Hawaii Island, referred to simply as the “Big Island,” is known for being both the largest and youngest island in the state. Life moves a bit slower than the neighboring Hawaiian islands here, and due to its massive size, there is no shortage of outdoor activities for nature-loving visitors and locals to enjoy.
1. See an Active Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located 30 miles south of Hilo and about 96 miles from Kailua-Kona. You’ll find two of the world’s most active volcanoes here, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Massive eruptions in May of 2018 shut the entire park down and created over 500 acres of a new earth from the many lava flows.
Start your visit at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where you can obtain information on current lava conditions and get maps of the park. Other highlights of the park include the Thurston Lava Tube, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Jaggar Museum, and Chain of Craters Road.
2. Go Ziplining Through the Rainforest
Hawaii Island is like nowhere else on earth, and one of the best ways to experience it is by flying through the foliage past waterfalls and historical landmarks on a zip lining tour. There are a few different companies to choose from depending on which side of the island you’ll be staying on. Check out Kohala Zipline on the north shore or Umauma Falls Zipline on the east side.
3. Stargaze at Mauna Kea
Feel like you’re on another world at the summit of Mauna Kea, where the 14,000-foot dormant volcano touches the sky at the highest point in the state. Due to its location on the island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is one of the world’s best spots for stargazing. Visitors have the chance to drive up to the summit using a 4-wheel drive vehicle only, paying special attention to the possibility of altitude sickness. For those who don’t want to make the whole bumpy journey to the top, park at the Visitor Information Station at just 9,000 feet above sea level to watch the sunset and stargaze.
4. Take a Hike in Waipi’o Valley
Located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeast shore of the Big Island of Hawaii, the Waipi’o Valley is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. This area was once a favorite home to Hawaiian royalty, as the beauty and seclusion of the valley motivated Hawaiian Kings to built permanent residences there. Most of the hikes in Waipi’o are for experienced hikers only, though there are organized tours via shuttle or horseback that will make the journey a bit easier.
5. Explore Parker Ranch
Parker Ranch is one of the oldest and most historic ranches in the United States. Founded in 1847 by John Parker, a New Englander who married the granddaughter of King Kamehameha I, this property is an important spot for Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) culture. Its retail grass-fed beef, Paniolo Cattle Company, can be found in stores throughout Hawaii.
While the horseback riding tours of the ranch have ended, visitors can still explore the area’s historical buildings and property through a 20-minute self-guided tour. These tours are free of charge and are available from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.
6. Explore the History of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Located about 22 miles south of Kailua-Kona off of Highway 11 on Highway 160, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park preserves several important sites for Hawaiian history.
The 182-acre park has two major sections: the Palace Grounds, once the home of a ruling chief, and the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, the Place of Refuge where Hawaiians who broke a kapu (one of the ancient laws) could flee and avoid certain death up until the early 19th century.
Visitors can also discover additional archaeological sites such as the temple platforms, royal fishponds, and the coastal village.
7. Walk Through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Just north of Hilo off of Highway 19, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden sits inside of a lush valley that borders Onomea Bay. The natural greenhouse created by the 40-acre valley walls holds over 2,000 species of tropical plants. Inside, visitors can walk the numerous nature trails past waterfalls, streams, and lookouts to the ocean. One could easily spend an entire day exploring the grounds, enjoying the views, and marveling at the vast number of unique tropical flora.
8. Shop at the Hilo Farmers Market
The Hilo Farmers Market is popular with island visitors and locals alike. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the market features over 100 local farmers and vendors selling a wide assortment of locally-sourced merchandise and produce. Every other day of the week, you’ll find about 10-30 retailers and farmers selling to a much smaller crowd. The market is open every day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
9. Visit an Ancient Temple at the Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historic Site
Pu’ukohala translates into “Hill of the Whale” in Hawaiian, and the Heiau there was built by Kamehameha the Great in 1790. This historic site, administered by the National Park Service, covers 77 acres.
Maps, information, restrooms, and exhibits can be obtained at the Visitors’ Center in Kawaihae, as well as a free audio tour via smartphone. The park is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
10. Visit Akaka Falls State Park
About 11 miles north of Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park encompasses 65 acres of walking paths and scenic viewpoints through the Hawaiian rainforest. The most famous aspects of this park are the 442-foot Akaka Falls and the smaller Kahuna Falls, both of which can be viewed from a short loop trail. Though the trail is only 0.4 miles and located just off the parking lot, the route is slippery and is not wheelchair accessible. The park is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and costs $5 per car or $1 per person for entry.
11. See Black Sand at Punaluu Beach
While the volcanic activity on the Big Island produces a number of black sand beaches, Punaluu Beach in Pahala is probably the best. The backdrop of towering coconut trees and natural gardens of volcanic rock is hard to beat aesthetically, while the easy parking and convenient facilities make getting here simple for visitors. As if that’s not enough, Punaluu Beach is also known as a haven for Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, who come here to sunbathe on the warm dark sand and enjoy the abundance of algae on the rocks. This beach is found just off Highway 11 between Volcano Village and the town of Naalehu near Volcanoes National Park.
12. Experience Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is undoubtedly the most accessible waterfall on the Big Island, making it perfect for families. It is just a quick five-minute drive from the town of Hilo, and the paved parking lot connects to a viewing platform that overlooks the falls. When the weather is sunny, as it often is in Hawaii, rainbows can be seen bouncing off the mist from the 80-foot waterfall. If you’d like to see the falls from above, there is a short staircase off of the main viewpoint that will take you to the upper Wailuku River.
13. Tour a Coffee Farm at Greenwell Farms
Home of world-famous 100% Kona Coffee, Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua has been cultivating and processing award-winning beans since it first opened in 1850. Complimentary farm tours are offered every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., giving visitors the chance to experience every part of the coffee production as it goes from farm to cup. Walkthrough the coffee fields, tours the processing facilities, and taste samples of 100% Kona Coffee products, all for free.
14. Snorkel at Captain Cook or Two Step
Hawaii Island’s two most beautiful snorkel spots are both south of Kona about five miles apart from each other. Both are known for the pods of spinner dolphins who reside there, as well as turtles and a large number of brightly-colored tropical fish.
The first, Kealakekua Bay (also known as “Captain Cook”), is an underwater marine sanctuary. The only ways to access this snorkel spot are by hike, kayak, or organized tour.
The second is called Pae’a in Honaunau Bay, but also goes by the name of “Two-Step.” Two-Step is located at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park and is much easier to access than Captain Cook.
15. Night Dive with Manta Rays
A truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, swimming with Hawaii’s majestic manta rays is an otherworldly adventure. These mysterious, gentle giants love to glide through the water off the coast of Kailua-Kona, especially at nighttime. The most popular local company that specialized in manta rays tours, Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii, offers daytime and nighttime underwater tours for both divers and snorkelers.