Things to Do in Big Island of Hawaii
Whether you’re a budding astrophysicist or just a fan of Big Bang Theory, take the opportunity while you’re on the Big Island to visit the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory.
At a lofty height of 13,796 ft (4,138 m) Mauna Kea is Hawaii's tallest mountain, and the summit is topped with astronomical observatories from around the world.
The Visitor Information Station is at a lowly 9,300 ft (2,790 m) elevation, and from here a rugged hiking trail winds to the summit. It takes around five hours and you need to be fit and prepared for all kinds of weather conditions.
The visitor center has interactive displays and videos, with interactive telescopes, talks and tours. It also runs escorted tours to the summit.
Steep drop-offs beckon just off Kona’s coast, the dominion of pelagic beasts—marlin and billfish some topping 1,000 lbs. Most journeys to catch one begin the 262-slip marina at Honokohau Harbor, just before the entrance to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Nearly all of Kailua-Kona’s fishermen, independent sportfish tour operators as well as charter boats departing for scuba sites and popular manta and dolphin snorkeling adventures dock and depart from Honokohau Harbor.
The full-service marina also sports two noteworthy restaurants: Harbor House, a burger and beer joint with views of vessels from their open-air dining room, and Bite Me Fish Market Bar & Grill serving seafood delivered direct from the ocean to their door. ATMs, two full service restroom blocks with hot showers and a convenience store for snacks and sundries round out the facilities here.
For some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, visit the protected waters of Kealakekua Bay. This remote area is also popular with hikers, who might come across the ruins of ancient temples and villages on their travels. Dolphins frolic in the bay, and the shore is dotted with the white obelisk commemorating the death of Captain James Cook here in 1779.
The mega attraction on the Big Island is Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii’s sole World Heritage Site. The volatile park’s centerpiece is Kilauea Volcano, which continues to blow its top and spout molten lava, ash and steam.
Crater Rim Drive is a spectacular driving route, skirting the rim of the caldera, stopping at lookouts and taking you from rainforest to desert. The eerie and easily accessible Thurston Lava Tube is a long hollow cave-like formation, created by flowing lava.
Another driving route to follow is the winding Chain of Craters Road along the slopes of the volcano to the coast, where lava has pooled from recent eruptions.
Forming a deep natural amphitheater, washed by the sea and waterfalls, the Big Island’s Waipi'o Valley is a natural wonderland of flowering rainforest and hiking trails.
Cliffs thousands of feet high line the famously steep valley, and waterfalls course their way down to the valley floor.
The curved black-sand beach here is reached by a steep route entering the valley, and lookouts give stupendous views from above.
It’s a magical place, where battles were fought by Kamehameha the Great, and the site of temples and royal burial caves.
Kailua Pier is the northern bookend to most of Kailua-Kona’s restaurants, shops and bars, a stretch of concrete wide enough to host four-lanes of traffic (if it wasn’t closed off to cars). The historic pier was first built as a downtown fishing dock in 1900 and utilized rocks from deconstructed Hawaiian palace and fort walls, but today few boats moor here. Instead, the pier is mostly used for large events and festivals including the annual Kona Ironman World Championships, which starts and finishes at the pier, and the Kona International Billfish Tournament whose daily catches of sometimes-massive fish species including Pacific blue marlin are weighed from pier-side scales for all to see.
On the pier’s northern side, a small beach fronting the King Kamehameha Marriott Hotel has public showers, restroom blocks and hosts community events such as the Kona International Surf Film Festival and the Kona Brewers’ Festival.
Rainbow Falls create a rare instance where a Hawaiian name and an English name actually mean the same thing. Known to Hawaiians as waianuenue, the name is a reference to the arcing rainbows that can be seen in the waterfall’s mist. The image, it seems, is a natural occurrence of such beauty and wonder that it transcends linguistic lines, and today the waterfall is one of the most popular attractions when visiting the town of Hilo.
Only 50 yards from a paved parking lot in Wailuku River State Park, a large viewing area provides the best platform for gazing out at the falls. To see the waterfall’s namesake rainbow, visit the falls around 10 a.m. when the angle of light is just right. Behind the falls, a large cave forms the home of Hina—the mythological Hawaiian god who gave birth to the demigod Maui—and the turquoise pool and surrounding rain forest are the trademark photo of paradise.
Ever had black sand between your toes? Because of the constant volcanic activity, sand comes in a variety of colors in Hawaii. Along with white, you can also find green and black, the latter of which is found on the well-known Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
Located on the southeastern Kau coast, between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the town of Naalehu, this beach should be on your list of places to visit when on the Big Island of Hawaii. The coastline is framed by coconut palms, but what is often found at the edge of the sand tends to steal all of the attention. Large honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles, basking in the sun are a common sight here. Take as many pictures as you’d like, but be sure to stay a safe distance away. Swimming isn’t ideal here due to waves and currents. There is an area for picnics, so plan ahead and come prepared to enjoy lunch with a view. Don’t take any black sand from the beach—legend says that a curse will also go home with you.
British explorer Captain James Cook met his death at Kealakekua Bay on February 14, 1779 perhaps due to a misunderstanding over the use of a boat.
Today, a white obelisk marks the spot where he died, standing sentinel over the lush coast and its crystal-clear water. There’s great snorkeling from the coast’s black rock beaches, along with diving and kayaking.
When you first set eyes on Akaka Falls you can be forgiven if your heart skips a beat. After all, the beauty of this 422 ft. waterfall has been known to catch travelers off guard, as there is something about its vertical perfection that casts a hypnotic, time-stopping trance.
Or, perhaps it’s the dramatic jungle surroundings that give the falls their grandeur, where the heavily eroded theater of green seems to gently cradle the plunge. Either way, Akaka Falls is one of the Big Island’s most popular and scenic attractions, and the short hike to reach the falls makes it easily accessible for visitors. Located 25 minutes north of Hilo, the waterfall is found within the confines of Akaka Falls State Park. A short loop trail leads from the parking lot towards the overlook for the famous falls, and along the way offers peek-a-boo views of 100 ft. Kahuna Falls.
More Things to Do in Big Island of Hawaii
Like a lonely ribbon of black asphalt across the Big Island’s empty bosom, Saddle Road provides the fastest means of driving between Hilo and Kona. There was once a time when this remote stretch of highway was one of the worst roads in Hawaii, but substantial improvements and re-paving have made it accessible and open to cars.
From Hilo, Saddle Road climbs through residential neighborhoods towards a lush, mist-soaked rainforest. The green of ferns is gradually replaced by the brown of desert scrub brush, and fog is common as the road climbs toward 6,600 feet in elevation. Passing between the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—Hawaii’s dueling 13,000-foot mountains that are often snowcapped in winter—the road passes the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, where stargazers gather each evening. Cell phone service is spotty on Saddle Road, and for the entire duration of its 48-mile stretch there are no gas stations or supply shops.
It’s fair to say that when most visitors think about Hawaii, cattle ranching isn’t the first thought that comes to mind.
Believe it or not, however, ranches in Hawaii were operating long before those of the American West, and the Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii is not only the largest cattle ranch in Hawaii, but it’s actually one of the largest cattle ranches found anywhere in America. When the British explorer George Vancouver sailed to Hawaii in 1793 he left behind a couple of cattle for the ruling Hawaiian royalty. A kapu was placed on the cattle so that the population would flourish, and by 1830 there were so many cattle in the Hawaiian Islands that they had turned in to a legitimate nuisance. During this same time period, a 19 year-old sailor by the name of John Palmer Parker jumped ship in Hawaii in 1809, spent a few years living amongst the locals, and returned a few years later with an American musket which he would use to hunt wild cattle.
Kilauea Volcano is the star of the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's only World Heritage Site. Kilauea Volcano remains active, spouting orange lava, venting steam, glowing and sputtering.
When conditions are safe you can drive around the volcano's edge on the 11 mile (17 kilometer) Crater Rim Drive, dotted with spectacular lookouts. Visit the park visitors center to learn about trail conditions and guided walks, and come prepared for changeable weather if you’re hiking the trails that crisscross the rim.
Like a large thumb jutting into the sea, the Kohala district occupies the northwestern tip of the sprawling Big Island of Hawaii. Formed by a 5,400 ft. volcano which last erupted over 120,000 years ago, the Kohala district today is dominated by lush valleys, laidback plantation towns, verdant pastures, and ancient Hawaiian religious sites. It’s an outpost of cowboys and hippies, beaches and valleys, and architecture which ranges from the modern resorts of South Kohala to ancient temples constructed entirely of stone. Although the land area of Kohala only comprises 6% of the island’s total, it could still take weeks to explore in its entirety. More than just a part of the Big Island of Hawaii, Kohala is easily a destination unto itself.
Most visitors to South Kohala are familiar with the resort enclaves of Waikoloa and Mauna Lani where irrigated golf courses sit in stark contrast to the surrounding black lava fields.
It’s easy to look at the Kona coastline and wonder how Hawaiians survived. Barren, dry, and covered in black lava, this desolate terrain appears inhospitable and incapable of supporting life. In actuality, however, this harsh coastline boasted a thriving population of native Hawaiian inhabitants, who worked intimately with the natural surroundings to maximize all of its resources. At Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park—set just south of the Kona Airport—this ancient history is brought to life and is blended with recreation. Take a hike past ancient fishponds that were used for feeding the village, and follow trails past historic heiau that were used to worship the gods. If the Kona sun gets a little too hot, cool off at white sand Honokohau Beach, or a take a dip in the Queen’s Bath and enjoy the secluded, hidden surroundings. More than just the beaches and hiking trails, the Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park is as an outdoor museum of Hawaiian archaeology.
Often called Kailua-Kona, and referring to the western Kona Coast district as a whole, Kona is on the leeward (dry and sunny) side of the Big Island.
The Kona Coast is the Big Island’s vacation central, with good weather, watersports, great beaches, Hawaiian temples, museums, restaurants and shops. The annual Ironman Triathlon is held here in October. While you’re here, sample the local Kona coffee, follow the scenic oceanfront drive to Kailua Pier, visit the former royal palaces of Kamakahonu and Hulihee, and drop into Hawaii's first church.
The world’s most massive volcano doesn’t tower over Hawaii Island like you might expect. Instead, its giant three-pronged fingers consume most of the southern half of the Island reaching the sea in spots both north and south of Kailua Kona, across the Saddle Road interior and sloping down behind Hilo. It’s possible to be on the slopes of Mauna Loa and not even realize it! To get a true sense of the volcano most visitors opt to drive along the central Saddle Road, etched into the barren lava rock foothills where Mauna Loa meets Mauna Kea. If you turn in near the 28 Mile Marker on Mauna Loa Observatory Road, you’ll be rewarded with a 17-mile (one way) scenic drive up its slopes from around 6,500 feet above sea level to 11, 150 feet, ending near the entrance to mountain’s observatories. Unlike the astronomical observatories atop neighboring Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa’s observatories mostly monitor weather. It is possible to visit the observatories but prior arrangement is required.
Stone bridges stretch across shallow brackish moats that flow through well manicured gardens with red pagodas and rock gardens by the sea. The 30-acre Liluokalani Gardens, connected by a series of trails to Coconut Island in coastal Hilo, is a serene setting as popular with local walkers and joggers as it is with visitors staying the nearby hotels along Banyan Drive. Named for Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii prior to U.S annexation, and designed in the Japanese Edo style in 1917 to honor the many area Japanese sugar plantation workers, the gardens are a perfect blend of Hawaii and Japan. Look beyond the palm trees and across the bay and you’ll see the slopes of Mauna Kea along the Hamakua Coast, but look around you and you’ll see a traditional Japanese tea house—still used by the Urasenke Hilo Association to share the tradition of Japanese tea ceremonies—koi ponds and Eastern statues.
Up until 1819, ancient Hawaiians adhered to religious laws that were generally known as kapu. Everything in Hawaiian life—from which fish you could eat in which season to the clothes you were allowed to wear—was regulated by thousands of different kapu that carried stiff penalties if broken. Should your shadow ever have fallen on a chief, or if you failed to kneel while he was eating, it was a broken kapu punishable by death since you had disrespected the will of the gods.
Once a sacred kapu had been broken, the only way to redeem yourself was to find a pu‘uhonua—a city of refuge where an elder or priest could cleanse you of the offending sin. Should you be found before your arrival, however, the punishment was often death. As you can imagine, pu‘uhonua were popular places during the days of ancient Hawaii, but a few are popular visitor attractions in this modern era of tourism.
With much of its coastline covered in jagged black lava rock, Kona is not well known for its beaches. However, a few locales offer the unspoiled white sand oases that typify Hawaii, including the palm-lined stretches at Kekaha Kai (Kona Coast) State Park. The best beachy parts are located more than a mile down a bumpy road through the remnants of a jumbled lava flow. Signs calling stretches “unimproved” are an understatement. Hualalai Volcano, looming behind the park, oozed these paths to the sea between the late 1700s and 1801. To truly appreciate the ocean dip awaiting you (and to satisfy many rental car agreements), hike the 1.6 miles in instead. When you arrive seaside, the small facilities—including limited parking, toilets, showers and an on-the-beach picnic area will be straight in front of you. But, to get to the larger stretches of white sand, you’ll need to continue on, turning right at the signs before the toilet blocks to reach Mahai’ula Bay.
Created by lava flow from Mauna Loa in 1881, the Kaumana Caves are located near Hilo. Legend says Princess Ruth sat in front of the lava flow praying to the goddess Pele to save the city and the flow stopped just in the nick of time. Concrete stairs (that visitors say can be slippery) lead down through the skylight to the entrance. The caves’ exterior is full of thick and lush foliage, while the inside is loaded with lava rock. You can explore the area near the mouth of the caves in a fairly quick visit, but if you are the explorer type, you’ll need to come prepared and have some time. The lava rocks can be slippery and sharp, and the caves get dark quickly. You’ll need good sneakers or hiking shoes and a good flashlight. A headlamp is even better since it keeps your hands free. The rocks can be sharp; gloves will protect them from scrapes and cuts. Headroom can get tight at times, and some who have trekked through say a hardhat and knee pads are something to think about too.
Set back a block from Hilo’s coastline are scores of towering and sprawling banyan trees with their thick and unique trunks. Similar trees can be found throughout the state, but what makes these fifty specimens unique is their planters. Between 1933 and 1972, many famous celebrities, political figures, authors and Hawaiians personally planted or dedicated these banyan seedlings as a way to commemorate their visit or honor friends. In front of the Hilo Hawaiian hotel, a particularly large road-shading tree has a small sign indicating it was planted by George Herman “Babe” Ruth, and across Banyan Drive are trees planted by King George V, Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon. Other famous names visible on placards along the leafy corridor are Franklin Roosevelt, movie star Cecil B. DeMille and his wife Constance, Amelia Earhart, volcanologist Dr. Thomas Jaggar (whose name is given to the Jaggar Museum at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) and musician Louis Armstrong.
Hawaii is known for its tropical flowers, but the orchid isn’t one of them. At the Big Island’s Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, however, over 1,000 of these symmetrical, blossoming beauties create a vibrant greenhouse of color.
The owner of the gardens, Moriyasu Akatsuka, has been skillfully cultivating orchids for centuries here in the mountainside enclave. Considered a master of hybridization, Akatsuka creates orchids that will bloom more frequently and are unlike any others in the world. One orchid, an exceptionally rare type of Paphiopedilum, was found in Thailand and nursed back to health before being displayed here at the garden. Due to its symmetry and singular characteristics, the orchid is valued at $20,000, and travelers who visit between May and September can see it in bloom. Like many of his other unique orchids, this famous plant was given its own name and is now known as the “Volcano Queen” due to its regal home on the mountain.
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