Hawaii’s Aloha Loop: A Breathtaking Road Trip

At 1 million years of age, Hawaii’s
Big Island is the youngest of the
islands that constitute our 50th state.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Fire-tinged steam rises from the sea as molten lava flows into the Pacific. The lava was ejected from the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Route Details


About 225 miles.

When to go:

Thanks to its idyllic tropical
setting, Hawaii is a popular destination

Words to the wise:

Set aside at least
three days for the trip.

Not to be missed:

Snorkeling off the
coast provides close-up views of coral and
brightly colored fish.

Nearby attractions:

Mauna Loa
Macadamia Nut Corporation, Hilo.
The Laurance S. Rockefeller Collection of
Asian and Pacific Art, Kohala Coast.
The Lyman House Memorial Museum, Hilo.

Further information:

Big Island Visitors
Bureau, 250 Keawe St., Hilo, HI 96720;
tel. 800-648-2441, www.bigisland.org.

At 1 million years of age, Hawaii’s
Big Island is the youngest of the
islands that constitute our 50th state.
But its size more than makes up for its
youth. The Big Island, as locals call
it, is nearly twice as large as all the
others combined — and it’s growing
bigger every year. Since 1986, volcanic
activity has added several hundred
acres to this truly living landscape.

1. Hilo

Despite the fact that it’s the second-largest city in Hawaii, Hilo
paces itself to a slow beat. Its
once-raffish waterfront has been
transformed into a genteel park,
and the old neighborhoods are
now dotted with cappuccino shops.
But vintage clapboard buildings
and weathered Chinese storefronts
still adorn this tropical town.
With over 120 inches of rainfall
per year, Hilo is not only the
wettest city in America, but a virtual
greenhouse. Many of the
town’s gardens and nurseries are
open to the public, including the
Nani Mau Gardens, which boasts
the island’s largest collection of
orchids, and the Hawaii Tropical
Botanical Garden.

Banyan Drive — named for the
multi-trunked trees that line the
road, each one of them planted
by a different American celebrity
during the 1930s — skirts the edge
of Waiakea Peninsula before
reaching Liliuokalani Gardens. A
footbridge leads from this serene
Japanese-style haven to Coconut
Island, a palm-fringed hideaway
that is perfect for picnicking. You
can take a dip here too, but the
best place for swimming and surfing
is at the black sand beach in
Richardson’s Ocean Park, just to
the east of town.

Traveling north on Rte. 19 (the
Bayfront Highway), turn inland —
mauka, as the locals say — on Waianuenue
Avenue for a detour to
Wailuku River State Park. The
park’s main draw is Rainbow Falls,
a sight that becomes downright
dazzling after heavy rains, when
the spray shimmers with vivid
hues. Farther upstream, the water
pours into a series of pools with
such turbulence that they have
been dubbed the Boiling Pots.

2. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Back on Rte. 19 (now known as the
Mamalahoa Highway), continue
north along the Hamakua Coast.
At the town of Papaikou, turn
east toward the sea — makai, in
common parlance — and follow
Onomea Scenic Drive to the
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.
This 17-acre preserve feaures more than 2,000 species of
plants — a collection that is believed
to be the world’s largest
assortment of tropical plants
growing in a natural environment.
Numerous trails throughout
the garden invite visitors to
meander past preening parrots,
squawking cockatoos, hidden
waterfalls, and hushed lily ponds.

3. Akaka Falls State Park

At Honomu follow Rte. 220 inland
past dense fields of sugarcane
to Akaka Falls State Park, 66
acres of ferns, orchids, and bamboo
groves. A short nature trail
overhung with verdant, sweetly
scented vegetation circles past
cascading Kahuna Falls and the
astonishing Akaka Falls.

4. Laupahoehoe Beach Park

Located on a small peninsula, this
grassy park is shaded by spreading
ironwood trees and tall coconut
palms — an ideal setting for a
relaxing picnic. The park takes its
name from pahoehoe, the smooth,
ropey type of lava found here. Inky
black, the lava contrasts vividly
with the frothy, white-tipped waves
that pound against the shore.

5. Kalopa State Recreation Area

A few miles past Paauilo, an old
plantation town dating back to
Hawaii’s sugarcane era, a turnoff
leads to Kalopa State Recreation
Area. Nestled on the lower slopes
of Mauna Kea, this lush 615-acre
forest reserve is laced with several
well-marked hiking trails.

6. Waipo Valley Lookout

To visit Waipo Valley is to get a
glimpse of the Garden of Eden.
One mile wide and six miles long,
this singularly beautiful spot was
so favored by Hawaiian royalty
that it is nicknamed the Valley of
the Kings. Its splendor is indeed
regal: perpetually green, thanks
to numerous streams, waterfalls,
and ancient fish ponds, the enchanted
rain forest here is so productive
that in times of famine it sustained
the island’s entire population.

Since the road down
into the valley resembles
a zigzagging roller
coaster, motorists without
four-wheel drive
should take a tour instead.
Shuttles depart
hourly from the Waipo
Valley Lookout at the
end of Rte. 240, but
advance reservations
are advised.

7. Waimea

From the gorgeous
greens of Waipo, backtrack
to Rte. 19 and
head inland past sweeping
high-country pastures
and, to the south,
13,796-foot-tall Mauna
Kea. Measured from its
base on the floor of the
sea, this dormant volcano,
at some 32,000
feet, ranks as the world’s
highest peak. Because it
is surrounded by ocean,
Mauna Kea is blessed
with pollution-free air
so crystal-clear that its
summit is the best spot
on earth for stargazing.
(No fewer than 13 observatories crown the
peak’s summit.)

As the drive heads west to
Waimea, you might find it hard to
believe you’re still in the tropics.
In far-off meadows, cowboys on
horseback tend grazing cattle.
These colorful Hawaiian cowpokes
are called paniolo, and
many of them work for the
225,000-acre Parker Ranch, said
to be among the largest farm
farmsteads in the United States. The
ranch’s history is detailed at a
visitor center, which also features
a video on ranching and a tour of
the ranch’s historic homes. Paniolo
can be seen in action at rodeos held
in Waimea all summer long.

8. Mookini Luakini Heiau

Rte. 250 (the Kohala Mountain
Road) breezes past green volcanic
pastures. Vistas are wide and handsome, as hills
ripple one into another on their
way to the sea.

The most famous of Hawaii’s
warrior kings, King Kamehameha
I, who united all of the islands by
1810, launched his military campaign from North Kohala. This
little-visited region is awash with
sacred and historic sites, including
many stone temples (heiaus).
One of the oldest is Mookini Luakini,
built in A.D. 480; it stands
along the same dirt road as King
Kamehameha’s birthplace, just
beyond the turnoff to Upolu Airport
as you head farther west on
Rte. 270.

9. Lapakahi State Historical Park

Tucked above a flawless beach,
this 260-acre park chronicles early
Hawaiian village life through reenactments
of daily activities. Paths
wander past the stone walls and
foundations of a partially restored
600-year-old coastal settlement
where people lived off the land. Some
of the plants they depended on —
hau wood for canoes, hala leaves
for woven baskets, and medicinal
noni fruits — still flourish here.

10. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Just south of Kawaihae, the reef-protected shore at Samuel M.
Spencer Beach Park offers the
best swimming and snorkeling in
the area. A path from the beach
leads to the Puukohola National
Historic Site, where King Kamehameha
I, acting on the advice
of a prophet, erected a temple in
honor of a war god to ensure victory
over his adversaries. Measuring
224 feet by 100 feet, the heiau
was built from rocks and boulders
that were fitted together without

11. Puako Petroglyphs

Rejoin Rte.19 (now known as
the Queen Kaahumanu
Highway) as it speeds southward.
Just beyond the
turnoff for Hapuna Beach
State Park is the entrance
to the Mauna Lani Resort, where a sign
shows the way to the
Puako Petroglyphs.
A half-mile trail
winds past lava
boulders incised
with mysterious markings
from the past: turtles,
warriors, fish, and
enigmatic spirals. The
3,000 petroglyphs in and
near Puako are some of the
oldest and best rock carvings
in Hawaii.

12. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

Continuing south, you’ll find
an intriguing waypoint. Designated
as a National Historical Landmark
in 1962, then a National
Park in 1978, there are more
than 200 archaeological sites to
be found in this 1,160-acre park.
Its resources hold the secrets to
Hawaii’s historic culture and its
unique wildlife. Remember that
half the park is oceanfront — take
time to swim, hike, and birdwatch.

13. Kona Coast

As Rte. 19 continues south, bougainvilleas
brighten miles of the
monochromatic lava moonscape
beside the highway. Inland are the steep slopes of long-dormant Mt.
Hualalai; on the seaward side the
lava cascades to the water’s edge.
In the resort town of Kailua-Kona,
Rte.19 becomes Rte.11.

Napoopoo Road, branching
off at the town of Captain Cook,
careers through plots of coffee
trees — the only gourmet coffee
crop in the United States — on its
way to Kealakekua Bay. Divers
and snorkelers converge at the
park here, a Marine Life Conservation
District where tropical
fish prowl the coral reefs. In 1779
Capt. James Cook, the British explorer,
sailed into this bay shortly
before he was killed by natives. An
obelisk on a spit of land across the
bay commemorates his death.

14. Puuhonua O Honaunau Landmark

Rte. 160, a narrow coastal route,
crosses the crusty lava of the Keei
plain as it heads south toward
Honaunau Bay and Puuhonua, the
island’s only remaining ancient
place of refuge. Until 1819 the
protocol of daily life in Hawaii
was governed by kapu, a sacred
code of rules and prohibitions.
Sanctuaries like the one here were
set aside for defeated warriors and
transgressors, who were spared
execution and reinstated into society
if they managed to reach one
of these havens.

Highlights at the 180-acre historical
park include ancient royal
fish ponds, a wall fitted with jagged
lava, a heiau that once held the remains
of 23 chiefs, and countless
wide-eyed tiki idols.
From Puuhonua Rte.160 winds through groves of macadamia nut
trees. A side road leads to St. Benedict’s
Church. Its interior is embellished
with folksy biblical
murals — the handiwork of a priest.

15. Milolii

A paved spur off Rte. 11 descends
to the black sands of Hookena
Beach Park, a good spot for surfing.
Farther south, a narrow road
weaves across sterile lava flows
toward Milolii, where fishermen
ply the waters in motorized outriggers,
one of Hawaii’s last fishing

16. Ka Lae

As the drive rounds the southern
tip of the island, take the turnoff
at South Point Road for a visit to
Ka Lae, the southernmost point
in the United States — nearly 500
miles farther south than Key
West. Some historians believe
that Hawaii’s first settlers landed
here, perhaps as early as A.D. 150.

17. Punaluu Beach Park

Rte. 11 passes through Naalehu —
the southernmost town in America
— before angling north to squeeze
between the coastline and Mauna
Loa’s massive shoulder. Up ahead
is one of the region’s best recreation
spots, Punaluu Black Sand
Beach, made popular by its blacksand
beach and sea turtles.

18. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

As Rte.11 climbs between Mauna
Loa, the world’s most massive
mountain, and Kilauea, the world’s
most active volcano, the drama
mounts with every passing mile.
The Hawaiian islands grew over
millions of years as rivers of lava
poured from their volcanoes, and
the spurts of glowing red lava
that Kilauea coughs up remind us
that the process continues today.

Leaving the visitor center, follow
Crater Rim Drive for 11 miles
encircles Kilauea Caldera. Stops
along the way include the Jaggar
Museum, panoramic overlooks of
multiple craters, and short walks
to steam vents. The half-mile-Devastation Trail winds through
what had been an ohia forest before
a 1959 eruption devastated the area. At Thurston (Nahuku)
Tube, thick tree ferns and ohia trees
nearly engulf lava tunnels, leftovers
from an ancient flow.

Barren landscapes quickly give way to forested slopes as the loop draws to a close. Descending 4,000 feet from volcanic marvels to a black lava shoreline, the drive reveals more of the scenic diversity of Hawaii’s Big Island paradise.

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9. Boulder

Continuing north to Boulder, the drive crosses the Hogsback, a narrow ridge with steep cliffs on either side. Just south of town lies the 66-mile Burr Trail, which retraces the century-ago steps of pioneer rancher John A. Burr. At Boulder, head for the Anasazi Indian Village State Park, a museum and partially excavated settlement that, over the years, has revealed pottery shards, axe heads, and other artifacts. While Boulder may feel as though it sits at the end of the earth, it’s actually a quaint, accommodating ranch town with surprisingly good restaurants.

10. Boulder Mountain

Paying a return visit to Dixie National Forest, Rte. 12 climbs across a cool mountain landscape endowed with silvery aspens and sweetly scented evergreens. Atop the 9,670-foot-high summit of State Rte. 12, enjoy views of the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold monocline within Capitol Reef National Park to the east and south. From the elevated vantage points of this easternmost segment of the drive, the austere beauty of Utah’s canyon country is laid bare for all to see — a sprawling monument to the power of water.

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