The Big Island of Hawaii not only lives up to its name in size but also in adventure. There are so many places to see and experiences to be had, you can understand why it makes for an epic vacation. Plus, a lot of the best things to do on the Big Island are free thanks to Mother Nature. After reading this guide, we are sure the Big Island just might zoom to the top of your list of places to visit in Hawaii.
Top Things to do On the Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaii is filled with natural attractions such as beautiful waterfalls, four national parks, hiking trails, volcanoes, lava tubes, and black sand beaches. If that’s not enough, it has incredible marine life encounters where you can enjoy watching sea turtles and dolphins in their natural habitats. Add in the rich Hawaiian culture and the Big Island Has something for everyone.
1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you’ve never seen an active volcano before, you’re in luck. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has two active volcanoes, Mount Loa and Kilauea. If there is one thing to check off the bucket list in Hawaii it is to see a volcano.
The park sits south of Hilo on the map and is a must-see if you visit this island. Kilauea is considered to be the world’s most active volcano and Mount Loa is not too far behind. Read more The Most Amazing Facts About Hawaii
This Hawaiian National park provides a wealth of information about how the Big Island of Hawaii was formed as well as hiking trails, crater views, lava tubes, and if you are lucky, lava viewing. In our opinion the best way to take it all in is on a Helicopter Tour like this one. It will leave you breathless.
Some of the key things to check out at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (which is an International Biosphere Reserve) include the 1790 Footprints, Kilauea Crater, Volcano House, and the incredible Sea Arch. Other activities include a visit to the Thurston Lava Tube and the Jaggar Museum.
2. Mauna Kea Summit
Whether you’re a stargazing buff or not, Mauna Kea Summit is a sight not to be missed. It is one of the best places in the world for astronomy and the views that come with it. That is thanks to the lack of light pollution among other unique factors in Hawaii.
Folks that have visited Mauna Kea Summit at sunset have said it is one of the most spectacular sights you will see in your life. After the sunsets, you’ll want to take a stargazing tour for more spectacular Hawaii views. This activity will give you a chance to see one of the beautiful sights from the island, and you don’t even need a telescope.
Please note that you can drive up to the Visitor Information Center (VIS) in any type of car but to go all the way up to the summit you need a 4WD. Alternatively, you can park your car in the parking lot of the VIS and do some star gazing from there. One of the things to note, however, is that the parking lot fills up quickly so you need to get there early.
3. Mauna Kea Stargazing
Mauna Kea is one of the world’s premier locations for stargazing. Mauna Kea is home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes and observatories, including the Keck Observatory and the Subaru Telescope.
Visitors to Mauna Kea can enjoy stargazing tours that typically include transportation, equipment such as telescopes and binoculars, and knowledgeable guides who can provide insights into the constellations, planets, and other celestial objects visible in the night sky.
However, it’s important to note that Mauna Kea is a sacred place to Native Hawaiians, and there are concerns about the impact of tourism on the mountain’s fragile ecosystem. Visitors should be respectful of the mountain’s cultural and environmental significance, follow all rules and regulations, and consider booking tours with reputable, eco-friendly operators.
For something unique to do in Hawaii, book a night of stargazing on the slopes of Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa. The night skies are so good here, Nasa uses them for Mars studies.
4. Waipi’o Valley
For a landscape like no other, visit Waipio Valley on the island. Located at the northern end of the Hamakua Coast, the lush green hills go as far as your eyes can see until they are interrupted by a beautiful black sand beach. That black sand beach is divided in two by a river that runs through it and right into the ocean.
This valley on the island is a great place for a hike as well as to go waterfall-hopping as there are five different waterfalls at four points jutting out from the valley.
5. Night Snorkel or Dive with Manta Rays
Diving or snorkeling with Manta Rays on the Big Island of Hawaii is an incredible experience. The island’s Kona coast is home to a population of manta rays that are known for their graceful and majestic movements. Nighttime is the best time to see them as this is when they are most active and feed on plankton that is attracted to underwater lights.
During the dive, you’ll be able to watch the majestic manta rays as they glide gracefully through the water, sometimes coming within inches of you. The experience is truly unforgettable, and it is one of the most incredible things you will ever see.
If you’re interested in diving or snorkeling with manta rays on the Big Island, be sure to choose a reputable tour company with experienced guides who prioritize the safety and well-being of both the divers and the rays. With the right preparation and approach, diving or snorkeling with manta rays can be a life-changing experience that leaves you with memories to last a lifetime. This is the tour that we recommend.
6. Visit Rainbow Falls Near Hilo
Located just a few miles outside of Hilo, Rainbow Falls is one waterfall you don’t want to miss. In fact, I would say it is the #2 waterfall you should visit after Akaka Falls.
You can drive or walk from Hilo to the park that surrounds it. There is a viewing platform that provides an excellent vantage point for photographing the waterfall and the surrounding natural beauty. You can also take a short hike to get closer to the falls and explore the area’s lush vegetation and wildlife.
Rainbow Falls can get pretty crowded with visitors. We recommend showing up early in the morning, especially if there is a cruise ship in port. It is also the best time to see the rainbows form in the mist of the waterfall. If you don’t have a car you may want to jump on ths island tour that includes the falls.
7. Try Hawaiian Poke
Hawaiian Poke can be found on most of the Hawaiian Islands. We actually had our first taste of Poke when we were visiting Maui a few years ago. It is easy to make and is basically diced raw fish, typically tuna or salmon, marinated in a savory soy sauce and served with a variety of toppings. We loved trying different toppings like seaweed, avocado, cucumber, edamame, and macadamia nuts, just to name a few.
Depending on what restaurant you visit you can be as adventurous as you want to be. You should definitely give it a try. Some of our favorite places to try it out are Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona, Suisan Fish Market in Hilo, and Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill, which has locations in Kailua-Kona and Kahului.
8. Snorkel Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Monument
Kealakekua Bay has some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is not the easiest location to get to but that is part of what makes this location so incredible. The waters are crystal clear and the coral reef and wildlife are just stunning. It is also home to the Captain Cook Monument, a white obelisk located on the shore that marks the spot where Captain James Cook, the British explorer, was killed in a skirmish with Hawaiians in 1779.
But getting in the water is the real attraction here. There are a couple of ways to get there depending on how much effort you want to exert. If you are into hiking then I would suggest undertaking the hot hike which is about 4 miles round trip at about a moderate level. The scenery is gorgeous. You can also rent a kayak to get out there, which is a fun way to do it if you love watersports. The easiest way to do it is to jump on a tour like this one, which looks after everything.
Regardless of how you get there, please make sure to take steps to preserve this gem. Don’t stand on the coral and where a rasher surf shirt instead of slathering yourself in sunscreen as both of these activities really kill the coral and the marine life of the area.
9. See petrified trees at the Lava Trees State Park in Puna
Lava Trees State Park is a unique natural area located on the Big Island of Hawaii, known for its eerie and beautiful petrified trees that were formed by an ancient lava flow.
The petrified trees at Lava Trees State Park were formed when a lava flow swept through the area in the 1700s, leaving behind a forest of living trees that were encased in lava. Over time, the lava around the trees cooled and hardened, forming hollow tubes of rock around the trees. When the trees eventually decayed and fell away, they left behind the petrified molds that can still be seen in the park today.
It is an easy area to explore on foot, taking a leisurely stroll along the park’s trails and admiring the unique and otherworldly landscape. In addition to the petrified trees, the park is also home to a variety of other volcanic features, including lava tubes and steam vents.
10. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
As far as beaches go, black sand beaches are about as exotic as you can get. There aren’t too many in the world that are accessible, let alone ones that welcome visitors. But here on the Hawaiian islands, you find one black sand beach that is accessible and waiting for visitors. There are a ton of activities you can do at Punalu’u.
You can take a snorkeling tour off the coast as well as take hikes nearby. If you want to spend the night there, you can, however, you will need to get a camping permit to be able to do so. Besides the black sand, there is another attraction that keeps travelers coming back.
Once you’re out on this Hawaii beach, you can see quite a few species of Hawaiian green sea turtles living their best life. You’ll need to be careful around these green sea turtles as they are considered an endangered species. Luckily the area where they are on the beach is roped off.
11. See Papakolea Green Sand Beach
Most people’s beach sand experience spans from white sand to brown sand, but if you are looking for a unique experience then you won’t want to miss this green sand beach. Papakolea is only one of four Green Sand Beaches in the entire world. The other green sand beaches are located in Guam, Norway, and the Galapagos Islands.
The green sand on this Hawaiian island is made from cinder cones that develop around volcano vents and this cinder cone is almost 50,000 years old. The green crystals that make the beach come from lava flows of olivine crystals. Getting there is an adventure as well. Papak?lea Green Sand Beach is located in South Point, which you can reach by car but then you will have to hike 2.5 miles one way to the beach and go down a steep cliff. Driving to Green Sand Beach will NOT be allowed by any car rental agencies because driving any vehicle along this track is ILLEGAL, affects the landscape, and destroys the road. So please don’t do it.
12. drive up the Hamakua coast
The Hamakua Coast is a scenic stretch of coastline located on the northeastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii, known for its stunning ocean views, lush greenery, and picturesque waterfalls. Taking a drive along this coast is a must-do activity for anyone visiting the island.
Starting in Hilo, the drive up the Hamakua Coast takes you through small towns and villages, including Papaikou, Honomu, and Laupahoehoe. Along the way, you’ll see breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, verdant hillsides, and fields of tropical crops such as papaya and banana.
One of the highlights of the Hamakua Coast drive is the scenic overlook at Waipio Valley, where you can stop and take in panoramic views of the valley and the ocean. The valley is home to a black sand beach and is also the site of some of the island’s most important historical and cultural sites.
Another must-see attraction on the Hamakua Coast is Akaka Falls State Park, which features a stunning 442-foot waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation and walking trails. The park also offers picnic areas and restrooms for visitors to use.
As you continue along the coast, you’ll pass through Honokaa, a charming historic town known for its plantation-era architecture, before reaching the end of the road at the small town of Kukuihaele.
13. Akaka Falls State Park
For a true adventure, you want to check out the Akaka Falls Trail in Akaka State Park north of Hilo. You can check out the state park map to decide which way to go. To get the most out of your travel itinerary take the circle trail to get a taste of the park before getting to the falls. You’ll see green everywhere you look and then out of nowhere you’ll see Banyan trees.
The trail seems to disappear into the trees but when you get closer you realize it continues into the trees. Inside its dark and mysterious and makes the loop trail all the more interesting. Along the way you’ll get to see Kahuna Falls before you hit the main attraction of Akaka Falls at the end of the trail. If you love waterfalls then this “Waterfall Exclusive” tour is for you.
14. Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Botanical Gardens
One of the best things to see on the Big Island of Hawaii are the botanical gardens. If you look at a map of the island’s There are many of them but one of our favorites on the Hawaiian islands is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.
This botanical garden is home to more than 2000 kinds of tropical plants from around the world. You can take a hike to the gardens or take a vehicle. It’s a lot more fun, for travelers that are able to, to hike to the garden as the excitement just builds up with each step. Other gardens include the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the World Botanical Gardens in Hilo.
15. Kilauea Iki Trail
The best way to see and feel the Big Island of Hawaii is to explore the many trails on the island. These trails take you deep inside the lush forests that cover the island and give you a chance to see everything from waterfalls to rivers to volcanoes to craters.
The Kilauea Iki Trail is one of the most popular trails on the island and takes you inside a pit crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The trail is about 4 miles and you get to traipse across lava beds, which is one of the things many visitors look forward to.
16. Crater Rim Trail
The Crater Rim Trail takes you along the Kilauea Volcano Caldera. It is the longest loop trail on the island and can take about 8 hours. But those 8 hours will pass by very quickly as it is not an experience you will ever forget.
You will see lava, cinders, lave tubes, steam vents, and evidence of lava flow and the impact those lava flows had on this part of the island. Kilauea Volcano had an eruption in 2020 that dried out a water lake and a massive lava lake that has since solidified but is quite an incredible sight.
One of the things you should be aware that there will be noxious fumes coming from eruptions. Additionally, the air can be quite dry and weather quite temperamental.
Book this volcano tour where you’ll take a guided hike across the lava flow to the new black sand beach while learning of the Lava flows and history of the Big Island.
17. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
If you broke one of the ancient laws in Hawaii, the land where Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park sits today would be your refuge according to legend. This national park is an archeological site with temples and other structures. It was believed to be protected by the God of Life and for some people that energy can still be felt today.
18. Dolphin Spotting
You can see dolphins all around the islands of Hawaii and the Big Island is no different. Spinner dolphins seem to, in particular, favor the waters of the Big Island of Hawaii. You can see them daily in the bay of Kona, but one thing you should be careful about is your behavior around them. The dolphins are nocturnal and rest in the bay during the daytime so it is best not to disturb them until they’ve rested and swim up themselves.
Spinner dolphins are amazing to watch as they do what their name suggests – they spin when they jump out of the water. They are extremely playful and jump out of the water to do these spins. This eco-friendly tour will give you the best chance at seeing them in the wild.
As travelers, being mindful of the impact our visits have on the local people, animals, plants and other things is of utmost importance. So you can spend your day relaxing on the beach and wait for the dolphins to come up out of the waters when their ready.
19. Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
There are few people in their lives that will ever get to see a seahorse up close. There are even fewer people that will be able to touch a seahorse, but you could be one of the few on the list because the Big Island is the place to see them. The Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm on this Hawaii island has two goals on its list. It aims at seahorse conservation via education and it is also a place for seahorse sales for personal and commercial use.
You get a chance to take a seahourse tour and see them up close. Trust me, we have seen sea horses up close and it is magical. The guides will also give you a chance to touch these gorgeous creatures if you are so inclined. One thing is for sure is that you’ll never forget what it was like seeing a seahorse in real life. They look like one of those things that could only come out of the mind of a fairytale illustrator.
20. Coral Reef of Big Island of Hawaii
The islands of Hawaii have some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. That is thanks to the fact that they are all the way out there in the Pacific Ocean in somewhat isolation. There are more than 1000 different kinds of marine life along the Hawaii coral reefs. If you want to get the coral reef experience on the Big Island, you’ll want to head to Kona.
Kona has some of the most gorgeous reefs in the islands of Hawaii. There are quite a number of snorkeling tour operators in Kona. They will suit you up and provide you with guidance so you can experience the beauty of the reefs while also being mindful of marine life.
You should also add a visit to a beach while you’re there. Regardless of the beach you choose along the Kona coast, you’re going to find soft, silky and that you can relax in after your snorkelling tour.
21. Visit Kailua Kona
If you’re a coffee lover, chances are you’ve heard of Kona Coffee. Kona Coffee is grown on the mountain plantations of Kailua Kona and it is well worth it to take a road trip to the region. You can do a coffee plantation tour and get a taste of the coffee from where it’s grown.
Make sure to spend a little time in Kona as well. Known for its beautiful beaches, including the popular Kailua Beach Park and Magic Sands Beach as well as history and culture, including the Hulihee Palace, a former royal vacation home that has been converted into a museum, and the Mokuaikaua Church, the oldest Christian church in the state of Hawaii.
22. Hapuna Beach
If you want to enjoy a really good beach experience while on the Big Island of Hawaii then Hapuna Beach is where its at. It often tops the list when people rank the best white sand beaches of Hawaii. It is a great beach for sunbathing, bodyboarding and snorkeling.
When the evening approaches, you can wander down to the Mauna Kea Luau for dinner. Besides the decadent roast pig, you’ll find music, dancing and a fire show among other things at tjos fim luau.
23. Kehena Black Sand Beach
Kehena Black Sand Beach is a unique and beautiful destination on the Big Island of Hawaii. The beach is located in the Puna district, about 45 minutes from Hilo, and is known for its black sand, clear water, and secluded location. The beach is not the only attraction here. Kehena Black Sand Beach is known for its resident sea turtles, which can often be seen swimming near the shore. You can observe them from a safe distance and appreciate their beauty.
On Sundays, locals and visitors alike gather at Kehena Black Sand Beach for a drum circle. The atmosphere is lively and festive, and the music is unique and captivating. It is a lot of fun but also be aware that this is a clothing-optional beach and that is on full display during the drum circle.
After swimming make sure to check out the short and easy hike to a set of tide pools. The pools are filled with clear water and offer excellent snorkeling opportunities. You can observe a variety of marine life, such as colorful fish and sea urchins.
How to Get to The Big Island
There are several ways to get to the Big Island of Hawaii, and the best option will depend on your starting location, budget, and travel preferences.
Fly: The most common way to get to the Big Island is by flying into the Kona International Airport (KOA) or Hilo International Airport (ITO). Cruise: Another option is to take a cruise. Many cruise lines offer itineraries that include stops in Hawaii, and some even have their own private ports on the island. Inter-Island Ferry: If you’re already in Hawaii, you can take an inter-island ferry from Maui or Oahu to the Island. The ferry service operates daily, and it’s a great way to see the beautiful scenery and enjoy the ocean views. Private Boat: You can also rent a private boat or yacht to sail to the Big Island. This option is ideal for those who want to enjoy a more private and exclusive experience and have the freedom to explore the island at their own pace. Drive: Finally, if you’re already in Hawaii and want to explore the other islands, you can drive to the Big Island via the ferry or by renting a car and taking it on the inter-island ferry. This option is ideal for those who want to explore the island at their own pace and have the flexibility to stop and explore as they please.
Getting Around the Big Island
The best way to get around the big island is to drive. You can check CarRentals.com for price comparisons and availability.
Download this self-guided driving tour of the Big Island Hawaii travel planner where you can take in all the top attractions like Kilauea Visitor Center, Rainbow Falls, and a hike to the famous green sand beach.
If you are looking for some other options here they are
Public Transportation: The Hele-On Bus is the public transportation system on the Big Island, which operates daily and covers most of the island. However, it may not be the most convenient option as it has limited schedules, and it may not reach some of the more remote areas. Taxi: Taxis are available on the island, but they can be expensive, especially if you plan to travel long distances. Shuttle Services: There are several shuttle services that operate on the Big Island and provide transportation to popular tourist destinations. They can be a good option if you don’t want to rent a car, but they may have limited schedules and may not reach all areas of the island. Bicycle Rentals: Some areas of the island, such as Kona and Hilo, have bicycle rental shops. This option is ideal for those who want to explore the area at a slower pace and enjoy the scenic beauty of the island.
Where to Stay on the Big Island
The Big Island can be split into two sections, the beaches of Kona Coast to the West and the rainforest and volcanoes of Hilo to the East. Kona and Kohala on the West Coast of Hawaii are the places with the best beaches, and clear waters and are home to the majority of Hawaii’s resorts.
Hilo is another great area to stay on the Big Island with rainforests, waterfalls and volcanoes.
In at Kulaniapia Falls – is set on 22 acres, surrounding Hawaii’s largest privately accessible waterfall jsut 15 minutes from town. Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – You can’t go wrong with a Doubltree by Hilton and the newly renovated Grand Naniloa Hotel is located downtown Hilo.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the #1 Thing to do on the Big Island of Hawaii?
A visit to the island requires a visit to Mount Kea. Besides all of the star gazing you can do there is the waterfall watching. You will see waterfall after waterfall on the slopes of Mount Kea near Hilo. And trust us, waterfall watching never gets old regardless of how many you see.
How Long Does it Take to Drive Around The Big Island?
If you plan to drive around Big Island Hawaii without stopping for any activities, it will take about 8 hours in total. But if ou actually want to do things along the way than you should add the amount of time each activity will take to the 8 hours.
What is the best area to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii?
The best area to stay in on the this island is going to depend on what you want. Hilo is quiet and close to the two big volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. If you want to tour each volcano extensively for most of your stay then Hilo would be a good place to stay. Kona, on the other hand has a lot more things to do. The Kona area has a lot of activities to do in the day time and it also has a night life.
Why You Should Visit the Big Island
If you are planning a visit to the islands of Hawaii then. you are going to want to make sure that you visit the Big Island. Whether you are into adventure, visiting with your family or a re interested in the Hawaiian culture the Big Island of Hawaii has something for every type of vacationer.