Quick Guide to the Big Island, Hawaii

Quick Guide to The Big Island, Hawaii

Hawaii is like a second home to us. Luckily, Yana’s sister lives in Maui. As such, it gives us a perfect excuse to stay for extended periods.

With just a short flight away, we set off to explore Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island. The youngest and largest of the islands, it is the only island with active volcanoes. The rugged terrain is a haven for adventure junkies. The island holds claim to one of only a few green sand beaches in the world.

If all the stars align, an incredible sight is watching a stream of lava flow into the Pacific Ocean. Hiking, viewing waterfalls, and exploring lava fields, are just a few of the Big Island things to do on a perfect Hawaiian getaway!

Guide to the Big Island, Hawaii

Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.

Best Time to Visit the Big Island

Top Things to do on the Big Island:

While the Big Island is great year round, we recommend going in the fall. Between the months of September and November, the weather is cooler and room rates go down. Aside from Christmas and New Year’s, winter is another great time to visit. There is a high chance of seeing humpback whales as they migrate each year from Alaska to mate and calve.

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Must See in Big Island, Hawaii

The island has two main towns from which to base your activities, Kona and Hilo. These two towns are where the bulk of hotels, guesthouses, B&B’s, Airbnb, and lodges are located. Kona is the largest city on the Big Island with some hikes and beaches in the vicinity. However, we recommend staying near Hilo because of the close proximity to Volcanoes National Park. Prices vary by season and start around $75 for basic guesthouses and $150 for hotels.

Kona Mid-Range StayBelle Vue Kona B&B has suites with breakfast included for $145.

Hilo Budget StayHilo Bay Hostel has dorm beds starting at $40 or private rooms for $100.

Hilo Mid-Range StayHilotown Hale has double rooms for $85.

Camping on the Big Island

Camping is a great way to save money on the Big Island. There are different options for camping that include 10 county parks, four state park campgrounds, and two national park campgrounds. 

County campgrounds cost $21 per adult for non-residents and can be booked online up to one year in advance. State parks cost $12 per campsite per night and can be booked online on the Hawaii State Parks website.  The two National Park campsites, Nāmakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki, are first come first serve.

We recommend Nāmakanipaio which costs $15 per night regardless of the number of campers. Kulanaokuaiki has only nine campsites, does NOT have water, and costs $10 per night. For more information, check out the NPS website. Both campsites are within the National Park and also require payment for the park entry.

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Top 5 Things to Do on the Big Island

1. Overnight Hike from Waipio Valley to Waimanu Valley

Guide to the Big Island, Hawaii: Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley

For serious hiking, this trail will get the legs burning. It is 7.65 miles between both valleys, but could end up nine miles depending on where you park. This is an excellent coastal hike which includes several river crossings, waterfalls, and two black sand beaches.

It is best to make this a 3-day trip to enjoy a day off at Waimanu. If hiking is not your thing or you don’t have enough time, check out the Waipio Valley overlook or head down to Waipio Beach (4wd access only). For more information, read our guide to hiking to Waimanu Valley.

2. Akaka Falls

Best Things to do on the Big Island: Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

There is no shortage of amazing waterfalls on the Big Island, but Akaka was our favorite. This spectacular 422-feet waterfall plunges off a cliff in stunning jungle scenery. The stop for Akaka Falls is 11 miles north of Hilo. It is located right off of the main road, and there is a short jungle walk to the viewpoint. Also, the short distance to the viewpoint makes it an ideal activity for kids in Hawaii.

Parking is free just outside the car park. Entry is $1 per person.

3. Papakolea Green Sand Beach

Top Things to do on the Big Island: Papakolea Beach
Papakolea Beach

One of only four green sand beaches in the world, Papakolea is one of the top activities in Hawaii. The green sand is caused from olivine sand erosion which was once a volcanic cinder cone that was swept out to sea. Now what is left is one of Hawaii’s best and most unusual beaches.

If equipped with a 4×4 and confidence, you can drive to the beach. If not, the parking area is accessible by standard car and requires a 2.5-mile walk to the beach.  On weekends locals sometimes offer 4×4 rides for $10 per person each way. We were able to hitchhike each way. For an awesome cliff jump, stop at Ka Lae or South Point, just a few minutes from Papakolea.

4. Punalu’u Beach

Must See in Big Island, Hawaii: Turtle
Turtle resting on Punalu’u Beach

This black sand beach is one of the finest in Hawaii and has resident sea turtles to boot. We have seen many black sand beaches, but this one has strikingly black sand. It is great for snorkeling and relaxing.

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5. Volcanoes National Park

The main attraction on the Big Island is Volcanoes National Park. It has one of the most active volcanoes in the world. There are several things to see in the park, requiring a minimum of two to three days to see all the best sites.

Status of Erupting Volcanoes

Guide to the Big Island, Hawaii

It is always important to understand the status of Volcanoes National Park before planning a trip. Normally, there is a continuous but safe level of volcanic activity in the park. However, every once in a while, she decided to grumble. The most recent is in June 2018 when the volcano erupted and most of Volcanoes National Park was closed for weeks. Check the NPS Website for alerts and updates on volcanic activity and park closures.

Entry Cost to Volcanoes National Park

  • $25 for a 7-day pass
  • $50 for an annual Hawaii tri-park pass, good at Volcanoes, Haleakala or Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau
  • $80 for an annual Interagency pass, good at every national park in the United States

Best Activities and Hikes in Volcanoes National Park

Best Things to do on the Big Island: Jagger Museum
Jagger Museum

Jagger Museum – Overlook to the Halema`uma`u crater which is fuming and at times lava is possibly seen.

Ha’akulamanu Sulphur Banks – This 20-minute walk is through beautiful vegetation and nearby steam vents.

Puʻu Puaʻi overlook – This overlook has spectacular views of the Kīlauea Iki crater and is the start to hike down into the crater itself.

Kīlauea Iki hike – This 2-4 hour loop hike is through lush rainforest down to the crater floor. The exposed old lava flow is incredible. This was our second favorite hike in the park.

Top Things to do on the Big Island: Crater
Hiking in the Kīlauea Iki crater

Thurston lava tube – At the end of the Kīlauea Iki Trail is the Thurston Lava Tube. This is a 20-minute walk through a dark lava tube. Headlamp required.

End of Chain of Craters Road – Drive to the end of the road near the Hōlei Sea Arch. Walk to where the lava takes over the road for an awesome photo opp.

Kamokuna Lava viewing – This is by far the best activity in the park and should be done in the afternoon and early evening to see the lava in full glory. The lava flow is constantly changing. As of August 2017, access is available from two directions. From the east side of the park, the trail is a 4.2-mile hike or bike ride over a gravel road. For the best lava experience, we recommend going from the west side of the park at the End of Chain of Craters Road. This is a 5-mile hike, partly on a gravel road and partly over old lava flow is our favorite hike on the Big Island. For this hike, it is crucial to have good shoes and a flashlight or headlamp to return after dark. For up-to-date information, check out whats going on with the lava flow.

Must See in Big Island, Hawaii: Craters Road
Walking from the End of Chain of Craters Road to Kamokuna viewpoint
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That’s it – we hope you have a wonderful time exploring the Big Island of Hawaii!

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About the Author:

  • Yana and Timon

    Yana & Timon met at college in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating, they started their professional careers. They moved to San Francisco in 2010, a city they loved living in for nearly six years.

    After working and saving up money for several years, they quit their jobs and set off on an adventure of a lifetime. They started living a nomadic lifestyle in December 2015 and have not looked back since.

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