Visiting the Big Island in Hawaii: What You Should Know

The Big Island, or Hawai’i, is an island like we’ve never seen before. When we say it’s got everything, we mean it: the lushest forests we’ve ever seen, active and dormant volcanoes, gorgeous beaches… the varied landscape itself is worth the trip! Hawaii’s location makes it expensive to get to of course, but we promise you, the trip is worth every penny. Here’s your guide to navigating Hawai’i (from here on referred to as the Big Island in this article to avoid confusion) for a trip you’ll actually never forget.

How to Get There

Chances are, you’ll reach Hawaii via the island of Oahu. Fly from Oahu to the Big Island – ferries etc. don’t work. Try to keep luggage to a minimum on inter-island flights – they usually check anything more than a small backpack, for example. Make sure you book a flight during the day and snag a window seat for incredible views, well worth the price of a ticket if you get it early, during off-peak season!

When to Visit

We strongly suggest you visit Hawaii during the off-peak months i.e. not during the summer months of June through August. We visited in March which gave us sunshine and mild temperatures (definitely already beach weather!) and can definitely recommend visiting in the spring for cheaper prices and fewer travelers. We can’t imagine what it must be like at lookout points during the summer!

Be warned – there’s a reason why the Big Island is so lush. Rain can come down at any time, and we recommend packing an umbrella and a rain jacket – and more, if you’re heading up Mauna Kea (see below!)

Prices for flights etc. also tend to be cheaper in the spring: we flew from Oahu to the Big Island for $100 roundtrip.

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Trust me, it’s worth the trip!

Where to Stay

The main airport is located in Kona, on the eastern side of the Big Island. We strongly recommend you arrive in Kona, and drive to Hilo. Stay in Hilo, trust us – this gem of a location is not as inundated with tourists and industrialized hotels as Kona is, and you’re surrounded by lush rainforests, are at close proximity to the Puna Coast, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Mauna Kea and – did we mention much fewer tourists?! We fell in love with the sleepy, friendly town of Hilo with its little cafes and beautiful bay (great for sunsets – read on!)

That being said, if you’re here mainly for the beaches, stick to the Kona coast (the drive from Hilo to Kona is about 1.5-2 hours, and you don’t want to be shuttling back and forth every day!) But if adventure is your priority, stick to Hilo.

Hawaii can be expensive: Airbnb has some fantastic places to stay at in Hilo! And check out our guide to on doing upscale things on a downscaled budget to see how you can stretch your dollar in Hawaii.

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Adventure awaits!

What to Drive

If you’re look to drive down Waipio Valley and all the way to the summit of Mauna Kea, you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle, preferably a Jeep. We were on the fence about upgrading to a Jeep and ended up loving it, but that’s because we’re more of the driving-through-rivers-and-all-the-way-up-adventure-kind. There is a lookout point over Waipio Valley that doesn’t require 4-wheel-drive and you can drive up Mauna Kea and hike up to the summit yourself. You can also hike down to Waipio Valley, no 4-wheel-drive required (both hikes are extremely challenging with steep ascents through, be warned!) So the decision is really up to you: if you’re avid, extremely fit hikers, 4-wheel drive is definitely not necessary.

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Our Jeep on the Big Island

What to See

Hilo, Liliukalani Park, Hilo Bay

Take a day tour of Hilo town for some breakfast at one of its cute cafes, and a visit to the Liliukalani Park and Gardens. Drive south through the town for restaurants with a great view over Hilo Bay. Hilo Bay is a great place to watch that ever-so-famous Hawaiian sunset (with very few people!)

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Sunset at Hilo Bay

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Combine this with a tour through the town. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden lets you enjoy a dizzying variety of flora – at a fee. We found it worth it though – it’s nothing like wandering through a small greenhouse, believe us. The small waterfalls and ocean views, not to mention the gigantic trees and beautiful variety of plants make it a memorable 2-3 hour stroll.

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Christian was obsessed with this plant!
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Did someone say…root?

Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, Wailuku River State Park

This again can be combined with your tour of Hilo and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden! There’s no entrance fee to visit Rainbow Falls when we were there – locals even swim in these waters, though we wouldn’t encourage it! You can drive right up to Rainbow falls, and while it’s called a state park, they are very lax in this part of the world about walls, fences, and entrance fees – we love it!

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Rainbow Falls

Akaka falls requires a short walk down from the parking lot, and you have much more lush forest to enjoy. They sometimes collect a nominal fee at the parking lot – sometimes they don’t. It usually depends on what time of day you visit (and during which months!) like most state parks in Hawaii.

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Akaka Falls

Top tip: When driving from Hilo to Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls, and the Tropical Botanical Garden, make sure you look across any bridges you drive over — unless you want to miss some incredible views. The highways are built above gorgeous rainforests and beaches, and the views down are stunning.

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View from a bridge

Waipio Valley, Black Sand Beach, Kaluahine Falls

Worth it for the flora you’ll see between the drive from Hilo to the Waipi’o Overlook itself! You can catch gorgeous views over Waipio Valley from the lookout point right at the parking lot. To appreciate its true beauty though, you need to hike/drive down to the valley. There are many private roads and the drive down to find the Black Sand Beach can be extremely confusing, but follow the road and avoid the paths that say “private” and you’ll get there. It’s a sharp decline, and can get very muddy and slippery, so we recommend you only drive down if you’re experienced and comfortable behind the wheel. Kaliahine Falls is only accessible by hiking. Take the Muliwai trail to hike this “Valley of the Kings.” Some guides say the trail is 3 miles roundtrip, but we think realistically it would be at least double that, with the winding roads, lush greenery, and frequently closed off paths and trails. Driving down this valley was one of the most memorable experiences we had, and we strongly recommend you drive or hike down – given that you have the driving skills or fitness levels to endure it! Remember that you will have to cross rivers if you do decide to drive down.

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Waipio Valley when you drive down

Note: The Waipi’o Overlook can be shrouded in mist sometimes when you visit. Don’t fret – just come back later in the day or try your luck hiking/driving down, or visiting the Pololu Valley lookout instead. Coming back when the mist clears is worth it, trust us.

Top Tip: Stay away from private property! Locals really don’t like you hiking through their grounds (who would?) and we ask that you respect their privacy and stick to the public trails.

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The Black Sand Beach at Waipio Valley

Laupahoehoe Point

A little known local spot, Laupahoehoe Point is a phenomenal place to catch a sunrise on the way to Waipio Valley from Hilo. Look out for the road signs that lead off to this gem!

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Laupahoehoe Point

Pololu Valley

Another great spot to hike for lush rainforest and even catch a gorgeous sunrise/sunset. This is a longer drive from Hilo though, so we’d recommend you stop by on the way from or back to Kona from Hilo.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea

This is really the main event that you’ve visited the Big Island for, isn’t it? People prefer to go to Kauai or Maui for more traditionally relaxing holidays but the Big Island takes the cake in our opinion because of the adventures offered by the Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park! Start your visit off at sunrise over Jaggar Overlook, watching the early morning rumblings of the majestic Kilauea. There’s nothing like watching that lava broil and spit out, we promise you.

There are plenty of hiking trails from Jaggar Point that will lead you around the Kilauea Caldera, even through some Sulphur banks. Walk around before you head back into your car for the scenic drive through the Chain of Craters Road.

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View of Kilauea from Jaggar Point

Top tip: Visiting before 8am usually means no entrance fees! Keep in mind though that the museums, gift shop, and visitor’s center will also be closed, so it’s trade-off.

Chain of Craters Road: Halemaumau Crater, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, Holei Sea Arch

This drive will take you at least an hour but it’s WELL worth it! There are a myriad stops to see decades old craters and calderas. Walk over hardened lava, and don’t miss out on the Halemaumau Crater, among others, dating through the 1900s! The Thurston Lava Tube and the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs are also worth pitstops. There’s a ranger stop at the end of the drive, at the Holei Sea Arch. Here you can use a (poorly maintained) bathroom and buy water, but we strongly recommend you bring plenty of your own water and snacks to avoid the prices at this stop!

You don’t need a 4-wheel drive to drive the Chain of Craters Road.

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Craters on the Chain of Craters Road: worth the stop! Try the echo effect 🙂
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Inside the Thurston Lava Tube
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Holei Sea Arch

Puna, Lava Viewing Area

Drive through the gorgeous Puna forest reserve, through Pahoa, down the 130, to get to the trailhead to hike the 8 miles to see the magnificent lava from Kilauea spewing into the ocean. This can be done if you get the Chain of Craters Drive done earlier in the day. You’d have to drive out of the Hawaii National Volcanoes Park and past the Puna forest reserve to get to this trail, which is about two miles less than if you decide to hike directly from the Holei Sea Arch entrance to the Lava Viewing Area. The hike from the Sea Arch is also a bit more strenuous than the straight walk (in the heat, mind you!) from the Pahala Kalapana region. Kalapana is roughly where this trail begins. Vendors on the Pahala-Kalapana side also offer bicycles and buggy rides after 3pm to get to the viewing area. I also had one of the best smoothies I’ve ever had at a vendor at the entrance to this hike. Remember that the trail “officially” opens at 3pm. It is recommended you visit later in the day to see the glow of the lava as clearly as possible. You can see the trail we hiked in our video of the Big Island as well to get a sense of how long it is! There are no steep inclines etc.,: just a long, hot walk, but the lava formations and the ocean views are well worth it at the end!

Top tip: Remember to pack plenty of sunscreen! I’m Sri Lankan and even I peeled quite a bit during our trip to the Big Island (we hiked the trail to the lava viewing area between 3 and 6pm)! And don’t forget plenty of water!

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Lava Viewing Area: What you get at the end of your hike!
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Lava formations: Mind blowing!

The Puna Coast

Drive down the Puna coast for gorgeous greenery and ocean views. You’ll have entire beaches, blowholes, and lookout points to yourself!

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Driving through Pahala
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Puna coast

Mauna Kea

Snow in Hawaii? Yes, you read that right! Take a day to drive up this incredible adventure. You can GPS Mauna Kea summit directly from Google Maps, and follow the signs to the summit. Remember that after a certain point, only 4-wheel drives are allowed up to the summit observator(ies). The view from Mauna Kea is stunning. Check the weather before you go: snow storms are the norm, and roads can be difficult to navigate one or two days before or after the storm. It does get cold up there so dress warmly: scarves, hats, and jackets proper! The high altitude can also cause altitude sickness, so be warned!

Sunrise and sunset from the summit of Mauna Kea is INDESCRIBABLY beautiful. And we’ve seen our fair share of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets!

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Mauna Kea summit

You can choose to drive up and hike Mauna Kea too: if you’re an extremely fit hiker! This hike IS strenuous, and is not to be tried unless you’re a veteran, and we mean veteran, hiker.

Lake Waiau

A short hike down from the parking lot to the first observatory before the summit of Mauna Kea.  There are also portable bathrooms located by the trail to this lake. The hike to the lake is about thirty minutes, and is not strenuous – just watch your step for loose rock and snow! Make sure that your body is also slowly acclimatizing to the altitude – drink plenty of water and rest when necessary. This lake is sacred and revered by the locals so we ask that you respect its significance in your photography and trekking around (please don’t litter!)

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Lake Waiau

Hapuna Beach

Yes, we know, you came to Hawaii for the beaches! The world famous Hapuna beach gets crowded, even in the spring, but is a great stop for a few hours. Unlike on the North Shore on Oahu for example, the Big Island has few really good beach spots – it’s more for the adventure seeker! There are also some extremely busy resort beaches on the Kona coast, so if you’re looking for beaches your best bet is to stay somewhere close to Hapuna Beach or the Kona coast in general. Hapuna beach is also a great place to catch a sunset if you’re in the area.

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Hapuna beach: Crowded but the waters are beautiful! The resort beaches closer to Kona town are much more crowded.

Lava Tubes: Kona

The drive up the Kona coast is astounding – for the flora and lava formations left by volcanic activity, and the lava tubes you can’t miss just on the side of the road! Drive slow – there are no highlighted “entrances” to these tubes and you enter at your own risk, but they’re definitely an adventure!

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Exploring the lava tubes on the Kona coast

Pu’uhonua o’ Honaunau National Historic Park

We recommend spending a day or two in Kona (with a majority of your stay in Hilo) to catch the Captain Hook hike down to secluded waters and see the Pu’uhonua o’ Honaunau National Historic Park. You can easily spend an hour at this park, learning about the livelihood of these old warriors.

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Pu’uhonua o’ Honaunau National Historic Park

We also suggest taking a helicopter ride over the Hilo and Kilauea if you have the time! If you’re going to take a helicopter ride (or splurge on an adventure) in Hawaii, let it be this! This is not a sponsored post – we really loved flying with local David Okita, and had an unforgettable adventure; and we want that for you too!

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Helicopter ride with David Okita!

We had a tough time deciding which island to visit in Hawaii from Oahu and this quiz helped us pick the Big Island. We hope that you find this guide useful if you do end up in this stunning region – a trip we will never forget.

Questions? Thoughts? Share your comments with us below!

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.

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