Hawaii's Big Island is an absolutely gorgeous destination for any traveler interested in getting a closer look at the culture, landscapes and wildlife of the islands. If you're looking for a chance to explore, consider checking out one of the island's scenic byways. These stretches of road don't just boast gorgeous views – they also go past many sites of historic and cultural significance. Whether you're traveling across the island or visiting a byway near your Hawaii rental condo, dedicating a few hours to driving down the Big Island's most interesting roads will give you a chance to get up close and personal with some of the things that make this island great.
Kau Scenic Byway
This byway follows Route 11 from Manuka State Wayside to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The parks on either end are worth your time, and there's plenty of interesting spots in between.
Before you head down the road, you can check out the Manuka nature trail. This is a 2-mile trail through the Manuka Natural Area Reserve that's accessed through the Manuka State Wayside. The whole trail, start to finish, takes two to three hours, and you'll want to bring plenty of water and heavy-duty bug spray. The trail is rated as moderately difficult, but the chance to get an immersive look at Hawaii's landscape and wildlife will be well worth it.
Head east on Route 11, and soon you'll find the Kula Caverns. Here you can take a guided tour to explore these lava tubes. There's a short, 30 minute tour along a lighted trail for those who are looking for an easy way to explore the geological site. Those who are interested in spending a little more time in the caves can check out one of the more intense expeditions: These need to be scheduled ahead of time, and you must be in good physical condition.
Continuing along the byway, you'll pass the Pali o Kulani Lookout from which you can see how lava flows have shaped the island. This point gives a clear view of the changing colors of the landscape, each of which represent a different lava flow. You'll also come across South Point Road, a detour from the trail that runs toward the ocean and ends with some spectacular views. Note: The road gets narrow, and some rental companies prohibit going there – visit wisely.
Shortly after South Point Road, the path will curve north. Keep your eye out for Punaluu Beach, one of Hawaii's black sand beaches. On top of the unique imagery of the beach, this is a great site for spotting some of Hawaii's wildlife: Green sea turtles and endangered Hawksbill turtles can often be found there. Be sure to keep your distance, however, and stay at least 15 feet away from any turtles you do see, even if you're certain they're not the endangered species.
History and industry
A little bit further along the road is the Kapapala Ranch. If you make a reservation ahead of time, you can actually visit the ranch and get an in-depth look at how cattle ranching works. If farm and factory tours interest you, you may also want to check out the Kau Coffee Mill. You can take a tour of the mill, and you'll also get a chance to taste coffee, macadamia nuts and other Hawaiian treats.
At the Kau Desert Trail, you can see the fossilized footprints of those who passed through the area during an eruption in the late 18th century. However, volcanic smog can sometimes cause this trail to close, so your stop here may be cut short.
After this, you'll arrive at your destination in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Here you can head out to one of many hiking trails that go through forests and past lava flows. You can even tour the park by driving along Crater Rim Drive and hitting the many points of interest along the way.
Royal Footsteps Along the Kona Coast Byway
This route is much shorter than the Kau scenic byway, but is the perfect way for someone looking to dive into Hawaiian history to spend an afternoon. The Royal Footsteps Along the Kona Coast Byway is a 7-mile stretch of Alii Drive that is full of interesting historic stops. Even those who simply want to drive the road, however, will experience approximately 15 minutes of absolutely stunning views since – as the name suggests – the byway goes along the Kona Coast.
Shortly after you head west along the road, you'll come across the Hulihee Palace. This beautiful museum used to be a vacation home for Hawaiian Royalty. Today, it's open to the public and full of artifacts from Hawaii's past. Once a month, the palace features a day dedicated to Hawaiian culture, so check the schedule if you'd be interested in attending.
Further on is Waiaha Beach Park, which is the perfect place to stop for a picnic. This is a great spot for people watching, since the beach is a favorite for experienced body and surf boarders.
You'll pass a few more beaches as you continue along the road, all of which offer excellent views. As you continue on, however, you'll see the Hapaialii & Keeku Heiau site. Heiaus are Hawaiian temples. Although most of these historic sites are no longer standing, the Hapaialii & Keeku Heiaus have been fully restored. Stopping here will give you the chance to explore the history of Hawaii's ancient religions, and see a recreation of historical architecture.
The Heritage Corridor Overlook, found a little further down the byway, offers a gorgeous view of the island and the ocean surrounding it. You can also see the Royal Holua Slide, which is a mile-long stone course royalty used to speed down on mats. The very last stop on the byway is the Lekeleke Burial Grounds, where the remains of more than 300 warriors have been buried. Signage at this stop gives an in-depth look at the history of the site and those laid to rest.
From start to finish, this byway gives a glimpse into seven centuries of Hawaiian history. The time you spend here will give you a stronger knowledge of Hawaii and its people.