Most Hawaii visitors head to Oahu and the fabled palm-lined beaches of Waikiki, but if you have a weekend to spare, it’s easy enough for your family trip to Hawaii to include an outer island adventure. With active volcanoes, lava cliffs, and unparalleled marine life encounters, Hawaii’s Big Island is a less than 45-minute plane ride—and a world—away. Weekend activities abound.
Though Hawaii’s Big Island is indeed big (six-and-a-half Oahus could fit inside, and a drive to circumnavigate it would take you more than seven hours without stopping), it is possible to hit a lot of highlights with just a rental car and a couple days. Here’s an action-packed self-guided itinerary of weekend activities on Hawaii Island.
Hit the ground running on your weekend activities. After flying into Hilo, grab breakfast at the 24-hour local-favorite greasy spoon Ken’s House of Pancakes, and some lunchtime picnic essentials and snacks at the Hilo Farmers Market, which starts bright and early on weekends. From there, it’s easy to head straight to world-famous Volcanoes National Park, just over a 30-minute drive away.
The visitor center will give you the lay of the land, and the Jaggar Museum overlook will give you the best glimpse at the fuming Halema’uma’u Crater: a gaping lava lake that opened in 2008. You’d be remiss to pass on the 20-minute jaunt into the jungle to explore Thurston Lava Tube—which formed when a swath of molten lava flowed through the area hundreds of years ago, cooled, and left behind this cave-like shell. Afterward, choose between another hike and the 38-mile round-trip drive down to the sea on Chain of Craters Road past old lava flows, calderas, and pit craters. Enjoy your picnic!
Back in Hilo, relax and explore its waterfront shopping and sleepy parks until dinner. The fun starts back up around 5 p.m.—that’s when you head out on island-crossing Saddle Road to the slopes of Mauna Kea. Taller than Everest when measured from its seafloor base, this massive mountain is home to clear skies and some of the world’s most advanced telescopes. The visitor center hosts a stellar, free nightly stargazing event beginning at 6 p.m. (it can be chilly, so pack a coat). Area volunteers point out the night’s highlights, and displays explain how early Hawaiians used the stars to navigate. From here, it’s an hour back to your hotel in Waikoloa.
With all the activity of day one, it’s OK to have a slower start on day two of your family trip to Hawaii Island. Enjoy the pool or beach before driving an hour north to quaint Hawi. Numerous shops and cafés—including Kohala Coffee Mill, serving sandwiches, Big Island-made ice cream, and cups of locally grown and roasted joe—make for a fun afternoon. When you’re ready to get back in the car, it’s a few miles further to the original King Kamehameha statue that honors Hawaii’s island-uniting monarch, which was salvaged from the sea floor after it shipwrecked en route from Europe in the 1880s. A few miles beyond that, over one-lane bridges and under palms and jungle vines, is the Pololu Valley Lookout. The wind-whipped scenic vista will take your breath away.
If you’re craving more scenery, and you have the time, loop down the mountainous HI-250 to the almost Scotland-like Waimea, where paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture is still very much alive. There, sink your teeth into some Big Island-raised beef at Village Burger (they also offer a locally-raised Hamakua mushroom version for vegetarians). Then it’s back to the hotel to rest up and change.
Round out your family trip to Hawaii Island with a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a nighttime snorkel with manta rays! Many companies offer hotel pick-ups for their cruises starting around sunset. The majestic creatures dance in acrobatic circles in an attempt to filter-feed plankton that are drawn to the surface by lights. It’s one of the most unique and memorable experiences on Hawaii Island.
Note: These itinerary days can be flip-flopped. To maximize your time on-island and minimize driving, consider flying into Hilo and out of Kona, or vice versa.