Things to Do in Big Island of Hawaii
Visiting the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatories gives you the feeling of being on top of the world for good reason: You’re actually pretty close. Standing at 13,796 feet (4,138 meters), the mountain is Hawaii's tallest and the highlight of many visitors' trips to the Big Island of Hawaii. The Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) feature some of the world's largest telescopes, including equipment from Canada, France, and the University of Hawaii, due to its designation as an unparalleled destination for stargazing.
The marine sanctuary of Kealakekua Bay ranks among Hawaii’s most scenic spots for snorkeling, swimming, and hiking. The beautiful bay, home to spinner dolphins and backed by green mountain slopes, was the site where Captain James Cook landed—and was later killed—on the Big Island in 1779, forever altering the history and culture of the archipelago.
When you stand in front of spouting lava at Kilauea volcano, or marvel at steam as it rises from vents in Halemaumau Crater, it's easy to see that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park isn't just a national park, but also a place to get a front-row seat to the beauty of Earth's creation. Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, this park offers everything from lush rainforest to lava tubes and rolling black lava fields, where hot steam still rises from fissures and rifts that dot the rugged landscape.
Hawaii’s volcanic activity creates a dynamic array of beaches ranging from soft white shores to the black pebbles of the Big Island’s Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach. But, travelers aren’t the only visitors to Punaluʻu; the area is known for the large green sea turtles (honu) that come out to bask along the black sand shoreline.
Kailua Pier is the northern bookend to most of Kailua-Kona’s restaurants, shops and bars, a stretch of concrete wide enough to host four-lanes of traffic (if it wasn’t closed off to cars). The historic pier was first built as a downtown fishing dock in 1900 and utilized rocks from deconstructed Hawaiian palace and fort walls, but today few boats moor here. Instead, the pier is mostly used for large events and festivals including the annual Kona Ironman World Championships, which starts and finishes at the pier, and the Kona International Billfish Tournament whose daily catches of sometimes-massive fish species including Pacific blue marlin are weighed from pier-side scales for all to see.
On the pier’s northern side, a small beach fronting the King Kamehameha Marriott Hotel has public showers, restroom blocks and hosts community events such as the Kona International Surf Film Festival and the Kona Brewers’ Festival. Aside from the beach, the best vantage for
Ahu’ena Heiau, a still-revered thatch-roof temple dedicated to Lono and dating to the early 19th century, is from Kailua Pier. Some say the temple is just 1/3 of its original size when built by Island-uniting King Kamehameha I. Because it is believed the monarch also died here, the site and its tiny man-made island remain sacred and off-limits to the public, despite being on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
One of the most popular waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii, Rainbow Falls is loved for its easy access and the rainbows that frequent the falls on misty mornings. The Wailuku River varies dramatically based on rain, but this 80-foot (24.4-meter) cascade wows viewers whether it is a thundering torrent or delicate trickle.
Forming a deep natural amphitheater that’s washed by the sea and waterfalls, the Waipio Valley, on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a natural wonderland marked by rain forests and hiking trails. Cliffs thousands of feet high plunge to the valley floor, where a curved black-sand beach meets the sea.
British explorer Captain James Cook met his death at Kealakekua Bay on February 14, 1779, after a skirmish with the king of Hawaii in a local village. Today, a white obelisk in Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park stands sentinel over the lush coast and its crystal clear waters, commemorating his death.
Steep drop-offs beckon just off Kona’s coast, the dominion of pelagic beasts—marlin and billfish some topping 1,000 lbs. Most journeys to catch one begin the 262-slip marina at Honokohau Harbor, just before the entrance to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Nearly all of Kailua-Kona’s fishermen, independent sportfish tour operators as well as charter boats departing for scuba sites and popular manta and dolphin snorkeling adventures dock and depart from Honokohau Harbor.
The full-service marina also sports two noteworthy restaurants: Harbor House, a burger and beer joint with views of vessels from their open-air dining room, and Bite Me Fish Market Bar & Grill serving seafood delivered direct from the ocean to their door. ATMs, two full service restroom blocks with hot showers and a convenience store for snacks and sundries round out the facilities here.
Just behind the marina proper, a snaking road ends at a lava rock parking lot with a trail leading to a small beach with decent snorkeling and popular with area dog owners.
Like a lonely ribbon of black asphalt across the Big Island’s empty bosom, Saddle Road (Hawaii Route 200) provides the fastest means of driving between Hilo and Kona. There was once a time when this remote stretch of highway was one of the worst roads in Hawaii, but substantial improvements and re-paving have made it accessible and open to cars.
From Hilo, Saddle Road climbs through residential neighborhoods towards a lush, mist-soaked rainforest. The green of ferns is gradually replaced by the brown of desert scrub brush, and fog is common as the road climbs toward 6,600 feet in elevation. Passing between the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—Hawaii’s dueling 13,000-foot mountains that are often snowcapped in winter—the road passes the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, where stargazers gather each evening.
Cell phone service is spotty on Saddle Road, and for the entire duration of its 48-mile stretch there are no gas stations or supply shops. While Saddle Road can be a time-saving alternative for driving between Kona and Hilo, visitors need to make sure they’re prepared to traverse a remote stretch of island. The journey is one of the most beautifully desolate and adventurously rugged stretches of road in the state, and it’s a convenient way for Kona visitors to access the east side of the island.
More Things to Do in Big Island of Hawaii
Located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Thurston Lava Tube is the most accessible lava tube on the Big Island. Discovered in 1913, this 500-year-old tube was created by subterranean lava that once flowed through this young section of earth. Today, the tube is illuminated to create an eerie glow for visitors who venture inside.
Located north of Hilo, Akaka Falls is one of the best-known waterfalls on the Big Island. Surrounded by lush, tropical jungle, the 442-foot-high (135-meter-high) Akaka Falls is easily accessible by a short, paved loop trail, making it one of the most popular and scenic attractions on the island.
Before the cowboys of the American West, there were the Hawaiian cowboys,paniolos, of the Big Island. With over 17,000 head of cattle spread across the rolling country between Kohala and Mauna Kea, Parker Ranch is not only the largest active cattle ranch in Hawaii, but one of the biggest and most historic ranches in the United States.
Kilauea Volcano is the star of the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kilauea Volcano remains active, spouting orange lava, venting steam, glowing, and sputtering. When conditions are safe, it’s possible to drive around the volcano's edge on the 11-mile (17-kilometer) Crater Rim Drive.
The Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park combines recreation with a restored display of Hawaiian history set on the Big Island’s dramatic Kona Coast. Visit the park to meander through the ancient settlement where thatched-hut hale (houses) sit on the shore, explore the area’s trails, or relax at the white sand Honokohau Beach.
Mauna Loa’s status as the largest active volcano in the world doesn’t stop travelers from flocking to the rugged mountain—in fact, it attracts them. With its last eruption occurring in 1984, the volcano is known for non-explosive activity, making it an inviting and worry-free destination to explore on scenic drives or backcountry trails.
The largest authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan, Liliuokalani Gardens present Japanese culture set on Hawaii’s Hilo Bay. Arched stone bridges, moats, stone lanterns, pagodas, and a tea house make up the gardens, which were named after Hawaii's last reigning monarch and dedicated to the immigrants who worked in the sugar fields.
Located just outside of Hilo, the Kaumana Caves are part of a 25-mile (40-kilometer) lava tube that formed in 1881 from lava flow from Mauna Loa. Easily accessible, the Kaumana Caves State Park is a great alternative for those looking for a more adventurous, and less crowded, experience than the Thurston Lava Tubes.
Formed by a 5,400-foot volcano, Kohala is dominated by lush valleys, laid-back plantation towns, verdant pastures and ancient Hawaiian religious sites. The area is an outpost of cowboys and hippies with its beaches, valleys and architecture, the latter of which ranges from the modern resorts of South Kohala to ancient temples constructed entirely of stone. Although the land area only comprises 6% of the Big Island's total area, it could still take weeks to explore in its entirety.
Most visitors to South Kohala are familiar with the resort enclaves of Waikoloa and Mauna Lani, where golf courses sit in stark contrast to the surrounding black lava fields. The white sands of Hapuna Beach are a favorite of beachgoers, and history buffs will love stopping in to the Pu’ukohola Heiau, which was commissioned by the great King Kamehameha. While this national historic site sees thousands of annual visitors, only a mere handful will make the journey to the smaller Mo’okini Heiau on windswept Upolu Point; constructed in the 5th century AD by some of the earliest Polynesian voyagers, this is also where King Kamehameha was born.
Further up the road in the North Kohala plantation towns of Hawi and Kapa’au, travelers will find artisan outposts of craft stores and coffee shops. A massive statue of King Kamehameha presides over Kapa'au and is still draped in flower lei during the annual King Kamehameha Day celebrations each June.
On the eastern coast, rugged valleys with sing-song names such as Pololu, Waipio, and Waimanu form deep clefts into the lush mountainside, and are a favorite of island hikers and thrill-seekers. Waterfall trekking to jungle ziplining are popular in these outdoor playgrounds, and Waipio Valley is regarded as one of the most scenic corners of the island.
Tracing the northernmost portion of the Big Island of Hawaii, the Kohala Coast boasts Hawaii’s most desirable characteristics, from white-sand beaches lined with resorts to lush mountains bursting with wildlife and waterfalls. Go beyond nature to explore the island’s culture and history at restored temples and ancient villages.
With much of its coastline covered in jagged black lava rock, Kona is not well known for its beaches. However, a few locales offer the unspoiled white sand oases that typify Hawaii, including the palm-lined stretches at Kekaha Kai (Kona Coast) State Park. The best beachy parts are located more than a mile down a bumpy road through the remnants of a jumbled lava flow. Signs calling stretches “unimproved” are an understatement. Hualalai Volcano, looming behind the park, oozed these paths to the sea between the late 1700s and 1801. To truly appreciate the ocean dip awaiting you (and to satisfy many rental car agreements), hike the 1.6 miles in instead. When you arrive seaside, the small facilities—including limited parking, toilets, showers and an on-the-beach picnic area will be straight in front of you. But, to get to the larger stretches of white sand, you’ll need to continue on, turning right at the signs before the toilet blocks to reach Mahai’ula Bay. Here, it’s not uncommon to spot sea turtles, and the bay’s offshore rolling waves make this a fun spot for bodyboarding, surfing and stand-up paddle boarding. For an even more secluded spot, follow the trail behind the old buildings at the north end of Mahaiula to the double-arched Makalawena Beach.
Kekaha Kai State Park’s 12-acre grounds also feature access to a 4.5-mile coastal jaunt to Kua Bay along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, including the Puu Kuili cindercone with sweeping shoreline views.
Step into Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park and be surrounded by royal gardens, wooden statues, and temples that once offered a place of refuge for Hawaiians who broke sacred laws. The site that once provided a lifesaving sanctuary for lawbreakers is now a national park recognized for its cultural significance and natural beauty.
One of the most scenic roads on the Big Island, the Chain of Craters Road stretches for 19 miles (31 kilometers) from the summit of Kilauea Volcano to sea level, a change in elevation of 3,700 feet (1,128 meters). The drive offers stunning vistas across changing landscapes, access to different volcanic features, and other interesting sites.
Set back a block from Hilo’s coastline are scores of towering and sprawling banyan trees with their thick and unique trunks. Similar trees can be found throughout the state, but what makes these fifty specimens unique is their planters. Between 1933 and 1972, many famous celebrities, political figures, authors and Hawaiians personally planted or dedicated these banyan seedlings as a way to commemorate their visit or honor friends. In front of the Hilo Hawaiian hotel, a particularly large road-shading tree has a small sign indicating it was planted by George Herman “Babe” Ruth, and across Banyan Drive are trees planted by King George V, Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon. Other famous names visible on placards along the leafy corridor are Franklin Roosevelt, movie star Cecil B. DeMille and his wife Constance, Amelia Earhart, volcanologist Dr. Thomas Jaggar (whose name is given to the Jaggar Museum at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) and musician Louis Armstrong. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the many of the trees here have persevered through three city-devastating tsunamis. Giant waves swept through Hilo in 1946, 1960 and 1975, and though these trees were not lost, a combined 222 people were.
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