It’s important to note right here that the longtime nickname for the Island of Hawaii is “The Big Island”. And why should we mention that now? Because the island is truly B-I-G-big, and that when comparing to the other islands, getting around and dividing your sightseeing time up smartly takes a little more planning. We are here to help!
Pro Tip: A reminder that the letter “i” is pronounced as an “e” in Hawaiian… that’s why Hawaii is pronounced the way it is, and this means Hilo is NOT pronounced as “Hy-low.”
There’s a collection of different airlines directly servicing the Island of Hawaii from the US mainland. From Canada, direct services change depending on the season.
An important consideration when flying in is where do you want to land – Kona or Hilo? Kona is by far the most popular choice for visitors and vacationers because the west side of the island is where the overwhelming majority of accommodations, attractions and great beaches are. Hilo has its own appeals and is definitely worth visiting, but keep in mind it is several hours drive from Hilo to the Kona coast – so flying into Hilo isn’t interchangeable with Kona.
When you search for your fights, you will most likely see a range of trip lengths and pricing that depends on whether the flight is direct, or whether you are flying through Honolulu and connecting with an inter-island flight. That can be a significantly less expensive option than the more limited schedule of direct flights.
Inter-island flights leave frequently so you most likely won’t have to experience a long layover for your connection. The main terminal and inter-island terminals at the airport are connected – so transferring is simple.
We’ve already mentioned this but let’s make the point again; although the Hawaii Tourism Bureau and officials frowns on its usage, for decades the locals have referred to the Island of Hawaii as ‘The Big Island’ to help avoid confusion. While you are there, try to use the correct name, Island of Hawaii, but it’s okay if you call it the Big Island too.
And we’ll bet you know why. Compared to the other islands of the Hawaiian chain, it’s flat out big. You can fit the circumferences of all the other major islands – Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Molokai – into the circumference of the Island of Hawaii. And you’d still have a few miles to spare.
Being “big”, if you plan to leave your resort to do any sightseeing you’re going to need a rental car in order to really enjoy this island. You’ll see stunning vistas and panoramas nearly every mile of the way. Every island has its own uniquely beautiful environment, but the immensity of the Island of Hawaii creates a canvas and frame that’s simply stunning and sets it apart from the others.
So then, here are a few tips for driving around the island:
Specifically, goats. Many years ago, the island was rife with roaming stray donkeys – wild leftovers from the coffee farms that used them to haul the crop. The donkey population was controlled by an airlift-and-relocate program years ago, but now, an explosion in the goat population has created a whole new ‘feral attraction’ replacing the more charming donkeys. Feral pigs are also a part of the mix, though to a lesser extent.
The message here is pretty clear: animals roaming onto the roadway can be a hazard and drivers should be aware of this, especially at dawn, dusk, and at night.
Lastly, humans. It’s a known fact that some visitors forget how to read when on vacation. Be prepared that some will get so excited about something they see, they may not completely pull off the road to stop, or they may wonder into traffic trying to get the perfect picture. Expect your fellow humans to be unpredictable!
Sightseeing on the Island of Hawaii can involve long days. For example, a typical visit to Volcanoes National Park from the Kona side requires 2.5 hours of driving time each way, plus at least a few hours inside the park where you’ll want to do some short hikes a least. That turns into a very full and long day – and it’s hot too!
All of that can be exhausting, so make sure you take a rest if you feel fatigued! You’ll want to make it back to your resort so you can do it all over again the next day, or have a rest day on the beach or by the pool.
Impress anyone but a local: A group of donkeys can be called a drove, pace or herd.
While most of the island doesn’t require a park pass, any location inside Volcanoes National Park does. Visitors can pay for the Volcanoes National Park entrance fee online, on arrival at entrance stations, or show their America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass for free entry. The entrance fee is good for seven consecutive days.
Annual national park passes are available for purchase online or at the park entrance. The pass covers entry to all national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, and other federally managed lands. Current military members, families of fourth-grade students, and U.S. citizens with disabilities can receive a free annual pass. Seniors can purchase an annual or lifetime senior pass at a discounted rate, which also gets them discounts on campground fees.
Some state parks also charge an entrance fee or a parking fee, and most only accept payment by credit card on arrival.
Driving yourself is by far the easiest and most flexible way to explore the Big Island. Some of the most amazing vistas and panoramas will be seen right from the car.
Here’s how to divide your island driving into full or half day sections.
By far, a visit to Volcanoes National Park is the most popular driving trip on the island and we’ll speak about what to do in the park later. But first: how much time do you need and which way to go?
Answer #1. Visiting Volcanoes really deserves a full day of your time. From the Kona and Kohala side of the island, driving time to reach the park entrance will be 2 hours and 15 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes – that’s driving time without any stops. So you can expect to spend approximately 5 hours just getting there and back. And I’m sure you’ll want to make a few stops along the way – like at the Punaluu Black Sand Beach.
Once you arrive at the park, allow around 3 hours to see the sights – like walking in the lava tube and driving the Chain of Craters Road to see the Holei Sea Arch. Add more time if you want to do some short or longer hikes. So you should fully expect to spend 8 – 10 hours on your “visit-Volcanoes” day.
Question (and answer) #2. Which way to go? Forget getting a routing from Google Maps for this. The best way to get from the Kona side of the island to Volcanoes National Park is to go south around the bottom of the island. You will see some great scenery as you go! If you are starting from somewhere like Waikoloa, follow Highway 19 south. Highway 19 automatically turns into Highway 11 as you pass through Kona, and then follows around the bottom of the island before coming up the eastern side.
Here’s the advice we hope you’ll heed: when it time to drive back to your resort, go back the same way! We know that sounds weird, but here’s the thing – you won’t have enough time (and energy) to enjoy the many stops and sights if you continue all the way around the top half of the island. Save that for another day!
You could head home using the Saddle Road (Highway 200) across the middle of the highway. It’s only our second choice for returning from Volcanoes. It’s quite common for it to be foggy and raining on that route, especially late in the day, which can cancel out any small time savings. Pouring rain and poorer visibility is not much fun after a long day.
From Hilo: If staying in or close to Hilo, then the driving time to the entrance of Volcanoes is only 45 minutes. That gives you lot’s of flexibility – though we would recommend getting an early start to be ahead of all of those people spending the morning driving over from the Kona side and enjoy the park with far fewer people to share with.
Kohala is the name of the volcanic mountain that created the north end of the Big Island. As a generic term, all of the coastline that is north of Kona Airport is the Kohala Coast, and home to the fanciest resort areas, but also some truly authentic Hawaiian towns.
You can spend just a half day driving this section of the island, but a full day is recommended if you want to include swimming or at least soaking in some of the island’s best beaches. Resort areas like Waikoloa and Kukio might seem like they are off-limits to non-guests – but they are not. Everyone is welcome and there’s some important Hawaiian archeological and cultural sites to be visited too.
We recommend following the coast northbound. Stay left at the junction with 270, just past Hapuna Beach. Then keep hugging the coast to one of those truly Hawaiian towns at Hawi – you’ll be ready for an ice cream by then. But stay on 270 all the way until it ends at the stunning overlook for Pololu Valley. Backtrack to Kapaau where you can complete a loop drive by taking 250 up into the lush slopes of Kohala Mountain. We’ll descend into the cowboy (paniolo) town of Waimea, before turning back towards to coast and beaches again.
Every one of the Hawaiian Islands has a coast like the Hamakua Coast – a north-eastern facing, windward expanse that receives ample rainfall to create a lush coastline that provides stunning glimpses of rugged coastline along the way. But like everything about the Big Island, this is much bigger… more grand… and much longer. Be sure to set aside plenty of time for this, a full day is once again recommended, as there will be many places you’ll encounter that you’ll want to stop and see – and you should.
If coming from the Kona side, you have a choice of how to approach this day – there’s no right or wrong way, but this is our suggestion.
Start as early as you are willing! This time, the Saddle Road (Highway 200) is a good option and we recommend doing it in the morning as it is the best chance of being cloud-free. That will have you in Hilo. If you follow our tour, there is a loop route worth an hour or two that hits all of the best sights close to Hilo including Rainbow Falls, the Boiling Pots and a lava tube! When back to the highway, take a quick side trip for a drive through the beautiful Banyan trees and views of Queen Liliuokalani Gardens.
Now it time to head north following 19 up the coast. Detour onto the lush, tropical scenic route via Onomea Bay. The not-to-be-missed stops as you make your way up the coast include Akaka Falls, Old town Honomu and the lava rock delta of Laupahoehoe.
As we near the north end take the side trip through Honokaa, to the magnificent views down to Wapio Valley, for great pics as the sun starts to fade. From there, just continue through Waimea and you’ll soon be on the final stretch to your accommodations again.
The lovely harbor town of Kailua-Kona is the traditional center of tourism and visitors to the Big Island – and with good reason – as the earliest Hawaiian royalty also chose its picturesque setting. Following Alii Drive southbound from the town area is the beginning of a lovely drive to explore the Kona Coast, or Coffee Coast. Allow a half day to explore – more if you enjoy putting snorkel and flippers on.
First you’ll take in some beaches where the sand sometimes disappears only to return again after a few months. There’s cultural location too – both of old Hawaii, and post-contact Hawaii.
Continue south and climb a little to find yourself in the heart of the Kona Coffee Coast with coffee bean plantations and tasting and buying opportunities. Then back down to sea level to perhaps one of the most defining locations in all of Hawaiian history at Kealakekua Bay – below the town of Captain Cook. Lava rock makes the coast quite dramatic here before reaching the popular snorkelling area of 2 Step, with the best preserved Place of Refuge in all of Hawaii, Puuhonua O Hoaounau, located right next door. Finally, climb the hill back to Highway 11 to loop back to Kona, or continue south.
The Saddle Road looks like a perfect short cut to cross the island on the map. If we are sightseeing, this route is not strongly recommended because there just isn’t many places to stop and see. On a clear day you will enjoy long views to the coast and you are driving between the two giant volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. But be aware that the tradewinds and those volcanoes frequently create conditions that are foggy and rainy, and sometimes very unpleasant for driving – especially at night. So our preference is always to take the coastal routes, which offer far more sightseeing opportunities and places of interest.
You may be tempted to try drive to the high altitude observatories but these are working facilities – not open to visitors. And also be aware that Mauna Loa and Moana Kea are considered sacred places to Hawaiians, and we should always be respectful to sensitivities of accessing these important sites.
While there are accommodations sprinkled throughout the Big Island, there are two major areas for accommodations and both are located on the west side. A much more modest selection exists in Hilo Town, on the east side.
Everything that is north of Kona Airport along the western coast of the island can be called the Kohala Coast, and there are multiple enclaves of resorts and accommodation along this section.
By far the area with the most hotel selection is Waikoloa, with hotel accommodations ranging from moderate to super luxury – and many of the brands will be recognizable to you. As would expect, the closer you are to the water, the pricier the accommodations. You’ll find superb oceanside resorts here with fabulous “private-ish” beaches… since while legally, all beaches are open to the public in Hawaii, hotels can sometimes make it feel like there is an exclusivity for their guests for the beaches that front them.
Further away from the beach you’ll find more economical rates – still with great, family-friendly amenities – and of course, many condo-tels in varying degrees of style and class.
The second major area of accommodations on the Big Islandi is the Kona area, or south of Kona Airport. The town of Kailua-Kona, which is mostly referred to as Kona, is a vibrant tourist area that grew from a small village and still retains its small town charm, creating a different feel from the planned resort communities of the Kohala Coast. This region by far offers the widest range of budget and moderately-priced options.
It sits aside Kailua Bay, which is bracketed by the venerable “King Kam” which is officially King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, on the north and the Royal Kona on the southern lip. Both hotels are legendary to the locals with a rich history for each, but both provide great value accommodations and amenities, and most crucially, their walking proximity to the delightful Kona Town.
Between these two icons, and continuing south along Alii Drive, you’ll find dozens upon dozens of oceanfront condo-tels and vacation rental houses, with almost all of them offering something special to look at or experience.
This parade of vacation rentals comes to an end with yet another renowned resort sitting at the edge of a bay. This time it’s Keauhou Bay, and the resort is now known as the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, and nearby ancient cultural grounds.
As mentioned earlier, Hilo does not experience the constant sunshine and fabulous beaches like the west side, but that can be a good thing. It offers a wonderful, unpretentious, grounded-in-reality old Hawaii vibe, surrounded by incredibly lush and gorgeous vegetation (lots of orchid farms surround Hilo), and roads that aren’t congested with rental cars. It’s also the closest center to Volcanoes National Park if you want to spend more than a half day there.
The selection of hotels is far more limited, but this is offset by their stunning surroundings. The larger hotels sit on Banyan Drive, which itself loops through Liliuokalani Garden and Park, a gorgeous, picturesque park that itself sits at the edge of languid Hilo Bay, with the majesty of the massive volcano of Mauna Kea looming as a backdrop.
Impress a Local: Mauna Kea means “white mountain” in Hawaiian. So named because it has snow in the winter.
It’s simple: is there really a “bad” time to visit Hawaii? There are basically two distinct climate differences through the year, and even the cooler (that’s the Hawaiian definition of “cooler”), wetter weather that is considered winter in Hawaii from December to April is a pleasant respite from winters on the mainland.
The winter months feature more tropical storms – including the small possibility of hurricanes – and these peak around the month of March. This doesn’t mean there aren’t sunny days in March, there are plenty. It’s just an overall cooler average temperature and the possibility of a storm in that month.
Obviously, you can expect far more crowds and higher prices in the winter months, with a similar, schools-out family vacation crowd in June, July and August. So the off-peak, “shoulder seasons” of April to May and September to mid-December are when you’ll have the best chance to find a deal.
Specific to the Big Island, notable seasonal events are the Ironman, held on or around the first weekend in October (better book your accommodations a year in advance for that event), and the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, usually held around the last week of July. Both occur in Kona.
Impress a Local: King Kamehameha the Great was born on the Big Island, and he’s referred to as ‘The Great’ because he unified all the islands, which were previously each under their own rule. That’s why the State of Hawaii came to be named Hawaii, and not Maui or Oahu.
The natural beauty of Hawaii is of such magnitude and magnificence that one could easily spend weeks exploring it.
Generally, one should try to plan at least one week on the Big Island in order to not feel rushed to get a full sample of the island treasures. If you want to take yourself sightseeing around the island, plan on on two “full days” for Volcanoes National Park and the Hamakua Coast, and two “half days” for the Kohala Coast and the Kona/Coffee Coast. That should leave you with lots of resort and beach time too.
Most visitors require a full day of travel to arrive and return home. To get that mix of experiencing Hawaii and also soaking up the island sun and relaxation, we always recommend to alternate busy, adventure days and lazy, relaxing days.
A good rule of thumb is to add one week for every additional island you want to visit.
Impress a Local: The Big Island is the “youngest” of the entire Hawaiian island chain, and the next island in the chain is already being formed by a lava flow 3,000 feet underwater about 20 miles off the southwest shore of Hawaii. It will break the surface sometime in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years, but resort developers are ready. It already has a name. Loihi.
Volcanoes National Park has been the most popular attraction in all of Hawaii for many, many decades, yet in many ways it acts like a petulant teenager. One year it is steady and polite, the next year in complete wild eruption, followed by a sullen quiet that makes one nervous wondering what’s going on.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as well as all holidays. This of course, is subject to change according to eruptions and safety conditions generally. So the first tip in planning a trip is to consult with the National Park Service website for the latest, up-to-the-minute updates and status of the park.
Yes, absolutely – everyone wants to see lava – it’s a bucket list activity. But be aware that lava is not always flowing! So, once again, the first thing to do is check what the latest lava activity is, or isn’t, on the NPS website. And let’s just be clear about this – Volcanoes National Park is an awesome place to visit whether there is active lava or not.
The Halemaumau Crater of Kilauea has been the most reliably active location for the last few decades, but even she takes a pause from time to time. Viewing the crater is from a high (safe) rim location and most commonly a lava lake glow and gases are visible.
If lava flow is active, usually to most spectacular time to view it is as dusk is approaching. Even if you are only able to see a glow, that is worth it. Same goes with dawn. So some folks go with the loose rule of “arrive at five”. That’s 5am or 5pm. As you can imagine, 5pm is far more popular.
While it’s a dream for many visitors to see lava erupting, volcanic eruptions can be extremely hazardous and change at any time so make sure you heed any closures. They are put in place for your safety, not to try and diminish your experience. How you can access active lava depends entirely on where a flow is taking place. It might be inside the park or outside. Sometimes a long hike is required and often you might be forced to view from a long distance away. If the flow has been stable and predictable for a sustained period, officials may allow up-close viewing.
Also, it’s worth knowing that volcanic gas and VOG (volcanic smog) can be a danger to everyone, but especially infants, young children, pregnant women and anyone with heart or respiratory problems. So if you are susceptible, make sure to check the air quality before and during your visit. And while you’re at it, you’ll want to keep up-to-date on the weather. At 4,000 feet above sea level, the Kilauea summit can be raining and cold at any time.
Other hints and tips include…
Those who enjoy hiking can avoid the headache of busy parking lots and bumper-to-bumper roads. There are tons of great hikes at all experience levels, including the Kilauea Iki Overlook, the Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube) and overlooks along Kaluapele (Kilauea crater). They can be reached from the more spacious Kilauea Visitor Center and Devastation Trail parking lots, so this is a great time saving right there.
The Chain of Craters Road has been covered by lava five times since it was built in 1965. Thankfully, it’s cleared each time after activity subsides and ready for rolling again. The pullouts along the 19-mile road showcase the destructive and creative splendor of Kilauea volcano through gaping craters and vast plains of young lava flows. This is the easiest way to see the park.
It terminates at ocean-level at the Holei Sea Arch. And be sure to stop and view the ancient petroglyphs along the way.
If you are looking for one of the most popular hikes of the park, the Kahuku Unit is part of what once was one of the largest cattle ranches in Hawaii, and is now features a plethora of amazing hikes. The National Park Service Kahuku Unit is currently open from Thursday through Sunday, but you’ll want to consult the NPS website for updated opening times.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park entrance is located on Highway 11, between Mile Markers 70 and 71, and the Kilauea Visitor Center is located on Crater Rim Drive, just a short distance from the entrance to the park.
Let’s just say that the Big Island can be described as “otherworldly”… and it can definitely change you. And there’s no better way to examine these other worlds than with some of the fabulous hikes that this island offers; over lava fields, to quiet beaches, through rainforests and coastal caves.
Here are just a few of the better hikes, ranked from easiest to the more challenging. All of them make for superb family activities… depending, of course, on the age and condition of the family members.
Akaka Falls State Park is northwest of Hilo on the Hamakua coastline. It has easy parking and a comfort station. The trail is an easy, paved half-mile loop with slight elevation and incline through incredibly lush rainforest. The verdant jungle will amaze you, and along the way you’ll get glimpses of the payoff: the stunning Akaka Falls cascading down over 400 feet into a picturesque pool.
This is so easy, one has trouble calling it an actual “hike,” but it is perfect kids, beginner hikers, or folks who only packed flip-flops.
How to get there? About ten miles north of Hilo Town on Highway 19, turn uphill on Akaka Falls Road, passing through the town of Honomu. Drive a little more than three miles along the Akaka Falls Road as it travels uphill. You may encounter a fresh fruit stand and a goat farm along the way. The road dead-ends into the parking area for Akaka Falls State Park. But note, the small lot fills up quickly.
Right up front we’ll point out that it’s illegal to enter many of the lava tubes and caves around the Big Island, but not for the Kaumana Cave, a giant lava tube where visitors are welcome to explore part of this massive cavern.
Access to the cave is easy and free, with stone steps leading to the cave entrance, but beware that the further you go into the cave the more uneven the floor becomes, and it gets darker. It’s possible to go up to two miles into the cave, but this is not recommended to go too far because of the aforementioned treacherous reasons. But this is a great way to sample a lava tube.
How to get there? From Hilo, follow Highway 200, the Saddle Road, to the west. You’ll locate Kaumana Caves State Park between the 4 and 5 Mile Markers (right after Mile Marker 4).
Kiholo Bay is a stunning visual treat for everyone, known for its shimmering turquoise waters, lava tubes, hidden pools and abundance of sea turtles. It also doesn’t have that many tourists, because, while scenic, the bay is not good for snorkeling. But that’s okay, you’ll have plenty of other joys.
For one, you’ll often see sea turtles in the water and on the black sand beaches around the bay. You can also find a flooded lava tube, shallow tide pools, an inland pool that connects to the ocean underground, and an ancient fishing pond constructed by King Kamehameha over 200 years ago. That’s where the green sea turtles often hang out.
This hike is basically a walk a little shy of three miles along the coast. But make sure you have footwear that can handle sometime sharp lava rock.
How to get there? Just past the scenic area adjacent to Mile Marker 82 on Highway 19, between the Four Seasons and Waikoloa, find an unmarked gravel road leading toward the ocean. This dirt road is graded periodically, but it can be pretty rough in some spots. If it’s too rough to drive, consider parking and walking – but take water, it can be very hot and exposed.
Located on the Kohala Coast. Makalawena Beach is a long, beautiful stretch of open beach that is perfect for spending a relaxing day at. So, why isn’t this listed in the ‘Best Beaches’ section? There is no road access, and it takes a hike to get there.
There are two different trailheads to the beach. The North Trail is a four-mile round-trip hike that leads to the calm and protected waters of Awakee Bay as well as the Opaeula Pond National Landmark. The South Trail is a well-worn 2-plus-mile (round-trip) route over a lava field and sand dunes that ends near Mahaiula Bay.
How to get there? There are two ways. Option 1, from the north: Take Highway 19 north of Kailua-Kona and the Kona International Airport. The dirt road to Makalawena Beach is located just south of the paved road to Kua Bay, between Mile Markers 88 and 89. Two-wheel drive vehicles can park just off of the highway before the road begins to get rough. Four-wheel drive vehicles can continue for 1.6 miles of very rough road to a gate and small parking area just north of Makalawena Beach. There are no services of any kind at either parking area.
Option 2, from the south: Take Highway 19 north of Kailua-Kona and the Kona International Airport. Find the road to Mahaiula Bay between the 90 and 91 Mile Markers. There are restrooms and picnic tables at this trailhead, but there’s no water so you’ll want to bring your own.
The Pololu Overlook is one of the most renowned viewpoints of the Big Island, or even the State of Hawaii for that matter, as photos from the Pololu Overlook often come up when one does an image search for Hawaii. The verdant Pololu Valley flowing out into a rocky, turbulent bay and framed by the majestic Kohala are indeed a magnificent sight, but there are even more stunning photo ops if you take the short trek down the Pololu Valley Awini trail.
It’s an easy trek down about 300 feet for about a quarter mile to the valley floor, but the rewards are immense, as most visitors just stop at the overlook, take a picture and take off. So you’ll likely be alone to explore the valley and stunning coastline with a black sand beach.
How to get there? The Pololu Valley lookout is at the end of the Akoni Pule Highway (270), east of the quaint Town of Hawi on the northern tip of the island. Depending on how busy it is you may have to park your car along the road and walk a few minutes.
Kealakekua Bay is famous as the place where in 1779, British Captain James Cook met his end while trying to flee back to his ship anchored in the bay. An obelisk was set up as a memorial by the British in 1878 at that spot on the beach, with a plaque submerged in the surf at the exact spot Cook died trying to get into his launch.
It is not easy to reach, the only ways to the obelisk are by watercraft or a two and half hour hike on the Captain Cook Monument Trail with an elevation of 1,300 feet – you must go down first, and then 1,300 feet back up again, which can be hot! But the hike is a beautiful trek through lava fields and wild sugar cane, and the snorkeling is some of the best on the island, as fishing is restricted in the bay and it is packed with sea life.
How to get there? The trailhead is just 500 feet further down Napoopoo Road after the intersection with Highway 11. Park near telephone pole #4, in a small and unmarked pull-off. There is more parking uphill on a wide shoulder. Don’t block traffic on the road or block residents’ driveways; this isn’t a public parking area, so be careful to respect the people who live here. You can drive to the south end of the bay for an easy look, but you won’t be near the memorial. There is an obvious parking lot, limited services, and usually a few small vendors.
If you only had one hike to make while in Hawaii, this is the one it should be, as you’ll be hiking around verdant rainforest and old lava fields to the Kilauea Crater… an active volcano. And this is what the island is all about, right?
From the overlook of the Kilauea cauldron, you’ll drop down 600 feet in a three-and-a-quarter mile hike to be inside Kilauea.
How to get there? After entering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, drive straight ahead for less than 100 feet and turn left onto Crater Rim Drive. Follow Crater Rim Drive for a few miles until you reach the large parking area for Kilauea Iki and Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube). This is a popular area and sometimes fills up quickly. If parking is full, turn around and drive a 1/4 mile back toward the visitor center and find another overflow parking lot.
Mauna Loa stands 13,678 feet tall, and while it is still the SECOND tallest mountain on the island, Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain in the world and why its name means “Long Mountain” in Hawaiian. This is one of the most challenging hikes on the Big Island, but you will never forget the panoramic volcanic and ocean views you will encounter over its 13 miles.
The trail is within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and starts out over vast fields of fresh(ish) lava, gradually rising 2,700 feet in a climb towards a cinder cone at the top.
How to get there? From Volcano Village, take Highway 11 in the direction of Kona, and turn towards the mountain between Mile Markers 31 and 32 onto Mauna Loa Road. After 1.5 miles you will reach a turnaround and the trailhead for the 1 mile Kipuka Puaulu (Bird Park) Trail. On the far side of the turnaround you will find an open gate. Continue through this gate onto the Mauna Loa Scenic Strip. The road winds up the slope for 10 miles to an elevation of 6,662 feet. Do take your time on this scenic strip and look back to the Kilauea Crater often for dramatic views!
This is one of the toughest and unforgettable trails on the island, and maybe in the state. You’ll not only be hiking 16 miles and climbing 7,000 feet in elevation, but you’ll be entering another world with Waimanu Valley, with sky-high waterfalls, enchantingly remote valleys, and even a private beach where you can camp for the night.
It’s possible to either day-hike or backpack this trail, but the only legal camping location is across the Waimanu River from Waimanu Beach at the trail’s turnaround point. Treacherous water crossings and swarms of mosquitoes will challenge you, but fight back with bug spray or better yet, mosquito net face covers, and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most isolated and breathtaking landscape scenery in all the world. A hike not for the unprepared!
How to get there? From Honoka, drive to the Waipio Overlook. Parking can be difficult at the small parking area, and take care to park in an appropriate place if you park up the road. This is the trailhead. Do NOT drive down the 25% grade into the valley, it’s not permitted for any non-local traffic and as you will see the wrecks of the vehicles of the fools who tried it as you walk down the trail.
Night viewing the manta rays is a thrilling family experience that is completely unique to the island. Departing nightly from Kailua-Kona, tours take guests out to sea to meet these giant prehistoric-like creatures. Lights are positioned to highlight plankton (manta food), attracting manta rays into a feeding frenzy below the surface. You can witness this surreal scene by either snorkeling or SCUBA diving among them or rest easy in floating in the ocean looking down on this astonishing scene. Either way, you’ll remember this your entire life.
Parasailing is one of the island’s most popular paid, motorized activities that mostly takes place from the harbor at Kailua-Kona. As you fly high in the sky over the blue Pacific you’ll witness majestic vistas of volcanic behemoths of Mauna Loa and Hualalai towering over a stunning coastline, and in the distance, on a clear day – of which there are many – you can even see all the way to Maui!
Kona is one the most renowned marlin fishing spots in the world, and you can charter a guide and a boat out of nearby Honokohau Harbor to go after the big one. Some easily crest 1,000 lbs and can take hours to wrestle into the boat, so make sure you eat your Wheaties. Or, in Hawaii, spam.
Whether you’re soaring over waterfalls, lush treetops or 200-foot river gorges, zip lines are an exhilarating, eco-friendly way to see the Big Island’s most majestic sights, and it’s suitable for any age. And with zip line providers stretching from Hilo to Kohala Coast, you’ll have a fabulous opportunity to see the amazing diversity of the island’s landscapes.
The many waterfalls of the Hamakua Coast provide the perfect location, while further north in Kohala, you can fly like a bird through a dense forest canopy, taking in Pacific Ocean vistas as you fly down the cables.
Located at the northern tip of the Big Island, Kohala is home to an intriguing 110-year-old system of hand-dug tunnels, elevated flumes and concrete passageways – all remnants of irrigation channels that once supplied gallons of water to an old sugar cane plantations. And now, families can take an unforgettable journey together, floating in a four-seater kayak quietly meandering throughout the ditch network across the mountainside through thick forests with thousand-foot tunnels dripping with spring water, and elevated flumes soaring high over rushing streams.
The first cows arrived in the islands around 1793, and the vaqueros (native cowboys from Spanish California) soon came to teach the Hawaiians how to handle them, starting the rich tradition of the Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys). The Big Island is the best setting to learn about Hawaii’s cowboy culture, and morning, afternoon or sunset horseback rides provide a great way to experience the life of a paniolo (or paniolA… a Hawaiian cowgirl), along with the island’s breathtaking landscapes.
If it’s in your budget, you might want to consider a helicopter tour, and you’ll be hard-pressed to choose between a tour of the incredible natural majesty of the Hamakua coastline… or an amazing inspection of the Kilauea volcano.
Say the word “Hawaii” to anyone and their first thoughts will probably be golden sand beaches and swaying palm trees. The Big Island is the youngest of all of the Hawaiian islands, and its vast coastline is dominated by dramatic lava rock.
Because of that fact, the island hasn’t been subjected to as much wind and sea erosion as the others, meaning that the slow process of accumulating long, deep tracts of sand just hasn’t as much time as the other islands. The result is that the island has less beaches than the others. But the beaches that this island does have are some of the most fascinating and enjoyable in all of Hawaii.
The island’s most popular beach is located on the Kohala Coast, on the northwestern shore. This gorgeous, half-mile stretch of white sand is loved by many for its mostly calm swimming conditions that are perfect for families with younger kids, and snorkeling. And if a swell is running, then the waves are fun for bodyboarding.
There are lifeguards on duty, and the park provides showers and restrooms; there are also food and beverages available, as well as shaded picnic tables. Due to its popularity, Hapuna Beach can get very crowded, so it’s a good idea to arrive early to ensure a parking spot and a shady place to set down your blanket. There is a fee for parking at Hapuna.
The southern end of the beach is the best place for snorkeling, and experienced snorkelers and divers will want to go even farther south around Kanekanaka Point. This large reef curls around the point that divides Hapuna Bay and Waialea Bay, which is a beach destination in and of itself.
One of the Big Island’s busiest beaches, this white-sand beach is a summertime favorite located on Waialea Bay, adjacent to Hapuna Beach. There is a gradual slope to the surrounding reefs, which protects the water from the turbulence and currents of the open sea, making this an ideal beach for families. Please note there are no lifeguards, but there is showers and a comfort station.
The reefs here are also home to some of the region’s most diverse marine life, and subsequently this is a top snorkeling and diving spot – but only in the summer months. With its rough waters and big waves in winter, visitors can watch expert surfers out on the waves. When the ocean swell is running, sometimes the sand can get a little thin, so fingers crossed for good conditions during your visit.
Access to the beach parking lot is near utility pole number 69, and visitors need to watch those numbers and turn when see that number. This is why the beach is nicknamed “Beach 69.”
Also known as Kua Bay Beach, this white-sand beach sits on the western shore facing Kua Bay, just north of the Town of Kona within the borders of Kekaha Kai State Park. This is an excellent spot for snorkeling and swimming in the summer, but during the winter months the waves can become quite big, allowing for great surfing (and surf watching). Just bear in mind that it can be a little dangerous for swimming. Visitors often catch a glimpse of dolphins playing in the distance, and sea turtles are frequently spotted.
Be sure to wear sneakers or footwear that will allow you to climb over the lava rocks on your way to the sand, and beach umbrellas are recommended since there is no shade here. You’ll also want to bring your lunch, snacks, and water, as there aren’t any concessions here. But there are lifeguards, and there are restroom and shower facilities. As with most of the island’s most popular beaches, Maniniowali Beach can be very crowded on weekends, and parking can be tricky.
Finally, a beach on the eastern, windward side of the island! Punaluu Beach sits on the eastern shore about halfway between Pahala and Naalehu just off the Mamalahoa Highway. It’s a popular and easy stop on the way to Volcanoes National Park. It is also commonly known as Black Sand Beach thanks to the granular lava that composes the shoreline. Visitors who want to swim should check the conditions first, as the water can have strong currents. But that’s pretty easy to navigate – just ask the lifeguard on duty there.
Those who skipped or failed physics class should know that black absorbs heat, and this means this black sand is soaking in and holding all that glorious heat of the Hawaiian sun, so be sure to bring proper footwear. Fortunately, and now moving from physics to biology, green sea turtles – being reptiles and cold blooded – happen to LOVE this heat, and make this beach their home. So expect to see some, and remember, they are endangered, so act accordingly.
Those thinking of snorkeling here won’t see much, but there is excellent snorkeling at nearby Ninole Cove, easily reached by a short path from the Punaluu Beach parking lot. This same path provides a lovely seaside hike with excellent views.
Kahaluu Bay is one of the best places on the Big Island for snorkeling. Located near Kailua-Kona, the coral reefs here are teeming with life, including a variety of bright tropical fish, endangered sea turtles, sea urchins, and even an octopus or two. Even swimmers who stay in the shallower water will often see schools of the smaller fish, as well as sea turtles, and the water conditions here are usually calm and safe for kids.
Also great for kids (and inquisitive adults), there’s the Kahaluu Bay Education Center that enlightens people about the bay’s unique and delicate ecosystem. Visitors can also rent snorkel gear there, and all proceeds go towards conservation efforts, so it’s a feel-good in almost every way.
Kahaluu Beach Park provides restroom and shower facilities on-site, and there are shady spots for those who arrive early enough to claim them. There are also picnic tables and a pavilion, and the beach is within walking distance to Kailua-Kona, where you can find restaurants and snacks.
Right in charming Kailua-Kona Town is a small beach is also known as Kid’s Beach, or King Kam Beach. It’s next to what was King Kamehameha the Great’s winter lodge… a replica of which is still there in the adjacent Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark. It’s an excellent choice for families with younger kids because of its super soft sand and tranquil water within the protected cove. The king, after all, knew what he liked!
The beach is also close to the Kailua Pier and therefore has a tremendous selection of watercraft and watersports rentals and restaurants nearby. It’s the ultimate in convenience.
Located on the island’s northwestern shore, just further north past the turn off for Waimea, Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park is a favorite for visiting families thanks to its calm water. Parents also appreciate the abundance of shady trees, as well as a large covered pavilion with picnic tables, and the sand here is among the softest on the island. The reef that protects the beach from big waves and strong currents makes it an excellent spot for snorkeling and diving. Being a little out of the way – it’s often far less busy than beaches just 15 minutes away.
Visitors can also start out on the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail from here, and enjoy a fabulous scenic hike with stunning views of the bay.
This beach is also part of our ‘Best Hikes’ section, thanks to the 20-minute walk along a path in the lava that takes enough effort to qualify as a hike. This also results in a much less-crowded beach that is perfect for folks who like seclusion – a rare commodity sometimes in Hawaii – and nature lovers, which is in plentiful supply in Hawaii. Once you hike past the lava and reach the luscious sand it becomes ultra-soft, before sloping gently down into the clear water; a beautiful and calming sight after traversing a jagged moonscape.
Shady spots and a few picnic tables can be located under the scattered trees that fringe the shoreline, but this is as close as you will get to any sort of amenities. Since there are no facilities, concessions, or lifeguards, this beach is not recommended for children or inexperienced swimmers. What you may find, however, are some wandering chickens and goats who like to ensure that no food goes to waste. This is also a decent spot for snorkeling, thanks to the shallow reef that skirts the shore.
Makalawena Beach is located in Kona Coast State Park, just north of Kona.
We’ll put it out there right up front: the Big Island isn’t as brimming with fancy and expensive dining choices as say, Maui and Oahu. Those options are available of course, especially in the resort areas and Kailua-Kona if you want to seek them out. Much of the island’s cuisine follows the attitude of the island itself; hearty, no nonsense, good flavorful choices, especially for things that have traditionally sustained generations of Hawaiians.
We absolutely encourage you to seek out Hawaiian classics. Comfort foods include traditional plate lunches, Hawaiian BBQ, Spam musubi (yes Spam) and hearty Kalua Pork. You haven’t really experienced Hawaii until you’ve had a Loco Moco – followed by a nap.
For sweet treats, Malasadas are Portuguese-style donuts filled with flavored custards like haupia (coconut) or Lilikoi (passionfruit) to provide that tropical island accent. Or traditionalists will be just as happy to have the chocolate ones! Try different flavors of the soft and chewy Mochi whenever you find it available. And of course, shave ice is always fun, and be brave with your choices of fresh fruit syrups and toppings. Tropical fruits – just eat as much as you can, fresh picked all around you.
The ocean is everywhere so eat seafood whenever you can – it will be fresh and delicious. Poke is the perennial favorite (closest to sushi) and originated in Hawaii.
But since this is the Big Island, you should take advantage of the fine produce of local farmers. These are items that cultivated on the island – so make a special effort to enjoy opportunity to sample the local produce.
The story of how cattle came to Hawaii is quite fascinating, and we’ve alluded to it in other areas of this guide. The island is home to some of the biggest ranches on the planet. The environment is lush and green and the cows are content. In this environment grass-fed is the choice, so be sure to enjoy a steak or other beef dishes where you see that the local product is served.
The side of a volcano, with the right amounts of elevation, sun, and rainfall has seen the highest quality of coffee grown in the Kona area. We don’t really need to introduce you to Kona coffee, but we’re here to remind you to that while you’re in the Kona area…
These trees were introduced to the island and it turned out to be the perfect environment to grow fantastic quality product. Whether you like yours plain roasted, salty, or chocolate-coated, you can’t get fresher. The famous brands have visitor experiences to enjoy.
Beer most certainly wasn’t invented in Hawaii, but the Kona Brewing Co has become one of Hawaii’s more famous and recognizable exports. Enjoy a sunset with a cold one while watching the sunset – tick that off your list.
Obviously, with two massive mountains smack in the middle of the island, only areas on the west side would qualify for this, but those same mountains offer some superb vistas and panoramas that, coupled with a setting sun, will render you in deep awe.
The meandering road through coffee country above the seaside town of Kona has a few pull-outs from the road where you can park and take in a stunning view of the setting sun, and the equally meandering road across the top of the Kohala Mountains has even more stunning views – this time surrounded by lush ranchland instead of coffee farms.
And in between the ranchlands of Kohala and the coffee farms of Kona, on a long stretch of Queen Kaahumanu Highway (State Highway 19) about 5 miles north of the Kona Airport, there is one of the most magnificent scenic overlooks in all of Hawaii. Here you’ll find one of the most spectacular – and unique – Hawaiian sunsets.
For coastal spots, Kailua Beach next the Old Kona Airport is just a few minutes from Kona, with extremely easy access and the old runway has a mammoth parking area, but no comfort stations. Further north, Pine Trees Surfing Beach has good access, BBQ areas and comfort stations to make a nice, afternoon-into-sunset day. The tide pools and evening surfers make a good framing for the sunset.
And of course, if you are really adventurous and don’t mind long night drives or have it all put together for camping, sunset at South Point – the southern-most point of all of Hawaii (and therefore the southern-most point of the United States) – would be something you’d see on someone’s bucket list, simply because of the aforementioned uniqueness. But frankly, you’ll get a better night’s sleep with just as striking of a view at the beaches surrounding Waikoloa, Keauhou and Kona.
Impress a Local: Queen Kaahumanu Highway is named for one of the queens of Kamehameha the Great. One of many, but by far his favorite.
Clothing: If you don’t like shorts, you’re going to the wrong destination. Pack at least two pairs. The Big Island is an island for adventures, and things can get soiled pretty quickly. Also, and this is important, if you plan on visiting the mountains Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa, bring a jacket.
Footwear: In Hawaii, they are called “rubbah’ slippahs”… elsewhere, “flip-flops” or “zoris.” Whatever you call them, “pack ‘em if you got ‘em.” If not, look to buy some when you arrive. You’ll have about a zillion choices. If you are planning some hikes, well, you know what to do. Just be assured that your feet will get wet.
Impress a Local: Buy and wear the cheapest “rubbah slippahs” you can find… usually in Long’s Drug Stores. If you want luxurious ones, by all means buy ‘em… then pack ‘em to show off to all your friends back home.
Sun Protection: If you are serious about protecting yourself, use a minimum of 30 SPF.
Impress a Local (and Mother Earth): Buy ReefSafe sunscreen. All the major Hawaiian Islands reefs have been taking a beating lately, and the locals see it every day. So do this small part and show some courtesy for Hawaii’s amazing nature.
Wet Bag: A handy item to have whether you’re at the beach or hiking, it’s perfect for your wet or muddy clothes or simply to pick up any trash that you might find along the way – getting you into the “aloha spirit”.