The Big Island of Hawai’i is a special place. Rich natural and cultural treasures have formed the identity of the newest of the islands within the Hawaiian archipelago. The Big Island hosts a wide range of diverse ecosystems, due in part to its unique topography. There are the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in its center reaching towards the heavens, lush rainforests on the east side around Hilo, and sandy beaches and sheltered bays on the west side around Kailua-Kona. Each area boasts unique opportunities for exploration and enjoyment for every type of traveler. Let’s explore the highlights of the best things to do on the Big Island!
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO ON THE BIG ISLAND
Visit Mauna Kea Observatory
The Mauna Kea Observatory is set on the top of the mountain in which it derives its name, boasting one of the darkest skies on the planet and best places to view the night skies. It is now considered the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with the combined light-gathering of the telescopes atop Mauna Kea far surpassing that of the Palomar telescope in California and the Hubble Space Telescope! The summit of Mauna Kea is very dry and cloud-free, and there are lighting ordinances island-wide that protect the dark sky conditions that allow astronomers and visitors alike to peer into the depths of faraway galaxies in the night sky.
Mauna Kea is accessible via Saddle Road that traverses the middle of the island from Kailua-Kona in the west to Hilo in the east. When making the drive, whether on your own or part of a tour, make sure to stop at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 ft (open 9AM-5PM). Here you can check road and weather conditions for the summit, learn about the natural and cultural history of Mauna Kea, and also get information on the telescopes and astronomical wonders being discovered at the top. This is also an excellent opportunity to give your body time to acclimate from the ascent from sea-level to this altitude. If continuing on to the summit, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the dirt roads up. Do be aware that there is 40% less oxygen at the summit, as well as freezing temperatures, so please make sure you and your companions are prepared and healthy enough to visit!
Snorkel with Manta Rays
Manta rays frequent the waters off the coast of Kailua-Kona and are a huge draw for visitors to the Big Island of Hawai’i. Rightfully so, this may be one of the most incredible natural encounters of your life! Floodlights are positioned to attract plankton into the coastal waters off of Kona, where snorkelers and divers can observe the manta rays in a feeding frenzy! It’s truly a sight to behold.
There are two main sites that manta ray night snorkel excursions take you to: “Manta Village” and “Manta Heaven.” Departing from Keauhou Bay around sunset, Fair Wind offers great cruises with refreshments and experienced guides, all aboard sustainable vessels powered by photovoltaic electronics and biofuels. See more information about manta ray excursions here!
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Naturally, when thinking of the Big Island of Hawai’i, active volcanoes may come to mind! Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth and has been erupting since 1983. Recently, having captured the attention of the world, torrents of lava have been flowing out of Kilauea into the sea on the southeastern side of the island. Homes and entire neighborhoods have been lost in the path of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of creation and fire, who is credited with creating the Hawaiian islands from volcanoes that erupted out of the seafloor.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park covers about 333,308 acres that stretches from the summit of Mauna Loa to the sea. There are lots of hiking trails around and through the volcanic craters, lava scorched forests, and volcanic cliffs that border the sea. The park has a museum explaining the natural history of the islands, Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes and the plants and animals within the borders of the park. This area has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing an incredible amount of biodiversity for visitors to explore. Do bring a jacket, as this area can get cold due to the high altitude.
Sites of Interest
Crater Rim Drive: This 10.6-mile drive circles around the Kilauea caldera that features the Kilauea overlook, Devastation Trail, and Kilauea Iki Crater overlook. Parts of this section are closed as of February 2019, so please check the current closures and advisories for the park.
Halemaumau Crater: This massive volcanic crater, considered the home of Pele, vents plumes of steam and has at times been filled with a lake of lava that has now dropped over 1,600 feet from collapsing in on itself during the 2018 eruption.
Chain of Craters Road: At the southern end of Crater Rim Drive, there is a turnoff that travels from the crater down to the sea over lava flows. Depending on the volcanic activity, this road is sometimes closed. Check with Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for current conditions and availability.
Nahuku-Thurston Lava Tube: Check out this lava tube, essentially a subterranean cave, that formed as torrents of lava flowed, cooled on the surface, and eventually drained out as the lava flowed through. Walk inside and marvel at this natural process that shaped these islands.
Snorkel Kealakekua Bay
Kealakekua Bay houses one of the most pristine turquoise bays you may ever experience. Surrounded by 100-ft tall volcanic cliffs, the bay itself is sheltered from wave action, contributing to its incredible visibility of up to 100 feet! Popular with snorkelers, one can experience a wide diversity of marine life that lives off the vibrant reef within the bay. The bay is accessible by boat and can be a relatively private site to experience all sorts of wildlife including angelfish, lizard fish, colorful corals, butterflyfish, turtles, and the occasional marine mammal!
The Captain Cook Monument is also visible on the shore, erected by the British to honor Captain Cook in the place that he perished. Captain Cook was mistaken as the god Lono by Hawaiians upon his arrival, and during the makahiki festival, he was showered with gifts and adorations. When he and his crew returned to Kealakekua Bay after encountering storms shortly after leaving the island, the illusion of his godhood was broken as Hawaiians believed a god would have been able to avoid the storm. He later died in a battle onshore with four of his sailors on February 14, 1779.
The eastern side of the Big Island is wet, receiving around 120-170 inches of rainfall annually. Here you will find lush tropical rainforests, massive waterfalls, and high ocean cliffs and valleys!
‘Akaka Falls State Park is located on the northeastern Hilo coast and offers a 0.4-mile hike that will take you through a lush rainforest featuring bamboo groves, huge ferns, and wild orchids. There are two waterfalls along this path: Kahuna Falls (100 ft tall) and the incredible ‘Akaka Falls that drop straight down 442 feet to the forest floor! It’s a delightful place to hike and marvel at the Big Island’s most popular waterfall.
Located within Hilo, the 80 foot tall Rainbow Falls is absolutely stunning. They flow over the Wailuku River and commonly boast beautiful rainbows above the falls in the early morning! You can also continue along the left shoulder of the falls to get closer and gain an interesting vantage point.
Once home to Hawaiian royalty, or ali’i, Waipi’o Valley is now mostly wild with a few residents amongst the expansive taro fields. Waipi’o translates to “curved water” and is the namesake for the river that runs through the valley. The river originates from numerous waterfalls that fall at the back of the valley creating streams that all come together as the river flows to the black sand beach where it meets the sea.
The Waipi’o Valley lookout is where visitors can see magnificent views out over the valley, as well as information about the area. A 4WD vehicle is required to traverse the exceedingly steep road down to the valley floor. Other options to descend include hiking, ATV tours, or possibly paying for a ride by one of the local residents who frequently run tourists in and out of the valley. Once in the valley, you can turn inland to see wild horses, crops, and waterfalls tucked into the cliffs.
Hiking Waipi’o Valley
There are numerous hikes within Waipi’o Valley including the exceedingly steep climb down from the Waipi’o lookout at the southern cliff overlooking the valley below. The trail leads to the bottom of the valley and the black sand beach. Returning up the same route is about 6.5 miles round trip.
Another hike in the valley is the Muliwai Trail that zigzags up the opposite side of Waipi’o Valley and on the other side eventually leading to the incredible and isolated Waimanu Valley towards the north. Please note, this is an extremely strenuous hike and is usually attempted by fit, and experienced hikers prepared to camp within Waimanu Valley overnight. For more information on this area, please see here. The first section of the hike up the Waipi’o Valley wall can be attempted as a shorter hike that results in incredible views out over the valley which is exceptionally beautiful at sunset.
A couple of things to note: this is an extremely sacred valley to Hawaiians, and it is essential to show respect to the people living down in the valley. Pack out any trash, and don’t trespass on private property! Additionally, the black sand beach is notorious for massive wave action that has swept people out to sea. Use common sense and ask if you’re not sure it is safe to swim.
Taste World-Famous Kona Coffee
Kona coffee is world-renowned, grown in perfect conditions in Kona on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai. The environment around Kona creates an ideal recipe for growing this delicious coffee: light rain, mild winds, sunny skies, and mineral-rich volcanic soil. Many coffee plantations are run by families around Kona, some having continued the practice for generations!
Experience a Green Sand Beach
Papakolea Beach (Green Sand Beach)
Down at the very southernmost point of the Big Island is an incredible green sand beach! The beach was carved out of a 49,000-year-old cinder cone from the Mauna Loa volcano and given its distinctive color by the green crystals (olivines) that have been broken down into sand by wave action over the years.
Drive south from Kona to the southernmost tip of the Big Island and park your car in the designated lot at the end of South Point Road. A 2.5-mile hike over pasture land takes you along the coast to the beach. You will be fully exposed to the sun, so if you intend to do this go early in the morning and bring sun protection and plenty of water! Some local residents do offer a paid ride via 4X4 vehicle down to the beach, but this is illegal, and the vehicles damage the sensitive environment.
Do make sure to check out South Point (Ka Lae), where history says that Polynesians made their first landing in Hawai’i. The confluence of ocean currents make it a popular fishing spot, and the massive ocean cliffs are a fantastic place to watch a quintessential Hawaiian sunset.
Kaumana Caves State Park
Kaumana Caves State Park offers the opportunity to climb down into and explore a lava tube. Walk inside and marvel at this natural process that shaped these islands. A quick drive from Hilo along Kaumana Drive, this cave is about a 0.5-mile walk from the parking area to a long lava tube that you can descend into via a metal ladder. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a flashlight so that you can peer into the tube.
Try Some Hawaiian Cuisine & Brews!
Ahi poke (pronounced “ah-hee poke-ay”) is a Hawaiian dish that is gaining popularity all over the United States and the world! You’ve got to try it in its original state: typically made from either aku (raw ahi tuna) or he’e (raw octopus). The fish is sliced raw and mixed in all sorts of combinations with limu (seaweed), sesame oil, shoyu (soy sauce), sea salt, inamona, and chili pepper. Commonly served over rice, poke bowls are a staple dish for residents in the Hawaiian islands. Some of our favorite places around Kona for poke are Umeke’s and Da Poke Shack.
Hawaiian beer? You bet! The Big Island houses two incredible craft breweries that incorporate tropical and uniquely Hawaiian flavors into their beers!
Visit Kona Brewing Company near Kailua-Kona to take a brewery tour, eat tasty Hawaiian and American dishes, and try beers brewed with Kona coffee, passionfruit, and all sorts of other tropical fruits!
Another spot we love is Big Island Brewhaus, located in Waimea up towards the northern end of the island. The location is quaint, and it has a friendly local vibe to it. The beers are unique and delicious, so make sure to try a few in a flight!
A new brewery in town making waves already is Ola Brew Co, also located in Kailua-Kona. They source agricultural products locally to use in the brewing process to make delicious ciders and beers! Another spot we love is Big Island Brewhaus, located in Waimea up towards the northern end of the island. The location is quaint, and it has a friendly local vibe to it. The beers are unique and delicious, so make sure to try a few in a flight!