If you love lush green jungle, history, and most of all, stuffing your face - a road trip over Saddle Road to Hilo from Kona is well worth the drive. The county seat of the Big Island, Hilo is the oldest city in the Hawaiian island chain. This historic town has a lively music, arts, and food scene, plus stunning natural beauty with it’s waterfalls and beaches. Follow this guide for an epic road trip over Saddle Road from Kona to Hilo. You may not want to come back...until it starts raining.
The Drive Over Saddle Road
The drive from Kona to Hilo, starting from My Hawaii Hostel’s doorstep is a little over 80 miles one way and takes about an hour and 40 minutes. A gorgeous, scenic route, you’ll first climb up the slopes of Hualalai and head north along Hwy 190 that winds its way through ranch land with beautiful views of the north Kona coast, the Kohala Mountains, and Mauna Kea. The turnoff to Saddle road on the right-hand side is clearly marked.
Saddle road climbs to over 6,000 ft. elevation as it takes you past Mauna Kea (to your left) and Mauna Loa (to your right) volcanoes. You will pass Pohakuloa Military Training Area on the right shortly before the Mauna Kea park rest stop. This is the only place to stop before Hilo for restrooms and is a nice place to get out and stretch your legs. Just past the park is the road that takes you up to the top of Mauna Kea to the Visitors Center. To summit Mauna Kea and go beyond the Visitor’s Center you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle and some serious driving chops. Stay tuned for another blog post where we will cover visiting Mauna Kea in more detail.
As you continue along Saddle road toward Hilo, watch as the landscape changes and becomes increasingly more lush. Rock scrub brush morphs before your eyes into ferns, moss, and trees. You are now on the windward or wet side of the Big Island. Before you know it, you will catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and Hilo town far below as you begin to descend back down to sea level. As you approach Hilo town, you’ll have the option to turn left off of Saddle road onto Kaumana Drive, or continue straight all the way to the bottom where it dead ends into Komohana Street. We recommend going left, and taking Kaumana Drive, as it takes you past Kaumana Cave, and through the charming ‘old Hilo’ residential neighborhood of Kaumana. Drive slowly on this narrow, twisting road. This route spits you out right by our first sightseeing stop - Rainbow Falls, located just above Hilo’s historic downtown.
Rainbow or Waiānuenue falls is powerful! This 80 ft. waterfall is fed by the mighty Wailuku River which originates on the slopes of Mauna Kea. When it rains, as it often does on this side of the island, this waterfall quickly transforms into a thundering giant. It’s named for the rainbows that can often be spotted in the mist around the falls. Click here to read more about The Legend of Rainbow Falls, involving the Goddess Hina, the demi-god Maui, and an ill-intentioned Mo’o, or lizard god. There is a very short walk up to the top of Rainbow Falls that takes you to an amazing banyan tree grove.
If the weather is nice and the falls are mildly flowing, you will notice some people swimming and sunbathing upriver of the falls. If you do this, please exercise extreme caution and pay attention to the river and weather conditions. The Wailuku River is highly changeable and subject to flash flooding. People drown every year swimming or hiking along this river by getting pulled under by the current into lava tubes in the river bed, or getting swept over the falls. Insider tip: for more views of the Wailuku, continue driving up Waianuenue Ave through the residential area. You will pass Boiling Pots and further up, a bridge with a stunning view of another large waterfall.
2. Stroll Through Historic Hilo Town & Bayfront
Take a stroll through historic Hilo Town and along the bayfront. Smaller, one-way streets and mixed residential and commercial zoning create a human scale environment that’s fun to wander through and explore. There’s free street parking throughout town (just pay attention to the signs), or a small free parking lot at the intersection of Waianuenue Avenue and Keawe Street. Plenty of great sights, shops, and places to eat are within walking distance.
Some of our favorites for food include Ocean Sushi, for affordable, award-winning sushi, Lucy’s Taqueria, a fun Mexican joint with loud music, a bar, and burritos the size of a newborn baby, or Tina’s Garden Cafe for Thai and fusion Thai food that makes the drive to Hilo all worth it! If you are searching for vegan and vegetarian fare, check out Conscious Culture Cafe. Paul’s Place, a Hilo hidden gem, is a tiny brunch spot open Tues - Sat only with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. Reservations are required. If your free spirit doesn’t allow for reservations, check out Hawaiian Style Cafe for classic Hawaiian comfort dishes like the Loco Moco. Want to try Hawaii’s infamous poke? Head over to Suisan Fish Market for some of the best poke on the island. For sweet tooths - Two Ladies Kitchen is a must stop! This tiny shop makes amazing mochi (a traditional Japanese dessert made with rice flour) and is famous for their strawberry mochi, made with a whole fresh strawberry and adzuki bean paste inside. Because of their insane popularity, it’s suggested to call ahead and pre-order by phone at (808) 961-4766. It’s common to order mochi in a count of 6 or more pieces as they come in a box like donuts.
For shopping, Hilo’s bayfront is lined with shops running from Waianuenue Avenue and south, plus additional shops on the next block up on Keawe St. and on the side streets in between. If you love books and records, check out Still Life Books and Vinyl they are open 11 am to 3 pm and closed Sundays. For beautiful, quality Aloha wear made locally, visit Sig Zane Designs, a family-owned company dating back to 1985. Hana Hou Hilo is an eclectic clothing and gift shop specializing in traditional Hawaiian items crafted by local artisans, including beautiful hand woven hats. They also have periodic workshops for lei making and other traditional crafts. Hilo’s “Sally” Shop or Salvation Army store is fun to peruse. Orchidland Surf carries all your name brand surf apparel, boards, and accessories and has been in business since 1972. There are numerous art galleries along the bayfront, including Extreme Exposure Fine Art Photography, which has breathtaking photos of the island and volcanic activity. Don’t forget to stop into the Puna Chocolate Company and Cafe and grab some locally grown and produced chocolate.
When in Hilo, the farmers market is a must stop. If possible, we recommend making a trip on Wednesdays or Saturdays when they have their ‘big market’, with food trucks and arts and crafts vendors in addition to their normal farmer vendors. Market hours are 6 am to 4 pm on those days. Local residents from all over the Hilo area come to shop in addition to many visitors, making it a very lively scene.
After stuffing your face and spending maybe a little too much cash, it’s time to reconnect with Hilo’s beautiful natural landscape. Grab the car, or hoof it for a longer scenic walk along the bayfront to Lihiwai Street and hang a left toward the gardens. Dedicated in 1917 to the large population of Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work on sugarcane plantations, Queen Liliuokalani Gardens is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan, with beautiful views of Hilo Bay. Explore its stone bridges and pagodas for fun photo opts.
Right next door to the gardens is Coconut Island. Accessed via a long footbridge, this tiny island has stunning views of Hilo Bay, Hilo town across the water, and on a clear day Mauna Kea above. This is a popular spot for residents and visitors alike to take a picnic lunch, relax, and go for a refreshing dip in the bay. There are several sandy spots to access the water, or you can do like the locals do and jump off the bridge or ruins of an old tower into the bay.
6. Beach It in Keaukaha
Richardson’s Beach Park is just one of many beautiful beaches along Kalaniana’ole Avenue in Hilo’s Keaukaha area, located south of Hilo town. The weather in this area is generally a bit drier and sunnier than town. A black sand beach, Richardson’s has gorgeous views of Mauna Kea across Hilo Bay and offers some of Hilo’s best snorkeling. The waters are calm with many tide pools, making it a favorite spot for turtles. Freshwater springs mix with the ocean water for a refreshing dip. There is a lifeguard on duty and the beach has bathrooms, showers, and picnic tables. Another awesome beach for snorkeling nearby is Carlsmith Beach Park, also called ‘Four Mile’.
7. For a Rainy Day
Rainy day or not, there are some interesting museums worth checking out in Hilo. The Pacific Tsunami Museum, located in Hilo’s old town is one of them. Hours are Tuesday - Sat 10 am - 4 pm and admission is $8. This museum documents Hilo’s inundation and recovery from two major Tsunamis in 1946 and 1960. If you really want to geek out, head to the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center. Tickets are a little more pricey at $20 per person, but they have wonderful exhibits on the history of Hawaiian voyaging using the stars, a planetarium, plus a changing list of special events and talks by experts in the field. Hours are Tuesday - Sunday 9 am - 5 pm.
8. Explore Hilo’s Nightlife
For some live music, drinks, and standard bar fare stop off at Hilo Town Tavern. They serve up delicious brews and ciders from local island breweries including Ola Brew and Hilo-based Mehana Brewing Company. They usually have something going down music wise every weekend. Right nearby is the Palace Theatre, a historic theatre dating back to 1925. They have an eclectic mix of films, concerts, live shows and performances. The building has been restored and has a lovely old feel with red velvet seats and excellent acoustics.
9. Late Night Grinds at Ken’s House of Pancakes
After a late night out, stop off at Ken’s House of Pancakes - a Hilo institution since 1971, open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. If you love cozy, kitschy 70’s style diners with vinyl booths, friendly waitresses, and classic greasy spoon fare with a Hawaiiana twist - this is your spot! They are known for their ‘Sumo’ menu - gigantic sumo wrestler sized portions of select menu items that when ordered, provoke a ceremonious gong ring and everyone in the place yells “SUMOO”! If you finish your ‘sumo’ sized plate you get a free t-shirt. What’s not to love?
10. Head back to My Hawaii
It’s time to head back to Kona! If you need to fill up the tank or grab some snacks for the road, stop off at Safeway nearby Ken’s. They are open till midnight and have the best gas prices in town. From here, it’s easy to hop onto Rt. 2000 (Puainako Street) which becomes Saddle Road. Drive safe road warriors!
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