Best Things To Do in Hawaii - The Big Island
Whether you're looking to come face to face with molten lava or kaleidoscopic sand, you won't have trouble finding ways to pass the time on the Big Island. From awe-inspiring volcanoes in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park to the photo-worthy Akaka Falls to the Eden-like Waipio Valley, the Big Island is full of natural wonders. In addition to the Big Island's hiking spots and popular beaches, there's also shopping: Swing by the Hilo Farmers Market for an eclectic mix of Hawaiian treats and crafts.
Updated November 16, 2018
- #1View all Photos
Four months after closing due to intense and damaging volcanic activity, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park reopened in mid-September 2018. "The Volcano," as it were, loosely refers to two active volcanoes in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park; specifically, it's Kilauea that's the real must-see. A 4,000-foot-tall mountain, Kilauea has been spitting, spewing and oozing since Jan. 3, 1983 and in May 2018, it started erupting, forcing evacuations and destroying entire communities. Although the eruptions have stopped, Kilauea is still at the top of America's list of volcanoes to monitor.
Most people who come to the park hope to see some lava flow; some travelers see a little bit, others are not as lucky. Check in at the Kilauea Visitor Center for up-to-date information on trails, safety precautions and where to expect lava flow.
- #2View all Photos
A visit to Hilo's Akaka Falls State Park will entail a short, low-intensity hike in northeastern Hawai'i. Its payoff comes in the form of two consecutive waterfalls – cascading Kahuna Falls and the spectacular free-falling Akaka Falls, which earned the park its name.
Those who've hiked the flat, paved loop trail say it's more of a "walk" that's easy enough for just about anyone – even young children. You'll most likely be able to make the loop through the park in 20 to 30 minutes, and considering Akaka Falls' small investment of time and money, travelers suggest it's one you can't miss.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Hawaii - The Big IslandHiking, Parks and GardensTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Parks and GardensTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Up until the early 19th century on Big Island, Hawaiians who broke the law could avoid a punishment of death by fleeing to a region of the west coast known as pu'uhonua, or "place of refuge," where they would be forgiven by an area priest. In present day, this place of refuge is a historical landmark preserved by the park service. It's also an extremely popular outing for Big Island vacationers, and the pictures make it easy to see why. Not only will you enjoy Pu'uhonua o Honaunau if you have a penchant for history and trivia, but it's also exploding with eye-catching temples, intricate ki'i (wood carvings) and plenty of the honu, (or Hawaiian green sea turtles) that live on the premises. And the breathtaking scenery, of course – the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is located near some of the best snorkeling beaches of Big Island.
Recent travelers enjoyed learning about the culture and customs of the Hawaiian people through this national park, but some say that there is little shade and it can get hot. Make sure to wear a hat and bring plenty of water.
- #4View all Photos
Waipio Valley, translated as "curved water," is named for the river that runs through it, and it's a historically significant spot to the Hawaiian people. Situated along the Hamakua Coast on the island's northeastern side, it was once one of the most fertile valleys on the Big Island and home to an estimated 10,000 people when the navigator captain James Cook first arrived in 1778. It was also home to Kamehameha the Great and many other Hawaiian rulers, earning it the nickname "The Valley of the Kings."
Now, Waipio Valley is regarded as a modern-day Garden of Eden. One-mile wide, more than 5 miles deep, and encased by verdant cliffs that rise 2,000 feet, the valley is best beheld from an overlook point on its southern side. You can also enjoy Waipio's scenery on a van tour, a strenuous hike (you'll have to make a steep descent into the valley) or by horseback. There are also a couple of black sand beaches, but the murky water isn't suitable for swimming; head to Hapuna Beach State Park or Kaunaoa for calmer, clearer waters.
- #5View all Photos
Kaunaoa Beach is one of Big Island's most picturesque white sand beaches. So, most travelers recommend coming early (around 8:30 a.m.) to Kaunaoa to snag one of the too-few parking spots – and spending most of the day there.
This eggshell-colored sand beach on the central, Kohala coast (in Waimea) has plenty to amuse you. Snorkeling is popular here, especially at either end of the beach, but you can also try bodyboarding, or a pickup volleyball game. The Mauna Kea Resort flanks this popular beach, and you'll find it about 30-some miles from Kailua-Kona off of Highway 19 and nearby mile marker 68. Restrooms and showers are available. If your stomach starts to grumble, consider sitting down for a meal at the resort's restaurant.
- #6View all Photos
One of the Kohala Coast's premier beaches, Anaehoomalu Beach is a favorite haunt for frequent Big Island visitors. Do as they do and call it "A-Bay" – that way you'll truly be in the know. You won't find too many locals on this massive stretch of salt and pepper sand, but you will have lots of opportunities to try some water sports, such as stand up paddleboarding and snorkeling, in the calm and clear water.
Visitors will tell you that A-Bay isn't the most picturesque shore on Big Island, but it has convenience going for it. Hordes of hotels provide the backdrop, and there are lots of nearby bars and bathrooms to choose from. However, some say that there are limited beach chairs, so travelers might want to bring their own chairs and umbrellas. You can also visit at about any time of day you want: there are no set hours of operation and there's ample parking in a public parking lot.
- #7View all Photos
Local farmers and artisans congregate each day to sell everything from produce to seafood, handicrafts to clothing in downtown Hilo. And most travelers agree there's no better place on the Big Island to sample local produce and purchase local crafts. Hilo Farmers Market sells some of everything, from the run-of-the-mill (like pineapples and bananas) to more unique items (like jaboticaba fruit or bongo drums), but you'll have to arrive early and you can't be afraid to bargain. You can also enjoy some poke and shaved ice while you browse.
Though most travelers enjoyed their visit to the market (especially on Wednesdays or Saturdays, when the market welcomes the most vendors), some were disappointed with the selection of wares and crafts, cautioning that some of the goods did not appear to be local. Many said this was a great place to stop for lunch, but may not be a satisfying spot for quality souvenirs.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Hawaii - The Big IslandBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The deliberately named waters of Hapuna Beach – Hapuna means "spring of life" in Hawaiian – are probably the most loved on all of the Big Island. Both visitors and residents flock to this beach on the South Kohala coast, and encourage you to do the same. If you're not visiting for the soft-as-cotton sand, then you've probably come for the aquamarine water. And if you aren't enjoying the aquamarine water then you've probably come for the unbelievable sunsets.
Hapuna Beach's famously calm waves are really only famously calm for part of the year; in the wintertime the tide might be too rough for swimming (though you may spot migrating whales from the shore). And this beautiful beach is understandably crowded much of the time, but doesn't have many concession stands or beach-side restaurants. Still, recent travelers are more inclined to point out Hapuna's positives: There's almost always a lifeguard on duty, which is invaluable when the tide is high. There's also plenty of parking, but keep in mind there's a $5 parking fee per vehicle. You'll also find plenty of picnic benches, showers and restrooms. The beach is open daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- #9View all PhotosfreePapakolea Beach#9 in Hawaii - The Big IslandBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Putting Papakolea Beach on one's travel itinerary is not for the faint of heart. For one, its secluded location makes it tough to reach. Plus, there is little shade and nothing in the way of amenities, and it also experiences rough waters. But intrepid travelers brave the journey because they want to say they've visited one of the world's only green sand beaches.
Papakolea earned this distinction thanks to the Pu'u Mahana cinder cone (or volcanic fragment) that circles the beach's shoreline and erodes into the sand. Allot at least two hours for an excursion here, time enough to get to this secluded spot – you'll find a dead-end road in South Point off Highway 11 – and then to make the 3-some-mile hike or drive to the cinder cone's steep descent to Papakolea.
- #10View all PhotosfreePunalu'u Beach#10 in Hawaii - The Big IslandBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Some say the waters here are too rough and rocky to really enjoy swimming, but that's not the real reason to visit Punalu'u, anyway. This beach in southern Hawai'i is ideal for its picture-taking potential. For one thing, the onyx-tinted sand here owes its unique hue to the ongoing volcanic activity of Kilauea in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. And for another, this beach is often visited by Honu (or Hawaiian green sea turtles) that like to swim to and sun on the shore. You might also catch a glimpse of a hawksbill sea turtle from time to time.
Past travelers were in awe of Punalu'u and said it's a quick "must-see." Other described the beach as "calm," though they cautioned that the beach's black sand can get very hot.
- #11View all Photos
Snorkelers like to visit this remote bay on Hawaii's west coast for the tropical fish, sea turtles and Hawaiian Spinner dolphins that are plainly visible just below the calm, shallow water's surface. History junkies make the trek to Kealakekua for a different reason altogether.
Navigator captain James Cook first spotted the bay and stayed here as a guest in January 1779. Weeks later, tensions rose and he was killed on the very same shore. Take time in between snorkel trips and scuba dives to behold the large white Captain Cook Monument that sits across the bay. Recent visitors said the state park offers an interesting history lesson in a beautiful setting. Along with a picnic pavilion and water fountains, there are also restrooms. For more information, visit the state park's website.
Explore More of Hawaii - The Big Island
If you make a purchase from our site, we may earn a commission. This does not affect the quality or independence of our editorial content.