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Hawaii may be an island but there are scenic drives that are filled with sightseeing opportunities. Here are popular routes that will keep you driving and exploring for the day.
Aloha with love,
Shaka Guide App
If you’re looking for a guide to exploring Hawaii on your own, I recommend downloading the Shaka Guide app for self-guided GPS audio tours. The tours play automatically based on your GPS location while you drive and they’re a fantastic way to enjoy full-day tours on a budget.
Learn More: Shaka Guide GPS Audio Tours
Drive Around Oahu
Here are three of my favorite drives. If you only have time for one, I’d go with the Circle Island Drive as it will not only keep you busy all day, but you’ll sightsee a variety of views and stops that will wow you during your drive.
Circle Island Drive
This drive is often referred to as the “Grand Circle Island Tour” by local tour operators. In fact, if you are looking for a personal tour guide on Oahu, it’s highly likely that their bestselling tour will be this route. This drive usually takes a full day and takes you to all the major sightseeing spots on Oahu.
- From Waikiki or Ko Olina, get onto the freeway and head north.
- Stop at Dole Plantation to learn about Hawaii’s pineapple plantation days.
- Explore the Old Sugar Mill in Waialua.
- Drive down to Haleiwa Town where the surfing and shave ice are famous.
- Spend the day at one of the many North Shore beaches (look for green sea turtles).
- Grab a shrimp plate lunch from a food truck in Kahuku.
- Enjoy ocean views and lush mountain scenery in a countryside town.
- Visit the picturesque Byodo-In Temple in the Valley of the Temples.
For most visitors, driving around Oahu will take the whole day. There will be so many places to stop and explore that you’ll find yourself running out of time at the end of the day. But regardless of when you decide to head back, you can be sure you’ll have loads of fun!
North Shore Scenic Route
The Circle Island Drive encompasses the North Shore so if you’re staying in the North Shore, it might work out better to split these drives into two separate trips. From Waikiki or Downtown Honolulu, you can easily drive back to Windward Oahu via the freeway or Kamehameha Highway.
As you can guess, the North Shore is packed with beautiful beaches, sunsets, snorkeling and turtle-viewing opportunities. Here are some of my favorite stops:
West Oahu Scenic Route
A less traveled Oahu road trip is along the western coast from Ko Olina heading north toward Kaʻena Point. This part of Oahu is marked by its gorgeous beaches and views and it’s a unique drive that holds its own against Waikiki, Waimanalo and even the North Shore.
The drive doesn’t take that long, but I recommend these stops along the way:
- Snorkeling at Kahe Point
- Hiking up to Maili Pink Pillbox
- Hiking to Kaena Point via the Makaha Trailhead
The Road To Hana, Maui
The most popular drive in Hawaii has got to be the Road to Hana. Most visitors will spend a full day driving this coastal road from Paia to Hana, but if you can, I recommend exploring the Road to Hana over the course of at least 2 or more days. That’s because there are so many wonderful things to see and do on the Road to Hana!
About The Road To Hana
Rather than a drive, think of the Road to Hana as a “stop-n-go” experience. There are botanical gardens to explore, hot and fresh banana breads to sample, cultural Hawaiian sites to see, and even black sand beaches to marvel at. While the Road to Hana has many short stops with scenic views, it also has many outdoor attractions that will take you at least 1-2 hours to discover.
Get a very early start especially if you’re driving to Hana and back in just a day. I’d say leave by 7 AM and skip Paia Town (the first stop) since it’s close to town and you can visit another a day. The Road to Hana will most definitely require a car or a guided tour.
Learn More: Getting Around Maui And Transportation Tips
In the wild jungle of the internet, you’ll come across some articles that make Maui’s Road to Hana seem dangerous. It’s true, it’s made those “most dangerous roads” lists and people have died or gotten into major accidents on this road. But for the most part, these accidents happen at night or in the early morning. The Road to Hana does not have streetlights so driving in the dark is not a good idea, even for locals.
In my opinion, it’s not a particularly difficult road. Following the signs, driving defensively, and common courtesy should get you there and back without any major problems. During the day, the road is busy with tourists and major stops will have inevitable traffic so speed isn’t really an issue. However, you should keep an eye out for locals behind your vehicle. If a car creeps up behind you, pull to the side of the road and let them pass – they’re probably trying to get to work and making this drive every day is not particularly fun behind a sightseeing tourist.
Sights And Stops
Here are just a few of the longer stops where I recommend spending at least a couple of hours to explore at a leisurely pace. As you can see, the Road to Hana will require more than a day if you plan to give it the time it deserves.
- Paia Town: A lovely, quaint town with boutique shopping, local eateries, and a colorful atmosphere.
- Twin Falls at Wailele Farm: Hike to a twin waterfall where there’s even a pool to swim at.
- Garden of Eden Arboretum: Absolutely gorgeous botanical garden started by Alan Bradbury, Maui’s first ISA certified arborist.
- Upper Waikani Falls: Short, but moderately challenging hike with a beautiful waterfalls and a pool.
- Waiʻānapanapa State Park: Maui’s famous black sand beach. Reservations are required and run out fast so book them early.
- Hana Town: The main destination for the Road to Hana, but not the end.
- Hamoa Beach: My favorite Maui beach with a gorgeous view and a wonderful place for a swim.
- Pipiwai Trail: If you can only do one trail, I recommend this one. It’s a part of Haleakala National Park (Kipahulu District) so plan ahead so you aren’t paying the entrance fee twice.
Waimea Canyon In Kauai
Since the island of Kauai is on the smaller side, I believe it is best done in bite-sized pieces. Spend the day in a certain area and explore until you’re ready to move on to the next. But one trip that requires a car and gives you that “road trip” feeling is a drive to explore Waimea Canyon.
About Waimea Canyon
The drive through Waimea Canyon gives you an outdoorsy experience with amazing viewpoints and hikes. Besides Waimea Canyon, you’ll also get a chance to see Kōkeʻe State Park and the Na Pali Coast. Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, Waimea Canyon is a massive testament to Kauai’s age. As the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, its had a lot of time to carve out those signature valleys and cliffs that have come to represent iconic Kauai.
Kauai is known for rain and this area gets a lot of it. But not to worry. You can still see a fantastic view and usually the rain and clouds can clear up pretty quick. Come prepared though – ponchos are the best since they’ll allow you to walk unhindered. I recommend wearing good hiking shoes because this area has beautiful hikes. Even if you’re not interested in hiking, you can still walk just the beginning of it to get some fantastic views.
Waimea Canyon State Park is managed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). There is an entrance fee for non-residents.
Big Island Drives
The Big Island has some of the best scenic drives in Hawaii. The long roads and unique climates make for some really cool drives up volcanoes and along the coast. The entire island is incredibly scenic so make sure you pack some snacks and enjoy the ride!
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
You can spend a good part of the day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Start your day on Crater Rim Drive where the road takes you around the Kilauea caldera. The second part of the park is driving down Chain of Craters Road all the way down to the ocean where you’ll see the Holei Sea Arch.
One of the absolute best scenic drives in Hawaii has got to be the Hamakua Coast. Also called the Hilo Hamakua Heritage Coast, it’s an incredibly scenic route with stunning ocean views. Along the way, you’ll see gorgeous waterfalls and lush jungle slopes. There are a few places to eat along the way, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring a few snacks especially if you plan on doing some hikes.
At the very least, I recommend hiking the Onomea Bay Trail, visiting the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden (also called Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden), and stopping at Akaka Falls State Park, Waipio Valley Overlook, and Laupahoehoe Point for some excellent sightseeing.
Molokai And Lanai Scenic Routes
Molokai and Lanai are the smaller islands of Hawaii and less populated. They both get significantly less tourists and while Lanai is marketed as a “rich man’s playground”, Molokai has zero hotels. However, there are a couple of nice drives that you can do on these islands if you happen to visit.
On Lanai, you’ll probably want to rent a 4WD jeep so you can access some of Lanai’s more off-road attractions. Finding your way around is really easy and you can visit all of the popular sightseeing spots in just a few hours.
Molokai on the other hand is a long and skinny island. It’s relatively easy to find your way from west end to east end. The drive from one end to the other takes a few hours, especially if you decide to stop and explore.
Things To Bring With You On The Drive
- Snacks and refreshments: Some of the longer drives will take you into the countryside where there are few restaurants and refreshment stands along the way. If there’s a chance that you might not make it to the restaurant on time, or you’ll be forced to wait a long time just to get a seat, it might be better to bring your own food and drinks. Stock up in town on snacks and meals that keep well in the car or bring a small cooler to keep everything fresh.
- Beach gear: Coastal road trips in Hawaii means you might want to stop at a beach and enjoy the weather and waves. You’ll be happy you packed a towel, beach chairs, snorkel gear, and even a change of clothes. Some of the more popular beaches in Hawaii have fresh water showers so use them to your advantage to rinse off all that salt before you get back in the car.
- Cash: Always carry cash with you especially if you’re road trip is taking you away from town. A lot of small businesses, lunch wagons, and roadside vendors still only accept cash despite this technological age. The last thing you want happening is no cash in the “middle of nowhere”.
Local Tip: If you plan on cooling off in the waves, bring reef-safe sunscreen with you to protect our coral reefs. Look for sunscreen that doesn’t have the harmful chemicals: oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Planning Your Drive
- Bathrooms: Scenic routes in Hawaii that take you on long roads with no towns in between tend to have fewer bathrooms. Know in advance where the bathrooms are so you aren’t squirming on the side of the road. Beach parks tend to have some kind of bathroom facility if you’re doing a coastal drive. You might also have some luck at popular hikes.
- Be prepared: It’s quite possible that you’ll pass many trailheads as you drive. If you decide to stop the car and go on an impromptu hike, you’ll want to wear good hiking shoes and maybe even bring a towel and a jug of water so you can rinse off any mud off your legs. Sunscreen, a hat, and mosquito repellent are always a smart idea in Hawaii especially if you’ll be in a shaded or forested area. I also highly recommend that you do some research on things to see and do before your road trip starts because you’ll be stuck if it turns out you have bad cell reception.
Transportation In Hawaii
As you plan your routes and road trips in Hawaii, here are some helpful links and resources to help you out:
- Oahu Transportation Guide >> Oahu Car Rentals: Budget, Transportation, And How To Save
- Maui Transportation Guide >> Getting Around Maui And Transportation Tips
- Maui Without A Car Transportation Guide >> How To Get Around Maui Without A Car
- Big Island Transportation Guide >> How To Get Around The Big Island
- Kauai Transportation Guide >> Getting Around Kauai And Transportation Tips