Hilo Hawaii Activities in 1 Day
You messed up. You booked most of your vacation in Kona because that’s where the nice hotels are. You arrive in Kona and realize the place looks like a moon landscape and your hotel doesn’t even have a beach. You decide to travel to the Hilo side while you are on island. Maybe you just rented a Hilo location for one night. Let’s make this one day in Hilo your best day. You will realize that you will need to come back next year. Let’s go…
You know you need to go to the Volcano National Park. That’s what people do because there is no other active volcano you will probably ever visit. Although I agree you need to go there, the trick is realizing quickly there is little to do there and to move on to better activities. We’ll save this activity for early evening.
If you are in Kona you will travel either Saddle Road or drive a bit North through Weimea. Saddle Road is 1:30 hours instead of 2:00 hours through Weimea. However, the drive through Weimea is nicer, down the Hamakua Coast. Your choice. Either way you will end up on Hilo Bay.
Need Breakfast or Lunch? Once in Hilo, go to Ken’s House of Pancakes on the corner of Kamehameha Ave. and Highway 11. Order a Moco Loco, a Hawaiian comfort food that is uniquely Hawaiian. Go across the street on Banyan Drive. When you see a collection of ponds and a Japanese Bridge you are at Liliuokalani Park & Gardens. There is a bridge over to a small “island.” That is Coconut Island. Spend half an hour here unless you decide that you need a great picture of you jumping off the rocks into the ocean on Coconut Island. In front of the golf course on the main road (Kamahamaha Ave.) is an antique clock that no longer tells time. It is a small monument of the 1946 tsunami that killed hundreds in Hilo.
The next destination is Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots a few miles away. Go North on Kamahamaha Ave. for a mile until you are just about to leave town and turn left on Kauman Drive. Go inland about a half mile until Waianuenue Avenue. Veer to the right and look for the Rainbow Falls sign. A beautiful waterfall and river (depending on the amount of recent rainfall) awaits you. You can walk around the beautiful area but don’t spend too much time here.
Next, drive a half mile farther up Waianuenue Avenue and look for the Boiling Pots sign and park. If you don’t have a picture yet of you waving under a waterfall, here is your chance. The water is a bit cold, but you will always smile passing the picture around to your friends. See my post for important cautions as this river has claimed lives.
Drive back down to the bay. Your next stop is Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. It is only a 10 minute drive to the best tropical gardens on the island. You came to this side of the Big Island for the lush beauty, and you can find it here. Spend an hour here.
If you are hungry for lunch, in the middle of downtown Hilo is Cafe 100. It is a quick lunch of traditional Hawaiian food for a great price.
Your next visit will be Richardson’s Beach Park, south Hilo bay. If you want to enjoy the best snorkeling you may ever experience, here is your chance. If you don’t have snorkel gear, no problem. You can get a decent mask at Walmart for $10 (of course my homes have them to use). If snorkeling isn’t for you, a visit to this beach park is still a must. Finding Richardson’s Beach Park is easy. It is on south Hilo bay, 3.5 miles down Kalanianaole Ave. The area is beautiful. If you decide to snorkel, enter the water at the farther black sand beach, in which the water is warmer. Swim out toward the rocks out in the ocean. Here, the water is shallow and the fish abundant. Green Sea turtles are very popular, and chances are you will see one. If you want to see turtles come to rest for the night, arrive back at sunset and walk over the rocks beyond the black sand beach. Turtles come to rest for the night in the canal of water between the rocks.
Next will be the 40 minute drive to Volcano National Park, with a few optional stops depending on your timing. You will want to arrive at Volcano National Park at sundown to see the glow of the lava deep in the caldera. To do this, continue to Mamalahoa Hwy., also knows as Highway 11 (where Ken’s and the airport are on). This takes you all the way up to Volcano National Park. As you pass the airport and mall (Walmart) you have a choice to see the Kaumana Caves. It is a lava tube that is better than the Thurston lava tube in Volcano National Park. Simply turn right above the mall on highway 2000. It is only a mile off this street. If you see the tube now, you can skip Thurston, especially if you arrive too late to visit the tube after arriving at the Park. Just over 4 miles up you will see a turn off for the Hilo Zoo. It depends on the amount of time you have and if you have kids who want to see a zoo. Another ½ mile up you will see on the other side of the road an entrance for Mauna Loa Nut factory. This is just a “look through the window” type of tour and a gift shop. Both of these activities are free, so even a 20 minute stop at each is an alternative. We saved both of these for a two day visit. If you have time for afternoon coffee, 10 minutes farther up the road is a town called Mountain View. Keep an eye out on your left for Hilo Coffee Mill. Stop by for a quant coffee shop with a garden, some animals, and a peek at the coffee mill. It is a quick stop. When you approach the Volcano National Park gate, you have a choice. Since there isn’t much to do at the park, how about a wine tasting first? If you want a bite to eat go just a mile or so farther to the Volcano Winery and get a cracker and cheese spread. Get the very reasonably priced wine and cracker/cheese package. A quick visit will do, so tell them to keep the samples coming. If you are interested in the vineyard they give little tours. It is a beautiful area.
Now go back and through the gate of the Volcano National Park, paying your fee. What is there to do? As of January, 2022 lava is flowing inside the caldera and has raised to the level where it can be seen by a short walk/drive from the visitors center. Ask an employee at the visitors center which direction to travel in order to see the lava. At the visitor’s center one can watch a little movie and view other displays. They give little walking tours, but they simply describe some local plants. After the visitor’s center, drive a mile down to the sulfur steam vents. The vents emit steam from rain coming in contact with the hot rocks below. Pretty cool. You can also look down into the Kilauea crater and see gases raising up from the lava lake. The problem is that the lake stays about 150 feet below. At night you see a glow – a faint one. That’s it. On the other side of the road is a ¾ mile trail of more vents and sulfur deposits. It’s alright if you walk quickly.
Prior to 2018 one could go 5 miles farther down Crater Rim Drive to the Jagger building. In 2018 lava drained out of the caldera and the surrounding land collapsed into the caldera. This undermined the land around the Jaggar building and it will likely never open. Driving back to the gate, you veer right to go to the Thursen Lava tube. It is only a couple miles of beautiful road so this is a must. Park your car as best as possible and go down the steps to the tube. It is a short, well lit tube. You then climb the stairs back to your car. If you continue the drive you will end up near the ocean until the road stops. You then have to drive all the way back up. No time for this [eh don’t say this]. That is all one can do unless you enjoy hiking rocky, barren trails. [Some people really like hikes? maybe add more for this?]
About 5 miles back down highway 11 you will see Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. Make this a 10 minute stop, if at all. The orchids are expensive and nothing you can’t buy at home. They just started charging to walk around the store where growing orchids are sitting. It’s a silly tourist trap.
Ready for dinner? Drive back to Ponds in Hilo. The food is excellent and you views of the water around the restaurant with the Koi are great. Another great place in Pineapples in downtown. Pineapples doesn’t have views, but it has a younger crown and usually live music.