At the time that I’m writing this, the Kilauea volcano is erupting on The Big Island and lava is flowing down the streets of communities. So, as I keep the families impacted in my thoughts, I’m also reminded of how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature actually is. So, if you’re going to visit this island, please keep that mind – stay safe and obey the rules, they are there for a reason.
The Big Island, also called the Island of Hawai’i is the largest of all Hawaiian islands. In fact, it’s larger than all of the other ones combined. There are 185k people living on the island, mostly in two large cities – Hilo (the capital) and Kona on the west coast. The island is built from five separate shield volcanoes that erupted somewhat sequentially, three of these are active today and the Kilauea one has been erupting continuously since 1983.
We were on The Big Island at the beginning of February, so daylight was a little more limited than summer time. If you go off-season, prepare to go to bed early and get up early. You’ll be able to catch some amazing sunsets and sunrises, but once the sun goes down there is not much to do.
Day 1 | North Beaches and Valley
Drive time: 3 hours and 15 minutes*
We flew in from Honolulu to Kona around 9AM on our first day, we wanted to make sure we had as much time to sightsee as possible. We got our car and headed north to Pololu Valley, stopping at the few beaches along the way. We skipped some beaches close to the airport, don’t worry, we’ll come back to see them on our last day.
Hapuna Beach State Park – one of the most expansive white sand beaches on The Big Island. Hapuna also offers consistently good conditions for swimming, bodyboarding, sunbathing and snorkeling. It’s a very popular beach that gets very crowded in season.
KeoKea Beach Park – a boulder beach located along the North shoreline. There is a small stream on one side of the park that attracts beautiful birds for an afternoon drink and bath, so take a seat on the rocks in the shade and get your camera ready. This is not a swimming beach due to rocks and rough waters, but you can park right in front of the beach, so it’s a great picnic or photography stop.
Pololu Valley – created by the Kohala Volcano eruption 250,000 to 300,000 years ago that caused a massive landslide in which a part of the volcano fell into the ocean creating a beautiful secluded valley. You will park up at the top of the cliff (parking is only along the road, so it gets packed in season) and then hike .6 miles down 420 ft elevation to the valley. The trail difficulty is probably moderate, you’ll be walking on and stepping over rocks and roots, the elevation gain will get you on the way back. Make sure to stop at lookouts along the way to see the magnificent cliffs and waves hitting the shoreline. Once in the valley, walk along the rocky beach, hang out on the makeshift swing or hike inland to see the inlet. Note from Teri: this was my favorite spot on the island, but don’t be like us scaling rocks in flip flops, bring hiking boots or tennis shoes.
Hammocks – If you would like the place you sleep to have four wall, bathroom and electricity, don’t let Teri book your accommodations J. We spent the night in hammocks, essentially outside on little decks with mosquito netting for walls. Great adventure in theory, unless you’re a neurotic like me and can’t fall asleep with strange noises and movements around you. Being awake the entire night and having your mind race to “what was that??” every ten seconds – not very restful. By 5AM I used up ALL of the batteries on my phone, tablet and the back-up charger. It was a fun adventure, but I definitely wouldn’t do it for more than one night. Note from Teri: I don’t know what Ann is complaining about, I slept great. Just for her, I even sprung the extra $3 for a deluxe suite upgrade.
The beautiful part of sleeping outside is the waking up to all of nature’s sounds – birds chirping and ocean waves in a distance.
Day 2 | Waterfalls
Driving Time: 2 hours
Photography tip: This was a good day to practice blurry water effects on waterfalls. If you would really like to capture it well, you’ll need a travel tripod, so that you can make your shutter speed low enough. We didn’t bring our tripods, but even placing the camera on the railing helps steady it and gives you better chances of a sharp image.
Akaka Falls State Park – park opens at 8AM and has beautiful pathways through a tropical forest leading to two waterfalls: Akaka Falls (442 feet) and Kahuna Falls (100 feet). It doesn’t require long hikes, it’s under half a mile.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden – this is a very unique tropical nature preserve and sanctuary. There are over 2,000 species in the gardens, representing more than 125 families and 750 genera. The coolest part of the garden for me was seeing orchids in nature. Plus orchids in nature against a tropical forest and ocean background is a photographer’s dream. In addition, Onomea Falls are in the park with a beautiful three-tiered waterfall. If you want to get your feet wet, there is a trail just outside the garden that will take you down to the bay. Depending on season you may get mosquitoes, so come prepared. Entrance fee is a little steep at $20 a person, but definitely worth it.
Rainbow Falls – it’s an 80ft waterfall that plunges over a natural lava cave into the river below. According to the legends, the cave is a home to the ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon – Hina. The Rainbow Falls is named for the many rainbows you can see in the water if you visit in the morning. Water level will vary depending on season and rainfall. You can also take a trail on the left of the falls to see them from a different vantage point as well as find Pe’epe’e falls. We were there around 10AM in February and we had to wait to get to the railing in the vistas, so in peak season, it may be worth it to come earlier in the morning.
Hilo – we stopped for lunch in Hilo, then walked around the waterfront and visited local stores. We also explored the farmers’ market in search of cut pineapple, but all we could find was pineapple filled sweet rolls – they were amazing… and counted as fruit in my book.
Halema’uma’u Crater – the steaming crater is located on the summit of Kilauea volcano inside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Halema’uma’u crater is about 280 feet deep and 3,000 feet across. Legends say that the crater is the place where the volcano goddess Pele protects her sacred fires. The size of the crater has varied significantly over the last century and the latest volcanic activity is reshaping it again. Always check the latest alerts for visitors on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park site.
You can hike along the rim of the crater and enjoy the lookouts. We also saw people hiking on the Halema‘uma‘u Trail down to the crater floor, but we chose not to do that. We went during the day and saw only steam coming out of the crater, but if you stay as it gets darker, sometimes you can see the volcanic glow depending on lava flows.
Thurston Lava Tube (Nāhuku) – massive, 600 feet long tunnel with a ceiling height of more than 20 feet in places. A lava tube acts as a pipe for molten lava, it’s created when the thicker and slower moving top surface cools and forms a hard shell allowing the faster moving lava to continue flowing beneath the surface. Once all lava stops flowing, it will leave behind a tunnel or a cave. As you walk through the tube remember that several hundred years ago a river of red lava rushed through it. This is an easy walk from the parking lot, about .3 of a mile, during the day there are lights in the cave, if you’re visiting between 8PM and 10AM, bring your own light source.
Devil’s Throat Crater – it’s a fairly unknown crater pit formed in early 1912 that’s over 165 feet deep. Collapse pit craters are formed when magma is rapidly sucked away from one subterranean magma chamber to another or an eruption happens. This causes the ground above the empty magma chamber to collapse leaving a crater pit. The unmarked trail to this crater starts at Chain of Craters Road and Hilina Pali Road intersection across from Hilina Pali Road. Word of caution, there is no railing or protection anywhere, so be careful and if you have kids with you, do not let them run ahead of you.
Day 3 | Hiking on the Moon
Drive time: 1 hour and 14 minutes
Lava fields hike – we decided to hike the Kilauea Iki trail. You’ll descend through a green rain forest to the crater floor of the still steaming Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake. This was a great hike. It does have a 400-ft elevation change, so you will be climbing down and then back up.
Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs – this archaeological site contains over 23,000 petroglyph images; cupules or holes, circles, other geometric as well as cryptic designs, human representations known and canoe sails. Some of these petroglyphs date back to the 16th century. This is a 1.5-mile hike roundtrip in open sun, so on a hot day, try not to come in the middle of the day.
Hōlei Sea Arch– the arch was cut into the cliff of an ancient lava flow and is made of basalt rock. This beautiful formation has a limited lifespan and will eventually crumble into the ocean. There is a short trail from the parking lot to get to the cliffs. You can walk around along the cliffs, but bring tennis shoes.
Day 4 | Lava Boat and Color Beaches
Drive time: 4 hours
Lava Boat Excursion – we chose to do a sunrise cruise for the lava sightseeing, our thought was that red lava against the dark background would be dreamy and we sure were not disappointed. One thing we learned about lava flow – it’s unpredictable. The guide told us that sometimes you’ll get a trickle of lava or just steam, they can’t guarantee anything. We lucked out, we had heavy, beautiful lava pipe flow the entire time. On the way back we also caught views of whales along the cliff shores. Note from Teri: if you get seasick easily – be prepared, the seas are rough and your stomach will not like hanging out on a ‘parked’ boat in the middle of the ocean for a half hour admiring the volcano. Even with all of the precautions I took, I still got sick.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach – this is the most famous black sand beach in Hawaii, mostly because of its accessibility and turtles that like to bask in the sun on the beach. The sand is made of small black fragments of lava, if you look closer you will see some larger pieces as well. The beach is surrounded by rows of coconut palms and has rocky edges. Also, don’t miss a small pond on the side of the parking lot with beautiful water lilies, large trees and a small island. This is a great place for picnics or just relaxing in the shade.
Papakolea Beach (Mahana) – you’ll find unique green/gold tint sand here. The green comes from olivine crystals, a common material in the Big Island lava. This is a remote beach that requires a 5-mile roundtrip hike or a ride from locals through treacherous roads. But in the end, it’s definitely worth it, the green/gold sand, the surrounding cliffs and greenery make this a beautiful addition to this list. Note from Teri: if you get carsick, beware. There are no real roads that lead to this beach, you’ll be bounced riding through washed out fields and hills for 20 minutes. It’s still better than hiking in 90 degree heat, but come prepared.
South Point (Ka Lae) – the southernmost point of Hawaii and United States. South Point Hawaii is a little out of the way, which makes it a fantastic place to get away from the crowded areas of the Big Island and experience the beauty and power of Mother Nature. It’s believed that Ka Lae is the first place Polynesians came ashore when they reached the Hawaiian Islands as early as 750 A.D. This is a photographer’s dream place to sit on the rocks and capture a sunrise or sunset. Both are beautiful here.
Day 5 | Snorkeling
Drive time: 2 hours and 37 minutes
South Point (Ka Lae) – we decided to go back to South Point early in the morning to watch a sunrise. We were the only people there outside of a couple local fishermen and had our choice of locations and amazing angles. The cliffs, rocks, waves and morning sunrays make this place one of my favorites in the world for sunrise/sunset shots.
Honauna Bay Snorkeling – there are many amazing spots to snorkel around the island, namely Kealakekua Bay, Kahalu’u Beach Park, or Honaunau Bay. We chose Honaunau Bay, mostly because it fit best into our schedule. It was a great snorkeling spot that satisfies various levels of snorkeling for people. You can jump straight into deep water from the rocks along the shore or you can walk into water on one side. Either way, you’ll have beautiful reef view and abundant fish life. We even saw a sea turtle swim right next to me like nothing unusual is going on. Note from Ann: it was pretty windy when we went, so we had to be careful to stay away from the rocks. Note from Teri: bring an underwater camera and the spray to keep mist off your snorkel glasses.
Kona – after all of the nature beauty, we were ready for some civilization, so we spent the afternoon/eve in Kona. Great little town to walk around, visit local stores, explore local boardwalks and eat dinner on the beach while watching a sunset.
Day 6 | White Sand Beach
Drive time: 38 minutes
Manini’owali Beach – part of the Kekaha Kai State Park, the beach has soft white sand and slopes gently to the beautiful clear turquoise water. The swimming here is awesome when the ocean is calm, and there can be some decent snorkeling along the rocky shores. We weren’t’ able to do this, but if you get a chance stay here for sunset, the views are supposedly beautiful. The parking lot is small so make sure to arrive early in season.
Manini’owali Beach was our last stop before heading the airport and saying bye to the land of fire.
Since we only essentially had five days we had to pick things most important to us and skip some others. The one that we really wish we could have done is Mauna Kea (White Mountain). This mountain rises to 13,796 feet. But if measured from its base on the ocean floor, it reaches 32,000 feet, which makes it the world’s tallest mountain. If you plan on driving to the summit, you’ll need a TRUE 4-wheel drive with LOW range travel and make sure you check in at the Visitor Information Station. If you don’t want to make the drive yourself, you can do various tours that will take you to the summit. Make sure to bring heavy jackets, hoods and gloves. This is a perfect place for stargazing and fun in the snow.
* Drive times include driving to/from local hotels.