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Driving choices: roads to cross the island

The Big Island, Hawaii, United States


Many people choose to see both sides of the Big Island, the dry, leeward Kona side that is filled with lava rock, and the green, tropical, windward Hilo side. This is a great idea since you will have a lot of variety in your vacation! To get between the two, you have a choice of three scenic roads.
To get directly from Kona or the Kohala Coast to Hilo, the fastest (but not necessarily the best) choice is Saddle Road (shown in photo above), Highway 200. It takes one and a half hours. This is a weird road that is called "saddle" because it goes way up in elevation to 6,600 feet and then back down. Kids won't like the way their ears pop and you might get some crying. Because of its high elevation the road is often foggy and has low visibility. The landscape here is otherworldly and interesting. Halfway across, if you have kids, stop at the Mauna Kea Recreation Area where they can play on a space age playground. 
The best choice for getting across the island is the road that goes through Waimea town (also called Kamuela town), Highway 19. It takes two hours and fifteen minutes. Highway 19 goes all the way from Kona, along the Kohala Coast, then through Waimea town, and along the Hamakua Coast to Hilo. It's an incredibly beautiful and varied drive. From Kona along the Kohala Coast you will see lava rock, delightful huge patches of bougainvillea, and amazing beaches (Mauna Kea Hotel BeachHilton Waikaloa, or 69 Beach). The road then turns inland after Kawaihae Harbor, and you start an ascent into the higher elevation town of Waimea. In Waimea it's almost always overcast and raining a fine mist. That's why it's kermit green! It is a sudden change from the dry, sunny coast you just came from! Stop at Anuenue Park to see the lovely green hills and let your kids play on the awesome colorful playground. A meal at Big Island Brewhaus is fun. There is also a bakery and a shave ice place. Stop and see the adorable churches near the main highway. The "piece de resistance" of your drive is next, the Hamakua Coast
Your third choice for driving across the island is the longest drive, Highway 11, which hugs the southern coast of the island. This drive takes three hours. This drive takes you past some lovely snorkeling areas south of Kona such as Place of Refuge, and also past beautiful but crowded Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. Skip South Point and Kealakekua Bay- they aren't worth the extra driving. Drive past interesting layered lava flows from different decades- there is a scenic lookout where you can read about the lava flows on plaques and see the different colors of the flows. This road passes Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Lava Tree State Park, which are currently closed because of the 2018 lava flow. The fun thing about this road is that you are driving over some spots where the 2018 lava flow cracked the road (though it's not apparent anymore). Nonetheless, I'm not entirely sure it's worth it to take this long road but if you've seen the road through Waimea, want a change of scene, want to drive past a recent lava flow, and like long drives, it might be worth it.

Photo Gallery

Highway 11, where the road was repaired after the 2018 lava flow.

Rough Road sign where the lava flowed.

Winding part of Highway 11.

Nene bird crossing on Highway 11!

Highway 11, the road that goes around the south coast.

Scenic lookout along Highway 11 where you can see lava flows from different decades.

Driving along Highway 19 on the Kohala Coast north of Kona. Strange lava everywhere!

Cinder cones! Where else can you see these?!

Highway 19 on the Kohala Coast, north of Kona.

Cinder cone at mile marker 60 on Highway 19, coming in to Waimea.

Highway 19, along the Kohala Coast, takes you past some amazing black lava rock.

Plants catching the light, lava rock, and volcano in the distance, on Highway 19 along the Kohala Coast.

On Highway 19, just outside Waimea town.

On Highway 19, driving past the Hamakua Coast.

Views of the ocean from Highway 19 on the Hamakua Coast.

Norfolk pines galore, from Highway 19 on the Hamakua Coast.

The wonderful trees along Highway 19, the Hamakua Coast.

Norfolk pines along Highway 19 on the Hamakua Coast.


This is an interactive map, you can zoom and move it.

The red tab is on saddle road, Highway 200, the fastest way across the island.
Highway 19, through Waimea, is my preferred and most scenic way.
Highway 11, along the south coast, is the longest way.
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