Big Island, Hawaii
We spent 5 amazing days exploring Hawaii’s waterfalls, beaches, volcanoes, and wildlife. Here are some of the best things to do on the Big Island Of Hawaii during your visit!
Oahu might be the most popular and busiest Hawaiian island, but The Big Island of Hawai’i is the largest, and incredibly it’s still growing!
When I lived on Oahu a few years ago, I was a broke college student who couldn’t afford to visit other Hawaiian islands…
After our epic road trip on the Big Island, I now realize what I was missing!
With so many adventure activities, a laid-back attitude, and far fewer people, it really demonstrated how different the Hawaiian islands can be.
If you’re planning to visit Hawaii, I wanted to recommend a few fun and unusual things to do on the Big Island, no matter what time of year you visit.
Big Island Hawaii Highlights Map
How To Use This Map
Above you’ll find a map of Big Island highlights. Click on the top left of the map to find separate layers marking the route and points of interest. You can hide and show different layers, or click icons on the map to see the names of places I mention in this travel guide. “Star” the map to save it to your own Google Maps, or open the map in a new window for a larger version. Enjoy!
Best Things To Do On The Big Island In 2020
1: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you want to know what to do on the Big Island first, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In the Hawaiian religion, Pele is the goddess of fire who lives in the active Halemaʻumaʻu crater of Kilauea Volcano.
The Hawaiian Islands are essentially a chain of massive volcanoes, and The Big Island is over the hot-spot right now, so the island is still being formed by these active lava flows & eruptions. The most recent was in the summer of 2018!
Volcanoes National Park is pretty big, with tons of different things to do. It is open to the public 24-hours a day, year round too. Which is great for early-bird landscape photographers like me.
National Park Highlights
Crater Rim Drive – Driving your car along this route is the easiest way to see the park, it’s an 11 mile route full of scenic overlooks and interesting stops.
Jaggar Museum – A museum on volcanology with displays of equipment used by scientists to study the volcano. Also one of the best views of Halemaumau Crater!
Thurston Lava Tubes – A cool lava tube/tunnel you can explore after a 20 minute walk through a tree fern forest.
Kīlauea Iki Trail – This 4 mile (6.4km) loop trail takes you into a former lava lake that erupted with 1900 foot tall fountains of lava back in 1959.
Where To See Volcanic Lava Flows?
If you drive up to Jagger Museum at Halemaʻumaʻu Crater, you might catch a glimpse of lava bubbling in the distance. But nighttime is the best time to visit, as the whole crater glows with red light.
To see lava up close, you’ll need to visit the Kalapana Lava Viewing Area, an hour long drive away from the National Park entrance (and closer to the town of Hilo). After the road ends, it’s another 3 miles by foot or rented bicycle.
To find the lava flow at Kalapana, you can either join a tour, or you can explore on your own like we did. The bike rental places will give you a basic map with instructions on how to find the lava.
The National Park Service also posts daily volcano updates here.
2: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
The dark black sands of Punalu’u Beach is the result of the Big Island’s long history of volcanic eruptions. It formed over time as hot lava flowed into the ocean, exploding into tiny fragments and washing ashore.
The beach is home to endangered Hawksbill Turtles and Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles that like to sunbathe on the warm black sand.
While it’s a wonderful spot to see these incredible creatures in person, just remember not to get too close.
There are rules in place to protect the turtles from human harassment.
Aside from checking out the turtles, Punalu’u is also good for swimming, snorkeling, walking, or even camping (with a permit of course).
3: Kayak Kealakekua Bay
The water of Kealakekua Bay is crystal clear, and full of colorful fish and coral reefs. It’s also where Captain James Cook, the first Westerner to visit Hawaii, was killed in a skirmish with Native Hawaiians.
The bay is one of the best places to go snorkeling on the Big Island. Most people book snorkeling tours by boat, but for the more adventurous, you can also rent a kayak and explore on your own.
Anna & I rented a two-person kayak from Kona Boys and spent the morning swimming with tropical fish.
Dolphin Spotting In The Bay
Occasionally you can even find spinner dolphins and sea turtles in the bay! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any dolphins that day… but we heard they were spotted further down the coast.
On the East side of the bay you’ll find the ruins of a Hikiau Heiau (sacred temple) dedicated to the Hawaiian fertility and music god Lono.
4: Sunset On Mauna Kea Volcano
Did you know that it actually snows in Hawaii? And that Hawaii is technically home to the tallest mountain in the world? Well now you do!
Mauna Kea Volcano is Hawaii’s tallest mountain, at 13,796 feet (4205 meters). But most of the volcano is actually underwater. If measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea towers 33,476 feet (10,204 meters).
That’s even taller than Mount Everest!
At the summit of this long dormant volcano lies the Mauna Kea Observatory, a collection of 13 high-powered space telescopes.
Driving up to the observatory for sunset is a popular activity, and so is late-night stargazing. There are also a few short hikes around the top of the volcano. In the winter, the summit can be covered with snow.
5: Unwind In Holualoa Town
Sitting along the fertile slopes of the Hualalai Volcano above Kailua-Kona lies the artist-friendly town of Holualoa, where we based ourselves on the western side of the Big Island.
Holualoa has tons of small-town charm, with a winding two-lane road lined with art galleries, coffee shops, and friendly locals. It was the perfect place to relax after our different adventures.
We stayed at the Holualoa Inn, in the heart of Kona Coffee Country. In fact, the inn grows its own coffee, fruits, vegetables, and collects eggs from a chicken coop out back.
When not off exploring the rest of the island, we were strolling through Holualoa Inn’s zen gardens, sunbathing by the pool, or getting a massage on our cottage’s lanai.
6: Papakolea Green Sand Beach
The Hawaiian islands are full of beautiful beaches, but one of the most peculiar is the green sand beach of Papakolea located on the South West coast of the Big Island.
This 49,000 year old cinder cone belonging to the Mauna Loa volcano contains billions of green crystals called olivines that give the beach its name.
Papakolea is a bit off the beaten track, and not easy to reach. The hike out is 5-miles (about two hours) round trip, so be prepared with plenty of water. There’s nowhere to hide from the sun either.
However, this also means only the most adventurous souls make the trek — limiting the number of people out there.
7: Snorkel/Dive With Manta Rays
Just off the coast of Kona, groups of huge 20 foot (6 meter) wide manta rays soar through the water hunting for plankton to eat. It’s possible to jump in the water at night and watch them feed.
Our manta ray adventure began by chasing a stunning pink & orange sunset along the coastline on a sailing catamaran with Kona Style.
After the sun went down, we jumped into the ocean and grabbed onto a custom floating SUP board with hand holds. The board also has an ultraviolet light shinning down onto the ocean floor.
The light attracts millions of microscopic plankton, and the graceful manta rays swim under you to scoop them up in their massive mouths. It’s a magical experience! Scuba diving with the mantas is also possible.
8: Coffee Tasting In Kona
You can’t leave the Big Island of Hawaii without getting your caffeine fix at one of the world’s most famous coffee towns. Kona’s rich volcanic soil helps produce smooth coffee with low acidity.
There are roughly 600 coffee farms in the Kona area, and many offer tours to the public, some are free! The most famous one is probably Greenwell Farms.
As a hardcore coffee lover, I was in heaven trying all the different types of Kona coffee around town. Make sure to bring some home too!
9: Visit Akaka Waterfall
At a towering 442 feet tall, Akaka Falls is Hawaii’s largest waterfall. It’s located in Akaka Falls State Park, about 11 miles north from Hilo. Entry into the park costs only $5 per car.
The easy 0.4-mile loop hike takes you through a lush jungle filled with orchids, bamboo trees, and a stream-eroded gorge. You can complete the whole thing in about 30 minutes.
Along with the famous Akaka Waterfall, there’s a second “smaller” 100 foot waterfall called Kahuna Falls.
Akaka Waterfall can be viewed from several points along the trail through the park, but the best spot is from high above on the edge of the gorge. Late morning is a good time to visit so the sun will be shining on the falls.
10: Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park
In ancient Hawaii, long before it became a state, local sacred laws or kapu governed every aspect of Hawaiian society. The penalty for breaking these laws was death…
But if the criminals managed to get themselves to a pu’uhonua, or place of refuge, they were absolved of their crimes and could return to normal life.
Today you can visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park to experience the history of this place, still considered a sacred site.
The Hale o Keawe temple located here contains the bones of chiefs that infuse the area with their mana (power). Dramatic looking wooden statues called Ki’i act as guardians to the bay and nearby temple.
Getting To The Big Island
There are two main airports on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kona International Airport (KOA) to the west, or Hilo International Airport (ITO) in the east.
You can try flying directly to these airports, or hop on a short 40-minute flight connecting from Honolulu. We flew into Hilo and rented a car to drive around the island on a road trip.
Renting A Car In Hawaii
The best site to book your car is Discover Cars. They search both local and international car rental companies to help you find the best possible price. This is the easiest way to rent a car in Hawaii.
Roads on the Big Island can be narrow and winding. So it can take longer than you think to drive around it. Traveling from Hilo to Kona on Highway 11 takes about 3 hours, and driving Highway 19 around the north shore takes 2 hours.
Where To Stay In Hawaii
For most of our trip, we stayed at the beautiful Holualoa Inn outside Kona in the small village of Holualoa. It was the perfect place to relax after exploring the island.
But here are some other suggestions for good places to stay during your trip to the Big Island of Hawaii too.
Best Accommodation On The Big Island
Big Island Travel Tips & Advice
- We spent 5 days exploring things to do on the Big Island, but I wish we’d stayed longer — at least a week. There was a lot to see!
- Make sure to check out the Hawaiian cowboy countryside of the Kohala Coast and the thick tropical jungle and waterfalls of Waimea Canyon.
- Because the Big Island of Hawaii is so big (4,028 square miles, about the size of Connecticut) — driving around it takes a long time.
- While the Big Island has some nice beaches, it’s really not a typical “beach” destination like Oahu is. Most people travel to the Big Island for the many volcanoes — both active and dormant.
- Another highlight of the Big Island is fewer tourists, and a laid-back country vibe — making it a great place to relax if that’s what you’re after.
I know we’ll be back to the Big Island one day, because the amazing Hawaiian Islands are one of my favorite travel destinations in the United States. ★
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READ MORE HAWAII TRAVEL TIPS
I hope you enjoyed my guide on what to do on the Big Island of Hawaii! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
Have any questions about the Big Island of Hawaii? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!