Figuring out your next trip to the Hawaiian islands? Leave plenty of room for the best things to do on the Big Island. From beach bums to adventurous souls, a trip to the Big Island will suit personalities in any travel style.
On Hawaii’s largest island, travelers will discover a world of beautiful beaches laden with black sand from an explosion of flowing lava. Hikes on the Big Island cross active volcanoes to epic viewpoints before plunging into vast valleys of overgrown jungle and tumbling waterfalls.
Not sure what to do on the Big Island? Let us help you plan the ultimate trip with this guide to the best places to visit on the Big Island (Hawaii).
Best places to visit on the Big Island (Hawaii)
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
In the mood to knock off the top tourist attractions on the Big Island right away? Beeline for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Hawaiian islands were created from massive volcanic activity. According to legend, Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, resides within the park’s active Kilauea Volcano.
For any traveler, a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of the top things to do on the Big Island. Hawaii Island itself is still being shaped by the volcano, putting you right in the present moment as you embark on a wide range of epic adventures.
Highlights of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park include the Thurston Lava Tubes, a cold lava tunnel that you can walk along. You’ll also have a chance to chug along the 4-mile Kilauea Iki Trail. One of the most popular hikes on the Big Island, the Kilauea Iki loop takes you into a lava lake formed in the 1950s.
Once your legs have had enough, have lunch at Volcano House before completing the Crater Rim Drive to spectacular views over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
For the hikers still deciding on what to do on Big Island, how about the chance to trek up the tallest mountain in the world? You read that right. While Everest may be many miles away, Mauna Kea is 4,000 feet taller when the mountain’s height is measured from the bottom of the ocean floor.
While the majority of this massive volcano lies below in the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea still makes for a wonderful adventure. Those searching for some Type 2 Fun will love the challenging hike up the towering but dormant volcano.
The trek up Mauna Kea comprises a 13.5-mile round-trip just shy of 5,000-feet elevation gain. Start early to avoid the heat of the day. Don’t be surprised if you find some snow on the peak—Hawaii is a wild place!
One of the coolest things to see on Big Island is the Hawaiian green sea turtles. And one of the best places to catch them in action is at Punalu’u Beach. Located about 15 minutes from South Point, the black sand beach was formed over many years of volcanic activity. The lava would flow into the Pacific and explode into minute fragments, creating the dark, warm, and beautiful sand you see today.
When reflecting against the sun, the sand at Punaluu Black Sand Beach warms up, attracting green sea turtles, and the endangered Hawksbill turtles who are seeking some rest and relaxation. As always, remember to admire the majestic creatures from afar.
Punaluu Black Sand Beach is also great for swimmers and snorkelers who can enjoy an unforgettable swim with the local turtles. If you can’t bring yourself to leave this compelling snorkeling spot, camping on the beach is allowed with a permit.
Akaka Falls State Park
Just a short drive north from Hilo is Akaka Falls State Park, home to the tallest waterfall in Hawaii. The lush state park creates an enchanting contrast to what’s found in the lava-burnt regions of the islands, with its dense green jungle slowly unveiling her secrets.
The best experience in the Hawaiian state park is the loop trail to Akaka Falls. Compared to Mauna Kea, it’s a piece of cake. But you can expect equally enthralling views along the short and sweet 0.4-mile journey.
Along the way, you’ll experience some elevation gain. It’ll lead you to stunning views of the waterfall, tumbling 442 feet into the abyss. A further trail will lead you to the smaller 100-foot Kahuna Falls.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
If you’re after a beach day that’s unlike any other, pencil in a visit to Papakolea Green Sand Beach. Located at South Point, it’s believed to be one of just four of its kind on earth. With its uniqueness, it’s easy to see why Papakolea Beach is one of the most amazing places to see on the Big Island.
From afar, the rugged beach, which is carved into the cliffside, appears to be a light brown color, rather than a lush green. But when you pick up the grains of sand beneath your feet, they shine bright green under the sunlight.
The unique sand was formed from a cinder cone explosion from within the beach’s gorgeous turquoise waters. Reaching Papakolea Green Sand Beach is an adventure, requiring an hour-long trek or a 4WD excursion.
After Akaka Falls, if you’re wondering where to go on the Big Island to chase some more waterfalls, put Rainbow Falls at the top of your list. The best time to visit these beguiling falls is in the morning when you’ll be able to witness how it got its name.
Pouring into what feels like the Garden of Eden, the falls tumble into a large pool surrounded by cliffs and dense forests. From the nearby car park, the trip to Rainbow Falls is easy on the legs. If you arrive early, you’ll be able to see a mesmerizing rainbow caress the front of the falls.
As Rainbow Falls is at its best at the start of the day, we recommend ticking this one off first before heading to Akaka Falls.
Mauna Loa Trail
Another epic hike for the Big Island bucket list is the Mauna Loa Trail. The largest active volcano in the world, Mauna Loa features a surface covered almost entirely in lava. It’s, however, not as tall as Mauna Kea, with its size spread out over a massive portion of the island of Hawaii.
The Mauna Loa Trail will guide you to the peak of the volcano, providing a thigh-burning 2,700 feet worth of elevation gain. The hike is 13 miles round trip with jaw-dropping views of Mauna Kea the whole way up.
To make it to the trailhead, located at the Mauna Loa Observatory, drive along Mauna Loa Road. The mountain is a wild place, with no amenities. Be well prepared for your trek, and, of course, leave no trace.
Descending into the Waipio Valley is not for the faint of heart—and certainly not for those without a 4WD. The valley is only a mile wide but descends for five miles towards the crescent coast and the Pacific Ocean. On either side are 2,000-foot cliffs that encase the valley and provide an ominous presence.
Waipio Valley was once a fertile valley providing for thousands of locals. Today, it’s a lush and remote part of the island with few semblances of civilization. The drive into its depths will reveal a few vehicles that didn’t quite make it down the undulating and slick dirt road.
Along the way, you’ll pass several waterfalls, including Hi’ilawe Falls, before reaching a string of black sand beaches. For one of the best views on Big Island, forgo the drive and stand at the Waipio Valley Lookout.
An unforgettable experience awaits at Kaumana Caves. The caves were formed via lava tubes that exploded out of Mauna Loa in the 19th century. Now solid, the cave is a grand and natural spectacle, with its lava tube extending for over a mile.
From out of Hilo, visitors can wander into the cave for a quarter-mile without paying a penny. The forest has made its way into the tube, creating an otherworldly landscape and a perfect example of Mother Nature’s prowess.
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Kaumana Caves receive little natural light. Bring along a flashlight or headlamp in order to make the most of the captivating experience.
One of the top Big Island tourist attractions, Greenwell Farms is the best place on the island to try its famous Kona coffee. The coffee plantation is one of almost 600 on the island, with its climate perfect for creating the delicious brew.
The Kona coffee farm has been in operation since the mid-19th century when Henry Nicholas Greenwell arrived in Hawaii from England. To this day, Greenwell Farms creates 100% Kona coffee, rated by many as the best on the island.
There are several ways to enjoy your experience here, with farm tours departing from 9 am to 3 pm and coffee tastings from 8.30 am to 3 pm. You can even arrange for a private experience.
Hapuna Beach State Park
So far we’ve mentioned some amazing black sand beaches, but what about adding a white sand beach to your Big Island itinerary? Located on the island’s western side, Hapuna Beach State Park is tucked away from the wet weather that often hovers over other regions. Thanks to its drier conditions, it’s become one of the most popular places to go on the Big Island.
Hapuna Beach State Park is so popular that you’ll have to fork up a $5 parking fee to access the serene beach. It’s a small price to pay however to enjoy the splendid views which showcase a beautiful evening sunset.
The swimming at Hapuna Beach is generally calm and leisurely, making it one of the most popular beaches on the Big Island. Beachgoers will also have access to showers and bathrooms.
One of the three manta ray viewing sites on the Big Island, Manta Village is an exceptional spot to see the beautiful creatures with your own two eyes. The village sits alongside the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa on Keauhou Bay.
In the 1970s, attracted by the lights of the hotel, plankton began congregating in the surrounding waters. They were soon joined by manta rays, who quickly learned that the lights would equal food.
Over time, Manta Village became known around the world as a great place to see the unique marine animals. Today, there are many ways to see them yourself, from manta ray cruises to nighttime snorkeling.
Captain Cook Monument
You can have your own (and probably accurate) opinions on Captain Cook. But there’s no doubt that travelers will find some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island Island at the Captain Cook Monument.
The snorkeling around the monument is perfect for families and newbies. The water in Kealakekua Bay tends to stay in control, allowing you the opportunity to focus on the exotic underwater world—and nothing else.
The best way to reach the Captain Cook Monument is via a boat tour or kayak. After diving in, spot colorful fish and vibrant coral. If you arrive early, you may even get to swim with dolphins.
Kapoho Kalapana Scenic Road
Located near Isaac Hale Park, the Kapoho Kalapana Scenic Road is a 10-mile adventure along the southeastern coast of the Big Island. The original road was destroyed in the 2018 eruption of the Kilauea Volcano, but the second iteration of the scenic drive is living up to its potential.
The Kapoho Kalapana Scenic Road meanders through overgrown forests with gorgeous trees hovering above the tar. It’s a beautiful tunnel leading you to memorable destinations such as the Mackenzie State Recreational Area and the lovely Kehena Beach.
The rugged coastline evokes visions of the old Hawaii, where nature held sway with nigh a building in sight. It’s a magical drive, best done slow—and twice for good measure.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
Embark on a well-rounded experience at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, combining history and adventure in equal measure. The park has a number of hiking trails providing a wonderful insight into ancient Hawaiian culture and local history.
Begin your Kaloko-Honokohau experience at the visitor center. Here, park rangers will tell you all you need to know before heading down some of the most popular hiking trails on the Big Island. The trails wind through the beautiful nature towards multiple sacred temples and historic petroglyphs.
Along the way, you’ll also discover the engineering behind local fish ponds, which required skills way ahead of their time. Eventually, you’ll reach a sandy beach where you can relax, reflect and even spot a Hawaiian monk seal.
Centering the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea Volcano has long been a hit with visitors to the Big Island. It’s the youngest of the five local volcanoes and by far the most active. In fact, it’s common to see hot lava flowing into the nearby Pacific Ocean as the volcano’s crater glows above you.
All Kilauea Volcano experiences must begin at the visitor center. Open from 9 am to 5 pm, the center’s rangers provide excellent guided tours. You can also watch a short film on the park before picking up a detailed map, with several great hiking trails.
Seeing the volcano’s glow in the Halema-uma-u Crater is one of the best things to do around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The scene is best captured from the Kilauea Overlook.
The Big Island provides endless opportunities to chase the stoke and embark on adventures. But it’s also a place of immense history, where Hawaiian royalty would vacation in the summer. Case in point: Huliehee Palace.
Located in Kona, Hulihee Palace was built in 1838 and was a popular spot for King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. The former royal home is now a fascinating museum featuring relics from eras past, period furniture, and historic ornaments from the Hawaiian monarchy.
While you’re free to explore on your own, for more insight hop onto one of the guided tours, departing twice daily at 10 am and 1 pm. On one Sunday each month, Hulihee Palace also hosts a free Hawaiian music performance.
Best places to stay on the Big Island for sightseeing
For travelers, the best places to stay on the Big Island include Kona, Kohala Coast, and Hilo. Adventurous travelers might also find suitable accommodations around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Featuring bright luxurious villas, Kona Seaspray is a top-notch choice for your Big Island lodgings. The oceanfront rooms charms with floor-to-ceiling windows, full kitchens, and spacious terraces. End the day with a dip in the outdoor pool followed by a BBQ feast.
Luxuriate in beautiful Pacific Ocean views at the Aston Kona by the Sea. Besides the rooms, affixed with tropical decor and private balconies, you’ll enjoy a wealth of amenities including an outdoor pool and hot tub.
Located on the Kohala Coast, this Four Seasons Resort is the top luxury hotel on the island. Settle into your luxurious room to bask in dramatic views from your private balcony. Or play around with its menu of amenities, including an on-site golf course, seven swimming pools, and seaside dining.