Top 10 Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii - post cover

Top 10 Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii

Top 10 Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii

Last updated on November 1st, 2022

A holiday on the Big Island of Hawaii can certainly fill a few action-packed days. The largest of the Hawaiian Islands is abundant with fine beaches, rewarding hikes, scenic drives, tourist attractions and countless other culinary, cultural and adventurous highlights. I spent three months on the island, volunteering on the sunny Kona coast and thoroughly exploring its myriad of microclimates. Here are the absolute best, the top 10 things to do on the Big Island.

Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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10. Magical Kona Sunsets

Blessed with fine weather and exceptional beaches, the sunny and dry Kona coast also just happens to face the sunset. And boy, sunsets out here are perfect! So ‘man your sunset positions’ on one of the Kona coast’s best beaches or head to downtown Kailua-Kona to savor it with something cold and refreshing in your hand. My personal favorite spots are Magic Sands Beach, the old Kona airport beach, Hale Halawai Park in downtown Kailua-Kona, and Kaloko-Honokohau (a.k.a ‘sea turtle beach’).

Kona Hawaii - sunset
Magic Sand Beach Kona Hawaii - sunset
Kona Hawaii - Palm Trees sunset

9. Hanging Out With Sea Turtles

Without a doubt, the Big Island’s VIP residents are its green sea turtles – a protected species awarded with a 20ft restraining order from humans by law. There’s a very good chance of spotting them cruising up and down the Big Island’s coastline pretty much wherever calm waters are present. However, for guaranteed sea turtle sighting, head to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park just outside downtown Kailua-Kona or slightly north to the magnificent black sand beach at Kiholo Bay.

green sea turtle beach - Kaloko-Honokohau -Big Island Hawaii
sea turtle - Kiholo Bay - Big Island Hawaii
Sea turtle -Kaloko-Honokohau Park - Big Island Hawaii

8. Admiring Akaka Falls

Splashing down from a height of 135m into a perfect-looking hidden pool, a quick visit to Akaka Falls is simply a must. Not too far away from the Big Island’s capital city – Hilo – and super close to the awesome Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, Akaka Falls is all part of a memorable road trip along the Big Island’s tropical east coast. Getting to the falls is super easy, with a paved path snaking its way from the parking lot to the viewing area via a series of small streams. It’s a very popular spot for others as well and I recommend getting here by no later than 1 pm if you want to snap good photos.

Akaka Falls - Big Island Hawaii

7. Beach Bumming in Kekaha Kai State Park

Home to three of the Big Island’s best beaches, Kekaha Kai State Park is super close to Kailua-Kona and not too far away from the resort scene of Waikoloa. At its southern entrance, dreamy Mahai’ula Beach (the best beach on the Big Island in my opinion) and the remote Makolea black sand beach are both reached via a rough unpaved road (accessible with 2WD). Over at the northern entrance, Kua Bay is easily accessed and is a top choice for locals, visitors, and bodysurfers. You can easily spend half a day at any of these beaches or combine them with sightseeing on the Kona Coast.

Makalawena Beach Big Island Hawaii
Makolea Black Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii
Kua Bay Beach - Big Island Hawaii

6. Snorkeling next to Captain Cook

In 1779, the great Captain James Cook landed on the shores of the Big Island at Kealakekua Bay and forever altered the island chain’s history. This picturesque bay is also where Cook was killed by locals in what was likely a huge misunderstanding. The bay and the obelisk commemorating the great explorer are the site of the best snorkeling on the Big Island. You can join a snorkeling cruise from Kailua or kayak from nearby, but the more scenic (and rewarding) option is by hiking the Ka’awa Loa Trail. The beautiful overland views of the hike are topped by those witnessed underwater as you snorkel in the pristine coral garden just off the Captain Cook Monument.  

Captain Cook Monument- Kealakekua Bay- Big Island Hawaii
Captain Cook Monument - Big Island Hawaii
snorkeling - captain-cook-monument-Big-Island-Hawaii

5. The Green Sand Beach

Black and white sand is kind of the norm in Hawaii, but green? Yeap! Thanks to soil erosion from nearby volcanic rocks, Papakolea Beach (a.k.a Green Sand Beach) is one of the prettiest you’ll ever see. Located in the remote South Point peninsula, reaching the beach requires hiking along the coastline on flat paths for about an hour each way. At some point during the hike, views of this gem come into view, begging you to stop and admire the scenery before heading down. Swimming in the Green Sand Beach can be rough, but when I visited the waters were oh so perfect!

Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii
The Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii
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4. Sunset & Stargazing on Mauna Kea

If the official height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world, reaching a height of well over 10,000m. Often snowcapped, it is the highest peak in Hawaii (4,207m), a sacred place for native Hawaiians, and an awesome spot to hike, watch the stars and gaze at the sunset. Though getting here is a bit of a pain, it’s totally worth the effort, at the very least in time for sunset. It all starts with a short hike to ‘sunset hill’ about an hour before the spectacle concludes. The desert-like views are incredible as the ball of fire slowly dips beneath the cloud line. You then proceed to the friendly visitors center to warm up, learn about your surroundings and prepare for a memorable session of guided stargazing into the heavens (guided stargazing was suspended as of Jan 2019 but may have resumed since). 

Mauna Loa and craters from Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii
Sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii 2
Sunset on Mauna Kea - Big Island Hawaii 3
Stargazing on Mauna Kea _ big Island Hawaii

Note that you can also embark on a challenging-yet-rewarding hike to the summit of Mauna Kea or simply drive up with a proper 4WD. More info in this 5 days on the Big Island sample itinerary.

3. Exploring the Kilauea Volcano

The Big Island is… really big. In fact, it is still growing as you’re reading these lines. Spending at least a full day inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is kind of a must. Start your visit with the Kilauea Iki hike and touchdown on its ash-covered floor, surrounded by thick crater walls and active steam vents. On your way back to the car, step inside the Thurston Lava Tube, before completing the scenic Chain of Craters Road which comes to a dead-end at the Holei Sea Arch. To wrap up this perfect day, grab a spot and a pair of binoculars outside the Jaggar Museum and marvel at the lava pouring out of the Halema’uma’u Crater – the mythical residence of the fire goddess Pele – as the post-sunset night sky is painted red. 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island - Kilauea Iti Crater
Crater Hike - Kilauea Iki Trail - Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii
Steam Vents - Kilauea Iki Hike -Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii
Lava Viewing - Jaggar Museum - Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii
Holei Sea Arch - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island
Thurston Lava Tube view inside - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

2. Getting Close to Nature at Waipio Valley

Of the seven majestic valleys that carve the lush Kohala and Hamakua coasts, none are as jaw-dropping as Waipio Valley, or as I like to call it, ‘the mother of all valleys’. You can admire it from the well-positioned overlook but to truly experience one of the prettiest spots in all of Hawaii, you must head down to the valley’s floor via an incredibly steep 4WD-only road or by hiking down (and then back up). Once on flat ground once again, you can explore the black sand beach, head up the ridge for even finer views on the Muliwai Trail, or hike to the spectacular Hi’ilawe Falls (unmarked path on private land – ask permission before undertaking).

Waipio Valley Lookout - Big Island Hawaii
Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii
Hi'ilawe Waterfalls - Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii

1. Staring at a river of fresh lava

Proudly erupting without signs of fatigue since 1983, to truly witness the awesome force of the Kilauea Volcano, you must venture to one of the most remote corners of the Big Island. At present time, a river of lava slowly descends from the hills atop Kalapana, eventually splashing down into the Pacific Ocean in a never-ending ‘battle of the elements’. Currently, the best way to experience the lava flow is by joining scenic helicopter tours or boat trips. Until a few years ago, you could walk to the Kalapana Viewing Area and get as close as humanly possible to the lava. However, due to recent activity, the viewing area is closed until further notice. Helicopter and boat tours are the best (official) alternatives at this time.  

Kilauea Lava Flow - Lava viewing area Big Island Hawaii
Kilauea lava viewing area at night - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island
Lava from Kilauea - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island
Kilauea lava spilling into Pacific Ocean - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

What’s Next?

There you have it, the top things to do on the Big Island! There are, of course, plenty of other highlights on this diverse slice of paradise. Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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