cheap, that’s for sure, but it’s by far the best choice if you’re looking for a blowout accommodation choice for a special occasion (or just a really baller vacation).
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

BUDGET | Looking for a hostel option? Nomada Urban Beach Hostel is a fantastic choice for travelers on a budget, located near Isla Verde Beach. Options include dorm-style rooms and private rooms. The dorms are modern with amenities like curtains and hangers allotted for each bunk bed: little touches that frequent hostel-goers are sure to heave a sigh of relief over. There’s also a roof terrace for travelers to relax on and chitchat.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

Fajardo

The beautiful blue waters and fine sands of the beaches in Fajardo Puerto Rico

VILLA | If you want to stay in a villa, there are some great choices in this area! This charming private villa at the Rio Mar Beach Resort in nearby Rio Grande is a great choice for people who want to spread out and enjoy a larger space without paying a huge price. It can sleep up to six guests in its one bedroom, two sofa bed configuration. The villa also has two bathrooms, a full-size kitchen and dining area. It’s not fancy, but it’s spacious and charming.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

LUXURY | If you want resort-style luxury, the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is a phenomenal option about 12 miles north of Fajardo. Amenities include a golf course, ocean-view pool, spa center, yoga and pilates classes, and best of all? Every room includes butler service for that special ultra-luxury touch, plus either gorgeous garden or ocean views.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

BUDGET | For a cute hostel experience, go outside of Fajardo 5 miles to Luquillo, a charming beachy area with lots of great food. The Surfing Turtle Inn offers dorms and private rooms at affordable prices for the area. Dorms and rooms are fairly basic, but offer all the standard budget amenities at a reasonable price, with a clean reputation.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

Vieques

the sun rising in vieques puerto rico

BOUTIQUE | Eco-friendly and chic, Finca Victoria is the place to go for a stunning, Instagrammable retreat-style hotel at an affordable cost. It has beautiful treehouse-inspired rooms with soaringly high ceilings and exposed beams, loads of natural light, and vintage farmhouse details in the furnishings. Daily free yoga classes are included, as well as a delicious Caribbean breakfast made with Ayurvedic principles in mind. There are loads of thoughtful touches like hammocks on the balcony, outdoor showers, and small kitchenettes.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

COTTAGE | The lovely Tranquility by the Sea offers a 3-bedroom oceanside cottage perfect for families and groups at a good value. It’s not fancy, but it is well-appointed and spacious with plenty of room to enjoy a vacation home style rental. A full kitchen, washer & dryer, and a wraparound veranda are some of the best perks of this rental. Best of all? You can often see wild horses grazing right from your window.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

BUDGET | While the decor is definitely nothing to write home about, if you want a cheap and clean place to lay your head at night, Lazy Hostel is a good choice. It has a social vibe and it offers a variety of room types including dorms and private rooms. It’s good for solo travelers and anyone on a budget in Puerto Rico.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com

A Few Final Tips About Visiting Puerto Rico

the ocean at el morro in old san juan

A few quick tips before you arrive on the island!

Cell service can be spotty. So make sure you download maps of the areas you are in to be sure you can find your way. That means you should also keep your phone charged.

Google Maps are not always accurate either. I try to cross-reference with Maps.me and always check my accommodations or destinations to see if they have alternate directions.

Anti-theft bags are great for San Juan. While Puerto Rico is overall safe, San Juan is a large city like any other, and you should use caution. When traveling in cities, I bring my PacSafe CitySafe backpack — it’s chic, sleek, and almost theft-proof, with things like double-locking zippers and mesh slash-proof construction.

The driving in Puerto Rico can be wild. If you’re not used to it… watch out! The right lane is the fast lane, the left lane is the slow lane, and merging onto highways via the right lane is practically a form of cardio. While renting a car in Puerto Rico will give you freedom, it can also be stressful. I suggest a handful of guided tours on this Puerto Rico itinerary so that you can reduce your driving and focus on relaxing, while also having your adventure improved by local guide knowledge.

Watch for mosquitos. Puerto Rico has a tropical climate and therefore a handful of tropical diseases you don’t have to worry about in most of the U.S. mainland. Dengue fever, Zika, chikungunya, and other diseases are transmissible through mosquito bites. Wear mosquito repellent during day and night, and be especially careful around sunrise and sunset, when mosquito activity is at its peak. Reapply and wear long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothing at this time for the most coverage.

To Rent or Not to Rent?

a red car at sunset on a beach in puerto rico

We’ve done a lot of the hard work for you in putting together this itinerary for Puerto Rico, but there’s one big decision you need to make: to rent a car or not to rent a car?

As I mentioned above, driving in Puerto Rico can be difficult. Drivers are a bit on the aggressive side, and the fact that the right lane is the fast lane and the left lane is the slow lane can be a real mind#(*@ for anxious drivers like myself.

I’ve been to Puerto Rico twice, once without a rental car and once with. I was able to adjust to the driving, but there were definitely some heart-pounding moments! Ultimately, I liked the freedom it gave me, though I didn’t enjoy driving on the tiny streets of Old San Juan.

There are tours and taxis you can take which make having a car unnecessary; plus, you ought to leave your rental behind when you go to Vieques, as the car spots on the ferry are limited and are needed by locals. Plus, many rental companies do not allow it.

However, tour and taxi costs can add up, so you’ll want to do some cost benefit analysis there. Renting a car likely skews cheaper, but it will mean some headache. Tours and taixs will likely skew a bit more expensive, but be more relaxing.

If you do choose to rent a car, there are ways to get a good deal on your rental. I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental from San Juan Airport here.

Puerto Rico Itinerary: 7 Days on the Island of Enchantment

Day 1: Explore Old San Juan

runners in Old San Juan against three colorful houses

Old San Juan is one of the most lively areas of the islands!

The colorful and stunning architecture reflects the early days of San Juan shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, and some of the earliest buildings dating back to 1508. 

The historic forts and old city walls are especially impressive. Beyond the architecture, San Juan has some of the best eating in Puerto Rico, so bring your appetite!

Start your day off with a cup of coffee.

You’re in Puerto Rico, so it’d be a shame to start the day without a proper café con leche. Puerto Rico is full of coffee farms so be prepared for fresh, delicious coffee that’s local and delicious.

To indulge your coffee craving, head to Cuatro Sombras. This is the coffee house of choice if you are looking to try locally-grown coffee. Enjoy shade-grown coffee from the mountains of Yauco in El Yunque National Park.

Their food menu includes pastries, breakfast plates, sandwiches, and paninis. It is the perfect place to start the day and fuel up with some locally grown coffee.

But resist the urge to overindulge here — next up on this Puerto Rico itinerary is enjoying a delicious walking food tour to get a sense of Puerto Rican flavors.

a cup of coffee with some latte art

Taste the flavors of Old San Juan.

On my first day in a destination, I love to do a food tour for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s a great way to learn what you like and what you don’t — as well as what you haven’t sampled yet! — so you can order tastier and more adventurous dishes on your travels.

It’s also a great way to ask a local for their point of view on the best restaurants in San Juan, so you can plan future meals and make sure you don’t miss out on any can’t-miss foodie experiences.

This highly-rated food & walking tour will provide you with the opportunity to enjoy Puerto Rican cuisine and do some more coffee tasting. Plus they provide a cocktail, if you don’t mind imbibing on the early side (you are on vacation, after all!).

This tour will take you through the streets of San Juan while you admire the architecture and learn about the history of this colonial city and how San Juan came to be. It is a well-rounded (and delicious) Puerto Rican cultural experience and a great way to start off a weeklong Puerto Rico itinerary.

Book your food tour online here!

a sampler plate of delicious puerto rican food including fried snacks and pulled pork and rice

Relax on the beach in Condado or Isla Verde.

From there, you may want to rest your legs for a bit and relax on the beach and digest all that delicious Puerto Rican food!

Head to Condado Beach to experience the beach, enjoy the view, and relax…. plus there is a lot of shopping in Condado for those wanting to explore more and find some Puerto Rican souvenirs to take home.

However, Condado Beach is in one of the most built-up areas of San Juan. If you would like a more laidback Puerto Rican beach experience, head to Isla Verde Beach, otherwise known as Playa Isla Verde in Carolina.

There are multiple bars and restaurants along the beach here which is how it is done at many popular beaches in PR!

the turquoise waters of condado beach with soft sand, lots of blue umbrellas on the beach, people, and buildings surrounding the urban beach

Enjoy San Juan at night one of three ways.

No matter what you choose, you’ll want to eat a big dinner before you explore more of San Juan. This choice is up to you. Both Condado and Isla Verde provide plenty of opportunities to eat well, or perhaps your food tour guide gave you a can’t-miss recommendation for where to eat. If they did… heed it!

There are a few different things you can do to cap off your first night in Puerto Rico. One suggestion is to take a craft rum cocktail tour, to learn why Puerto Rico is the rum capital of the world!

You will taste many delicious rum-centric beverages while exploring the colorful nightlife of Old San Juan. You will get to experience a variety of bars in the city and learn about the drinking culture of Puerto Rico. Get to know the city and its history while getting your buzz on!

Book your rum cocktail tour here!

lit up fort of el morro at night with a dark blue sky

It also must be said that viewing the forts at night is especially impressive! Walk from Castillo San Cristobal to Castillo Felipe del Morro. Enjoy the sound of the ocean while taking in the impressive view.

There are multiple historic citadels, old city walls, and forts in this area, representing the previous Spanish military presence in the former Spanish colony. Some of these looming structures date back to the 16th century and are in remarkably good shape for their age.

Add Paseo Del Morro to your night exploration to continue along on a boardwalk flanked with the city walls on one side and the bay on the other. It runs into Paseo de la Princesa which will allow for you to be able to do almost a full loop around the old city walls.

Day 2: Do it all in San Juan

Hopefully, you will wake up well-rested for another stellar day in San Juan! This is the last full day in San Juan on this PR itinerary, so let’s make the most of it.

I highly suggest you start the day with an early morning dive if you’re certified, or do some snorkeling. Then we’ll explore a bit more of San Juan to close out the day.

Start the day with a fantastic breakfast.

This means fueling up with something light like fruit or a pastry with some more local coffee before you hit the water.

Check out Cafe Cola’o. This is a woman-owned coffee shop that features coffee from Utuado, Adjuntas, and Ponce. Cafe Regina is another spectacular spot representing Puerto Rican agriculture. Sample starfruit jam, locally made ice cream, and excellent coffee.

Head to Escambrón Beach.

One of the best ways to get around the city and get the heart pumping is to rent an electric scooter. Skootel is a new app-based scooter rental service in PR. You can find it on the Bird app. The options are varied as to how you will want to take advantage of your scooter rental. 

Head to Escambrón Beach any way you like. We suggest a scooter, of course! You may want to head out and go the long way to view the forts again, this time by day.

Old San Juan is so small that any way you choose to get to the beach will be relatively fast and easy to navigate. It is, of course, very fast if you drive, if you were brave enough to rent a car.

Playa El Escambrón is a great spot to enjoy the beach for anyone not wanting to snorkel or dive. However, the shining star of Escambrón is the snorkeling and diving adventures that await you under the sea!

Be prepared for sea turtles, coral reefs, and calm waters. When you explore Escambrón Marine Park, you will find incredible sunken structures throughout.

Picture the columns of Atlantis, statues, and a sunken “fish protection wall”. This is a great spot to try scuba diving for the first time with its easy beach access and shallow waters.

Please remember to use reef-safe sunscreen any time you get in the water. The future health of the marine ecosystems of Puerto Rico is dependent upon it! I use and love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s great for your skin and for the marine environment.

snorkeling at escambron beach

Have a delicious brunch.

After you have had your fill of the water, it’s time for one of the best brunches of your life!

You will be very pleased to refuel at Waffle-Era Tea Room. This place is the ultimate breakfast spot. They feature an extensive list of savory and sweet waffles, plus salads and bowls.

Of course, you can also enjoy an extensive tea menu! Think fragrant earl grey, peony, or lemongrass chai. There are all kinds of varieties of tea, plus there are mimosas, bloody marys, and cocktails…. it’s even encouraged to spike your coffee (hey, vacation, right?). It’s a grand reward after you have spent time in the water and sun!

Check out the beautiful shops of Old San Juan.

The afternoon will be your chance to check out some of the unique shopping experiences Old San Juan has to offer and support the local businesses.

One such location is at the enchanted library, called Quimera, Café Literario. You will mostly find books about spiritual development, fairy tales, and magic, though, this magical bookstore-meets-café is much more than that!

The Poet’s Passage is just down the way from Quimera. It is self-described to be a “living museum of poetry and local art”. This is certainly true. They also host spoken-word and music events, and because it’s Puerto Rico, land of delicious coffee, there is a café here too. 

Looking for a souvenir? Check out Seafoam for locally made rare jewelry. El Gapon hat shop is a great spot to check out, too.

Take a sunset sail.

As the day begins nearing a close, head on out for your sunset sailing tour!

The meeting place is between Pier 3 and 4 at San Juan Bay at 5:30 PM (though double-check as varying sunset times throughout the year may impact this).

Silhouette of a sailing boat at sunset in the Caribbean in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Climb aboard the Amazing Grace, a sailing vessel dating back to the American Revolutionary War. Enjoy beverages, cocktails, and appetizers as you cruise San Juan Bay viewing historic buildings like La Fortaleza, the Governor’s mansion… plus you can enjoy local music aboard the vessel. The views are stunning on this small-group tour!

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring your ID!

Book your tour here: Old San Juan Sunset Cruise

Have a delicious dinner.

After your happy hour aboard the Amazing Grace, it is time for dinner in San Juan. There are some world-class restaurants in San Juan ranging from upscale to casual fare of all kinds.

If you are looking for a casual experience, you should check out Lote23 in Santurce. This gastro park will provide you top-notch fare from some of the best chefs in Puerto Rico!

Each stand has something unique and bound to be mouth-watering. Enjoy mofongo (mashed green plantains) at El Cuchifrito or Puerto Rican pork shoulder sandwiches at Pernilería Los Proceres. Plus you will find poke bowls, fried chicken, cocktails, and more.

a plate of mofongo (mashed plantains) with a side of a dipping sauce

Head home early or continue the night out.

If you are looking for more to do after dinner you may want to experience the Condado nightlife.

Condado has the best nightlife scene on the island. There are many cool bars, lounges, and clubs. We love Oceano for its rooftop views and excellent outdoor seating, La Terraza for cheap margaritas and reggaeton, and Red Coral Lounge for the artwork and ambiance, especially the giant coral sculpture.

This is the spot if you want to go out dancing and stay out late… but be sure to get some rest. You have another jam-packed day ahead of you!

Day 3: Journey to the rainforest

Today is all about El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States! It’s an absolute must-visit on any Puerto Rico itinerary.

Getting to El Yunque by car is absolutely doable! It’s about a 45-minute or 1-hour drive, depending on traffic. However, Puerto Rico driving is not for everyone, so we’ve also vetted and suggested a tour that will show you around El Yunque stress-free.

a waterfall plunging into a pool in the rainforest of puerto rico called el yunque, a must on your 7 day puerto rico itinerary

Grab a tasty breakfast with a side of history.

Start the day off with a healthy breakfast steeped in history at St Germain, which is a great spot for vegetarians especially!

You will dine in a historic building that was once home to Don Pedro Albizu Campos, widely considered a hero in Puerto Rico.

He was the leader of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party from 1933 to 1965, leading uprisings to overthrow the United States government. He was imprisoned for many years of his life. Dine at this restaurant and pay homage to the struggle that Puerto Rico has lived through due to colonization.

Head out to the rainforest.

Once you are satiated, it is time for your rainforest and waterslide tour in El Yunque National Forest! Yes, this tour takes you on natural waterslides — nothing manmade about them! We suggest going by tour, but we’ll also include how to get there on your own below as well.

It is an insanely awesome, one-of-a-kind adventure. It is not every day you get to experience this! Plus you can cliff jump, rope swing, and bask beneath waterfalls. There is also a stop at a restaurant on this tour where you can Puerto Rican cuisine.

Book your El Yunque Rainforest & Waterslide Tour!

the natural waterslides going through the rocks near luquillo puerto rico

If you have rented a vehicle, you can make this trip without a tour. You will want to head to Las Pailas in Luquillo. There is a $5 parking fee. The lot is in a local’s yard at these GPS coordinates: 18.337856, -65.731060.

Follow the path from the parking area down to Río Pitahaya where you will venture to find the two waterslides.

Once you have exerted yourself head over to La Muralla, located nearby, right in El Yunque. Get simple, delicious Puerto Rican food and fresh coconut water to recharge before you head back towards San Juan for dinner.

the trees in the rainforest of el yunque national forest

Walk around San Juan a bit before dinner.

Before dinner, you may have some time for resting, or you can tour more of San Juan.

One fun way to see the city is to do a DIY mural tour, as there are plenty of thought-provoking, electric murals in this city. You will get a modern idea of what is happening in PR by observing the artwork of real Puerto Ricans.

Dine at one of San Juan’s best restaurants.

The dinner options in San Juan are endless! If you want to dine near the water, La Casita de Rones is the place. They have great food and craft rum cocktails. The restaurant is close to where the cruise ships dock, though, so it can get very busy: be warned!

El Jibarito is a great place to go if you want to try one of Puerto Rico’s national dishes, mofongo. Mofongo is a dish consisting of mashed green plantain and broth.

The plantain is mashed to the inside of the bowl where they pour in various types of broth. It can be made with beef, chicken, seafood, or creamy broth, and then it’s typically served with meat or seafood inside.

Whatever you choose, as they say in Puerto Rico, “buen provecho!”.

a place of mofongo, rice, and meat, with a salad as well

Cap it off with a night paddle or get an early night’s sleep.

If you want one more exciting activity to cap off your evening, go night kayaking! You can paddle through Condado Lagoon on a clear-bottom kayak with LED lights gently guiding the way.

It will be a unique experience as you observe the lights of San Juan and perhaps a sea creature or two. This will be one of two excellent kayaking adventures you can experience in PR. Find more information online here.

Sleep well and wake rejuvenated for a relaxing day into a magical night — bursting with bioluminescence!

Day 4: Head to Fajardo and the Bioluminescent Bay

Spend the morning in San Juan your way before heading to Fajardo.

Did you want to try a new cafe? Did you see a museum you want to check out while in San Juan? Do you just need some time to relax at your hotel? This would be a great time for any of that!

kayaks at sunset awaiting guests to go on a bio bay tour of the lagoon in fajardo puerto rico

If you’re heading to Fajardo, there are a few options, all of which involve driving. It’s about an hour’s drive away if you’ve rented a car. Not driving? You can hire a public taxi, Uber, or use a private car service (speak to your hotel to see what they can arrange). Be prepared to spend about $80-100.

There is no public transit from San Juan to Fajardo. If you’re comfortable driving, we recommend renting a car for the entire week in Puerto Rico, or at least from Days 4-7 of this itinerary. This will save you money and hassle in the long run.

Grab lunch at La Casita Blanca.

On your way to Fajardo, stop for lunch. For a quiet and wonderfully authentic dining experience head to Santurce for La Casita Blanca, aka “the little white house”.

The restaurant is full of tropical plants, eclectic artwork, and tchotchkes. But really, you’re here for the food: it is incredible! The skirt steak and accompanying rice are mouth-wateringly flavorful. You have to try the tres leches cake, too! You will be served plantain soup upon arrival and given chichaito, a digestif, at the end of your meal, a really nice touch. It’s a bona fide Puerto Rican experience!

They are open daily for lunch and serve dinner on Fridays and Saturdays only. They also have valet parking, which is convenient for parking in this small residential neighborhood.

Arrive in Fajardo and relax on the beach.

Whenever you are ready to get adventuring, head over to Fajardo to check into your new hotel. From there, you can go out and appreciate some of what this area has to offer!

Fajardo offers a great mix of historical sites and some beautiful beaches. Get your snorkel on or call in your inner beach bum for some relaxing time.

one of the beautiful beaches in the fajardo puerto rico area

Playa Escondida is a great beach to hit if you want to avoid the crowds. It takes about 30 minutes to walk to Playa Escondida from the trailhead, which is near the Governor’s Beach House. However, this beach is one of the most dangerous swimming spots in Puerto Rico, so it is strictly for exploring or relaxing while taking in the view.

If you are looking to swim, Seven Seas Beach is a great place to snorkel, plus, it does not require a long trek to get to the beach. The waters are calm and the sea life is thriving. Palm trees abound and there are plenty of shady spots to enjoy.

There is a restaurant here that may or may not be open. There are also showers and restrooms. Sometimes you can rent kayaks, SUP paddleboards, and snorkeling gear on the beach here.

To guarantee your gear, head 5 minutes south of Seven Seas Beach by car. You will hit Pirate Snorkeling Shack. There are snorkels, kayaks, and SUP for rent on the beach here.

Either of these beaches will be a nice place to spend the golden hour before you prep for your adventure on the Bioluminescent Bay!

scenic blue waters of seven seas beach, a calm oasis in puerto rico

Have a BBQ dinner, island style.

Firstly, you’ll want to get dinner. A trip to PR is not complete without a visit to a BBQ. A lot of the beef consumed in Puerto Rico comes right from the island, so there are many BBQ spots around.

La Estación is the place to go for locally sourced, buttery, delicious steaks in Fajardo. They take American barbecue classics and merge them with Caribbean flavors. Enjoy locally sourced fish, meats, and produce. Their brisket is award-winning, the ceviche is made daily, and vegetarian options are available.

Have an enchanting kayak ride through the bioluminescent waters.

Once you have had your fill, grab your gear for kayaking. You will want to bring a towel and possibly a change of clothes for when you exit the water.

The tour provides bottled water, snacks, life vests, and bug spray. Use only eco-friendly bug spray if you bring your own. This is a protected area, and some of the chemicals in traditional bug spray are extremely harmful to this rare ecosystem, particularly DEET.

Once you’ve geared up, an enchanted evening is upon you as you embark on a bioluminescent bay kayaking tour.

streaks of electric blue in the dark water at night with lots of stars out

Puerto Rico is one of only 3 places in the world where you can experience the magic of a bioluminescent bay! There are 3 bio bays in PR. You can find them in Vieques, La Parguera, and at Laguna Grande in Fajardo; the latter of which is the most famous and where we’ll be tonight!

You will paddle through mangroves into the bay for 2 hours. You will see the bioluminescence light up the shapes of the fish, and possibly sharks, swimming beneath you. The water sparkles as you splash your paddle. It is otherworldly and awe-inspiring, an experience you will never forget.

Book your kayaking tour online here!

Make sure you get a lot of rest for day 5. You will have to have an early morning the following day in order to make your catamaran ride, which meets at 8:15 AM.

Day 5: Set sail in Fajardo

Grab a quick breakfast at a panaderia.

Puerto Rican bakeries or panaderias are flourishing on the island! This would be a great way to start an early day. One of the best spots in Fajardo is Panaderia Monte Brisas.

Like most Puerto Rican bakeries, you can get sandwiches here, too. There is something for all tastes, savory or sweet. All orders are to-go, so grab your sandwiches or pastries and make your way south to Puerto del Rey Marina.

Have a gorgeous catamaran ride or go scuba diving.

As you have seen on your journey so far, Fajardo is an ocean-centered town. It brings opportunities for water sports of all kinds, plus beach lounging and seaside dining. It is not surprising that a catamaran ride is one of the most popular activities to do in Fajardo!

Your final day in Fajardo will be as dreamy as it gets. Head to Puerto del Rey Marina to hop on a catamaran tour!

a blonde tan woman in a black dress standing on the net area of a catamaran looking at islands in the distance with blue water around

You will sail for 45 minutes to a deserted island called Icacos. You will have a couple of hours to explore the beach and swim before lunch is served. Enjoy sandwiches, fresh juices, rum punch, and more!

You will then cruise the Caribbean Sea a little more to anchor over the reef. This is a great time to utilize the slide that is aboard the catamaran!

Swim, snorkel, or chill out before your leisurely sail back to the marina. You should arrive back by 3:30 PM.

Book your catamaran ride in Fajardo here!

After your day of fun in the sun, you may want to head back to your hotel to take a rest and freshen up. A seafood dinner will follow.

If you’re PADI certified, you may prefer to go diving here! You can book a two-tank reef drive departing Fajardo — note the early start time!

Book your two-tank dive here!

Dine on fresh seafood.

Head to the coastline for delicious, Puerto Rican-style seafood! Pescaderia Don Candi will show you how the Puerto Ricans do seafood. In short? They do it well!

You should order the fried red snapper. You will be presented with a whole fish, fins and all. The fins are crunchy and yummy so don’t leave them out! They will come with a PR staple, fried plantain, otherwise known as tostones.

fried fish served on a bed of tostones and salad

They also serve oysters and delicious coconut shrimp dumplings. Don’t forget your rum cocktail or another PR staple, Medalla beer.

As a side note… you may notice on your travels that there are many folks selling rotisserie chicken and pinchos on the side of the road. Pinchos are essentially BBQ meat on a stick. They are cheap, delicious, and a great snack. Both pinchos and rotisserie barbeques are often wonderfully flavorful and make a great choice if you’re trying to save a bit of money!

Perhaps when you complete your dinner, you will want to check out the Cape San Juan Lighthouse of Fajardo for golden hour. Since we are on the east side of the island, watching the sunset over the ocean is not possible; however, the hues of this extraordinary time of day will still impress and delight you!

Head to Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan. This nature park will be a great place to walk around while you breathe in the salt air and connect with some history.

The lighthouse was first lit in 1882 and had a large influence in the Spanish-American War. It now sits on a nature reserve that includes Laguna Grande, the bio bay you explored last night! Plus you can explore mangroves, coral reefs, beaches, and lagoons. There is no better way to end the day.

the white and green lighthouse in fajardo

Day 6: Hop the ferry to Vieques

Before you head to Vieques for the night, take the morning to pack up, get breakfast, and tie up any loose ends on your “to-see” list in Fajardo. Then head to Ceiba to catch the ferry to Vieques.

The ferry has specific hours, but it is not always on time. Check the timetables and plan accordingly. Keep your timeline fluid. Vieques in general will force you to slow down and go with the flow!

Cars are allowed on the ferry, but please do not attempt to take your rental to Vieques. The vessel is carrying supplies and vehicles for residents of Vieques. If everyone were to bring vehicles to the island, it would make it very hard for the residents to go about their business.

Please note: it may be very difficult to get on the ferry to Vieques during holidays and weekends due to crowds. It is easier going back, so flying in and out may be your best bet.

leaving colorful port on the fajardo vieques ferry

If you fly, head to the Ceiba airport and hop on a flight with Vieques Airlink or Air Flamenco. The round trip flight should cost less than $100. I consider these both sightseeing and transportation because the views as so beautiful! So if the budget allows, flying is a great choice.

Once you arrive on Vieques, be prepared to rent a Jeep, motorbike, or a golf cart to get around. There are also taxi services. Make all of these arrangements ahead of time, as you may not get a taxi or vehicle if you arrive without a reservation.

UTV Rental offers golf carts for rent which can be a fun way to explore, or Vieques Car Rental offers Jeeps and SUVs as well as golf carts.

One great way to get acquainted with Vieques is to take a drive around the island! If you rent that Jeep, you are in great shape, as you can drive on dirt roads through the jungle that wind into ocean views. If you are not renting a vehicle, renting bikes is another great option.

The island is mostly reserve land that you have the privilege to explore. They have quite a few roads running through the reserve, and there are hikes to jump on along the way. Be careful if driving as there are wild horses in many parts of the island!

several wild horses and baby horses roaming the street in vieques puerto rico

Head towards Sun Bay.

Take your vehicle down towards Esperanza to check out the beach at Sun Bay. You may see wild horses here!

As a side note… the proximity of Playa Sun Bay to the bioluminescent bay makes this a cool beach to peep at night. You may see the dinoflagellates (the creatures that glow) in the surf or on the beach. Can you say sparkle beach, anyone?!

Walk west down the beach at Sun Bay towards Esperanza to enjoy painkillers and a meal at Lazy Jack’s Restaurant and Hostel. Painkillers are a yummy cream of coconut and rum cocktail topped with fresh nutmeg.

Enjoy the lively atmosphere of this Vieques favorite. It is also a great place to stay for the night!

brilliant turquoise and cerulean waters of the beach at sun bay vieques

Day 7: Explore Vieques some more and head back to San Juan

The island has two main areas where there are hotels and restaurants: down south at Esperanza or north at Isabel Segunda, near the ferry terminal.

Up north, the best breakfast place is Rising Roost delicioso! Cafe Del Mar down south is great, too. Enjoy a great breakfast with their house-made bread.

Explore the black sand beach.

After you hit a breakfast spot of your choice, you should head over to Black Sands Beach (Playa Negra). You can walk on the beach from Esperanza if you like. Walk west to reach Playa Negra.

It is inspiring to see the volcanic black sand for yourself! Amp up the magic of your experience and opt for a horseback riding tour on the black sand – contact Esperanza Riding Company for details.

Have a final meal in Vieques.

For a final restaurant recommendation, we have the best for last!

Head to Finca Conciencia for a healthy, ethical, locally sourced meal. Their grouper stuffed with lobster and grilled over mesquite in banana leaves will change your life!

The menu is subject to change but that is the beauty of eating locally. There is variety and change just as the seasons change. When you visit, you will see their sustainable farming practices in action.

It is a sweet place that honors the sacredness of Mother Earth. They are true stewards of the land here. Plus, you may get to sample local honey from their apiaries. Call or email to reserve a spot. See their website for precise directions to their land, as it will not come up on Google.

Take a hike.

Up north, Playa Grande Sugar Mill Ruins is another great spot for a hike.

Hike amongst the ruins and along the coastline. End with a fabulous view of Punta Mulas Lighthouse. This is also a lovely spot for sunset if you end up with time before heading back to San Juan.

beautiful ripples in the water in vieques with sunset colors and palm silhouettes in the distance

Enjoy your final moments in Vieques.

Spend the afternoon relaxing or preparing to head back to San Juan. Your timeline will depend on if you choose to take the ferry back or fly.

If you have time, check out some more beaches, restaurants, or shops. This is a small island with a population of about 10,000. Jobs are limited, so your shopping in Vieques will significantly impact the people that live there in a positive way, especially if you buy hand-crafted products from local artisans. Either way, enjoy the rest of the day your way. It is your last day in Puerto Rico, after all!

You will end your journey back in San Juan. If you drove a rental car to Fajardo, you’ll want to return to Fajardo by bus or by plane and then drive back to San Juan Airport. If you took a taxi to Fajardo, you can save time by flying from Vieques to San Juan.

So ends your week in Puerto Rico. Perhaps you will be going home, perhaps it is on to another adventure!

Hopefully, you feel revitalized from your time on this magnificent island. You will certainly have eaten extremely well if you followed our tips!

Beautiful Gozalandia Waterfall in San Sebastian Puerto Rico at daylight

From natural waterslides and sailing on the Caribbean sea to kayaking amongst bioluminescence, the adventures you will experience on this Puerto Rico itinerary will surely live in your memory forever.

Puerto Rico is a place that deserves a lot of love, and the people will welcome you so well, you may never want to leave!

It is also a place that has seen a lot of hardships, especially since Hurricane Maria and the subsequent federal failure to address the damages the hurricane caused. As a result, infrastructure is lacking in many parts of Puerto Rico.

The poverty and inequality that pre-dated Hurricane Maria was exacerbated by the impacts of the storm, as well as tourism dollars shrinking during the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the pandemic is over, your visit here will impact the economy of Puerto Rico positively (as if you needed more reasons to come to this awesome place!).

Come to Puerto Rico. Show them some love, and see why they say Puerto Rico se levanta. Puerto Rico will rise again.


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The Perfect 5 Day Big Island Itinerary

beaches near hilo hawaii

If you are considering a trip to the Big Island (aka the island of Hawaiʻi), your head is in the right place! 

Picture yourself basking beneath waterfalls or hiking over lava fields. Perhaps you will relax on a beautiful black sand beach or enjoy the warmth of a geothermal pool.

As you can see in just a few words, there is no place quite like the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. it is one of the most spectacular places to visit in the world! 

Plus, it is of the quieter and more rural Hawaiian islands. By now, islands like Maui and Kauai have largely been taken over by tourism, and Oahu is the most developed and industrial of the Hawaiian archipelago.

On this 5 day itinerary for the Big Island, we’ll start on the Kona side of the island, and then we’ll road trip over to the Hilo side. 

PLANNING FOR BIG ISLAND AT A GLANCE:  

When to Go: Big Island is a pleasant destination with beautiful tropical weather all year round.

But even with that, some months are better than others and in that case, May through October is the best time to visit the Big Island when the sun is fully out and the chances of rain are low. Spring and fall is also a good time to visit if you want to escape the influx of tourists and enjoy lower rates on accommodation.

Though hurricanes are rare on the Big Island, be sure to check the weather before you travel during the hurricane season which is June through November - or entirely avoid this time if you're not sure.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, I recommend basing yourself in Kona, and Hilo to get the most out of your Big Island trip.

In Kona, I recommend staying at Kona Coast Resort (boutique hotel), Royal Kona Resort for a resort stay, or Four Seasons Resort Hualalai for a luxurious stay. And if you want a homey feel, you'll love this beautiful beachfront condo.

When in Hilo, I suggest staying at Hilo Vacation Rental for a charming and budget-friendly stay, SCP Hilo Hotel for a bit of luxurious yet affordable stay, Arnott's Lodge & Hiking Adventures for backpackers, or Grand Naniloa Hotel (boutique hotel). If you want a homey feel, I suggest staying at this Oceanfront luxurious house.

How to Get Around: Having a car is essential if you want to fully enjoy the Big Island and visit places public buses cannot go. You could use taxis, Uber, Lyft, private tours to get around but that can get expensive pretty fast and that's why I think renting a car is much better.

If you do choose to rent a car, compare car rentals and prices from here.  

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a stargazing tour on Mauna Kea, a snorkeling tour in Kealakekua Bay, or a manta ray snorkeling experience.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Since you'll spend plenty of time on the beach, I recommend taking this Dock & Bay travel towel which is 100% made from recycled materials. You'll need a swimsuit to fully enjoy the beaches -- this is my favorite swimwear  -- and of course sunscreen -- I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you and also harmless for marine life! 

A Note on Visiting Hawaiʻi

One important thing to mention about the island of Hawaiʻi is that it is the home to the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, which is under U.S. occupation.

When you visit this island, be curious and respectful of the Native Hawaiian way of life. The state we now know as Hawaii was forcibly annexed, without treaty or legal right, from the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. 

This island is their ancestral land, and many of the locations mentioned here are sacred to them. Do not take anything from the island, including lava rock. It is said it will bring you bad luck if you do! 

If you are respectful, you will have a wonderful time on this island. It is full of magical, intense energy. With the right mindset, visiting the Big Island, the land of aloha, can be transformative.

Move with Aloha

A note on the concept of aloha: Despite what popular culture portrays, aloha is more than just hello and goodbye! 

In the Hawaiian language, “Alo” means “presence.” “Ha” means “the essence of life.” It is an expression of love and understanding that we are all connected to spirit. 

When you live with aloha, you live with passion and considerations for the natural world, its creatures, and your fellow humans. Isn’t that a great way to be? 

So try it out while you move through this Big Island itinerary. I promise you won’t regret it, and you may walk away with a new point of view!

Enjoy and move with aloha in your heart during your five days on the Big Island.

Where to Stay on the Big Island

It might be called the Big Island but it’s actually pretty small which makes getting around easy. This means that you can choose 2 towns (Kona and Hilo in this case) to make your base and visit everything else from here since most of the popular attractions are within driving distances from these towns.

Kona Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | Traveling to Hawaii means staying close to the beach as much as possible and Kona Coast Resort offers just that. This beautiful resort features 2 outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court, 3 hot tubs, and a sauna. Not yet sold? This resort also offers large air-conditioned villas with a fully furnished kitchen, a living, and a dining room to accommodate even big families. If you ask me, your Big Island stay can’t get any better than this!
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

RESORT | If you want a resort stay, I recommend staying at Royal Kona Resort. It has its own private beach so you don’t have to worry about the summer influx that crowds most “public” beaches. The resort also has a saltwater lagoon, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and the best part? It has no resort fees! And don’t worry if all the activities on the island tire you out, you can just head to the on-site spa and wellness centre for a relaxing massage.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com Book on Hotels.com

LUXURY | Kona might have a number of resorts but nothing speaks luxury like Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. From the beautiful sunsets on the beach, the stunning views, the Golf Course, the top-notch service, to the large rooms with Hawaiian-inspired décor, everything is perfectly designed to make you feel at home while enjoying all the luxuries it provides. It’s safe to say that Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is your best bet at experiencing maximum luxury while in Kona.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

VRBO | I understand that not everyone wants to stay in hotels! If you’re that person who prefers a homey feel while traveling, I recommend staying at this beautiful beachfront condo. Designed with a beachy and a tropical eclectic style with a mix of Hawaiian decor, this place will make you feel like you’re in Hawaii whether you’re inside or outside. The condo features a modern kitchen with all appliances should you need to make your meals, a sizeable bathroom, and not forgetting the stunning beach views from the balcony. It’s also in a few minute’s walk to almost everything you’ll need.
>> Check availability and rates on Vrbo

Hilo Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | Located just a few miles from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Grand Naniloa Hotel, a Doubletree by Hilton is the best hotel to stay for the stunning ocean or harbor views of Hilo Bay at an affordable cost. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, sundeck, and an on-site restaurant that serves local seafood dishes — perfect for indulging in the local Hawaiian cuisine!
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

MID-RANGE | If you thought you couldn’t have a piece of luxury at an affordable price, SCP Hilo Hotel will make you think twice. Eco-friendly and cozy, this hotel has modern, clean, and comfortable rooms with an inviting lobby designed to make you feel welcome. And if you’re a traveler who wants to stay fit while on the road, you’ll love their fitness room.
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you want something affordable yet still comfortable, I recommend staying at Hilo Vacation Rental. While there is nothing extraordinary to boast about, this guest house offers a kitchen, clean rooms, a TV installed in each room, a clean and large bathroom, and an outdoor gas bbq to socialize with other travelers. It might seem basic but it provides the best bang for your buck. 
>> Check availability and rates on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

What to Pack for the Big Island

Travel Guides: I have included everything that I think will help you enjoy your stay on the Big Island but I found this Hawaii The Big Island Revealed Guide book to offer more in-depth information as guidebooks usually dedicate more resources and time into research. So combine my personal experience with this highly rated guide book and you can be assured of an amazing time on the Island.

An Awesome travel towel: With all the beaches on the Island, you’ll definitely need to take a towel and I am not talking about the small microfiber towel that almost does nothing! I am talking about the true microfiber towel that not only works well on a beach day but also after a long shower. I am in love with this amazing towel from Dock & Bay. It’s eco-friendly (100% from recycled materials), and it retains no sand with just one single shake. Order it on Amazon here.

Bathing suits you love: A big Island trip is incomplete without bathing suits! Take a swimsuit that will make you feel comfortable. I love wearing a two-piece but I usually get that awkward discomfort especially after enjoying all the local dishes but after a number of trials, I found the answer. High-waisted swimsuits girls! I love this one, and this one is a great plus-size option with a high waist and a classic shape. You can choose to take 2-3 swimsuits to the Big Island to avoid wearing a wet swimsuit.

Reef-safe sunscreen: Sunscreen is essential when visiting the Big Island! But don’t just take any random sunscreen. Take and use one that is not only great for your skin but also for marine life too. I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E — it’s moisturizing and soothing for you, and harmless for the animals who call Big Island’s waters their home!

Comfortable travel sandals: It’s going to take a lifetime for anyone to convince me that there are better travel sandals than my Birkenstocks — I could be buried in them if it were possible! Sounds too much but that’s how essential they are when I travel. I personally love the Birkenstock Gizeh leather thong style but the classic two-buckle Arizona slides are also cute and comfortable. These are the exact shoes I have and love!

One tip, though: Wear them for 2-3 days before your trip so they can form the shape of your foot. They’ll be a bit uncomfortable at first but nothing major (I just bought a second pair recently and I can vouch for them for the second time). However, they’re not shoes I’d want to walk around a cobblestoned city in on their first day!

Chemical-free insect repellent: Just like the sunscreen, the bug spray you take should be chemical-free to not harm the sensitive ecosystem of Hawaii especially when you go in the water. A simple lemon eucalyptus spray like this will keep most mosquitos away without the harsh chemicals which can mess up delicate ecosystems.

5 Day Big Island Itinerary

The area around Kailua Kona with palm trees and a beach

Day 1 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

You will most likely fly into the Kona airport when you visit the island of Hawai’i. It is one of the most populated areas of the island and the most lively! 

There are beautiful places to eat Hawaiian food and plenty of beaches to explore, so let’s dive into this Hawaii itinerary headfirst!

Eat a tasty and hearty breakfast.

To start your day off right, head over to 808 Grindz Cafe for breakfast! I promise you it will be “ono,” which is Hawaiian for delicious! 

You can enjoy waffles or eggs benedict. Plus, they have an extensive moco menu! 

Loco moco is a classic Hawaiian dish. They also have vegetarian options, so there’s something for everyone.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson via Flickr

Hop in your rental car and drive north.

I always find that taking a drive in a new place is a great way to get to know it! To start this Big Island itinerary, I suggest heading north to Pololū and the town of Hawi

Pololu Valley is a magical place on the island. It was once home to the ancient Hawaiians, where they enjoyed a plethora of plant life like the Hawaiian staple, taro. 

The view from the lookout at Pololu is stunning, so be sure to bring your camera.

Hike down into Polulū Valley.

You will be even more enchanted when you hike down into Polulū Valley

It is a very steep but short hike of just over a half-mile. Keep in mind that it can be pretty slippery and muddy after rainfall… which is fairly often; after all, Hawai’i is a tropical island!

Down in the valley, you will find rocky shores, black sand beaches, and a couple of swings for your Instagrammable moments! 

You can also follow the path to the other side of the valley and hike some more for great views of the neighboring valley.

the landscapes around polulu valley with green cliffs, beach, and ocean

Visit the charming town of Hawi.

Once you have enjoyed your time relaxing or hiking in Pololū Valley, head back towards Hawi. This town is extraordinary!

There are some great coffee shops in town. There is excellent coffee in Hawai’i, in general — Kona coffee is famous for a reason!

We suggest going to Kohala Coffee Mill, which is our favorite in Hawi. They have an extensive sandwich menu, pastries, ice cream, and Hawaiian shave ice.

In Hawi, you will also find the vegan comfort food restaurant, Sweet Potato Kitchen. I highly highly recommend this place, even if you are not vegan! 

The food is incredibly healthy and even more delicious. You will sense how much love is put into the food here.

After lunch, you can spend an hour or two walking the main road of this small and captivating town. There is an incredible apothecary, as well as art galleries and clothing and souvenir shops.

a pale green painted restaurant in the town of hawi hawaii
Photo Credit: D Smith via Flickr

Drive back to Kona via the coast.

Once you have had your fill of Hawi, begin heading back to Kona along the Kona coast. 

Enjoy the view and the salt air in your hair as you drive down the coastline, windows down of course!

You may want to stop at another beach on your way down into Kona. We will leave the choice up to you, but we suggest Manini’owali Beach!

You may instead want to just head into Kona for dinner before your night tour… yes, we’ve got something special up our sleeve for your first night in Kona!

the brilliant blue waters of maniniowali beach in hawaii near kona

Grab an early dinner.

You cannot visit Hawai’i without enjoying an oceanside meal! 

In Kona, Foster’s Kitchen is the place for dinner with a view. Enjoy dishes featuring ahi tuna, flatbread pizzas, or their fantastic goat cheese bruschetta! They also serve steak, fish, pasta, and more. You will find this place to be ono, trust us!

Prepare for an incredible manta ray snorkel experience.

After dinner, you will want to head back to your hotel to prepare for your night tour! 

The tour we picked for you will be a highlight of your trip! Tonight, you will get to swim with manta rays. The tour starts at 6:30 PM, so plan your Big Island itinerary accordingly.

Book your night manta ray snorkeling experience here!

The tour features a sunset cruise on a 34-foot catamaran with the opportunity to then float among manta rays! 

These gentle giants are angelic, graceful, and beautiful…. don’t be afraid of the ‘ray’ in their name, these animals are beautiful and gentle.

This is one of the coolest things to do in Kona, so don’t miss it!

night diving with manta rays

The tour will have you on their float, lit with LED lights (so yes, you will be able to see them, even though it’s dark out!). 

These lights attract the manta rays, so it is almost a 100% chance that you will see them. Plus, you will get to float and snorkel with other sea creatures.

That is just an awesome way to end your first day in Hawai’i! 

You will probably be keen on heading back to your hotel after a busy day. Get some rest and prepare for another spectacular day on the Big Island. It will be an early start tomorrow!

Day 2 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

Start the day with a snorkel trip.

To begin your day, you will be snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay along the Kona coast! 

The bay is famous for the presence of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, which frequent this area regularly, so you have a great chance of seeing them and possibly even snorkeling with them.

spinner dolphins in hawaii in the water underneath the water

This 4-hour tour begins at 8:00 AM so, try to arrive early. We suggest having a very light breakfast beforehand, such as a piece of toast and some fruit. You don’t want to overeat, but you don’t want an empty stomach either!

There will be a safety briefing, and they will provide snorkel equipment, snacks, and beverages. You can also rent an underwater camera to document your time snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay!

Not only will you likely see dolphins, but you will explore underwater caves, plus many species of coral and fish. What a stellar way to start your day!

Book your snorkeling morning tour here!

snorkeling under the water

Have a tasty lunch back in Kona.

After your tour, make your way back towards Kona for lunch. 

Where to? The Coffee Shack is our favorite spot, and it is right near Kealakekua Bay! 

Don’t let the name fool you; they have an excellent menu and sit-down dining with a view of the Pacific Ocean. 

The papaya special is one of the best items on the menu. You can also enjoy sandwiches, salads, and pizza. 

They also have lilikoi (passionfruit) cheesecake and coconut cream pie, among other fabulous Hawaiian desserts.

Check out a local coffee farm.

Kona is famous for its eponymous coffee, and no trip to Kona would be complete without visiting a coffee farm!

After lunch, head to Hala Tree Coffee Farm. This organic coffee farm offers tours and will have you swooning over their coffee by the end. Plus, it is a beautiful property!

a coffee farm in kona with views of the pacific ocean

Relax your muscles at the Mamalahoa Hot Tubs.

After your coffee farm visit, head back towards Kona and stop at Mamalahoa Hot Tubs and Massage to give your muscles some love after your snorkel tour! 

Each hot tub is made of teak wood and sits under its own private “hale,” Hawaiian for “hut.”

After your moment of rest and relaxation, why not have a beer? You earned it.

Grab a beer at the Kona Brewing Company.

A stop at Kona Brewing Company is a must for any Big Island bucket list. 

They are steadily working on becoming one of the most sustainable, eco-conscious breweries in the world, and they deserve our applause and support! 

When you visit, you will enjoy a vast food menu, perfect for dinnertime. You can sample their great beers right from the source, too. 

Their menu even includes beer pairing to give your tastebuds the ultimate experience!

different beers sampling at kona brewing company
Photo Credit: Sean Hagen via Flickr

Catch an incredible sunset.

For sunset, stop at Pāhoehoe Beach Park for a gorgeous view. You can even walk there from Kona Brewing Company! 

Magic Sands Beach Park is also an excellent option and is a shorter walk, as well as just about anywhere on Ali’i Drive!

Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see a sunset. You may even be lucky enough to see the “green flash.” 

The green flash is a natural phenomenon in which the sun lights up green just as it goes past the horizon. Hawai’i is one of the few places in the world to witness this! 

[editor’s note: I’ve seen it once or twice in California — it’s pretty incredible, but also pretty rare!]

the beautiful area of alii drive in kona

Check out the Kona nightlife.

If you are not too tired out, you may want to continue your evening exploring Kona’s nightlife along Alii Drive. 

Laverne’s Sports Bar is a local favorite. Humpy’s Big Island Ale House is also a great spot, along with Gertrude’s Jazz Bar. Enjoy the night on your tropical vacation. 

Make sure you get some solid sleep, too: we’ve got another jam-packed day on this Big Island itinerary… you’ve only got 5 days in Hawaii, after all!

Day 3 of your Big Island Itinerary: Kailua-Kona

fruit stand in kona

Okay, so here we go, day 3. Your final day in Kailua-Kona. 

We are going to make this one an epic beach day!

Fuel up for the day.

Stop at HiCo Hawaiian Coffee to charge up for the day with a quick breakfast. 

They serve locally grown coffee and a Hawaiian staple, musubi. Musubi is similar to sushi as it contains meat and veggies wrapped in rice and seaweed. The most famous is spam musubi!

Their menu also features chia pudding, paninis, and more.

a piece of spam musubi in a plate

Pack up a picnic lunch.

From there, head to the local grocery store, Island Naturals, to get supplies for lunch. 

It is good to bring a backpack to store your lunch choices as you will be taking a bit of a hike to get to our beach recommendation! 

Island Naturals sell insulated shopping bags to help you keep your food at a proper temperature. Be sure to pack plenty of water…. and a hammock wouldn’t hurt either!

Take a hike to Makalawena Beach.

Next, you will head north out of Kona towards the trailhead for Makalawena Beach

You can find the trailhead on the road towards Mahai’ula Bay between the 90 and 91-mile markers on Highway 19. 

It is about a 1-mile hike to reach the beach, and it’s not too intense, though it can be hot, hence the water we told you to bring!

You will be thrilled by the calmer waters and white sandy beaches flanked with palm trees. Rest, relax, or swim until you’re ready for your beach picnic lunch.

photo of makalawena beach in hawaii near kona

Head back to Kona for a whale watching tour.

After that, you will need to head back to Kona for your afternoon whale-watching tour. 

You will be hoping to see the beautiful and majestic humpback whales that migrate past Hawaii — they are quite a sight to see. 

Take note, the best time to see humpbacks on the Big Island is from December to April, but you will likely be able to see whales year-round. 

The Big Island of Hawaii is the only spot in the US where humpbacks mate, nurse, and calve their young!

Book your whale-watching cruise online here!

person pointing at a breaching humpback whale in hawaii

This tour consists of 2.5 hours on the Pacific Ocean, taking in the island’s sights while trying to spot whales and their calves! 

They will provide snacks and beverages along the tour, so don’t worry about needing to grab lunch beforehand. 

Best of all, you can use their hydrophone, which will allow you to listen to whalesong! It’s a remarkable feature of this tour. If your timing is right, this tour will leave you inspired!

Check out Honaunau Bay.

After your cruise, head over to Two Step on the Honaunau Bay, one of the most popular snorkeling spots on the island of Hawai’i. 

It is located south of Kailua Kona in Captain Cook. Spinner dolphins frequent this spot to rest and play!

You very well may get to swim with dolphins a second time here! 

You will also see countless coral and maybe even the Hawai’i state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, a species of triggerfish. 

Try to say that Hawaiian word ten times fast! 

the famous state fish of hawaii with bright stripes and beautiful colors

Check out the Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Right next to Two Steps is Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

You should come here to learn about ancient Hawaiian culture and pay tribute to the rightful owners of Hawai’i.

The history of Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is that it was once a place of refuge, protected by the god Lono, the god of life. 

Anyone who broke the law or needed to escape any kind of persecution could come to this place, and no harm would come to them. This place of peace is a worthwhile stop on any Big Island itinerary!

wood carvings at hawaiian state park

Spend the night at a luau.

Continue your journey of connecting with Hawaiian culture and aloha spirit with a luau! 

There are many options for luau experiences on the island. We like Voyagers of the Pacific, Royal Kona Resort’s luau, because of the hands-on experiences they provide.

You can make a lei, learn hula, and see demonstrations of Polynesian arts. 

Book your luau online here!

A luau is not complete without pig roasted in an “imu,” an underground oven — which is exactly how they do it with Voyagers of the Pacific. 

Your reservation at this luau includes all activities, a dinner buffet, and drinks from the bar.

There doesn’t seem to be a better way to spend your last night on Kona side!

Day 4 of your Big Island Itinerary: Hilo

beaches near hilo hawaii

Hilo is your next destination on the Big Island! 

Before you head out, make sure you fuel up for your drive, pack some snacks, and bring plenty of water. 

We also suggest you get an early start to get the most out of your day, as this Hawaii itinerary is jam-packed.

I suggest making this day into a road trip type of day! 

Google will tell you to take the Saddle Road from Kailua-Kona to Hilo, an hour and a half drive. However, you will miss out on some Big Island highlights going that way.

Head to Ka Lae, aka South Point.

Instead of heading west to east, head south and follow Highway 11. Your first destination will be Ka Lae, also known as South Point. 

It is the southernmost point in the United States! It will take you about an hour and a half to reach South Point from Kailua-Kona.

Take note; there are no facilities here, so make sure you pack food and water. Despite that, the view is incredible! 

You may even see people bravely jumping off the cliff into the ocean below. Do not jump if you are not a strong swimmer. There is a ladder to help you get back up onto land.

the ka lae south point coastline, the southernmost part of the united states. blue sky and bluer water.

Marvel at the Green Sand Beach.

Papakōlea, also known as Green Sand Beach, is easy to reach from the parking area at South Point. You will need to walk south on the road which runs along the coast. 

It is 2.5 miles one way, so keep that in mind! It is possible to drive there but you need a vehicle suitable for off-roading. 

Sometimes, you can get a ride from a local, especially if you offer them some cash to give you a ride to Green Sands Beach. 

Once you reach the beach, you may also want to go for a swim here if the water is not too rough. It can get pretty wild, so swim with caution.

Fun fact: Green Sands Beach is green from a natural phenomenon: olivine crystals that were formed in lava rock!

the beautiful green sands at green sand beach with blue water

Head to Hana Hou for lunch.

Once you have completed your adventure at Ka Lae and Papakōlea, you will surely be ready for lunch! 

Continue south on Highway 11 to Hana Hou Restaurant (the southernmost restaurant in the US!), less than 30 minutes away. Hana Hou means “bravo!” in Hawaiian – and the food is so good, it will have you saying just that!

This small family-run restaurant has some of the best burgers in the world! Plus, they serve traditional Hawaiian dishes and diner food. Sometimes there is live music by locals. 

You may see patrons get up and dance the hula, too! You also may find yourself in a Hawaiian sing-a-long. 

Even without all the fanfare, this is a wonderful place to connect with a small authentic Hawaiian restaurant.

Photo Credit: Kirk K via Flickr

Eat malasadas at the tasty Punalu’u Bakery.

Just across the street is the world-famous Punalu’u Bakery, another must-stop on your road trip day!

Enjoy their sweet bread or a malasada. Malasada is a donut-like pastry stuffed with sweet fillings like lilikoi or pineapple.

malasadas for sale - little donuts with sugar

Make your way through Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

From Punalu’u Bakery, continue on Highway 11, making your way towards Hilo. You will enter Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park in about 45 minutes!

You can continue your road trip vibes with a journey down Chain of Craters Road. 

There is a spot along this road to view petroglyphs and it ends at the Holei Sea Arch. Lava flowing into the ocean formed the sea arch — it’s super cool.

At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you can also see Kilauea Caldera at the crater rim and check out the beautiful steam vents. The caldera is incredible as it glows from the lava bubbling beneath. 

Honestly, viewing the caldera is best at night, so if you wanted to, you could head back to the park later in the night or on your last day.

view of the lava flows at hawaii volcanoes np

Try some tea wine.

Additionally, Volcano Winery is just a 5-minute drive from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The wines are yummy, especially their tea wine! 

It is one of the best alcoholic beverages I have ever had. Just be careful since you are driving to not overdo it. 

The property is lovely and park-like, allowing for a nice relaxing time tasting wines. They do not serve food, but you are welcome to bring your own.

Continue your drive to Hilo.

From there it is just 45 minutes to Hilo. You want to time your trip so you arrive for your next tour by 3:30 PM! 

If you didn’t get an early start, you may need to tweak these road trip suggestions, perhaps skipping the Green Sand Beach which is the longest side-trip of this road trip, or grabbing a to-go lunch instead of having a sit-down meal.

arriving at hilo road

Take a stargazing tour on Mauna Kea.

This tour not only brings you up to Mauna Kea for nighttime stargazing, but it also will have you exploring Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and the Kaumana Caves, three other essential things to do in Hilo

You will then head along Saddle Road as you make your way past Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, two of the largest volcanoes in the world. 

You will then get to view stars and other celestial bodies through a telescope. Hawai’i has some of the darkest skies in the world, so it is by far one of the best places to view the night sky!

Book your stargazing tour online here!

view of stars over mauna kea on a dark night

Mauna Kea (called Maunakea by Native Hawaiians, one word) has a complex history, and it is essential to mention this when speaking of this landmark, which is sacred to Native Hawaiians.

Maunakea is considered the “Mountain of Wākea”; Wākea is the first father of Hawai’i according to Native beliefs.

That’s where the name comes from, shortened from “Ka Mauna a Wākea'” (Hawaiian for the Mountain of Wākea)

Not only is this his sacred mountain, but it was traditionally a burial ground. 

While it is awe-inspiring to view the stars from a telescope on the mountain, the telescopes shouldn’t be there in the first place. 

Many Native Hawaiians protested the desecration of their sacred mountain, and they are still protesting about the new telescopes. 

Still, the telescopes were built. 

milky way over mauna kea

Note that on this tour, you won’t be visiting the giant telescopes (those are scientific facilities rather than touristic ones) that the Hawaiians are protesting against. 

Rather, you will be using smaller, portable telescopes, interfering less with the land than the giant telescopes.

I’m not here to say what the right or wrong answer is here about the telescopes, but be mindful that there is an ongoing debate about this and listen to Hawaiian volces.

Or finish the night off with a kava experience.

If you want a different kind of activity to cap off your night, head over to Bayfront Kava Bar for a pleasant, relaxing kava experience. 

Kava has an ancient history on the islands of Hawai’i. The original Hawaiians brought kava with them when they left Polynesia over 2,000 years ago. 

Who knows – you may actually be sampling kava that was grown from the same plant!

brewing kava tea in bowls

Drinking kava was traditionally steeped in the spiritual rituals of the ancient Hawaiians. 

Before you drink your kava, you will want to honor this tradition. Ask your bartender to show you how to drink kava!

As kava is a calming, slightly psychoactive substance, you will probably be ready for bed after your trip to the kava bar. 

Don’t worry; you will not get high on kava; it is just very relaxing… though you may have more active dreams than normal!

Day 5 of your Big Island Itinerary: Hilo

Your last day on the Big Island will be another great day!

Here’s how to tackle your last day in Hawaii.

beach park in hilo with water and trees

Grab a delicious breakfast.

Start the day with a visit to Hawaiian Style Cafe for breakfast. They open at 8 AM on weekdays and 7 AM on Fridays and weekends. 

This place gets very crowded, so you might want to make a reservation. Also, keep in mind that we suggest an awesome tour at 9:30 AM, so you will want to arrive right around the time they open! 

You will enjoy their Hawaiian-style breakfasts of steak and eggs, Hawaiian sweet bread, French toast, or their kalua hash.

After breakfast, it is time for your final snorkeling tour!

Visit the Sea Turtle Lagoon of Hilo Bay.

swimming with sea turtles in hawaii

This 3-hour tour will show you what Hilo Bay is all about! 

You will swim with sea turtles, dolphins, and octopuses amongst colorful coral reefs. Plus, you will check out black sand beaches! 

They include local snacks and beverages along with this guided tour. It will be magic.

Book your snorkeling tour!

Grab lunch at the Booch Bar.

After your tour, it will be lunchtime. We suggest you hit up a local favorite, The Booch Bar. This restaurant features vegan and vegetarian food along with fresh-caught fish. 

There are many great options featuring fare that is “alive,” meaning that it is fermented and full of probiotics.

They also sell kombucha on draft from local kombucha makers, Big Island Booch. You can even get a growler of booch if you want. They also have wine, prosecco, and draft beer.

Check out Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens.

gardens in hilo with a japanese style pagoda in the distance

After lunch, make your way to Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens for a lovely stroll by the bay off of Banyan Drive. The park is gorgeous and features a Japanese-style botanical garden.

It is also adjacent to Coconut Island, which is very small and easy to walk to via a footbridge. Plus, the tiny island has a cool history.

Coconut Island was initially called Moku Ola by the ancient Hawaiians. It translates to “healing island.” According to lore, one could heal themselves by swimming around the island three times!

Plus, you can check out the banyan trees on Banyan Drive. These trees are massive and known for their beauty. 

The trees on Banyan Drive are named for the celebrities that planted them. It is also called the “Hilo Walk of Fame.”

Check out the beautiful ‘Akaka Falls State Park.

the beautiful akaka falls streaming from above

One of the most beautiful waterfalls on the Big Island is ‘Akaka Falls, which is located about a 10-minute drive from Hilo.

The viewpoint for ‘Akaka Falls is located about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. It’s an easy 0.5-mile loop that leads you past a view of this stunning 442-foot single-drop waterfall.

Walk around downtown Hilo.

Once you have enjoyed the parks and Banyan Drive, head to downtown Hilo for a stroll and get to know this small town! 

There are bookstores, souvenir shops, restaurants, and even a thrift store to check out.

Additionally, there are galleries featuring art from local artists. You can also hit up the mall if you want to do some heavy-duty souvenir shopping at Prince Kuhio Plaza.

There may also be a farmer’s market depending on the day of the week!

farmers market in hilo

Have a final delicious dinner.

Once you’ve strolled around Hilo, you will probably be ready to eat dinner!

For one last dinner with a view, head to The Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm. This restaurant will provide you with some of the freshest sushi you have ever had. 

The fish is sourced from their aqua farm. You really can’t get any fresher than that!

In addition to fish, you can enjoy chicken, steak, and pasta dishes at this ono restaurant. It will have you saying, Mahalo Nui loa, which translates to thank you very much!

Enjoy your last night in paradise.

After this final meal, you will want to head back to your hotel to get ready to leave the island and do some chilling out.

We know you will have had an awe-inspiring experience on the Big Island! 

You will have danced with dolphins, swam with sea turtles, and hiked to beautiful places. We sincerely hope that you will carry the aloha spirit with you on your travels! 

***

You can learn an awful lot from the traditions of Hawai’i. Be open to this, and Hawai’i will transform you.

Respect the natural areas you visit, the history, and the locals. According to legends, Tutu Pele (the volcano goddess of Kilauea Caldera) may unleash her wrath upon you if you fail to do so! 

She will definitely bring you bad luck if you take any artifacts, stones, or plants from the island. If you can manage to move with aloha, you will have a fantastic time on the Big Island!

Mahalo and aloha to you.

33 Magical Things to Do in Kona (+ Day Trips and Tours)

Kona is on the west side of the Big Island of Hawai’i, where most flights arrive on the island. 

It is the most lively part of the island, offering numerous bars, restaurants, resorts, and beaches. 

So when you come to Kona, you are coming to a city in one of the most beautiful places in the world, the island of Hawai’i!

There will be opportunities to swim with manta rays and Hawaiian spinner dolphins. You will get to explore pali (cliffs) and valleys. 

You will most likely see at least one rainbow; they are on the license plate for a reason! 

Finally, you will immerse yourself in the aloha spirit. 

In a word: Hawai’i is pono. Pono is the Hawaiian word that denotes integrity and balance. It is righteousness—the perfection of all creation in all its imperfections.

Ua Mau Ke Ea o ka ʻĀina I ka Pono is the motto of the state of Hawaii. It means, “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

Remember this attitude when you visit Hawai’i. 

Move with aloha, deep love connected to spirit energy—the deep love of self, others, and the aina (land). Leave no trace when you visit wild places. Treat the land and the people with respect.

Top Things to Do in Kailua-Kona 

Start your journey by checking out some of the local beaches.

ocean waves crashing on the shore in kailua kona

One great feature of Kona is the access to beaches from the main downtown area along Ali’i Drive. You may walk to one or more of them depending are where you start or go by car.

Magic Sands Beach Park is a popular choice and is easily walkable from one of the most lively areas of downtown Kona.

If you continue north down Ali’i’ Drive, you will arrive at Pāhoehoe Beach Park

It would be a bit of a walk (close to an hour) from the main downtown area but still doable depending on where you start.

There is no ocean access here, but it is a great picnic spot.

Another walkable beach from downtown Kona is Kahalu’u Beach Park, again depending on where you start. You will find the best snorkeling in Kailua-Kona here! This beach is south of Magic Sands Beach Park.

view seen from half under the water half above the water near the beach in kona

Head all the way north to the end of Ali’i Drive to stop at Kamakahonu Beach. This beach is sometimes referred to as “Keiki beach,” meaning “kids beach,” because of the calm waters. 

The beach is an excellent spot for water sports. It is also within proximity to Kailua Pier.

At Kamakahonu, you will also find Kona Boys Beach Shack

They offer all sorts of rentals, including: snorkels, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUP), body boards, chairs, umbrellas, coolers, life jackets, bikes, and dry sacks, right from the beach!

a hawaiian canoe on the beach with palm trees

You can reserve your gear ahead of time on their website, too.

Another way you can get to the beaches besides walking or driving is to take the Kona Trolley to reach the pier. It is only $2.00! 

The trolley also stops at Magic Sands Beach ParkKahaluu Beach, along with restaurants, hotels, and Water Front Row. It is super convenient!

You can also rent a bike to make getting to and from the Kailua-Kona beaches even more accessible!

Go on a helicopter tour to see lava flows from above.

lava flows in hawaii as seen from a helicopter

One of the coolest things to do in Kona is embark on a helicopter tour which will take you over Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park!

​This is a great way to see the island from an entirely different perspective.

Melt your stress away with a hot tub spa experience.

Before you leave the island, you can reset your system in a relaxing hot tub with a massage.

There are multiple places to get a massage and soak in a hot tub. I just love Mamalahoa Hot Tubs, south of Kona in Kealakekua.

The saltwater teak hot tubs are outside, with the option for a night soak under the stars. You will enjoy plenty of privacy as little thatch huts surround these teak tubs. There are also lovely outdoor showers.

The hot tubs are a great option if you are on a budget as it is only $50 for two people, or $60 for a night soak. If adding a massage is too pricey, you will still have the chance to relax and detox.

To boost your healing, they also offer many methods of massage, including hot stone. Massages are a great way to ease muscle tension and release toxins in the body.

Go kayaking or paddleboarding.

woman kayaking in a yellow kayak on brilliant clear water

One of the coolest ways to experience Hawai’i is from the water!

Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard at one of the many water sport outfitters which will prepare you for all manner of aquatic outdoor activities!

Marvel at the beautiful and historic Hulihee Palace.

yellow toned historic building of hulihee palace on the road with palm trees in front of the ocean

The beautiful oceanfront Huliheʻe Palace is located on Ali’i Drive in Kailua village, and it’s a great place to go to learn a little more about the history of the Hawaiian monarchy on the Hawaiian islands, before the U.S. occupation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.

Built in 1838, Huliheʻe Palace was once a summer home for Hawaiian royalty such as King Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani. It is home to beautiful traditional Hawaiian architecture such as koa wood furniture and beautiful artifacts from Hawaiian monarchs.

There are guided tours of the palace available, at 10 AM and 1 PM daily. 

Check out Mokuaikaua Church.

stone church with hawaiian foliage in front and a tall steeple

Built in 1820 by two missionaries given permission to operate a church by King Kamehameha II, Moku‘aikaua Church was the first Christian church built on the Hawaiian islands. 

It’s located across the street from Hulihee Palace in a very historic part of Kailua close to Kailua Pier, so it’s easy to pop in and visit. 

The exterior is now built of stone, after the original structure burned several times, and the inside of the church is beautiful with traditional koa wood decorating the interior 

Savor the taste of fresh-caught fish with poke.

tasty and fresh tuna poke with avocado and green onion and cucumber

There are countless poke spots in Kailua Kona. Many of them are right on the ocean along Ali’i Drive! 

One popular spot for waterside dining is Da Poke Shack. There is also one down south in Captain Cook.

Another great Kona poke spot is Umeke’s Fish Market and Restaurant. This restaurant is committed to locally sourcing its food. 

That means the fish, vegetables, fruit, and meat are locally sourced whenever possible! As a result, it will be among the freshest food you will have while visiting Hawai’i.

And finally, we have Pau Hana Poke, a tiny hole in the wall. This is a local favorite and also serve as a fish market. 

The menu can evolve differently depending on what is available. Local fishermen always provide the freshest fish. 

It is take-out only here, so grab some poke and head to a beach.

Snorkel with spinner dolphins at Two Step.

a pod of spinner dolphins under the water at two step beach

Two Step is one of the best places on the entire island to snorkel! 

It is incredible, and you may find yourself swimming among Hawaiian Spinner dolphins. They come to Honaunau Bay to rest, play, and clean their bellies in the sand. 

Never will you have as great of a chance to swim with wild dolphins as you do on the island of Hawai’i! 

It is best to come here in the morning if you want to swim with the pae’a (that’s Hawaiian for dolphin).

Not to mention there are countless fish and coral to view when snorkeling at Two Step. You will also most likely get to see honu (sea turtles).

This spot is south of Kailua Kona by about 40 minutes, but it is totally worth the drive.

Embrace the taste of Kona coffee.

kona coffee farm on a hillside overlooking the ocean

There are numerous coffee farms on the Big Island. You can visit any time of year and you will get to sip on samples of delicious coffee, right from the source!

Greenwell Farms is located out of town in Kealakekua. They were recently voted Hawaii’s Best Farm Tour by Hawai’i Magazine! 

The tour is fun and informative.. plus, they have excellent coffee!

Hula Daddy Kona Coffee is another great option and is convenient to Kona in Hulualoa. They offer tours by reservation and free coffee tastings. 

Even if you do not want a tour, you can come by and try their coffee!

For a farm tour right in town, head up the hill to Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. They offer tours with off-road vehicles. 

You don’t have to walk on this tour; however, if you do want to hike around a bit, they have lava tubes and trails to explore as well. Plus, you get to sample that glorious Kona coffee!

And finally, we have Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm. I love this farm because it is not only organic, but the property is lovely. 

You will get to taste your coffee on a lanai (covered porch) that overlooks the Pacific Ocean while you sip your java.  

It is a good idea to call ahead before you visit any of these farms to make a reservation if needed.

Watch the manta rays mesmerize you with a night snorkel tour.

a manta ray feeding at night illuminated by lights on the boat

You very well may have gone on your coffee tour and are feeling quite energized! 

Take that energy and go for a night dive with manta rays. There are many tour outfitters available that will provide this experience.

It is guaranteed you will swim with the manta rays when you take a manta ray night tour in Kona! 

Manta rays are attracted to light, so the tour operators will shine a light in the water to bring the manta rays to you, while you float and snorkel among these gentle giants.

Fun fact: Manta rays are attracted to light because that is where the highest amount of plankton is for them to consume. The closer to the light they are, the more plankton they can ingest. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Grab some beers at the Kona Brewing Company.

a frosty cold beer in kona

A visit to Kailua-Kona offers excellent opportunities for bar hopping. You can bar hop at many places along Ali’i Drive, plus you just have to visit Kona Brewing Company!

A stop at Kona Brewing Company is a great way to start the night. They have an extensive menu in their tasting room! 

This menu has food pairing options to accompany one of their many excellent beers, so it’s a great place for dinner and a drink.

Check out the nightlife along Ali’i Drive.

You can then head on over to Ali’i Drive, which is one of the prime nightlife stretches in Kona. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset!

Not sure where to start? Laverne’s Sports Bar is a popular spot. 

I also have had an awesome time at MY BAR + Pizza and more!- LGBTQ Friendly Hot Spot. This bar is inclusive and super fun! They have karaoke, DJs on the weekends, and pool tables. 

Sam’s Hideaway is also a good spot if you are looking for nightlife. Plus, Humpy’s Big Island Ale House offers live music and a selection of over 30 microbrews — great if you enjoyed Kona Brewing Company and want to keep the craft beer train going!

Additionally, you may want to make the trek to Rays on the Bay, located in the Kailua-Kona Sheraton. 

It is not necessarily a nightlife spot as they close at 11 PM. However, they offer the unique experience of viewing manta rays from their viewing platform after dark!

Gaze in wonder while whale watching.

A rare close-up breach by a humpback whale delights whale watchers

Kona is one of the best spots to see the humpback whale migration, as it is on the west side of the island — which means they swim right past Kona! 

The best time to see whales in Hawai’i is from April to December. The Big Island is the only spot in the US where these whales mate, calve, and nurse their young, which means the humpbacks hang out here quite a lot!

There are many tour companies you can use to get your humpback whale watching tour. You will most likely see other sea creatures like dolphins on this adventure, as well.

Going on a whale watching boat tour is one of the most essential things to do in Kona, so be sure not to miss it!

Appreciate plants at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden.

a hibiscus flower in a garden in hawaii

Come to the Amy Greenwell Botanical Gardens to learn about traditional Hawaiian gardening among a historic site. 

There are sacred grounds to explore and the Pa‘ikapahu Heiau, a sacred temple. There are many rare and almost extinct species of plants preserved here: over 200 native plants, to be more specific!

These gardens are a beloved spot in Kona, primarily because of Amy Greenwall. She was a hula-dancing, plant-loving, and vivacious woman. 

She wanted to preserve the Hawaiian culture, and you can do the same with a visit to this special place!

Sample tasty tropical fruit at a farmer’s market.

Fruit stand at the farmers market in Big Island Hawaii

There are many farmers’ markets in Kailua-Kona. You can find mangos, soursop, rambutan, bananas, and more, depending on the time of years! 

Plus, you can discover sweet breads, honey, local products, and artisan jewelry.

The Kona Farmers Market is located right in downtown historic Kona Village on Ali’i Drive. It runs Wednesday through Sunday, so there are plenty of opportunities to hit up this great market. 

You can get flowers or lilikoi (passionfruit) as you enjoy a day strolling the market in Kona!

The Pure Kona Green Market happens on Sundays in Captain Cook. It is a beautiful market with many wonderful products made by local farmers and artists.

The market is at the Amy Greenwell Botanical Gardens, so perhaps your visit to the gardens could correspond with a visit to this weekly market.

Additionally, the Ho’oulu Community Farmers Market is a great choice. There are fewer purveyors of fruits and veggies than the other markets. 

However, the market is excellent if you are looking for arts and crafts produced by locals. It is held on Wednesdays.

Continue your connection with Hawai’i by learning to hula.

Close up of a hula dancer on a stage, focus on the her feet

There are many studios to learn some hula when you visit Hawai’i! A lot of people confuse hula with Polynesian dance, but hula is a lot less fast-paced than Polynesian dance.

So, what is hula? It is a series of hand gestures that tell a story of the land and people of Hawai’i, following the lyrics and music of a song. 

As you gesture with your hands you rock your hips back and forth creating a beautiful, mesmerizing dance that honors the earth, the sea, and the sacred traditions of ancient Hawai’i.

You can find hula lessons at the Sheraton Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel, and Mani Lani.

Lehua Rose Weddings also does hula and lei making classes. You can also find free hula lessons at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.

Dance into the night at a luau.

three men spinning fire at a hawaii luau

Continue your journey of connecting with Hawaiian culture and the aloha spirit with a luau! There are many options for luau experiences on the island. 

We like Voyagers of the Pacific at Royal Kona Resort as they provide some great hands-on experiences.

You can make a lei, learn hula, and see demonstrations of Polynesian arts. But, of course, a luau is not complete without pig roasted in an imu, an underground oven. 

Your reservation at this luau includes all activities, a dinner buffet, and drinks from the bar.

Try out scuba diving.

a sea turtle swimming above a diver

One of the best ways to see more of the underwater world of Hawai’i is by diving!

Whether you’re already PADI-certified to dive or you’d like to try diving for the first time, there are a variety of scuba schools in Kailua-Kona that can make that happen. 

A few we recommend are Kona Honu Divers, Kona Diving Company, and Big Island Divers.

Shop your heart out in Kailua-Kona.

The Kona Trolley is an excellent resource for a shopping adventure! 

You can make your way to all the major shopping centers via this convenient trolley. 

Stop at areas like Coconut Grove Marketplace, Kona Ali’i Gardens Marketplace, and Kona Inn Shopping Village. 

At Coconut Grove, you can hit up Kanaka Kava, Island Lava Java, and ABC Stores for souvenirs and mini-mart products, or try Ali’i Gardens Marketplace for great eats. And of course, you can’t miss TJ’s BBQ!

Don’t forget to hit Kona Inn Shopping Village, right off Ali’i Drive. It is considered the marketplace with the best view, where you can find boutiques, galleries, clothing stores, and excellent restaurants.

You can also head to The Shops At Mauna Lani, where you can participate in a lei-making class. 

Alternately, check out Keauhou Shopping Center, where you can find bookstores, boutiques, and live music.

Day Trips from Kona

Wind your way up the coast to Pololu Valley and Hawi.

view from the area around hawi on the coast of hawaii

On your way to Pololu, you will pass through the quaint historic town of Hawi. This is one of my favorite spots on the island! 

It is truly magical and worth the one-hour and ten-minute drive up the coast! 

Not only is the town just fantastic, but the drive is also wonderful, too. There is also access to beaches and snorkeling here.

While Hawi is pretty tiny, there are many great shops, galleries, and restaurants to hit. Plus, they have a weekly farmers market.

Sweet Potatoe Kitchen serves some of the best vegan food I have ever had. The food is made with love and care. Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery is also a nice choice for Pacific Rim fare with an artistic flair. 

You can also visit Kohala Coffee Mill. The name of this coffee shop is a nod to the history of this area as it was once the location of a sugar cane mill.

Admire the Pololu Valley.

Polulu Valley remote sea cliffs Hawaii Big island

As you continue your adventure in the Kohala moku (district), you end at the northern tip of the island at Pololu.

You can park near the lookout to view stunning green hills descending into the ocean, but don’t stop there. Instead, hike down the pali (cliffs) into the enchanting Pololu Valley.

Down in the valley, green cliffs, black sand beaches, and ocean views will surround you. They also have swings down here for you to enjoy!

Take note: the hike down is steep. It is slippery and muddy after it rains.

Visit the peaceful Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Hawaiian style wood carving in Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

There are two historic parks accessible from Kailua-Kona: Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. 

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is south of Kona in Hōnaunau, HI. It has always been a place of peace. 

Puʻuhonua is known as “the place of refuge.” No fighting was allowed to occur here. So much so that criminals who broke the Kapu laws of ancient Hawai’i could come here for refuge — if they could make it. It was beneficial for those that committed crimes with the consequence of death.

You can also visit the Royal Grounds outside the Pu’uhonua. They offer self-guided walking tours and ranger-led tours. 

Finally, take the hike to Ki’ilae Village, an abandoned fishing town for 2.5-miles of mountain views.

See the sacred Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park.

beach of hawaii with a tree

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is a sacred place to Native Hawaiians. 

The inhabitants of Kaloko-Honokōhau lived in this barren land of lava rock for centuries. They revered the land, and it is said that they became one with the spirit of Kaloko-Honokōhau.

They survived by fishing and creating aquaculture ponds, and they were experts at finding fresh water in this desolate area.

Today, you can learn more about the history and view wildlife such as green sea turtles. They like to hang on the rock here; just give them space! 

You can also hop in the water and snorkel here. Please, always use reef-safe sunscreen; it’s the law (and it’s also just the right thing to do!).

Escape the crowds at Makalawena Beach.

the beautiful blue waters of the beach at makalawena

The North Kona coast has a plethora of beaches to explore. Most of them require a little trekking to reach. But once you do, you will find white sand beaches, black sand beaches, and calm waters to swim in!

Makalawena is a treasure. You will want to head towards Mahai’ula Bay between the 90 and 91-mile markers on Highway 19 to reach the trailhead for Makalawena Beach. 

At Makalawena, you can enjoy the calm, blue waters of Pu’u Ali’i Bay. You can also enjoy multiple landmarks and beaches on your 1-mile hike, including Hayden Cove, Mahai’ula Bay Beach, and Pu’u Ali’i Beach.

Check out Manini’owali Beach and Kua Bay.

two colorful beach umbrellas behind black lava rock with beautiful turquoise sea and white sand in the background

This is another one of the most spectacular beaches on the Kona Coast and it’s absolutely worth a day trip from Kona.

It’s a great place for bodyboarding, snorkeling, and just relaxing on the beach and enjoying the contrast between the soft white sand and brilliant blue sea.

Marvel at Kalahuipua’a Historic Park.

fish Pond in Kalahuipuaa Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

Located in Waimea, the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park is best known for its unique natural fishponds as well as its lava tube.

It’s easy to do a quick hike to explore more of this beautiful area of the park!

Relax on Lone Palm Beach (Keawaiki).

the golden pools of lone palm peach a beautifu natural ecosystem

Lone Palm (Keawaiki) is located in the South Kohala moku

The beach is black sand, and there are beautiful golden pools (which are not suitable for swimming, due to the sensitive ecosystem) along the trail. 

But don’t worry: there is plenty of ocean to enjoy once you reach the beach. Plus, there is a freshwater spring! You will hike across harsh lava fields to reach it, so wear boots.

To reach the trailhead, park at the ʻAnaehoʻomalu Bay parking area and hike south. There are restrooms and showers at this trailhead, too. 

You can also access Lone Palm at mile-marker 79 on Highway 19. From here, you will hike north.

To reach these beaches, you will hike a few miles, but trust me, the hike is so worth it! 

Whichever way you go, be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen and a hat, as you will be pretty exposed to the sun on your hike. There is no shade.

See some more Hawaiian spinner dolphins at Kealakekua Bay.

the brilliant clear water at Kealakekua bay

Kealakekua Bay is a great spot for water sports, which presents the opportunity to swim with dolphins if you’re lucky, or dolphin watch from land if you prefer not to swim! 

Depending on what you prefer, you can kayak, snorkel, or scuba dive here: all of the above are amazing choices!

Marine life conservation is a focus in Kealakekua Bay. It is also a historic location, as it is where Captain Cook first landed on the island of Hawai’i.

He was the first Brit to land in the islands. But, unfortunately, he was killed in a skirmish right on Kealakekua Bay (to be clear, it was definitely his fault — trying to kidnap kings usually doesn’t go over well).

You’ll find the Captain Cook Monument located on this bay marking this historical site.

Nāpo’opo’o Beach Park, on the southern end of Kealakekua State Park, is where you can find this monument.

There is also a hikiau heiau (sacred temple) on the bay’s east side near Nāpo’opo’o Pier. This temple is to honor the Hawaiian god Lono. 

He is the god of rain, music, fertility, agriculture, and peace. It was said he came to earth on a rainbow… so it is perhaps no surprise that the Big Island of Hawai’i is so blessed with rainbows!

Look in wonder at ancient petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs in Waikoloa Field, on the King's Trail

Get your hike on at the Waikoloa Petroglyphs Reserve and the Puakō Petroglyph Archeological Preserve. 

Both are north of Kona in Kohala. If you are interested in history, these places will be unique!

At both parks, you can see many images etched into the lava rock. You will see sea turtles, human forms, spirals, and more. They have a high concentration of petroglyphs. The exact age of the petroglyphs is unknown, but it could be anywhere from 500 to 2,000 years old.

You can spend an afternoon on a petroglyph tour! So get your hike on and enjoy checking out these historic pieces of art from the ancient Hawaiians.

Plan your trip around a hula festival.

people watching hula dancers in hawaii

If you want to see hula performers, the Big Island has many festivals to enjoy! 

The most famous of these is the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. It happens the week after Easter every year and is one of the world’s most renowned hula and Polynesian arts competitions.

The Iolani Luahine Hula Festival and Hula Scholarship Competition happens in January or February, right in Kona. 

Another option is the Queen Liliuokalani Festival, which happens in Hilo in September. 

There is also the Moku o Keawe International Festival which occurs on the Kohala Coast in November.

Make the trek down south to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

view of the lava flows at hawaii volcanoes np

If you come to the Big Island, visiting this national park is essential! 

You can get there from Kona two ways. Both take about 2 hours to drive, and there are great stops along the way. 

I suggest getting a super early start and taking the southern route on the way there and the northern route along Saddle Road on the way back.

As you venture south, you will drive past some major landmarks of the Big Island. This includes South Point (Ka Lae)the Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea), and Black Sands Beach (Punalu’u). 

South Point is going to be reasonably accessible as you can drive there from Highway 11. You can also hit Green Sands Beach; just take note it takes 2.5 miles to hike to the beach from South Point.

Punalu’u is easy for a quick stop. You will also want to check out Punalu’u Bake Shop on your way. This place is famous for its malasadas and sweetbreads. Hanahou Restaurant is also my favorite spot for a burger on the island.

Once you reach Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you will have the opportunity for hiking. Take your pick of what ecosystem to immerse yourself in: there are rainforests, desolate lava fields, and craters.

You can also drive along Chain of Craters Road, where you can find endless hiking trails. Including one with access to petroglyphs. The road ends at the famed Hōlei Sea Arch. 

Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, in the Kilauea Caldera, cannot be missed. It is best to view this at dusk or night. You can view the steaming crater, which glows red from the magma bubbling below.

On your way back to Kona, I suggest stopping at Mauna Kea Observatory for a stunning show beneath the stars. There is no better place in the world than Hawai’i to view the night sky!

Indulge your sweet tooth with a cacao farm tour.

cacao beans on a farm in hawaii

There are quite a few cacao farms on the Big Island where you can tour the trees and taste the chocolate made with the cacao plant. 

Cacao is a tree with yellow oval fruit. The seeds of the fruit are used to make cacao, which is later converted into chocolate. The fruit is also pretty good.

Kuaiwi Farm is a great spot for this activity. While their coffee farm tour is popular, you can also take a candy-making class with unlimited sampling. Yum!

You can also visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Farm.  You can come here for a tour and sample their milk, dark, and rare criollo chocolates. 

There is nothing like organic chocolate right from the source!

***

The Big Island is one of my favorite places in the world. I miss the energy and the views almost every day. You will too after you come here.

You will awaken your senses to gorgeous, sweet-smelling tropical flowers and fruit. You will hike and swim with dolphins over stunning coral reefs. You will eat poke of fresh-caught fish, sip on beers at Kona Brewing Company, or dance hula.

The people will be welcoming and warm, excited to show you aloha and hospitality. Please respect the natives of Hawai’i. This is their island, and you are merely visiting. Treat the land and the people with love.

You will learn the meaning of the aloha spirit. This is the most incredible privilege of spending time in Hawai’i. An attitude of love and gratitude is at the heart of the meaning of Aloha. You will find yourself saying, “Mahalo (thank you)” for encountering such a beautiful sentiment to bring home with you.

A trip to Hawai’i will be eye-opening and cleansing. You will have a renewed sense of presence when you return home. It will live on deep in your soul for years to come. Aloha. Malama pono (take good care).

Badlands National Park Itinerary: 1, 2, or 3 Days of Adventure!

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

South Dakota is seriously one of the coolest states in America. It doesn’t seem to have that reputation, but it is true! 

The Black Hills and Custer State Park are gorgeous and full of wildlife. The Cathedral Spires are one of the most prominent rock climbing destinations in the United States.

As the state is full of exciting wildlife and rock features, you cannot miss a visit to Badlands National Park

You will be awe-struck by the colorful rock features and spires. Imagine reds, yellows, oranges, and white striped mountains and spires!

Small hills in the Badlands National Park at sunset with light falling on the rock formations
PLANNING BADLANDS AT-A-GLANCE:

When to Go: Mid-summer brings heavy storms -- and crowds. Best time to visit is late spring/early summer or in the early fall.

Where to Stay: The best place to stay is in Wall, SD, near the Northeast Entrance to the park. I suggest the Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner).

More options: Days Inn (mid-range), America's Best Value Inn (mid-range with pool)

How to Get Around: You'll want your own car to travel around Badlands National Park, as there is no shuttle or public transit through the park. If you're renting a car, compare prices for car rentals from Rapid City Airport here.

Don't want to drive or plan? This private one-day Badlands tour departs from Rapid City, SD and will cover all the highlights without you doing any legwork.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (this is an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini. 

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site. 
Striated red and tan rock and grasslands in the Badlands of South Dakota

This national park is one of the most extraordinary examples of prehistory in America. It used to be underwater, and some of the remaining rock seems to be still moist. 

You can see fossils and imagine how this land looked when it was still immersed under the ocean 45 million years ago.

Not only is the prehistory of this park enough to pique your interest, but it has a long history of Native American culture.

It is flourishing with plants and animals for anyone to have the opportunity to thrive off the land here. There are prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and bison roaming throughout the park. 

In addition, you will see edible and medicinal plants such as wild sunflowers, licorice, and juniper.

The Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne Native Americans once thrived in this wild land. They were among countless other tribes who learned the lay of the land and survived for hundreds of years before white settlers took the land from them.

As always when visiting stolen land, and particularly national parks, keep in mind the history of the land. The various Native American tribes of this area were true masters of the land. Remember this when you come here. The energy is palpable, and you can feel the ancient wisdom in the air.

Rock formations in Badlands National Park with shadow and light coming into play

How to Get to Badlands National Park

From Rapid City

From Rapid City to Badlands National Park, it takes about an hour drive to get to the park. There is a small regional airport at Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Rapid City airport from Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and Dallas.

From Sioux Falls

It’s a bit of a long drive between Sioux Falls and Badlands National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive via I-90, but it’s an airport that has a little more options than Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Sioux Falls airport from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis.

On a South Dakota Road Trip

I’m in the process of writing a post for a South Dakota road trip, but here’s a quick little overview for you.

Your road trip itinerary should include Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore, all of which are clustered close to the Rapid City Airport. 

Other places that might be of interest are Deadwood, SD and Devils Tower National Monument in nearby Wyoming.

Below is a map that shows a rough South Dakota road trip itinerary.

On a Larger American Road Trip

South Dakota’s two NPS sites (Wind Cave and Badlands) pair well with Mountain West or other Midwest national parks.

One example would be a road trip that includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mt. Rushmore, etc. You can see both Wyoming and South Dakota on a single road trip.

You could also pair with Colorado national parks or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park with blue geothermal waters

Entering Badlands National Park

There are three main entrances to Badlands National Park: the Northeast Entrance (close to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center), the Pinnacles Entrance, and the Interior Entrance (near the White River Visitor Center and Cedar Pass Lodge).

Either way will allow you to see a lot of the park, but the White River Visitor Center is more on the way if you are doing a South Dakota road trip as it’s easier to go to Custer State Park, the Black Hills, etc. from there.

You can enter one way and exit another or return via the same park entrance you came.

Entering Badlands National Park costs $25 per vehicle, or if you have the America the Beautiful Pass, entrance is free!

NPS Sign reading "Entering Badlands National Park" in the late afternoon sunset light

Travel Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park

Preparation for Visiting the Badlands

An important thing to note before we get into all of the options you have to explore the Badlands is that there are limited amenities. So make sure you fill your gas tank before you head into the park!

You should make sure that you bring plenty of food for 1, 2, or 3 days in the park. Packing a lunch that needs to stay cool? Skip the bulky cooler — we suggest this awesome insulated tote from Hydroflask for your picnic needs.

You can also get food at the restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge near the south edge of the park (Interior Entrance).

They have bison burgers, tacos, and vegetarian options. They also make their own fry bread, which is delicious.

Take note: the lodge is only open seasonally. Therefore, if you are coming in the off-season, you will need to bring all the food you need for the duration of your stay.

One of the many pointed rock formations of Badlands National Park with sunset light making shadows

Weather and Timing your Badlands Visit

An important thing to note about Badlands National Park is that the weather changes rapidly. One moment it can be warm and sunny; the next cool and stormy.

There are often high winds that will rip through the landscape. This is especially important to note if you plan on camping in the Badlands. A sturdy, legit tent is imperative. We’ll let you know more about camping in the Badlands later.

Note that summer is an especially stormy time with high winds and frequent thunderstorms…  and rainbows that follow!

The best time to visit the Badlands is in late spring/early summer (April-June, where you’ll get to see wildflowers) or late summer/early fall (September-October). The peak summer months (July and August) tend to have quite volatile weather!

Wildflowers in Badlands National Park at sunrise

What is an “Open Hike” Park?

One of the most incredible things about the Badlands is that while they may have many small trails and overlooks, this park is actually what is called an Open Hike park! 

That means you can hike and camp anywhere you want in the park, even if there are no trails.

If you choose to camp off-trail, you must camp at least 0.5 miles from any trails or roads. So you should be out of sight from anyone on the trail.

Always carry a map and a daypack. See the end of the post for our gear suggestions!

If you hike or camp off-trail, you will have the fantastic opportunity to see ferrets, prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, and bison.

A bighorn sheep standing looking at the camera in Badlands national park

Be sure to give all wildlife at least 25 yards of berth and do not approach them for any reason, particularly bison, which can occasionally be aggressive.

Note: there is also a presence of rattlesnakes in the Badlands! You should look out for them especially when adventuring off-trail. Always keep your eyes on the ground when walking. You can find them sunning themselves in open areas.

So while there are some great suggestions here, you are free to explore and hike anywhere the wind may take you while you explore the Badlands! 

It makes it a great way to spend time in the Badlands as you travel and explore to your heart’s content.

 Read a bit more about the “open hike” policy here.

Exploring the backcountry of Badlands National Park which is an Open hike park meaning you do not have to hike on trails only

Camping in Badlands National Park 

There are two different campgrounds in the park and dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland outside the park boundary. There is no fee for dispersed camping.

The campgrounds in the park are truly lovely. The first time I came to the park, I stayed at the Cedar Pass Campground

I camped on soft grass with an incredible view of the Badlands Pinnacles, the beautiful rock formations the park is known for. I found myself easily making my way to hike right from the campground for a lovely early morning stroll!

There is also primitive camping at the Sage Creek Campground. You can access this campground from Sage Creek Rim Road. There are no amenities. 

It, however, offers spacious campsites on prairie land. It is gorgeous and will give you a wilderness experience.

To reach dispersed camping, you want to head to the north and exit the park at the Pinnacles Entrance. When leaving the park, there is a dirt road just to the right after you cross the threshold of the park boundary.

You will travel along the road to find countless areas to set up your tent, RV, or sleep in your car. The road is bumpy, so 4-wheel drive is ideal. However, I saw multiple sedans parked along the road, too, so it is doable if you are careful.

Just go slow, watching for potholes, and you should be fine despite whichever vehicle you are driving. The dirt roads of the area can be especially treacherous in the rain.

Despite the roads, it is some of the most beautiful dispersed camping I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. You will have sweeping views of both the plains and the rugged, colorful rock of the Badlands.

Because of the Open Hike Policy, you can also camp anywhere you want in the park. Just remember to stay out of sight and 0.5 miles from any trails and roads while using Leave No Trace principles.

A blue tent out in the wilderness of Badlands National Park backcountry

A Quick Rundown on Leave No Trace Principles

Camping in the park and enjoying Badlands’ Open Hike policy works best when you use Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. 

Leave No Trace should be kind of self-explanatory. I like to think of it as “leave it better than you found it.”

LNT means you should always camp at least 100 feet from any water source. You should also urinate 100 feet away from water sources and 200 feet if you have to dig a cathole.

Carry out any soiled toilet paper. If you have to bury it, bury it at least 8 inches below the surface. This is how deep your cathole should be, but 12 inches is ideal.

Never leave trash anywhere, ever. Never!

Another nice thing to do is to “re-naturalize” your campsite. You can do this by adding debris to the area where you had set up your tent to make it appear as if you had never camped there.

Badlands FAQs

How much time do you need in Badlands National Park? One day in Badlands National Park is enough to get the basics, but two or three days will be even better. We give you options for 1, 2, and 3 day itineraries for this exact reason.

Can do you do Badlands National Park in one day? Absolutely! Start at the Northeast entrance and make your way through the park according to the itinerary suggested and you’ll hit all the Badlands highlights in a single day, or opt for one of the below tours which depart from Rapid City, SD.

What should you not miss in Badlands National Park? Everything on our one-day itinerary are the highlights of the park!

Is there a shuttle in Badlands National Park? No, there is not. You will want to bring your own car or rent a car from one of the airports if you are flying in. You can also take a private guided tour departing from Rapid City, SD if you cannot drive, just don’t want to, or if rental cars are not available.

Beautiful formations within Badlands National Park with green flora and red and earth toned rock

How This Badlands Itinerary Works

This Badlands National Park itinerary is additive, meaning that the first day of the itinerary covers everything you’d want to see if you have only one day in Badlands National Park. 

It is structured in a logical way that reduces backtracking and prioritizes the most important things. 

It also makes sure you get out and do some light hiking, so that you’re not just doing a car-hopping, whistle-stop tour of overlooks without appreciating the nature.

The second day contains the second most important things, and the third day offers some bonus ideas for things to do if you have an additional day to dedicate to your Badlands itinerary.

If you only have one day in the Badlands, you don’t need to read past day one: all the best things are in there!

If you have more than one day in Badlands National Park, continue reading to either the end of Day 2 or Day 3.

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

Badlands National Park Itinerary: Day One

Take a scenic drive on Badlands Loop Road.

Whichever end of the park you decide to enter from, you will end up on the Badlands Loop Road, a beautiful scenic byway through the park. 

It is the absolute best way to see the park if you only have one day in the Badlands, and it is one of the most scenic drives in all of the state!

Honestly, this park is relatively small compared to other national parks in the USA, so one day will allow you to see the major attractions of the Badlands.

The Badlands Loop Road is just 30 miles. As you traverse along the road, you will be able to hop out to enjoy vistas and some tremendous easy hikes in Badlands National Park!

When discussing this route of trails and overlooks, we will be entering the park from the Northeast Entrance.

Taking the scenic Badlands Loop, driving on an empty road in the Badlands in South Dakota

Make some stops for hikes and overlooks.

Your first stop will be the Big Badlands Overlook. It is a popular stop that offers hikers stunning views of the Badlands.

As you traverse south on Badlands Loop Road, you will find a great short hike at the Notch Trail

This trail is 1.5 miles and not too strenuous. One nifty feature of the trail is the rope ladder which ascends to a stunning viewpoint. It is one of the most popular hikes in the park!

Other tempting short hikes are the Window Trail and the Door Trail. Both of these trails are located at the same trailhead as the Notch Trail, so you can simply add on to your first hike if you have some energy!

In addition, these trailheads are located at the same point for the trailhead to the Castle Trail (more on this trail below), just north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. See the photo below for trailhead information

The Window Trail is 0.3 miles, and the Door Trail is 0.8 miles. Both offer hiking trails along a boardwalk with wonderful views. 

You can also freely hike off-trail anywhere you want along the way: this is allowed within the park, due to their “open hike” policy (unlike other national parks!).

Sign that reads trails "Door, Window, Notch, Castle": 4 trailheads diverging from one point

Take a short hike amongst fossils.

One of my favorite short hikes along Badlands Loop Road is the Fossil Exhibit Trail at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. It is a great way to get to know the prehistory of the park!

Plus, the fossil exhibits are hands-on so that you can touch the fossil moldings. You may even find an actual fossil along the trail! 

It is only 0.25 miles to hike this guy, so it’s easy for everyone, even if you’re visiting the Badlands with kids!

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is also an awesome place to check out fossils that have been found in Badlands NP!

Have a picnic lunch with a view, followed by more exploring.

From the Fossil Trail, stop at Bigfoot Pass Overlook for a picnic lunch… this is why I suggested bringing the food you’d like for the day into the park!

Another option would be the White River Valley Overlook, which also has amazing views suitable for a picnic lunch!

Then, hit up Panorama Point for more sweeping views of the Badlands. You will also find grand vistas at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. 

This overlook has lots of little trails leading out from the parking lot. These yellow mounds also contain hues of pink, purple, and orange… not just yellow!

To the right of the parking area, you can ascend a mound to take in the views of the prairie and the classic rock features of the Badlands.

You can also hike down around the yellow mounds to the left of the lot.

Yellow mounds in Badlands National Park with stripes of orange, tan, and pinkish-red with a clear blue sky behind it

View the sunset for an incredible show of color and light.

Sunset is one of the most incredible times to view the beauty of the Badlands! 

The colors of the rock will glow in a myriad of colors as the hues of sunset complement the features of the Badlands pinnacles.

One great spot for viewing the sunset is the Pinnacles Overlook, which you can find at the end of the Badlands Loop Road.

This overlook is a popular spot, as you will see. However, it offers some of the most beautiful sweeping views of the jagged rock of the Badlands.

Striations in the rock formations of the pinnacles in the Badlands national park of south dakota at sunset

Set up camp or stay in the lodge, if overnighting in the park.

Depending on how you are structuring your trip to the Badlands, this may be the point where you turn around and go back to Rapid City or wherever you are staying the night. 

Or you may want to set up camp or head to the lodge (if you have it pre-booked) if you are spending 2 or 3 days in Badlands National Park!

If you are staying overnight in the park, you will most likely be camping (more on that below).

However, there is a lodge that is open seasonally, Cedar Pass Lodge.

Cedar Pass Lodge offers lovely accommodations and a great restaurant. They have a campground as well as environmentally-conscious cedar cabins with all the amenities. 

They also self-describe themselves to be an excellent place to view the moon… or do some stargazing on a moonless night!

The colors of the Milky Way stretching up over the horizon in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands Itinerary: Day Two

Spend some time exploring the area around your campsite.

Once you’ve slept in and made yourself breakfast (or ate a filling, tasty breakfast from the lodge), you will want to explore more of whatever area you chose to stay in. 

If you’re staying only two days in Badlands National Park, you may want to break down your campsite now before continuing on with your day, or if you have three days in the Badlands, you can continue on without taking down your campsite.

The start of the day is up to you! Whether this is hiking on an established trail or taking advantage of the “Open Hike” policy of the Badlands, spend the morning your way.

If you stayed at the Lodge or the Badlands Campground near the Interior Entrance, now might be a good time to tackle the Saddle Pass Trail. 

This is a moderately-rated trail that packs a lot of punch into its short 0.7-mile length. Prepare for some scrambling!

If you stayed elsewhere in the park, you can find off-trail adventures near you or look for the nearest trailheads on your park map if you prefer to hike on-trail.

The easy boardwalk beginning to the moderately-rated Saddle Pass Trail which has some rock scrambling

Hike the Castle Trail for Sunset.

If you are staying for two days in Badlands National Park, be sure to take the time to view the sunset along the Castle Trail! 

Be sure to start this hike in the early afternoon. At 10.8 miles round trip, it is the longest trail in the Badlands. It will take up a nice chunk of an afternoon in the park, so be sure to start plenty early and bring a headlamp.

You will go on a stunning hike and explore the Castle Trail for incredible sunset views. Be sure to start the trail at the west trailhead heading east, across from the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. This will allow for you to be heading back west for the best views of the sunset.

The Castle Trail is a great option if you really want to get your hike on. It would be a wonderful way to end your last day in the park while you fully immerse yourself in the beauty of the landscape.

Sunset colors at the Castle Trail rock formation at the end of the trail

Alternative: You can camp along this trail if you want to do it the first day, instead. Remember that you have to be half a mile from the path and out of sight. It would be a great way to enjoy the park if you desire to backcountry camp out on this trail.

Other Alternative: If you’re not feeling a long hike, you can also view the sunset at the Conata Basin Overlook or Big Badlands Overlook.

Badlands Itinerary: Day Three

If you have three days to spend in the park, you can add endless backcountry adventures to your Badlands National Park itinerary! 

Perhaps you could spend the first day exploring the Badlands Loop Road, and then head on out to the depths of the park for your two nights in the park.

Twists and turns in the road of Badlands Loop Drive in South Dakota

Adventure in the park’s backcountry.

For your first night in the backcountry, Deer Haven is a great option. It would make the most sense for you to head there after you tour the park on the loop road.

It is only 2.5 miles from the Conata Picnic Area to reach the wilderness section to set up camp. While the trail is unmarked, there is a path you can follow. It will lead you to a grove of junipers, or you can camp on the buttes.

Another option for your first night would be to venture along the Badlands Loop Road and make your way out to Sage Creek Rim Road

The Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the park is another excellent spot for more backcountry adventures on your first night.

Close to the Sage Creek Bason Overlook, you’ll find the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, which has one of the highest concentrations of prairie dogs in the park!

You can find many bison game trails in this area, explicitly leading from the Sage Creek Campground. Explore the buttes or the plains from the Sage Creek Wilderness area for an all-encompassing Badlands experience.

Refer back to the info on the Castle Trail, as this is a beautiful undertaking for your second night out in the park’s backcountry. 

It is a 10.8-mile round trip, the longest maintained trail in the park. It is a nice option if you want to hike a lot while still having some time to check out more overlooks and short hikes in the early part of the day.

As it is an Open Hike park, you can venture out off-trail and explore as you please. Remember to camp at least 0.5 miles from the trail.

Notes on Backcountry Camping

If you want to camp in the backcountry here, you should always be sure to be at least half a mile from any roads or trails. Make sure you are out of sight.

Water is limited in the Badlands, so depending on where you decide to backcountry camp, you should make sure you bring plenty of water. 

Always check with a ranger before you venture out to learn about water availability out in the backcountry. Even with filtration systems, there may not be water available.

Additionally, you should always register at a ranger station before you venture out into the wild. Let them know where you plan to go and for how long. 

You do not want to get stuck out there and find no one is coming to look for you because you didn’t let anyone know where you were going!

Rule #1 of backcountry hiking: Always have a plan and make sure someone knows what that plan is.

Blue tent contrasting against the red rock and green grass landscape of Badlands National Park

Alternative Day 2 & 3 Badlands Itinerary

Explore other trails and overlooks.

If you don’t want to do backcountry camping, there are still plenty of ways you can enjoy a multi-day Badlands National Park itinerary.

On your second day in the park, head out to watch the sunrise. You will be awe-struck by the colors and sheer majesty of the park during the early morning hours. 

Again, there are some great options for this. This includes the Castle Trail, as mentioned above.

If you plan to make the Castle Trail for sunrise, you can add the Medicine Root Loop Trail to your hike, which would add 4 miles, making the entire undertaking 14.8 miles. 

This will allow you to spend a whole day hiking in one of the best sections of the park for views and buttes.

Other tempting options for sunrise are at Big Badlands Overlook or on the Door Trail. You will definitely see the sun come up and the beautiful light as it ascends over the rock of the Badlands and the prairie land of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Sunrise falling on a rock formation near the Door Trail in Badlands National Park

If you choose to view sunrise at the Big Badlands Overlook or the Door Trail, you can easily make your way to the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

This trail is 0.5 miles and is sometimes host to bighorn sheep and bison. 

Note: The park asks that you stay on this trail and sway from the Open Hike policy to help maintain this area.

When you have three days in the Badlands, you can truly explore the depths of the park. It is an excellent opportunity to drive along the Sage Creek Rim Road or Conata Road and explore at your heart’s whims.

You may also desire to head down into the Stronghold Unit. The Sheep Mountain Table Road is an off-road vehicle-only road.

If you have a vehicle with high clearance, then this is a stellar option for scenic driving. However, you can also hike this section; it is 2.5 miles to hike it.

Stair trail boardwalk leading to beautiful rock formations amidst a green lush landscape in the Badlands
Remember: the Cliff Shelf Trail is one of the exceptions to the Open Hike policy!

Get out of the park and into town.

Additionally, when you have more time on your itinerary, you can leave the park for a few hours to explore the outlying area of the park. 

For example, you may want to head out to the tourist town of Wall, SD, where there are a handful of restaurants and shops to enjoy.

Wall Drug is one of the big attractions. It is here where you can get handmade donuts and get some free ice water. The ice water was one of the ways that the original owners drew travelers to this town in the “middle of nowhere.” 

You can also find the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site here, which is an interesting place to visit to learn a bit about Cold War history.

A decommissioned Minuteman Missile silo

You can access Wall by heading out at the Pinnacles Entrance of the park.

Additionally, 1880 Town is a fun option. You can get there by leaving the park from the Northeast Entrance and heading back towards I-90.

Movies were filmed in the more than 30 buildings built during the pioneer days—the structures date from 1880 to 1920.

Plus, they have a museum, the ’50s Train Diner, gemstone panning, and live entertainment. It closes at 6 PM so you will want to make this a daytime activity.

1881 Post Office part of 1880 Town in South Dakota

Revel in the satisfaction of an incredible visit to Mako Sica.

Mako Sica is what the Lakota called the Badlands. It translates literally to bad lands. 

The variable weather and sometimes harsh environment are what created this namesake. However, this land is also sacred. It provided sustenance and a beautiful home for countless tribes. 

Remember this and treat this land with the proper respect it deserves. Remember that all National Parks are on stolen land — the same as virtually all of the United States. 

When you come here, you will be blown away by the energy and the beauty. The colors are stunning, and the adventures are endless. 

There is a reason it is nicknamed the “Land of Stone and Light.” As the weather changes rapidly, so does the light.

Embrace the wild and unpredictable movement of the Badlands. Arrive prepared for all kinds of weather. And remember, always leave the land better than you found it, especially in this most precious of landscapes.

Sunset over the Badlands of South Dakota with a sunburst effect and grass in the foreground

Badlands Day Pack Gear List

Badlands Backpacking Gear List

45 Awesome Things to Do in Hilo, Hawaii (+ Day Trips & Tours!)

beach park in hilo with water and trees

Hilo is one of the “major cities” of the Big Island of Hawaii. However, it is no metropolis by any means!

The Big Island’s cities are pretty small when compared to, say, Honolulu on Oahu. 

That said, Hilo is a beautiful small city with lots to do in and around the surrounding area regardless of its size.

The Big Island consists of six moku (districts). Hilo is its own moku surrounded by the moku of Puna, Hamakua, and Kaʻū, with the closest access to Puna and Hāmākua.

When you come to Hilo, you will see that a tight-knit community lives here. There are many small businesses to support, the wonderful Hilo farmers market to enjoy, and endless things to do in Hilo Bay. 

Plus, you will find many exciting day trips from Hilo.

We’re about to get into all the best things to do in Hilo, but first, a few notes before visiting Hawaiʻi.

A Note About Visiting Hilo, Hawaii

Plant life in front of one of the beaches of Hilo Hawaii

It is essential to state that when you visit Hawaiʻi, you understand that this is the home of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, a monarchy with centuries of history and culturethat was overthrown by the U.S. government and is still presently occupied.

Like most land in the nation now known as the United States, this land is stolen land. 

As magnificent as Hawaiʻi is, remember where you are when you come to Hilo. Honor the traditions of the Hawaiian people and move with the aloha spirit throughout this sacred land.

Aloha is more than just a greeting that means both hello and goodbye, as has been popularized through culture; aloha is a way of life. 

Aloha is a word that describes the life-force energy of love and connection that runs through us all and the land. It comes from two Hawaiian words, “alo” which means ‘share’ and “ha” which means “essence/breath of life”.

Live with aloha. Honor the Hawaiian ancestors and present-day kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians). Be respectful and leave nothing behind when you visit the Big Island.

Getting Around Hilo

Road on Banyan Drive, Hilo, big island of Hawaii

Your best bet is to rent a car when you come to the Big Island. The public bus system does not always follow its schedule, and it is just not reliable, especially if you want to see all you can.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental from Hilo Airport here.

If you stay in downtown Hilo, you can certainly walk to some of the major downtown attractions. However, many of the places on this list of things to do in Hilo require a car to visit properly.

You may also want to rent a bike to explore Hilo proper. Mid Pacific Wheels, LLC can help you out with a bike rental.

Where to Stay in Hilo

One option, especially if you are on a budget, is the Wild Ginger Inn, an outdoor hostel and inn. There are dorms as well as private rooms. The rooms are basic and sit among palm trees and tropical vegetation.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

Orchid Tree Bed and Breakfast is another fabulous option. You’ll enjoy fresh fruit in the mornings along with their pool and hot tub. They also have a lovely lanai (covered porch) and easy access to the beach and downtown Hilo.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

For a more bougie stay, Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is your choice. Most rooms have a private lanai which will offer spacious views of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea. Plus, I mean, it has the word castle in the name…
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is also an incredible place to stay. Enjoy views of the falls and farm-to-table eating. They also offer cooking classes. They have rooms, suites, and off-grid cabins in which to stay. They are stewards of the land here, with sustainability at the heart of their business practices.
>> Check reviews, photos, and availability here!

Best Things to Do in Hilo Town, Hawaii

Marvel at the incredible Rainbow Falls.

One of the most enticing things about traveling to the island of Hawaiʻi is the opportunity to see waterfalls: the island is jam-packed with them. 

In fact, there is a great one right in Hilo town, Rainbow Falls. This is part of the Wailuku River State Park.

Rainbow Falls (Wainuenue) has easy access from downtown Hilo and does not require much of a hike — just 0.1 miles in fact. There is a parking lot and restrooms here. 

Because of its easy access and incredible beauty, it is one of the most photographed waterfalls in all of Hawai’i.

the waterfall of rainbow falls in hawaii surrounded by lush green foliage

Check out the majestic 1,000-year-old banyan tree.

If you walk towards the top of the falls at Wainuenue, you’ll find a banyan tree over 1000 years old! 

It has been there since before Hawaiʻi was a territory and then state of the US, and it stands as a testament to the long, ancient history of Hawaiʻi.

I love to imagine the centuries of children of Native Hawaiians who enjoyed this tree, basking underneath and climbing within this tree. It will be hard for you to resist the urge to do the same!

Hike to Wai’ale Falls and its Boiling Pots.

Nearby Rainbow Falls (Wainuenue) is another set of falls, Wai’ale Falls, also part of Wailuku River State Park in Hilo, Hawaii.

When you visit Wai’ale Falls, you will also have the opportunity to view the Boiling Pots Lookout (Pe’epe’e Falls).

This area is vibrating with movement from the water. It is a worthwhile stop when checking out the best Big Island waterfalls!

the river where you can find the 'boiling pots' near hilo hawaii

Visit the Hilo Nursery Arboretum.

Head to the Hilo Nursery Arboretum located at 19 East Kawili St in Hilo town. 

Visitors are allowed to fill up one grocery bag of fruit per day. Just make sure you check-in at the visitors center for permission first!

There are breadfruit trees, cacao trees, citrus trees, and more!

Shop at the Hilo Farmers Market.

You can also hit the Hilo Farmers Market. The market has vendors 7 days per week from 6 AM to 3 PM. 

The big market days are on Wednesdays and Saturdays where there are more vendors, so prioritize those days if you can.

Whichever day you go to the farmers market, you will find an abundance of fruit, veggies, fresh-cut tropical flowers, and artisan goods! 

You can find soursop or sweet bread, turmeric pastes, or longon fruits, among dozens of other delicious delights! 

Whatever your pleasure, there will be something for you to enjoy and take back to your lodgings.

Flowers, bananas, and other produce and goods at the Hilo Farmers Market

Explore downtown Hilo.

In downtown Hilo, there are many shops and restaurants to explore. You can enjoy boutiques and galleries in the wooden waterfront buildings (hundreds of years old!). 

Check out one of the bookstores to find books on Hawaiian culture and spirituality. You can also get ice cream or Hawaiian shave ice, a popular local treat!

We suggest checking out Two Ladies Kitchen for Japanese-style desserts. For one of the best burgers on the island, hit up Hilo Burger Joint.

Want to do some learning? Head to The Mokupapapa Discovery Center for a Hawaiian cultural experience featuring an aquarium.

Visit Kaipalaoa Landing.

This historic place in Hilo is considered a “wahi pana” or a “legendary place” in Hawaiian culture.

It is believed that King Kamehameha loved to surf here and it is here where he gave the town of Hilo its name.

You’ll find a white lighthouse here with several numbers printed on it. These numbers represent four years that tsunamis hit Hilo (1946, 1952, 1957 and 1960). Each year is marked with a line, which represents the height of the tsunami waves that hit the town.

white lighthouse on a cloudy day at a famous place in hilo

Check out the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

You don’t need to leave Hilo to be one with the stars!

The marvelous ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center features interactive exhibits, a domed planetarium, and beautiful gardens of native Hawaiian plants. It is run by the University of Hawaii.

One thing that’s particularly cool about the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is how it showcases the particularly Hawaiian relationship to astronomy, and how the first Hawaiians navigated to these islands from Polynesia using the stars.

The gift shop here is also particularly excellent.

Learn history at the Pacific Tsunami Museum.

As an island state, it’s unsurprising that Hawaii is particularly susceptible to tsunamis. 

Over the years, several tsunamis have devastated the island of Hawaiʻi and in particular, the east coast side of the island and Hilo.

This museum explains how tsunamis are formed and goes over the history of the 1946 Pacific Tsunami and the 1960 Chilean Tsunami and how they impacted Hilo, Kona, and other parts of the the Big Island.

Enjoy a tasty loco moco.

A visit to Hawaiʻi is not complete without enjoying a loco moco plate lunch. 

Loco moco is a popular dish featuring rice, gravy, and some kind of meat, usually a beef patty or spam. 

For this, you want to go to Hawaiian Style Cafe, whichis also a super popular spot for brunch. They have some of the best Hawaiian food in town!

a traditional dish of moco loco a famous hawaiian dish

Watch the surfers at Honoli’i Beach Park.

Located just two miles from downtown Hilo, this gorgeous black sand beach is a great place to while away a few hours!

Head there early in the morning or at sunset to see surfers navigating these epic waves!

Check out the Lyman Museum.

The Lyman Museum (also called the Lyman Mission House) is the oldest wooden house on the island of Hawaiʻi.

It was built in the late 1830s after a married missionary couple, David and Sarah Lyman, arrived in Hawaiʻi from New England after a six-month sea voyage.

While the history of missionaries has always been problematic, particularly their drive to import their culture into another, the house itself is an interesting historical place.

It once hosted many important guests, including members of the Hawaiian royal family and famed author Mark Twain.

Sample some incredible poke.

You will also want to try out some poke, which is a Hawaiian raw marinated fish dish served with rice and veggies.

In Hilo, Poke Market is the spot for this. Not only can you get poke dishes, but this is also a fish market. 

Come here for fresh-caught fish and poke created by a world-class chef. Plus, locals run this restaurant and market, and they are wonderful and worth supporting!

Close up of a bowl of tuna poke with avocado, cucumber, scallions and chili

Visit the Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

The gardens are right on Hilo Bay, so you will enjoy views of the water and Mauna Kea while you stroll. 

They are named after Princess Lili’uokalani, the last sovereign of Hawai’i before the United States illegally seized the Hawaiian islands.

At the gardens, you will find a Japanese Garden with peaceful streams running throughout through these gorgeous gardens, as well as traditional pagodas and other Japanese garden fixtures. 

This garden was created in tribute to all the immigrants from Japan who have shaped modern-day Hawaiian culture and identity.

Red japanese pagoda in the middle of the hilo gardens

Check out the scenic Banyan Drive.

Liliuokalani Botanical Garden is also within proximity to Banyan Drive

Banyan Drive is also called the “Hilo Hollywood Walk of Fame.” Celebrities planted the banyan trees here. 

It is yet another opportunity to enjoy these massive trees with their vinous trunks and climbing branches!

Take the bridge to Coconut Island.

Another great thing about visiting Liliuokalani Park and Gardens is that the gardens have easy access to Coconut Island via a land bridge.

 Coconut Island was initially called Moku Ola, “healing island,” as Native Hawaiians believe the island to have healing properties.

Healing powers or not, Coconut Island has two great sandy beaches that are protected from the waves by the pier in Hilo, so it’s a great place for a calm swim or wade, and the beaches are beautiful to stroll along even if you don’t want to go for a swim!

Bridge leading towards the Coconut Island in Hilo, from the gardens

Head to Hilo Bay for a snorkeling adventure.

You can enter the water in a myriad of places in Hilo to enjoy the coral and diverse ocean wildlife of Hawaiʻi! 

You may see Hawaiian spinner dolphins or the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the state fish of Hawaiʻi. You may also see spearfishermen hunting beneath the surface!

Take out your snorkel mask at Richardson Ocean Park.

There are many great places to snorkel near Hilo. Richardson Ocean Park is one of the best spots in the area! 

If you don’t have your own gear, or if you’re a little hesitant to head out on your own, many tour outfitters can take you on a tour if you are new to snorkeling.

If you are more experienced, you can simply hop in the water with your snorkel gear, and you will find yourself immersed in the wonder of the beautiful sea creatures of Hilo Bay!

Take note: It is best to snorkel in calm waters with no cloud cover for the best underwater visibility.

Even if you don’t feel like snorkeling, it’s a great place to walk around, with lots of beautiful tropical flora right alongside the beach.

trees by the ocean in hilo hawaii floating next to a lagoon

Grab some beers or draft kombucha in Hilo town.

Head on over to Hilo Brewing Company, where you can sample some beers and great eats! 

We like the Hilo Golden Ale and the Mauna Kea Pale Ale. Foodwise, they serve hot dogs, wings, charcuterie, hummus, nachos, and sandwiches.

You may perhaps instead want to sample draft kombucha. You can find Big Island Booch at The Booch Bar. 

Draft kombucha is significantly better than bottled booch. It is so much more refreshing from the tap! 

Also, the Booch Bar is known for its “living” food. Their food menu consists of many fermented foods, salads, and vegan options, great for you if you are health-conscious. 

Fermented food provides precious probiotics to aid in your gut health. It also is just delicious. We love The Booch Bar!

Relax in the lagoons of Carlsmith Beach Park.

While many of the beaches near Hilo have some rough surf, Carlsmith Beach Park is a nice and relaxing place with calm waters.

This is a great place to bring out your snorkel and try to spot some sea turtles and tropical fish. There are also tidepools to explore and picnic tables if you want to bring your own lunch.

the turquoise waters of Carlsmith beach park is one of best places to swim and snorkel close to Hilo.

Best Things to Do Near Hilo: Day Trips & Excursions

Take an incredible helicopter tour over volcanoes and waterfalls.

The best way to see the views around Hilo? By helicopter, of course!

This Circle of Fire and Waterfalls Helicopter tour will show you all the best of the Big Island from a convenient departure point in Hilo.

You’ll fly over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, seeing both the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes from a sky-high perspective. 

You’ll also get to see the Halemaumau Crater and other important sites that make up the national park, and as you return, you’ll pass by the Hamakua Coast and its many gorgeous waterfalls.

Book your Helicopter Tour here!

Helicopter zooming in to show the volcano flows on Hawaii

See the breathtaking ʻAkaka Falls State Park.

For another waterfall adventure, head out of town to visit ʻAkaka Falls State Park in the North Hilo District! 

These falls offer more of an opportunity for jungle hiking than the waterfalls mentioned above. It is only a 0.4-mile loop trail, but it will definitely get the heart pumping! 

There are a lot of stairs and pavement as you descend and ascend among bamboo and palms. These tall falls are absolutely gorgeous. 

They are just a 10-minute drive from Hilo Town, and they’re one of the best things to do near Hilo!

the impressive single drop waterfall of akaka falls in hawaii surrounded by lush greenery

Spend the night camping at Kole Kole State Beach.

Kole Kole is a lovely little coastal state park with plenty of grassy areas to set up your tent. 

The grassy camping area in is adjacent to a beautiful set of cascading falls, which flow right into the ocean. 

They are great for climbing and swimming in as you enjoy the view of the wild Pacific Ocean. The beach is full of pebbles and rocks to explore as well — bring water shoes!

There are no designated campsites, just a field to set up your tent in. You will have ocean views as you sit in a valley flanked with vertical, green hills. 

There are restrooms here and a pavilion with electricity to charge your phone or set up speakers for music. 

Just respect your neighbors if you choose to use the electricity at this park — do not have bright lights or loud music, and turn everything off at a reasonable hour so people can rest.


Snorkel with sea turtles and dolphins.

We already suggested a few places in Hilo where you can snorkel and possibly see sea turtles, but there are also guided excursions from Hilo that offer small-group snorkel tours (no more than six people per group).

This is a good way to go if you’ve never snorkeled before and you want a bit of a primer before you hit the waters! Snorkeling is easy but it can be intimidating if it’s your first time, so going with a group can be a good idea.

Book your sea turtle snorkeling excursion here!

Two sea turtles under the water close to the camera

Enjoy a relaxing kava experience in Puna moku.

Kava, also known as ʻawa, has been used in Hawaiʻi for over two thousand years. 

It is one of the original “canoe plants,” which means it was brought over from Polynesia when the original Hawaiians left those islands.

Kava is a mildly psychoactive plant that has a very calming effect. You will drink a cold tea made with the roots. 

When you partake in a kava experience, it’s a practice to honor the earth, the ancestors, and your third eye. Ask your “bartender” to show you the ropes as to how to drink kava properly.

The kava bar you will be going to is Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar. It is located in Pāhoa, a 30-minute drive from Hilo, in the same spot where there is a weekly night market.

Dance to the music at Uncle Robert’s Night Market.

You can find the night market near Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar. It has been hosted for many years by a local Hawaiian family.

This night market will bring you local vendors selling all kinds of artisan crafts and delicious food. You can get yourself some delicious macadamia ice cream (a Hawaiʻi must!) or a T-shirt with original art from a local Hawaiian artist.

There is also always live music at the night market. It is a beautiful opportunity to see Hawaiian and popular music! 

The ukuleles will be strumming, guitars humming, and voices will be harmonizing. Get out on the dance floor and enjoy the night at this market with neighbors in the lava fields of Pāhoa.

Note: Uncle Robert’s Night Market happens every Wednesday night from 5 to 10 PM.

Scoop of Kona coffe and macadamia nut ice cream in a yellow cup

Take a day trip to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is one of the most unique national parks you may ever have the privilege to visit! 

All in one place, you can hike in the jungle or along a desolate crater. You’ll also find lava fields, steam vents, and petroglyphs.

There are several ways to visit Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, either by guided tour or self-driving.

Guided tour is the easiest way to go, and it can also combine several other of these Hilo day trips into a single one-day tour.

This tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park also includes stops at the Waipio Valley waterfalls and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

It’s a small group tour (maximum 15 people) and you’ll enjoy a picnic lunch in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and be given ample time to hike a few miles around the stunning volcanic landscapes if you choose.

You’ll also get to check out a private lava tube at Kauhi Cavern (access is exclusive to the tour!) and spend time checking out active steam vents and lava craters, including Halema’uma’u and Kilauea Iki craters.

Book your Hawaii Volcanoes NP tour here!

If you are self-driving, drive along Chain of Craters Road to see the many craters and spacious views of the Pacific. 

This beautiful scenic drive has easy access to some petroglyphs. Plus, it ends at Hōlei Sea Arch! 

As lava poured into the ocean 550 years ago, it made the arch. The arch will eventually crumble into the sea, so it is lucky to view a fleeting structure such as this.

Sea arch made from cooled lava from a lava flow in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

One of the other main highlights of Hawai’i Volcanoes is the Halemaumau (Pelehonuamea) Crater on the Kilauea Volcano. 

It is an active volcano with a crater that glows red from the lava flowing below! You can see the glow as you approach the national park from the west at dusk and night. 

There is a museum and several overlooks to view the steaming, glowing crater.

When it comes to Hawaiian spirituality, Halemaʻumaʻu is the home of the volcano goddess Pele. Tutu Pele is the goddess of destruction and rebirth, she who shapes and forms the land. 

In Hawaiian culture, she is highly revered. She may wrap you up in her mothering arms or chew you up and spit you out. If you respect Hawaiʻi when you visit, she will most likely wrap you up in her arms. 

However, sometimes we just need some destruction to be reborn into new life — a story the island of Hawaiʻi knows well, as both the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian islands!

Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Take a ride on a wa’a (a traditional Hawaiian canoe).

The wa’a (pronounced “vah-ah”) is the same type of vessel that the original Hawaiians used to make their way thousands of miles across the Pacific over two thousand years ago. 

These canoes look like a traditional canoe with a deep body and an outrigger. Riding in one is a unique excursion to experience when in Hilo!

There are multiple tour companies available to give you an experience rowing these vessels on Hilo Bay. 

It is a great workout and an even better way to glimpse into history. It is just awe-inspiring to think about how the ancient Polynesians crossed the Pacific navigating with the stars to reach these islands thousands of miles away across the open ocean.

Check out Kaumana Caves State Park.

This state park near Hilo is an interesting place to go to see the geological history of the island firsthand! 

It’s only a 10-minute drive from Hilo, but it feels like another world.

These caves are actually lava tubes formed by the eruptions of Mauna Loa, another one of the active volcanoes on the Big Island.

You can hike in the lava tube. Bring sturdy, closed-toe shoes (the lava rocks are slippery) and plenty of light sources, like a flashlight or headlamp. Just a cellphone flashlight won’t cut it!

Sip wine in the town of Volcano.

Make your way southwest, 45 minutes from Hilo, to the town of Volcano. 

Note: This excursion would pair nicely with your visit to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park!

Volcano Winery and Tea Farm is a lovely winery and farm. Their award-winning Infusion Tea Wine is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted! 

You will like it, especially if you love tea. They also have wines featuring classic Hawaiian flavors of macadamia nut or guava and traditional wines like pinot noir. 

You can get a flight and try them all!

They do not serve food here, but perhaps you can take some of your farmers’ market finds with you. 

They allow picnicking on the premises. So, I guess you can call it a BYOF (bring your own food)!

Feast your eyes on rainbow eucalyptus.

Head back up north to Kalōpā State Recreation Area in Honoka’a. On your way into the park, you can view rainbow eucalyptus along the road! 

These magnificent trees have brightly colored bark with hues of pinks, greens, and purple.

They’re quite magical and you won’t be able to resist taking some photos!

the multicolored bark of the rainbow eucalyptus tree (blue, purple, red, yellow, and more)

Check out the native ‘ohi’a forest in Kalōpā.

Additionally, there are great hiking opportunities in Kalōpā, along with camping and cabins.

They also have a native ‘ohi’a forest to check out. These trees are sacred to Hawaiians. They are the first vegetation to grow in the lava fields, a desolate environment where little vegetation can survive naturally. 

They are responsible for creating the first soil to build on the lava where other plants can eventually grow. So, they are responsible for the lush forest that you will experience at Kalōpā and all around the island.

There is a legend connected to the ‘ohi’a tree and its flower, the lehua flower. 

the brilliant red flower o the lehua flower growing on the o'hia plant

‘Ohi’a was a love interest of Pele. However, he was already in love with Lehua. Pele, in her fury, turned ‘Ohi’a into a tree. The gods were dissatisfied with this. 

In turn, they made Lehua a flower of the tree so she and ‘Ohi’a would never be separated.

According to legend, if you pluck a Lehua flower, it will rain that day, as they are the tears of the lovers who never want to be separated.

Check out Puna moku and the Kalapana Lava Fields.

In Puna, make your way to the Kalapana Lava Fields or experience the ocean along the Red Road. You can also visit steam vents in the area!

Kalapana is where you can view the lava flowing into the ocean when the volcano is erupting. This is not something that will constantly be occurring. 

The last lava flow ended in May 2021, but you may still be able to see this depending on when you visit. If you are lucky enough, it will blow your mind!

Bring aloha spirit to the town of Pāhoa.

In the Puna moku, you will find Pāhoa. It rains a lot here, so there are beautiful lush forests.

Pāhoa itself is a charming little town. When visiting, bring aloha spirit with you. 

Large areas of Pāhoa were wiped out in 2018 when lava consumed Leilani Estates and numerous beloved natural areas. 

I used to live in Leilani Estates (in 2016). It broke my heart to know that the lovely house in the rainforest where I lived was swallowed by lava.

However, the people of Pāhoa are resilient and eccentric. Come here to support this vibrant community. 

There are many opportunities to dance to live music or drive along beautiful winding roads surrounded by the rainforest of Pāhoa and the Puna district. Plus, Pāhoa town has many cool shops and great spots to grab a bite. 

We especially recommend Pho’ 19. Be sure also to check out the beautiful Painted Church!

Additionally, there are many communes and opportunities to volunteer for discounted rates at one of the many eco-retreats in Puna moku. 

We recommend Hedonesia Eco-Community, where you can participate in art and garden projects as you stay in one of their structures in the rainforest. Some may stay in a converted bus or a lovely little hut.

You may also want to check out Cinderland Eco-Community who offer WWOOF’ing (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms) opportunities.

Hit the road to explore the Pepe’eoko Scenic Drive.

Head north of Hilo on Highway 19 to traverse 40 miles up to the Hamakua Coast, ending at Waipio Valley (more on Waipiʻo below). 

You will get to tour one of the most beautiful parts of the island with this drive. The views are endless and the waterfalls are plentiful! 

Visit ʻAkaka Falls (as mentioned above) and feast your eyes on Kahuna Falls at the World Botanicals Gardens, another worthy stop on your journey.

Check out the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

As you drive on Highway 19, there are many little shops and vendors selling fruit and coconuts along the way. 

One place not to skip is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden at Onomea Bay (less than 9 miles from Hilo), which is self-described as “a beautiful garden in a valley on the ocean”. 

These gardens are truly spectacular. It is a place to learn about plant botany, marvel at the beautiful tropical flowers, take a stroll, and enjoy the majesty of nature!

Tourist admiring lush tropical vegetation of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden of Big Island of Hawaii

Take a detour to Honoka’a for some shopping and eating.

Additionally, you’ll want to take a detour into Honoka’a, a quaint little town at the “doorway to Waipiʻo Valley.” 

There are many shops and boutiques in the charming town of Honoka’a. You can find Hawaiian-made goods and stunning batik sarongs. 

Plus, you should stop at Tex Drive-in for malasadas (Portuguese stuffed donuts). You will then be able to make your way to Waipiʻo Valley, the next place on this list of things to do in Hilo.

Engage in a spiritual journey down into Waipiʻo Valley.

Waipiʻo is one of the most iconic locations on the Big Island! The view from the lookout is stunning enough to fill your soul.

However, if you choose to hike down into the valley, you will indeed be moved by the energy here, as it is a sacred place to the Hawaiians.

Waipiʻo was home to King Kamehameha. He is a highly revered figure in Hawaiian culture. You will see his name everywhere.

According to lore, King Kamehameha stood at 7 feet tall and is remembered for rolling the Naha Stone. 

An ancient Hawaiian prophecy once stated that whoever could move the stone would unite the islands, which he did. He rolled the two-ton stone and subsequently joined the islands, ending 100 years of war. You can see the Naha Stone in Hilo today, in front of the Hilo Public Library.

It is not an easy hike down into the valley as it is very steep. You will hike 4.7 miles round trip when exploring Waipiʻo. 

Along the hike, there are black sand beaches and a view of Wailoa River. 

Take note: after rain, the stream can be flowing pretty intensely, so use caution should you desire to cross the creek for additional exploration.

If you can’t drive or don’t plan on renting a car while in Hilo, you can take a guided tour of the Waipio Valley.

Book your Waipio tour online here!

an aerial photo of the beautiful and lushly green waipio valley

See the stars on Mauna Kea.

When it comes to viewing the night sky, there is no better place than Hawai‘i. Seriously. You will be totally in awe. 

Head through Saddle Road and then up to Mauna Kea. You can ride up to the Visitor Center and observatory to view the stars through a telescope.

However, it is still amazing to just head up Mauna Kea (Maunakea in Hawaiian) and view the stars on a hillside!

When I was there, I was lucky enough to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. The show was insane. 

I could see long golden trails as hundreds of shooting stars flew across the sky. I simply brought a blanket, laid down with friends, and watched in awe. You can do this too, meteor shower or not!

Purple night sky studded with millions of stars on Mauna Kea

Another way to see the stars on Mauna Kea is through a guided stargazing tour.

This includes a transfer to Mauna Kea from Hilo, and once you arrive, you will get to borrow their large-aperture telescopes to see all the incredible galaxies and nebulas and planetary bodies from some of the darkest skies on Earth.

The guided tour is led by astronomers who are experts in their fields, having written numerous scientific articles and worked at world-class observatories, and they’re here to share their guidance with you!

If you want to go stargazing on Mauna Kea, under one of the darkest skies you’ll find on all of planet Earth, this tour is a must-do.

Book your stargazing tour of Mauna Kea here!

the stars of the milky way galaxy visible over the telescopes on mauna kea

An important thing to note is that Maunakea is a sacred mountain to Native Hawaiians. There is much controversy over the fact that large, obtrusive telescopes were built on her. 

Please be respectful when you come up here and acknowledge that Maunakea is a place where the desires of U.S. settlers and Native Hawaiians collide. 

That does not mean you cannot or should not come for stargazing, but come with awareness of how Native Hawaiians feel about the larger telescope projects. Do your best to treat Maunakea with the same awe that they do.

There is currently controversy around another planned telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, which has set off protests and revived calls for more Native Hawaiian sovereignty over their sacred lands. 

You can read a bit more about the protests and the young activists leading the way here.

Fun Fact: Mauna Kea is the tallest sea mountain in the world. And, if you count what’s below sea level, it is taller than Everest.

giant silver and white telescopes located on mauna kea in hawaii

Drive your way to Kaʻū moku.

Many of Kaʻū’s sights are about an hour and a half drive from Hilo. 

The drive will be worth it as it offers captivating views of dramatic pali (Hawaiian for cliffs), the Kaʻū Desert, and of course, the Pacific Ocean!

Check out the southernmost point in the U.S.

When you head to Kaʻū, you will be able to see some of the highlights of the Big Island. 

One such spot is South Point (Ka Lae). South Point is the southernmost point in the United States.

You will see many people jumping off of South Point into the ocean below. It is dangerous to do, so only participate if you are an experienced cliff-jumper and a strong swimmer.

Hike to Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea).

From the parking lot at South Point, you can hike south along the dirt road to Green Sands Beach (Papakōlea). It is accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance as well.

After you make the 2.5-mile journey to this stunning beach, a beach coated in olivine crystals and smatterings of black sand among the white sand with greet you. 

You can relax on the beach or swim in the water. Be aware that the water can be pretty rough, so proceed with caution!

the waters of the green sand beach of hawaii with turquoise water

Check out the town of Nāʻālehu.

From Green Sands, head back towards Hilo and stop in the town of Nāʻālehu (Naalehu). You can get some great eats here! 

For incredible burgers and loco moco, Hanahou Restaurant is your stop. I just love this small family-owned restaurant. Sometimes there is even live music and hula.

You can also hit up Punalu’u Bake Shop, “the southernmost bake shop in the United States.” They are known for their malasadas and tasty Hawaiian sweet bread. 

If you need a pick-me-up, they serve coffee and other beverages. They have outdoor seating in their garden, too!

traditional portuguese donuts covered in sugar

Marvel at the black sands of Punalu’u Beach.

Another highlight of Ka’u is Punalu’u Beach (Black Sands Beach). It is a great beach! 

You will most likely see honu (sea turtles) resting on the beach. You can also hop in the water and enjoy snorkeling here.

palm trees against black sand on a beach in hawaii big island near hilo

Bask in the glory of a trip well spent.

These suggestions are but a few of the many experiences you can have on the Big Island while you are based in Hilo Town. 

Seriously, the list goes on and on! However, I hope that you will find these ideas fulfilling and fun and you have lots of ideas for what to do in Hilo and around it.

The Big Island is a magical place for you to visit. You will be awe-struck by the views, the waterfalls, and the stars. 

Romp around the rainforest, take a drive along the coast, and take in the sights of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

No matter what, the people are friendly and welcoming. The memories you will make will be etched in your soul.

I encourage you to open yourself up to the aloha spirit as you traverse this island. Respect the Āina (land). Treat every human, creature, and piece of land with aloha. You will be glowing with mana (spirit energy) when you head back home.

With that, I leave you with: Aloha Āina (love the land). Malama pono (take good care).

Big Island Hikes: 17 Breathtaking Hikes on Hawaiʻi

the waterfall of rainbow falls in hawaii surrounded by lush green foliage

Hiking on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi is one of the greatest opportunities to enjoy incredible landscapes and inspiring views.

The Big Island is otherwise known as the island of Hawaiʻi, and it’s received the nickname of “The Big Island” to distinguish itself from the U.S. state of Hawaii.

The Big Island is of the most beautiful places on earth to hike. One of the coolest things about the Big Island is that there are eight different climate zones. On just one island, you can explore rainforests, desert areas, and ice caps (plus more).

When you come to Hawaiʻi, you will realize that it is largely made up of two massive mountains, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Mauna Loa is the largest mountain by volume in the world, whereas Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world if you count what’s below sea level — move over, Everest!

These massive mountains lend themselves to some pretty stellar hiking on the Big Island, as you can imagine!

There is also incredible hiking in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, where you may even get to see lava flowing.

The Big Island is named so because the lava is always flowing, and therefore new land is born every day. It’s the biggest island of the Hawaiʻian islands, but it’s also the newest. There are five volcanoes on the island of Hawaiʻi: Kīlauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea (Maunakea), Kohala, and Hualālai.

When I lived on the Big Island, I was able to walk right up to the lava flow when hiking in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park! However, this was because of the timing and is not guaranteed. It just depends on what the lava is doing.

This is also why helicopter rides are a popular attraction on the Big Island. You can always see the flow overhead; it is just too difficult to get to if the lava is flowing in a remote area.

Check out Hawaii helicopters tour online here!

In addition to high elevation climbs and hiking amongst volcanoes, the Big Island is full of beautiful green forests and offers coastal hiking and gorgeous valleys.

Hike on the desert plains, along the shoreline, in the rain forest, or through lava tubes. It does not really matter; every place is spectacular. The Big Island is just that amazing.

We will categorize these Big Island hikes based on regions: Kaʻū, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Hilo, Hāmākua, Kohala, Kona, Saddle Road, and Puna.

female hiker standing on mauna loa looking at the clouds and views below the summit

Hikes in Kaʻū

First, we have rural and scenic Kaʻū, which is home to South Point, the southernmost point in the United States.

There are great places to hike on the plains of this area while enjoying the intensity of the dramatic landscapes, as the ocean is always in sight.

There are no amenities in the Kaʻū hiking areas, so bring what you need to have a safe, comfortable journey: some local Hawaiʻian foods to snack on, plenty of water, comfortable clothing and footwear, and anything you need for camping.

You can, however, freely camp on the public lands here. Leave no litter or trash behind, and be sure to dig a hole for your bathroom needs.

South Point

Length: 0.5 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

You can drive down the dirt roads leading to South Point, where you can then take the short hike to South Point, the southernmost point in the United States.

You may see people jumping off the cliff into the ocean here.. and, you may want to join them! There is a ladder you can climb back up after you jump.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to jump off the cliff, you will enjoy spacious views of the Pacific Ocean.

Papakōlea (Green Sands Beach)

Length: 5.6 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

From South Point, you can make the trek to Green Sands Beach. This unique beach gets its name from mineral deposits of olivine crystals.

These deposits come from an ancient lava flow which formed this beach. The beach also contains black and white sands so it is greener in some areas than in others.

The hike follows a dirt road, which makes it easy to navigate. You may even be able to hop a ride with a local driving to the beach. Hitchhiking is very common on the Big Island.

However, I would not recommend driving a rental to Papakōlea unless it’s a 4-wheel drive, as the road is rough.

Once you arrive, either hiking or hitchhiking your way to the beach, stop for a few moments and breathe and take in the beauty. The views are wonderful.

Note: Do not remove any sand from here or any Hawai’ian beach – it’s illegal and fines can be as high as $100,000 (plus Pele may curse you!)

Kaʻū Desert Trailhead

Length: 3.8 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back.

When visiting the Kaʻū district, you want to be sure to check out this trail on the Big Island! It’s special because you will have the opportunity to see fossils of human footprints in the rock along the path.

You will be exposed to the Kaʻū “desert,” which is largely desolate. You should bring lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen.

You will see some wildflowers and the prolific ohia tree along the way. Plus, enjoy more impressive views of the Pacific!

Punaluʻu (Black Sands Beach)

Length: 5.8 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

Come here if you want to see sea turtles — they are almost always laying on the beach!

Plus you get to see rare black sand beaches made of lava rock. You can tweak this hike to your liking or hike the entire length of Punaluʻu Bay.

Plus, there are many places to post up on the beach here. There are also restrooms and sometimes food vendors.

Hikes in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

This park has it all… including a luxury hotel! There are camping areas here as well if you’re looking for a more low-key way to spend a few nights in this gorgeous national park.

You can fill your water at the visitors center and check out the displays, or head down Chain of Craters Road to view the sea arch. You can find petroglyphs, lava tubes, rainforest, and desolate craters. It is of the ultimate in Big Island hiking destinations!

You can even see the glow of Kilauea Caldera at its corresponding museum! Peep the steam vents on your way down Crater Rim Drive to see the caldera. The glow of the caldera can be seen from long distances

Halapē (Puʻu Loa via the Puna Coast Trail)

reddish brown rock with bits of green grass and vegetation on this big island hike to halape

Length: 11.3 miles
Rating: Difficult
Route Type: Point-to-point

This hike is not for you if you are an inexperienced hiker. You will need a water filter to refill water, or you’ll have to bring a lot of water to handle this 11-mile one-way, 22-mile roundtrip hike.

Due to its length, this hike is ideal for an overnight backpacking trip; however, you will need a permit for backcountry adventures.

You will find Halapē on the Puʻu Loa via the Puna Coast Trail. You will begin and end on a road, so if you’re traveling with a friend and two cars, you may want to leave vehicles on either end.

Otherwise, you’ll have to prepare a ride ahead of time or hike all the way back, doubling the length of this difficult hike.

This will be a tough but rewarding Big Island hike with some pretty hefty elevation gains. However, you won’t be disappointed with the result. The reward of hiking to Halapē is supreme!

Picture a private beach and freshwater swimming holes in an incredible oasis amongst the desolate lava fields, practically all to yourself.

Puʻu Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Length: 1.2 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is a convenient trail stop-off on your way down Chain of Craters Road, which you can take to check out the sea arch.

This road is a major pipeline through the park with many stops along the way which make a great introduction to hiking on the Big Island.

We like this stop as it is an easy hike with an incredible connection to the ancient Hawaiʻians, where you can acknowledge and pay your respects to their centuries of stewardships of the island.

There is a boardwalk along with parts of the trail which increases the ease of this walk, so this is really one that shouldn’t be skipped while hiking the Big Island.

Kīlauea Craters Trail and Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tubes)

people hiking on the Kīlauea crater trail with volcanic landscapes on a sunny day

Length: 8.0 miles
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Loop

This trail will give you a well-round experience of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. You will hike in the craters of long-since-erupted areas of the volcanoes you will be walking on. You may even see steam rising from the ground!

You will get to experience jungle and rare plant species that can only grow in this unique landscape. Plus, as you hike, you’ll walk across lava fields and through lava tube caves — be sure to bring sturdy hiking shoes, as these volcanic rocks can be jagged and rough!

Hikes in Hilo

Hilo is a rainy area of the Big Island, so you’ll want to come equipped with some weatherproof gear if hiking near Hilo.

It is one of the busier areas of the island, though it is not as busy as Kona. There are lots of places to check out here, but we will stick with hikes for now!

One of the main draws for hikes in this area is the waterfalls: there are several, and we’ll cover a few of the best Big Island waterfall hikes below.

Rainbow Falls (Waiānuenue)

the rainbow falls waterfall in big island with green lush plants in the foreground

Length: 0.1-0.2 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is one of the most photographed spots in Hilo, and the hike couldn’t be easier!

You can easily view them after a short 0.1-mile hike. Then hike further up the trail to the upper falls (0.2 miles).

When you venture upwards you will get to view one of the most incredible banyan trees I have ever seen — it is over 1000 years old and truly majestic.

Trust me, you will want to climb it. It is not too difficult as the tree allows for “hallways” that form along its many branches. It is a spectacular sight to see and a fun playground for all.

Waiʻale Falls Trail and Boiling Pots Lookout

Sunset over the park with the waterfall and a lot of greenery and lava rocks. Boiling pots on the Big Island. Tropical forest.

Length: 0.6 miles (plus an additional 0.3 miles for the Boiling Pots lookout).
Rating: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

Here you can view another gorgeous waterfall, plus the Boiling Pots Lookout is pretty stellar, too, and the rapids below will surely impress!

It is also nice as these are two more short hikes with great rewards. You can easily do Rainbow Falls and Waiʻale Falls in a single day of hiking in Hilo. Have a waterfall-themed hike day!

Liliʻuokalani Botanical Garden, Banyan Drive, and Coconut Island Loop

a giant banyan tree in big island hawaii

Length: 2.3 miles
Rating: Easy
Route Type: Loop

This is a great way to see a few Hilo landmarks in one fell swoop!

The Liliʻuokalani Gardens are absolutely lovely: you’ll feel like you’re in Japan as you walk through these 25-acre gardens, which were built in 1917 as tribute to the Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaiʻi to work the sugar cane fields.

The gardens are named after the last reigning monarch of Hawaiʻi, Queen Liliʻuokalani, who was overthrown when the United States invaded the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, as a way of honoring her.

You’ll continue down along Banyan Drive, which is cool because of the beautiful banyans, of course! The banyans were planted by celebrities who have placards on the trees. It’s known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame”.

Finally, Coconut Island is a tiny little island with a park, restrooms, and some beaches. It is popular to jump off the tower in the waters of Hilo Bay from here.

Fun fact: Coconut Island was originally called Mokuola by the Native Hawai’ians. It translates literally to “island [moku] of life [ola]” but can be understood as meaning “healing island”. It was said that one could heal themselves by swimming around the island three times!

Hikes in Hāmākua

Head north from Hilo to picturesque Hāmākua, which is an excellent part of the island for “rainbow hunting” in the wet climate of Hilo… plus it is just such a beautiful part of the island!

Get lost in the jungle or a sacred valley as you explore Hāmākua.

Waipiʻo Valley Trail

Length: 4.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

This is by far one of the most beautiful hiking spots on the Big Island! It is truly magical.

You will have to endure the steep grade of the road down into the valley, but it is worth every step.

Also, be aware that there is a river crossing here. At times the river is not passable due to heavy rainfall, so keep that in mind.

Waipiʻo Valley is a sacred valley to the Native Hawaiʻians (kānaka maoli). It was a place where they lived and celebrated together. In fact, King Kamehameha — the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi — was raised in this valley.

I urge you to remember this when you visit. Hold space for the remaining kānaka maoli, the Native Hawaiʻians, from whom this beautiful land was taken, and who suffered devastating effects from U.S. imperialism, colonization, and annexation.

You can do this by ensuring history stays alive by learning the history of Hawaiʻi and approaching the culture and language of Hawaiʻi with curiosity.

You will have a fuller, more rewarding experience in Hawaiʻi in general if you hold to this rule of respect and curiosity.

Hikes in Kohala

Kohala is situated at the very top of the Big Island. There are just a couple of spots for hiking here.

Be sure to stop in the wonderful town of Hawi to fuel up for your trip. The town is so charming, you might not ever want to leave!

Pololū Trail and ʻĀwini Lookout

the rugged becah of polulu after a hike on the big island

Length: 0.9 miles (3.9 miles to ʻĀwini)
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

This Big Island trail will take you down to Pololū Valley, where you can enjoy views of the ocean and the green mountains which cascade along the coastline.

There are some swings here for you to enjoy. We suggest bringing a hammock to relax in while taking in the sights and sounds.

The beach is pretty rocky in parts, but if you bring a hammock, you will be all set!

To explore the area more, keep hiking past the beach and follow the trail up to ʻĀwini Lookout. It can be pretty wet and muddy to hike but you get great views and the heart pumping. This is where the 3.9 miles comes in!

Hikes in Kona

Next, we have the “Kona side”. There is a huge amount of things to do in the Kona district!

One of the big draws of Kona is hiking to some hidden beaches along the coast. Plus there are forest and lava hikes for you to enjoy among the many other activities in Kona!

Makalawena Beach (Pu‘u Ali‘i)

Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Route Type: Out and back

This is the best beach on the Big Island (the hike is fully worth it!)! It is rarely crowded by beachgoers because of the effort it takes to get there.

You will walk down a road to reach the beach. It has no shade so be sure to bring your reef-safe sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water.

Once you reach the beach you can continue walking to make this a 4-mile hike if you desire. The waters are usually calm for swimming so you may want to just jump right in and enjoy the blue water and white sandy beach!

Puʻu Wa’awa’a Cinder Cone Trail

green and orange cinder cone seen from above

Length: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Loop

Puʻu Waʻawaʻa Cinder Cone State Park has many great hikes! We like this one as you end up at the top of Puʻu Wa’awa’a

You will get to see an awesome view of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, two of my favorite mountains in the world.

The rock formation is also super cool, and you can enjoy wildflowers and spacious views from here

Kealakekua Bay

brilliant turquoise waters in a bay in hawaii big island

Length: 3.8 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Route Type: Out and back

To find the unmarked trailhead, park on Nāpōʻopoʻo Road at telephone pole #4. There are other turn-outs to park in so please do not block the road!

This is an awesome Big Island hike that ends at the bay, so you may want to bring snorkel gear along. You may get to see ruins from old Hawaiʻian villages.

At low tide, you may see the placard which marks where Captain Cook landed. The story is that Captain Cook was killed by Native Hawaiʻians, but the full story is rarely told.

The real story is that Captain Cook, on this third voyage to Hawaiʻi, attempted to kidnap the King Kalaniʻōpuʻu to hold for ransom in return for a stolen boat, and that Captain Cook died in the struggle. (So, yeah, if you attempt to kidnap the king, you can’t really be surprised by the results…)

Along this hike, besides seeing this interesting historical landmark, you may also get to see Hawaiian spinner dolphins and other beautiful wildlife.

Best Saddle Road Hikes

Cutting across the island is Saddle Road. It is from here you can access hikes on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. You may even want to summit them!

Prepare for the cooler temperatures that occur at higher altitudes. Also, be aware that hiking at these elevations can cause Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Remember to stop frequently if you choose to hike up the mountain, which is almost 14,000 feet!

Bring plenty of water and snacks. Take your time and allow yourself to acclimate to the elevation. Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen. It feels cool, but you are super exposed to the sun!

Mauna Loa Summit

volcanic rock and cinder cones on the mauna loa summit trail on the big island

Length: 13 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route type: Out and back

When you climb Mauna Loa, you are hiking on the world’s largest mountain by volume in the world and the world’s largest volcano!

To get to the trailhead, take Saddle Road to Mauna Kea Observatory Road (between mile markers 27 and 28). Park at the trailhead after 17.5 miles of driving on this road. It is one lane in some spots and rough so drive carefully.

Bring a map, although the route is marked with cairns so it is relatively easy to navigate. Just be sure not to hop on the Mauna Loa Trail that begins in the lowland; that is not the same trail you are on here.

Mauna Kea (Maunakea) Summit via Humu’ula Trail

summit of mauna kea the tallest mountain in hawaii

Length: 12 miles
Difficulty: Hard
Route Type: Out and back

To get to the trailhead follow the same directions for Mauna Loa’s trailhead but stop at Ellison Onizuka Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station after about 6 miles.

This is where the trailhead will be. You need a permit to hike Mauna Kea (spelled Maunukea in the Hawaiian language), but it is easy to do with a self-registration station at the trailhead. Be sure to drop off your registration at the visitor center!

You will get to hike past Lake Waiau which is the highest lake in the Pacific Basin. Plus when you climb Mauna Kea, you are hiking the highest mountain in Hawaiʻi, in the Pacific Rim, and the highest sea mountain in the world.

Mauna Kea is named for the Hawaiian sky god Wākea, making this a sacred mountain. Please remember this as you climb. Do not litter or remove anything from the island you are not permitted to.

Honor the tumultuous history of this mountain. There are still many activists protesting the 30 Meter Telescope and further development of Maunakea, as it is just that sacred to the kānaka maoli.

A note about “leaving no trace”: this is a Western concept that is not practiced by many Indigenous groups. You may see some offerings made by the Native Hawaiʻians to the goddess of Maunakea, Poliʻahu; however, this is not needed by outsiders as it can be offensive if done incorrectly.

You absolutely should not interfere with anyone you see leaving an offering, as this is not your place as a visitor. “Leave no trace” does not apply to Indigenous people following their ancestral Indigenous practices, and enforcing this on them is a form of cultural erasure.

In addition to these massive Big Island summit hikes on Saddle Road, there are plenty of shorter hikes you can do.

Puʻu ʻo‘o Trail (8.3 miles), Pu’u Kalepeamoa Loop (1.3 or 3.8 miles), or Kaūmana Trail (2.7 miles) are some other great options for this area.

Puna District

Views of the sea and black lava rocks of recent eruptions of Kilauea from Kalapana for sunset, Puna district, Big island, Hawaii

The only district not fully covered in this article includes the Puna District. This is where a lot of the rainfall on the island occurs.

If the lava is flowing in the right direction, you can access the lava flow from the Puna District. Hiking on the Kalapana Lava Fields to see lava pouring from the mountainside is truly awe-inspiring.

I hope you get to experience it when you visit the Big Island. There are many beautiful spots along the Red Road to explore, as well. Puna is a really special part of the island, so don’t count it out!

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The Big Island is full of adventure and learning opportunities, where you can learn the history of these islands through connecting with its nature and its beauty.

Show up with an open heart and an open mind full of curiosity, and the island will embrace you. Honor the ancient and present-day Native Hawai’ians through educating yourself and taking care of this sacred place.

It is full of jaw-dropping views and incredible experiences, so leave it just as beautiful as you found it. Enjoy your exploration as you hike the Big Island!