The Big Island Hawaii – Travel Tips & the Best Things to do on the Big Island
Welcome to the Adventure Island! With its formation just 800,000 years ago, the Big Island, Hawaii is the youngest island in the Hawaiian archipelago and one of the most volcanically active places in the world! The constant flow of lava into the sea lets the island grow a few inches every day, making it the largest island in Hawaii by far.
The Big Island is no “ordinary vacation island” but a paradise for adventurers that should definitely be on your Hawaii travel itinerary. In this post, I’ll share my travel tips for your own trip including the best things to do on Big Island!
→ At the end of this post you will find a map with all the mentioned places!
How many days are ideal to see the best things on Big Island, Hawaii?
Due to the sheer size of the island and the multitude of places that must be seen on Big Island, I would plan for at least five days. This way, you have enough time to explore the different sides of Big Island and their unique features.
What to know about renting a car on the Big Island:
Renting a car on Big Island is definitely must since most places can’t be reached otherwise. But there is one thing to keep in mind before booking your rental: some attractions on the Big Island, Hawaii, such as the Mauna Kea Observatory, can only be reached with a four-wheel-drive vehicle because the road leading to the volcano is closed to other cars. Therefore, you should book your car rental far in advance, as jeeps and other such vehicles are often booked out.
Where is the best place to stay on the Big Island, Hawaii?
There are two large towns on Big Island where most hotels, restaurants, and shops are located: Hilo on the east side of the island and Kona on the west side. In the center of the island, volcanoes rise more than 4000m above sea level. The clouds coming from the east pile up here and rain down on this side of the island, making Hilo one of the rainiest places in the world! The difference is clearly visible on maps of The Big Island: the eastern region around Hilo is green and tropical, while Kona in the west looks very dry. Both sides of the island have their charms, but due to the guaranteed sunshine, Kona is usually more popular. To explore as much of the island as possible, we decided to split our stay on the Big Island: two nights in a small hotel in Hilo, where we only stayed overnight (→ very simple but affordable), and three nights in a great resort with a pool on the beach (→ I’ve linked it for you here).
These are the best things to do on Big Island, Hawaii
The Center of the Big Island, Hawaii
One of the most popular attractions on the Big Island is the drive to the summit of Mauna Kea, the extinct volcano and highest mountain in Hawaii. What makes Mauna Kea so unique is that visitors can drive from the coast to an elevation of 4207 meters (13,802 ft) within a short period of time to admire the world’s largest observatory. Along the drive, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the island while the vegetation changes constantly. A necessary stop is the Visitor Center at an elevation of 2,800 meters (9,186 ft), which provides information about the volcano and observatory. Beyond that lies the gravel road leading to the summit, which can only be driven on with a 4×4 vehicle, as the road becomes more steep and rough. However, the breathtaking panorama and the best view of the sunset above the clouds await you at the summit. After the sunset, it is worth returning to the Visitor Center to experience the incredible spectacle of the starry sky. Mauna Kea is an absolute must-visit for anyone who wants to experience the beauty of nature and the magic of the cosmos up close.
Here’s an interesting fact: Did you know that Mauna Kea is actually the tallest mountain in the world – if you include its origin deep in the Pacific? Mauna Kea measures an incredible 10,210 meters (33,497 ft) from its base, which makes it more than 2 kilometers taller than Mount Everest! This means that Mauna Kea is not only the highest mountain in Hawaii but even in the world when you consider the total height from the base to the summit. A truly impressive place that is definitely worth a visit!
The best things to do in the east of the Big Island, Hawaii
The Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a trip to Hawaii. Here you have the unique opportunity to experience one of the most active volcanoes in the world up close – the Kilauea Volcano. Admission costs $30 per car for one week, and it is recommended to spend a whole day in the park to see and enjoy all the highlights:
An absolute must-do is a hike along the Sulphur Banks Trail, which leads you directly to the Kilauea Crater. On this path, you have the opportunity to see sulfur fields and frozen craters and, with a bit of luck, even observe flowing lava. Before you start, be sure to visit the visitor center to learn about the current volcano activities and hiking conditions.
Sulphur Banks Trail
Another recommended activity is a visit to the Thurston Lava Tube, an impressive lava tunnel that was naturally formed centuries ago. Walk through the dark passage and admire the fascinating lava formations.
If you have enough time, be sure to drive all the way to the end of the national park and enjoy the view of the sea. Here you will also find some beautiful hiking trails on young lava fields along the coast. These are usually less crowded than the more popular routes in the park interior.
An unforgettable experience is the sunset at the edge of the crater, where you can watch the glow of the lava. Don’t forget to bring warm clothing as it can get very cold in the park at night. We chose the trail to Keanakāko’i Overlook, which brought us very close to the glowing lava.
The Volcano National Park is definitely a must-see for anyone visiting the Big Island and is one of the most impressive sights on the island.
Thurston Lava Tube
Drive on Lava Fields to the ocean
Night Crater View
Akaka Falls State Park
A visit at the Akaka Falls State Park is one of the best things to do on Big Island and a must-see for all nature lovers. The park is famous for the 135-meter high Akaka waterfall, which is one of the highest and most impressive waterfalls in Hawaii. But there is much more to discover, including lush rainforest and a variety of endemic plant and animal species.
The entrance fee to the park is $5 per person, and there is ample parking in the park. However, an additional fee of $10 per vehicle must be paid for the large parking lot at the entrance of the park. I therefore recommend parking for free just before the gate. Although this area is not monitored, it is only a few meters away from the guard, so you can still feel safe. From the parking lot, an easily accessible loop trail leads through the lush vegetation to the Akaka Falls.
In the southwest of Big Island, you will also find an impressive deep black sand beach, where sea turtles also like to come to relax. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Punalu’u Beach during our last trip to Big Island, but we will make up for it next time!
P.S. Another great black sand beach is located in the sacred and beautiful Waipi’o Valley in the north of the island. This place has always been one of my personal highlight on the Big Island. Unfortunately, access for visitors has been closed indefinitely since 2022. However, be sure to research whether the restrictions have been lifted before your trip – it’s well worth it!
What to do in the South of Big Island, Hawaii
The southernmost point in the USA & the Green Sand Beach
When visiting Big Island, you should definitely not miss the southernmost point of the USA and the off-road route to Papakolea Green Sand Beach – two of the best things to do on the Big Island. Many people think that the southernmost point of the USA is in Key West, but it is actually located in Hawaii. Although it is often windy and rough, the visit is a unique experience. However, we were particularly looking forward to Papakolea Green Sand Beach. There are various ways to get there – you can hike, book a driver, or drive a 4×4 vehicle yourself. The route is very challenging but lots of fun if you’re a good river! Papakolea beach is one of the only four green sand beaches in the world and consists of olivine crystals, which give it its distinctive green-golden color. A visit is a must on Big Island!
The best things to do in the west of Big Island, Hawaii
Kona is the largest town on the west coast of Big Island and for good reason very popular with tourists. The seafront promenade is a great place for strolling, shopping, and dining. Here you will find cute shops, restaurants, and bars with a local atmosphere. If you’re in Kona for the sunset, I recommend enjoying a drink at one of the bars or restaurants and admiring the spectacle by the sea. Kona is also known for its beautiful beaches, where you are guaranteed to find sun and nice water. You can also snorkel and explore the colorful underwater world. Some of the best beaches near Kona are Magic Sands Beach, Kahalu’u Beach, and Kua Bay.
Snorkeling – one of the best things to do on Big Island
For me, the most beautiful snorkeling spot on the Big Island is located at the James Cook Monument. This adventure can be wonderfully combined with a kayak tour. Kayaks and snorkeling equipment can be rented at the Islander Kayak Rentals (in Captain Cook) to head out to the ocean. The swell on this side of the island is very calm, so you can relax as you pass by the Kealakekua Bay cliffs until you reach the James Cook Monument. Below you, you’ll find a great reef with countless colorful fish and sea turtles. If you start early in the morning, you will most likely even see dolphins!
Kukio Beach – Four Seasons Hualalai Public Beach
One of the few sandy beaches on the Big Island is the public Kukio beach near the Four Seasons Hualalai. Here you can not only watch a beautiful sunset but often sea turtles come out of the water to rest. But beware – it is important to always keep a safe distance and not disturb the turtles. Fortunately, it is easy to get to the beach – simply drive to the gate of the Four Seasons Hualalai and tell the guard that you want to go to the public beach. Admission is free, and the parking lot is just a short walk from the beach. Visiting the Kukio Beach is one of the most beautiful and best things to do on the Big Island and will always have a special place in my heart!
So, there you have it – the best things to do on Big Island, Hawaii, along with some helpful tips to make your trip a memorable one! I hope this post with my favorite travel tips for the Big Island has convinced you that the island should definitely not be missing on your Hawaii travel plan – especially if you love adventures! If you have any questions or additions to specific points, please feel free to ask me in the comments or send me a message on Instagram.