The largest island in America’s 50th state is a treasure. After visiting three islands in October 2017, I determined the Big Island is my favorite, and the best island to visit in Hawaii period. It showcased the most diversity, from perfect white sand beaches to boiling craters. It also hosts more national parks than all the other islands combined, a big selling point for this ranger. Most of my time in Hawaii was spent exploring what this island has to offer, and it did not disappoint. Here are some places to add to your Hawaii bucket list as you discover the Big Island.
First, I’ll let you know what I did on the Big Island day by day. Then, I’ll go into detail about each location below.
Day 1: I arrived in the evening from my flight and headed straight to the Kona Brewing Company for a relaxing brew.
Day 2: The trip truly began on my first full day. Luckily, I came from Alaska and the time change is only an hour or two (depending on the time of year). For others, you may need to prepare for jetlag before you get going on your adventure. We spent our first day traveling from Kona to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and taking in the scenery. We stopped at the southernmost point in America near a green sand beach along the way.
Day 3: We visited the other three national parks on the big island: Kaloko-Honokohau, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, and Pu’ukohola Heiau.
Day 4: Today was the most exciting. First, we drove to Hilo via the route crossing Mauna Kea and visited Rainbow Falls. Then, after debating what to do, we decided to take a helicopter flight over the island.
If you travel down one seemingly neverending road, you’ll find the southernmost point in America. There isn’t much to do once you get there except say you made it. Locals fish here and don’t mind if you watch. I sat on a cliff for a while and took in the view. Looking below, the water was so clear I could see tropical fish swimming. I sat contemplating how there were 2,000 miles of vast ocean before me until land appeared again. We checked it off the bucket list and continued on our way.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
I wish we had given ourselves more than a day to visit Hawaii Volcanoes. First, we stopped at the welcome sign to take a photo. Hawaii was my fiftieth state, and the Kona airport did not have a welcome sign like I had hoped (I have a photo of the other 49), so this stood in. Next, our real first stop was the Kilauea Visitor Center, where we learned about the conditions for the day and planned the rest of our journey. I’d encourage anyone visiting to stop here first. Park rangers will update you on weather, road conditions, lava flow, and Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Additionally, you can stamp your passport, take a look at the gift shop, view the park film, or dine at the Volcano House across the street. Theoretically, you can also earn a junior ranger badge here, but it’s more difficult than it is at many other parks if you’re an adult. After departing the visitor center, we had some traditional Hawaiian fare, including Ahi poke, Hilo poi, and Haupia.
Next, we traveled down the marvelous Chain of Craters Road. This road used to connect to the western side of the island before lava plowed through. Now, you cannot reach Hilo without going all the way around. As you drive down Chain of Craters Road, you’ll experience a vast variety of ecosystems. You begin in a lush jungle, then quickly travel across hardened lava until you reach the Pacific Ocean. While driving, we saw two families of the rare Nene geese. It is critical that you heed park rangers warnings about speed limits to ensure the safety of these rare birds.
Once you reach the end of the road, there is nothing but ocean and underwater volcanoes between you and Antarctica. As I stood there, I imagined how thousands of feet below where I stood, the island was still forming. Additionally, just a mile or so away, Hawaii’s next island was growing, too. We saw another Nene family here, which only a few other visitors noticed. They blend in quite well with their surroundings. Furthermore, this spot showcases the Holei Sea Arch and is a marvelous place to watch ocean waves crash into the sea cliffs.
On our way back to the visitor center, we stopped to hike to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. This short walk takes you over hardened lava and passes thriving wildflowers before you reach the petroglyphs. It’s amazing to think about the story these drawings might have told. Finally, our last stop was the Thurston Lava Tube for a quick walk. The lights were out, making it impossible to see and difficult to navigate with so many other visitors inside. Try to bring a flashlight if you plan to visit.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
In old Hawaii, punishment for breaking any law was certain death. Your only chance was to reach Pu’uhonua, or place of refuge. As long as you arrived, you were safe. This historical park protects one of those sacred places. Great walls surround you, acting as the border between royal grounds and your sanctuary. The bones buried inside temples gave the sanctuary its power and protected you. Today, the site is still considered sacred. Hawaiians and other visitors come from all over to pay their respects and ask for forgiveness. As you walk through, be sure to follow all posted regulations. You can visit with the Ki’i, wooden statues placed to add protection, and see the temples created for the chiefs. This is one of the more unique sites our National Park Service protects.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
This site protects fishponds used by early Hawaiians to collect food. The landscape was mostly barren and covered in lava, so the system they developed helped feed communities for hundreds of years. Additionally, today it is a popular spot to find green sea turtles. Throughout the year, cultural events take place. During our visit, for example, visitors were participating in a hula dancing lesson at the visitor center. If you’re interested in learning about the culture of the Hawaiian people, this stop is a must.
Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historical Park
“Endless is the good that I have given you to enjoy.” – Kamehameha I
Here, you will walk in the footsteps of a Hawaiian king. Before Hawaii became a state, it was known as the Kingdom of Hawaii under King Kamehameha I’s rule. Kamehameha is revered for unifying the Hawaiian Islands. This historic site includes a small trail to enjoy. Leaving the visitor center, the first thing you’ll see is the temple dedicated to him. It is closed to visitors, as it is still considered sacred and many Hawaiians come here to pay their respects. There are photos in the visitor center and provided by park rangers for you to take a peek inside. Continuing on the trail, you find a small oasis. There, you’ll see a small pool, a pristine beach, and palm trees towering above. It’s a very peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
The following day, we crossed the island from Kona to Hilo via Saddle Road. The scenic route takes you across the base of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest peak at 13,803 feet high. If you’re really brave, you can hike to the top of Mauna Kea if you begin your journey early. Additionally, if you have the proper vehicle you can drive to the very top, however, we did not take this chance. We did drive to the Mauna Kea Observatory. If only we had visited at night to view the stars with their famed astronomers. They still had telescopes set up, and we were able to safely view the sun through their special lenses. Furthermore, we hiked around to take in glorious views and marvel at the rare, endemic silverswords. It was a beautiful morning to spend above the clouds.
The Big Island’s largest city had much to offer in terms of beaches and parks for us to visit before we went to the airport for our helicopter tour. Our favorite spot was Rainbow Falls. Not only were the falls breathtaking, but we also enjoyed the surrounding banyan trees with their endless branches. We even got to see a rainbow over the falls to put the icing on the cake of an amazing trip. Then, during our helicopter ride, we were surprised when we flew over Rainbow Falls and got to see it from a new perspective. Most shocking was that it is just one in a string of waterfalls on the Wailuku River leading to Hilo Bay. What a stunning site to see.