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Big Island Hawaiian Vibes and Driving up Mauna Kea, the World's Tallest Mountain

Updated: May 29

Mauna Kea sunset rainbox

The big island of Hawaii is the perfect weekend adventure if you're visiting some of the other islands during your time in Hawaii. I had a work trip last year in Oahu and my boyfriend tagged along, but we wanted to also fly over to one of the other islands before heading home to Seattle. After a week in Oahu, we flew to the big island (super cheap to fly between Islands!) on Friday evening to start our trip! We went the second weekend in September for reference of the photos below.

Day 1: Arrival in Kona

Since we were arriving in the evening, we wanted to knock out the long part of the drive. We flew into Kona airport and decided to go counter-clockwise around the island! If you arrive in the morning you can move around some of these activities and do them on Friday.

We rented our 4WD Jeep Rubicon and after having a delightful chat with the man working that night about how he ended up in Hawaii, he upgraded us for free to the brand new jeep! He was just one of the many kind, peaceful people we met during our time there.

Then we started our drive at night and checked in to Colony I Sea Mountain hotel. (tip: 7-11s in Hawaii have similar snacks to Japan's 7-11s, so check them out!)

This spot was secluded and beautiful. We chose it because of the location; it's right near the black sand beach (2 minute drive!) and it was very affordable. Our room overlooked a picturesque green field and the ocean; it didn't feel real how gorgeous it was.

Day 2: Volcanoes, Mountains, & Sea

We woke up with the sun and made a little coffee at our hotel and enjoyed the sunrise. After that we took the top off the jeep since the sun was out! Our first stop was Punalu’u Black Sand Beach to try and see some sea turtles. We saw a native couple fishing and they quickly pointed out some sea turtles for us and we got up and close to them (respectfully of course). They were located between the rocks and kinda swaying with the water. I wasn't sure if we'd see them since they're mostly out between 11am-3pm when it's hotter, but we got lucky I guess! You never really know, so it's always worth trying!

After being amazed by the giant sea turtles, we headed to Kaʻū Coffee Mill (also a coffee farm you can walk around In!) for a quick stop on our way to Volcano National Park so we could try some local beans. A trend in Hawaii is to use Macadamia milk, so that was our milk of choice for most of our lattes on the island.

My partner and I love hiking, so naturally we wanted to check out some of the local trails. The sad part was the volcano erupted 5 minutes after our plane took off to leave the island, so we didn't see any lava flow, but we did get to see the lava tubes and trails which were still very cool.

Here's a rough idea of the stops you can make on your journey through the National park! (p.s. don't forget to pack your America the beautiful US annual park pass in your luggage to save on entrance fees!)

After a lot of exploring, we grabbed lunch in Hilo. We decided to go off a local's recommendation and get loco moco (for my boyfriend) and some pancakes at Ken's House of Pancakes. We also needed more coffee, of course. We took our extra pancakes to go so we could finish them on top of the mountain.

Driving up the Tallest Mountain in the World...
a red jeep with the trunk door opened over looking the mountains at sunset

Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, but a lot of it is actually underwater! From its base it is taller than Mt. Everest and it's the second highest peak of an island on Earth. It's a pretty cool concept to revel in. From sea level it rises 13,803 ft tall, so you should definitely expect to feel the altitude and take things slow and drink lots of water and eat a good meal beforehand.

When you arrive, you'll have to check-in at the visitor center and speak with some of the park guides. They require you to wait around 20-30 minutes to adjust to altitude and prepare and safety tips for the drive up the mountain. They also have live webcams so even if it looks cloudy (which it did for us!) then you can see if it's actually clear and sunny at the top above the clouds. I was pretty nervous about the drive, but they reassured us that it was not too bad.

If you squint you can spot the visitor center below (the one with all the cars next to it). This can give you an idea of what the start of the road looks like.

Does it look like we're in an airplane or car? That's how it feels to drive into and above the clouds. I was SO nervous for this drive. I read lots of reviews and blogs and they all made me very weary, but once we got there, it was totally manageable. We had a relatively clear day though, so i'm not sure how it would be in bad weather. The roads were not sketchy, my boyfriend drove very slow on the way down; you have to be careful not to use your breaks too aggressively (I learned this from when I drove up Pikes Peak in Colorado years prior).

Once we got to the top, we could definitely feel the altitude, we walked slowly and took in the stunning views. There were lots of people at the top, but it wasn't overly crowded. We took photos, walked around for a little bit, ate our leftover pancakes, and just chilled for a little bit. I couldn't believe we were standing atop the tallest mountain on Earth; it was breathtaking and so surreal.

We stayed at the top of Mauna Kea for the sunset and then started our descent. As we were leaving, we couldn't help but be amazed at all the stars. So after leaving the park we found a pullout off the highway a little bit and parked. We climbed on top of our jeep, I set up my camera on my tripod to capture what we saw, and we laid down facing the sky. My favorite thing about looking up is that you're looking back into the past, this is because of the speed in which light travels.

astrophotography at mauna kea

I've done a lot of stargazing and star-chasing over the years. I can definitely say this was one of the darkest skies i've seen before. There were so many stars, more than i've seen at dark sky parks. It made me wonder what it would be like to be off the coast on a boat in the middle of the sea.

After staring at the stars for awhile, we got back into the car and headed for Kona. We got in pretty late, but the hotel front desk worker greeted us and helped us to our room at Kona Seaside Hotel.

Day 3: Leisure and Departure

Since we were staying in Kona this time, we were able to sleep in after a long day. We woke up and spent over an hour following around this adorable lizard that was on our balcony. It felt so good to move slow.

hawaiian lizard

My partner and I are both huge espresso lovers, so we naturally were so excited to see one of the coffee farms on the island. We attended the free Coffee farm tour at Greenwell farms, just be sure to arrive 10-15 minutes before your desired time-slot. We did the 10:00AM tour and it was so informational! We learned so much about the process of growing and selling coffee in Hawaii. We also got to sample and try all the different KONA coffee blends they had. The farm overlooked the water and we saw so many cool fruit trees. The guide was so knowledgable and we couldn't believe it was free! They also provided umbrellas for everyone to shade from the sun. On the tour we also got to see their peppercorn trees which were so neat! I had no idea what coffee actually looked like on a farm, so it was a really cool learning experience.

Other things to Try:

We spent some time around Kona afterwards before our afternoon flight. The Kona airport was so relaxed, but they are strict about checking carry-on luggage for any restricted items that cant leave the island. They checked our bags for a second time as we boarded the plane. Overall, we loved the big island. It was so laid back and the people seemed genuinely relaxed and happy. We can't wait to come back to hawaii.

What to Pack


Hi! I'm Jackie and my dog is Sora. I work remote as an engineer, but I love to spend my free time in nature and by traveling to new places. I take my camera wherever I go, and sometimes my drone.

Somewhere With Sora is a Seattle-based lifestyle and travel blog that provides helpful travel and adventure tips for all kinds of trips, with or without the dogs.

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