Top 10 Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

by | January 2020 | 4 comments

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We recently got back from a vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii for our 10-year wedding anniversary. WOW… what an amazing trip!

The Big Island of Hawaii is incredibly diverse from lush rainforests to barren lava fields, mountains to beaches, bustling tourist spots to rural farm country. It has a little bit of everything with something for everyone.

As a matter of fact, the Big Island of Hawaii is home to 2 of the 60 places listed in MSN.com’s article “You won’t believe these places are in the USA.” That in itself is a great reason to visit the Big Island of Hawaii!

As the largest of Hawaii’s 8 main islands, the Big Island of Hawaii (aka “Hawaii”) lives up to its name. In fact, it’s bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. It should actually be called the ”Freakin’ HUGE Island!”

While we were visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, we put nearly 1,000 miles on our rental car driving around exploring. There are so many things to see and do on the island! We actually ran out of time to cross everything off our to-do list while we were there.

Are you thinking about visiting Hawaii and wondering what the best things to do on the Big Island are? Keep reading for my top picks of the things we managed to do during our visit to Hawaii’s Big Island.

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click on this interactive map of the Big Island of Hawaii for details of each location

Top 10 Things To Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

1. Hike down to Pololū Valley (Black Sand Beach)

During my research of must-dos on the Big Island of Hawaii, the Pololū Valley Overlook came up. We figured an overlook would be an easy thing to do for our first day on the island. We’d be able to take a little drive, and it wouldn’t be too strenuous compared to some of the other things we had planned. 

We didn’t realize there was a hike down to the valley (and an amazing black sand beach) until we got to the overlook. Parking was very limited. We were able to parallel park down the road a bit and take a short walk to the overlook. 

To be honest, the view from the overlook wasn’t that great. But we saw a trail leading down and thought there might be different viewpoints we could check out. We ended up taking the steep, rocky trail all the way down about 1/2 a mile to the black sand beach.

The scenery along the trail is worth a visit in itself with breathtaking views of the Hamakua coast and dramatic cliffs framing the ocean. But you don’t want to miss the incredible black sand beach at the bottom! It’s a must to hike all the way down the trail to the beach. The area is gorgeous and also includes an upriver view of Pololū Valley.

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As we walked along the beach, we saw that the trail continued on the far end. Not being one to leave a path unexplored, my hubby wanted to see where it led. The narrow, closed-in trail with switchbacks was stifling and claustrophobic at times. But it took us up to another lookout for Honokane Nui Valley (3.2 miles roundtrip from the parking area).

The trail from the parking area down to the black sand beach isn’t long, but it’s steep and rocky. I recommend wearing Teva-style sport sandals or something similar that you can wear in the water. It’s also very hot. Be sure to bring plenty of water (especially if you’re going to keep going to the Honokane Nui Valley lookout).  

We weren’t prepared and were dying of thirst by the time we got back up to the parking area. Luckily, the nearby farm stand saved us. It’s a great place to stop at after your hike to cool down with beverages, fresh fruit, shaved ice, and views of the ocean.

2. Kīlauea Iki Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Of all the National Parks we’ve visited and trails we’ve hiked throughout our travels, the Kīlauea Iki Trail was one of our all-time favorites! And it’s also the best hike in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Hiking across the floor of the solidified Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake was such a unique experience!

After sleeping for 90 years, Kīlauea Iki awoke in November 1959, erupting over the course of 36 days. The eruptions created a 400-feet deep lake of lava that took 36 years to harden. And the 4-mile loop trail takes you over that hardened lava lake!

You’ll hike through a lush rainforest, down switchbacks and steps, across the lava field on the floor of the mile-long crater, then back up. From the Kilauea Iki Overlook 400-feet above, you have vast views of the immense crater. The trail on the crater floor below looks like a dusty path through a barren dirt wasteland. 

But it’s so much more than that! Being down on the crater floor gives you a completely different perspective. You get a close-up view of the incredibly detailed texture of the hardened lava, the steam vents and cracks along the surface, and the revegetation of plants growing up through the cracks. It feels like you’re walking on the moon! So surreal!

I highly recommend hiking the Kīlauea Iki Trail. And if you’re going to be visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, it’s a must! Give yourself at least a few hours to complete the trail, and bring plenty of water. It gets hot! And there’s no shade on the crater floor.

You can access the trailhead from the Kilauea Iki Overlook. Another way to reach the trail is at the parking area for the Thurston Lava Tube. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see the lava tube during our visit as it was closed from the 2018 volcano eruption.

3. Drive to the end of Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Another must-do at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is driving the scenic Chain of Craters Road. Along the drive, you’ll see a diverse landscape varying from lava-covered fields to lush rainforests. There are also many stops and things to see along the way.

The best viewpoint is when the road approaches the coast. From the Kealakomo Overlook, you’ll have an incredible panoramic view of the ocean and vast coastline. You can also see the hardened lava across the coastal plain where it meets the sea.

The frequent lava flows over the years have covered nearly 9 miles of road and increased the size of the National Park by hundreds of acres. If conditions permit, driving the current 18.8 miles of Chain of Craters road to the coast is worth the drive!

One of the most popular stops on the road is actually at the end where you can take a short walk to view the Hōlei Sea Arch. Sadly though, the Sea Arch is closed at the time of writing this due to new cracks on the coastal cliffs.

Before visiting, be sure to check the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park website for any current alerts and/or closures. Also, an FYI: there are no services on this road, so be prepared with gas, water, and food if needed.

4. Hike to Papakōlea Beach (Green Sand Beach)

This is one of the places on the Big Island of Hawaii listed in MSN.com’s article “You won’t believe these places are in the USA”!

There are only 4 green sand beaches in the world, and guess what… one of them is on the Big Island of Hawaii! You have to hike to it though, and the trail is about 2.8 miles each way.

That may not seem bad and it’s totally worth it, but I’ll be honest. This is a rough hike. The trail itself isn’t that difficult as it’s essentially a dirt road. But it’s dusty and HOT (bring a ton of water, sunscreen, and a large hat)!

I’ve never sweated so much in my life. I’m not athletic whatsoever, so I had never experienced sweat dripping into my eyes, that is, until this hike. At one point, I thought there was a bug on my leg, but no… it was just sweat dripping down my shin. I didn’t even know shin sweat was a thing.

I was swearing the entire way to the beach and back (strenuous hikes make me cranky… haha!). But the beach itself was such an incredible sight! As much as I was hating the hike, I’m so glad we got to experience one of only four green sand beaches! How amazing is that?!

As you’re trekking along the seemingly endless road, you finally come to a spot where it looks like the trail drops off a cliff. But down below is the beach, a beacon of hope like an oasis mirage in a desert. You become giddy at the sight, realizing that you made it and briefly forgetting that you were just cursing the hike.

The green hue of the small beach from the view above doesn’t even do it justice. Seeing the olive green and goldish-black sand close-up is a surreal experience. Add it to your bucket list! I wouldn’t recommend swimming at the beach here though. The surf and undercurrent are quite strong with massive waves crashing on the shore. Swim at your own risk.

To get to the green sand beach, take Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy 11) to South Point Road and turn on it heading south. Drive to where the road practically ends and turn left to end up at a dirt lot. Park there and start walking towards the ocean to the trailhead.

Then follow the trail with the ocean on your right for about 2.8 miles to the cliffs above the beach. There’s a ladder with steps on the wall of the lava cliff to the left across from the bay. Climb down them carefully to reach the beach.

FYI: the trail is basically an extremely rough and bumpy 4×4 road from the parking area to the beach. I heard that it was illegal to drive on (not quite sure why that would be though).

If you were to drive on the road, you’d definitely need a 4-wheel drive vehicle with very high clearance. But there were some locals there offering rides to and from the beach. I want to say they were charging about $20 per person each way. Click here for more info on Papakōlea Green Sand Beach.

5. Hapuna Beach (White Sand Beach)

You won’t find many sandy beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii due to all the volcanic activity there. But if you’re looking for an iconic stretch of white sand beach, Hapuna Beach is where it’s at!

As the largest white sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii, it’s the island’s most popular beach. In fact, it’s actually one of the best beaches in the U.S. in our opinion!

There’s plenty of room to stretch out on the large expanse of pristine sandy shoreline. And the water is the perfect temperature, cool but not cold (perfect for escaping the heat). Depending on surf conditions, it’s an ideal beach for swimming, bodysurfing, or snorkeling.

I usually don’t get into the ocean, but I couldn’t resist the beckoning clear, blue water at Hapuna Beach. We loved swimming there and even returned the day we were leaving for one last quick swim before our flight.

We accessed the beach by parking at Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area for $5. The amenities there including restrooms, showers, and even a cafe. Beach rentals are also available including chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, and snorkeling gear.

If you happen to stay at The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, you’ll have direct access to Hapuna Beach (score!). We stayed at the Fairmont Orchid this time. But the next time we visit the Big Island of Hawaii, we may stay at The Westin for its convenient location on Hapuna Beach. We could lounge there every day!

6. Punalu’u Beach (Black Sand Beach)

This is one of the places on the Big Island of Hawaii listed in MSN.com’s article “You won’t believe these places are in the USA”!

Yes, another beach. And another black sand beach at that. Actually, the most popular black sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. But can you ever go to enough beaches, let alone beaches with unusual nature-made black sand?

At Punalu’u Beach, you’ll find fine black sand surrounded by the contrast of blue ocean and green coconut palms. The scene appears to be straight out of a postcard. Along with the scenery, Punalu’u Beach also has other features that make it worthwhile to visit.

You can often see green sea turtles in their natural habitat there swimming around or lounging on the black shoreline. We saw 5 sea turtles in the short time we were there!

Also, it’s easier to get to than the first black sand beach I mentioned above (Pololū Valley Beach). You don’t have to hike to this one. A short drive off the highway (Hwy 11) will take you to the parking lot for Punalu’u Beach Park. You can access the beach right there!

The water at Punalu’u Beach can be choppy, so it may not be the best beach for swimming. But the beautiful view, wild sea turtles, and easy access to this beach all make it a spot not to be missed.

7. ‘Akaka Falls State Park

‘Akaka Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls and top places to visit on the Big Island of Hawaii. The 442-foot tall waterfall against a cliff wall of greenery and plunging into a gorge is truly a sight to see.

The Falls are located inside ‘Akaka Falls State Park with an entrance fee of $5 per car or $1 per pedestrian if walking in. The trailhead starts at the parking lot, and you can catch a glimpse of ‘Akaka Falls from the lookout right there.

But if you want the best full-on view of the falls, take a short, scenic hike on the paved 0.4-mile ʻAkaka Falls Loop Trail. The trail will lead you through a lush tropical rainforest to a viewing platform overlooking the falls. FYI: there are stairs on the trail. 

We took the suggested route to the right of the parking lot to also see another waterfall (Kahūnā Falls) on the way. We couldn’t really see it, but no biggie. You’re there to see ‘Akaka Falls. 

‘Akaka Falls can be seen from several different points along the trail taken from the right side of the parking lot. Or you can go to the left of the parking area for a shorter route to ‘Akaka Falls. Either way, the best view of the impressive falls is at the main viewing area. Access it from either starting point of the loop trail.

On a side note, bring bug spray as I got my first of two bug bites there. I also recommend bringing a lightweight tripod for a smooth capture of the falls’ flowing water.

8. Kayak in Kealakekua Bay

We heard that kayaking in Kealakekua Bay was a must. Without any planning, we spontaneously headed over to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. We assumed there would be kayak rentals there, but we were wrong.

Luckily, we drove around and stumbled upon Islander Kayak Rentals where we got a kayak rental for the day. If you’re going to kayak to the bay yourself rather than take an authorized guided kayak or boat tour, make sure you ask if the kayak rental company has a current commercial use permit. The Islander Kayak Rentals website states that they are permitted to access Kealakekua Bay. It’s always a good idea to double-check though.

According to the Division of State Parks: “Visitors DO NOT need to acquire permits when renting a kayak, but must confirm from the vessel owner that the vessel they rent possesses a valid permit for transiting the bay.” For more info on the permit requirements, click click here.

Okay, back to our kayaking experience. We kayaked about a mile across the bay over to the other side where the Captain Cook Monument stands. The cliffs surrounding the Bay aren’t that scenic, but the water is incredibly blue and clear. From our kayak, we could see fish swimming below and were bummed we didn’t have snorkel gear.

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At Captain Cook Monument, there were tour boats with groups of people snorkeling in the Bay. Apparently, many people consider Captain Cook’s Monument to be one of the best snorkeling sites on the Big Island of Hawaii. Lesson learned: do research beforehand to be prepared and not miss out on a great snorkel opportunity (oops!). More on snorkeling below.

To be honest, we were disappointed and regretted not having snorkel gear with us. Thinking the kayak rental wasn’t worth it without being able to snorkel, we started heading back when low and behold… we came across a school of dolphins! They danced around our kayak for a solid hour. And to top it off, we also saw a manta ray!

If you want to try to spot dolphins (and possibly other sea life) in the wild without going on a tour, try kayaking in Kealakekua Bay! For more info about Kealakekua Bay, check out this guide to Kealakekua Bay.

9. Snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii

With 266 miles of coastline, snorkeling is a must on the Big Island of Hawaii! The western shoreline on the Kona side of the island is the most popular snorkeling area. This is because of its many sheltered volcanic bays with calm, clear water providing excellent visibility.

The Fairmont Orchid where we stayed includes free snorkel gear rental for its guests but only for an hour at a time. So the snorkel equipment has to remain at the property. But luckily, there’s some great snorkeling right at the hotel’s small sandy beach. We saw 3 sea turtles there and more types of fish than we could count!

Some other hotels on the Big Island of Hawaii might also offer snorkeling on their property. But you may want to rent snorkel gear elsewhere to explore different snorkel areas on the island. For more info on the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island, check out this articleTop 10 Snorkel Spots on Big Island Hawaii.

10. Rainbow Falls

The Big Island of Hawaii features many waterfalls, some that are only accessible with a hike. But Rainbow Falls doesn’t require a hike and is one of the easiest waterfalls to visit on the Big Island.

Less than 10 minutes from Downtown Hilo, Rainbow Falls makes it on the list of top 10 things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii. The easily accessible falls are seen from the scenic viewpoint just a short walk from the parking area.

At a height of 8- feeet, Rainbow Falls may be short compared to ‘Akaka Falls. But it’s still a decent waterfall worth seeing. On sunny days, you should be able to see a rainbow in the spray of the waterfall, giving the falls its name.

Depending on the amount of recent rainfall, the falls can be a trickle or roaring as they cascade over a lava cave. Legends claim the cave is home to Hina, the ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon and mother of the demigod Maui.

For a different view of Rainbow Falls, you can take a short climb up the steps on the left of the main viewing platform. This will take you to the upper viewing area for the falls.

Notice the people in the upper left of the photo to give scale for the waterfalls’ size. Also, if you continue walking to the left past the upper viewing area, you’ll come to a large, ancient banyan tree.

Other Things To Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do everything we wanted to do on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here are some other things we didn’t get a chance to do that are on our list of must-dos for when we go back (yes, we want to go back!):

Mauna Kea Summit

The #1 Top Attraction on TripAdvisor’s list of Best Things to Do in Island of Hawaii is the summit of Mauna Kea. Driving to the top was one of the things we wanted to do the most on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Mauna Kea is actually the world’s tallest mountain. When measured from its base on the seafloor to its highest peak, Mauna Kea is even taller than Mount Everest! Fun fact: Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours.

We wish we could have checked this one off our bucket list when we were on the Big Island of Hawaii. But unfortunately, the road to the top was closed when we were there. 😭

As of right now the summit access road is reopened to the public, but the summit can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive. No 2-wheel drive vehicles will be allowed past the end of the paved road.

But be sure to check Summit Road Conditions before you go! Also, check with your car rental company beforehand to make sure you can take the car you rented to the summit. For info on visiting the summit of Mauna Kea, click here.

Night Dive/Snorkel with Manta Rays

Something else we really wanted to do was a night dive or snorkel with Manta Rays. Getting up-close with the gentle giants would be such an incredible experience. Not surprising, it’s one of the most popular things to do on the Big Island. But unfortunately, we ran out of time (and energy) to book it in advance.

We didn’t realize just how big the island is and how much time it would take to get around to places. Learn from our mistake. Don’t save the Manta Rays for last and end up running out of time like we did. Click here for more info on Manta Ray Night Dives.

Here are some other things that would be fun to do (especially with kids) if you have the time:

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm & Tours

I LOVE seahorses! So I was longing to go to the Seahorse Farm and hold a live seahorse. How awesome would that be?! But the ticket price and limited tour times (they’re closed on the weekends) were a deterrent to me. These factors made the tour low on our list of must-dos for the Big Island and we ended up not getting around to doing it.

Kanaloa Octopus Farm

Touring the Octopus Farm was another thing we thought would be cool to do but didn’t get around to doing. The Octopus Farm is slightly less expensive than the Seahorse Farm and is open on weekends. But it also has limited tour times available (only twice a day at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM).

Wrapping Up the Top 10 Things To Do On the Big Island of Hawaii

Just a heads-up, most of the Big Island of Hawaii isn’t the tropical beach landscape you probably picture when you think of Hawaii. We stayed north of Kona, which is considered the dry (and hot) side. It feels like you’re on the moon with all the barren lava fields.

In fact, when we first got there and were driving to our hotel, we momentarily regretted not going to Maui or Kauai instead. But as we started exploring the Big Island, we were blown away by all it has to offer and were so glad we were able to experience it.

As you can see from this list of top things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, you won’t run out of activities during your trip to the island. We want to go back and do more!

Have questions about Hawaii’s Big Island or other recommendations of things to do there? Leave a comment below!

Briana Nickas

Behind the Blog

I’m Briana Nickas, a part-time RVer who loves RVing, hiking, visiting National Parks, and taking photos. My happiest days are spent on the road with my hubby and our fur-baby Saucy (a 7-lb maltipoo) exploring the country and meeting fellow adventurers along the way… READ MORE

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4 Comments

  1. Bobbi

    I love this! I will defo be consulting this post if I decided to go to Hawaii!

    Reply
    • Briana Nickas

      Thanks, Bobbi! I hope you make it to the Big Island of Hawaii sometime. It’s amazing!

      Reply
    • Briana Nickas

      Hi Caiti! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 The Big Island of Hawaii has so many amazing must-see places.

      Reply

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