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An Epic Road Trip Across Hawaii, the Big Island

Posted on September 25, 2014

-by Jessica Festa

A Big Island sunset as viewed from my rental car.

Before visiting Hawaii, the Big Island, I had never thought of it as a quintessential road trip destination. For some reason, tropical islands always seem so small and compact in my head. You mean I can’t just ride a bike or jog across a beach from one side of the island to the other? At 4,028 square miles (10,432 km²), definitely not.

After a 16-hour flight from New York City — including two stop-overs — I arrived on the Hilo side of Hawaii Island. Another misconception I had in my head was that Hawaii, the Big Island (nicknamed Big Island) would be pretty much beaches and palm trees all around; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find out the destination is home to all the world climate zones aside for temperate snow forest and polar ice cap, meaning you’ll find many contrasting landscapes as you drive.

Smoke rising from Kilauea Caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

During our time in Volcano, we spent almost every hour in the national park. Encompassing 333,000 acres (134,760 hectares) stretching from the summit of Maunaloa to the Pacific Ocean, there are many scenic drives, lookout points and fun hikes to explore (Plus, the $10 entrance fee is good for the whole week. This budget traveler’s got to get her money’s worth!). Many of the treks are easy — we encountered a number of families with small kids along the way — although even experienced hikers can appreciate the diverse scenery in the park: walking through caves carved out by hot magma at Thurston Lava Tube; viewing ancient communications at the Puu Loa Petroglyphs; seeing smoke-spewing volcanoes along Crater Rim Drive; and, my personal favorite attraction in the park, driving down the Chain of Craters Road to the Holei Sea Arch.

Holei Sea Arch.

Keep in mind I was on a Hawaii Island road trip, and by the end of the stay had driven from east to west across the island and along the coasts. When I say the drive down Chain of Craters was the most visually spectacular jaunt throughout the whole trip, you have to believe it’s special. From the visitor center the drive takes about 30-40 minutes, with the scenery transforming and mixing beaches, palm trees, petroglyphs, prairie and open lava fields that reminded me of just-baked brownies (weird, but true). It was extremely difficult to keep focused on the winding open roads — especially as I jealously watched Molly excitedly climb back and forth from the front and back seats with her DSLR — and we had to pull over almost every eight minutes to capture those “postcard-worthy views.”

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About Jessica Festa: Jessica enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been road tripping through Big Island, teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, agritouring through Tuscany, and doing orphanage work in Ghana. Read more on her blogs Jessie on a Journey and Epicure & Culture. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest.

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