18 Best Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaiian waterfalls and rainbows on Big Island
YONGRONG YU / Getty Images

Hawaii's Big Island (officially named "Hawai'i"), is the largest island in the state, at 4,029 square miles, and also the youngest. The vast size of the island makes it possible to travel through two of the world's climate zones, tropical and polar, just by venturing around. Here, you can check out the state's massive volcanoes, Maunakea and Maunaloa, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, or sink your feet into the black sand on Punaluu Beach. Descend into cavernous lava tubes, or spend your time sampling the island's fresh produce and seafood. Life moves a bit slower on the Big Island, so adopt the local's "Aloha Spirit" to assure maximum relaxation on your vacation.

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Go Surfing at Kahaluʻu Beach

Surfer on a beach in Hawaii

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Kahaluu Beach, Kahaluu, HI 96744, USA

Hawaii is known as a surfer's haven, making it one of the best places to learn to surf. The Big Island, in particular, offers surf spots for all ability levels, however, the North Shore of Oʻahu and Maui tend to sit in the surfing spotlight. Head to Kahaluʻu Beach, and take a two-hour lesson from one of the knowledgeable instructors at Kahaluʻu Bay Surf and Sea. This mellow bay is also a good place to snorkel, offering fun for the whole family. After you're done, check out the break Honoliʻi, in Hilo, and watch the locals rip it up on advanced waves with a river mouth setup.

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Take a Helicopter Tour

Helicopter tour of Hawaii

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Many spots on the Big Island (and in Hawaii, in general) are hard to reach by land. But in a helicopter, you can view cliffside vistas and waterfalls that plummet straight into the sea. From the sky, you can also see active volcanoes up close. Some tours circle the island, while others take you out at sunset during "the golden hour" to enjoy beachscapes perfect for snapping a photo. Helicopter tours are not cheap (prices start at $350 an hour), but for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it's worth it.

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Ride an ATV

ATV'ing in Hawaii

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Like helicopters, ATVs can reach hard-to-see locations on the Big Island. Book an ATV tour that takes you to majestic waterfalls where you can swim in crystal blue pools. On an Adventure Farms Tour, guides relay the rich history of Polynesia as you drive through the villages of Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and stop to engage in traditional hands-on activities. You can explore a working livestock ranch, and take in coastal sights, all while behind the wheel of your own recreational vehicle.

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Bike Downhill in Waimea Canyon

Boys on bikes at Waimea Canyon Rim

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Waimea Canyon Dr, Waimea, HI 96796, USA
Phone +1 808-274-3444

A Waimea Canyon Bike Tour will take you on a 13-mile journey-by-bike from the rim of Waimea Canyon (at 3,600 feet) to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean. The adrenalin-pumping ride is all downhill and requires very little peddling. In your van ride up to the rim, your guide will tell the history, culture, and folklore, of the area, while you take in the native plants, birds, and trees. The second part of the experience is all about fun as you make your way to the Pacific Ocean on a cruiser bike made for downhill coasting. This trip is recommended for experienced bikers only. You'll be asked to perform a bike test before you depart.

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Take a Winter Whale Watching Cruise

humpback whale breaching in Hawaii
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Going to Hawaii in the winter isn't just an escape from the cold, but also a chance to see the migrating whales. Humpback whales pass through the islands during their yearly migration, from December to mid-April, and few experiences compare to seeing the majestic giants up close. While you can often see breaching whales right from the shore, booking a whale-watching cruise is the best way to witness the humpbacks. Reserve a morning tour, and, in addition to whales, you're likely to see pods of dolphins when they're most active.

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Descend Into the Kaumana Caves

Kaumana Caves entrance
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1492 Kaumana Dr, Hilo, HI 96720, USA

Don't forget to bring a flashlight if you're going to visit Kaumana Caves State Park, or you'll be scrambling around in the dark. The cavernous lava tube found here was formed during the 1881 eruption of Mauna Loa, when molten magma flowed through the tube like a plumbing system. A staircase that descends from the surface down through a natural skylight serves as an entrance to the cave. As you venture away from the ceiling's light, your cellphone light won't help much, so take out a headlamp or powerful flashlight to help you find your way. The park is free to visit and offers many great hiking opportunities, too.

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Gorge Yourself on Local Cuisine

Luau food, Hawaii
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As if the great weather and tropical beaches weren't enough, a trip to Hawaii is also a foodie's dream. Sample some of the delectable island cuisines, like Kalua pork, one of the quintessential dishes of Hawaii, and traditionally the main course at any luau. This style of pork is slow-roasted in an underground oven all day long. Poke bowls are popular across the U.S., but this dish of seasoned raw tuna can't be any fresher than the ones served in Hawaii. For a sweet treat, nothing beats a fruity cup of Hawaiian shave ice—not shaved ice—which often comes with condensed milk or ice cream on top to increase its creaminess.

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See an Active Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Volcano in eruption at night
G. Brad Lewis / Aurora / Getty Images
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI 96718, USA
Phone +1 808-985-6000

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located 30 miles south of Hilo and about 96 miles from Kailua-Kona. Here, you'll find two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Massive eruptions in May of 2018 shut down the entire park and created over 500 new acres of lava flows to explore. Start your visit at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where you can pick up a map and obtain information on current conditions. Other park highlights include the Thurston Lava Tube, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and the Chain of Craters Road.

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Stargaze at Maunakea

Hikers at the summit of Mauna Kea at sunset

Charmian Vistaunet / Design Pics / Getty Images

Mauna Kea, Hawaii 96720, USA

You'll feel like you're on another planet after summiting Maunakea. This 14,000-foot dormant volcano touches the sky at the highest point in the state. Due to its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Maunakea is one of the world's best spots for stargazing. And you don't have to hike it, either. Visitors can drive to the top on a road accessible only by a four-wheel-drive vehicle only. Pay special attention to the possibility of altitude sickness, however, should you venture on this journey. If summiting a volcano in a jeep is not your style, instead park at the Visitor Information Station (at 9,000 feet above sea level) to watch the sunset and to stargaze.

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Take a Hike in Waipi’o Valley

Waipi'o Valley, Hamakua Coast, Big Island
Danita Delimont / Getty Images
48-5561A Waipio Valley Rd, Honokaa, HI 96727, USA

Located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeastern shore of the Big Island, the Waipi'o Valley is the largest of seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. This area was once a favorite home to Hawaiian royalty, as the beauty and seclusion here motivated former Hawaiian kings to build permanent residences in the valley. Most of the hikes in Waipi'o Valley are strenuous, with steep ups and downs and cliff-side trails, so make sure you're experienced and properly outfitted for the trek. Also, the entire back of the valley, including Hi'ilawe Falls, requires crossing private property to access it. Many of the roads are not public right-of-ways, so be sure you're not trespassing before you venture out. To make your experience easier, book an organized shuttle or horseback tour.

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Explore the History of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Statues outside Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Park
Greg Vaughn / Getty Images
State Hwy 160, Hōnaunau, HI 96726, USA
Phone +1 808-328-2326

Located about 22 miles south of Kailua-Kona, off of Highway 11 on Highway 160, Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park preserves several important Hawaiian sites. The 182-acre park is divided into two sections: Palace Grounds, once the home of a ruling chief, and the Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, once a place of refuge for Hawaiians who broke a kapu (ancient law). Here, they could flee, up until the early 19th century, to avoid certain death. Visitors should also check out the park's additional archaeological sites, like the temple platforms, royal fishponds, and the coastal village.

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Walk Through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on the Big Island, Hawaii

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27-717 Mamalahoa Hwy, Papaikou, HI 96781, USA
Phone +1 808-964-5233

Just north of Hilo, off of Highway 19, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden sits inside of a lush 40-acre valley that borders Onomea Bay. The natural greenhouse created by the valley walls holds over 2,000 species of tropical plants. Inside, visitors can walk numerous nature trails past waterfalls, streams, and lookouts, to the ocean. One could easily spend an entire day exploring the grounds, enjoying the views, and marveling at the vast number of unique tropical flora. (Just make sure you look up in the trees!) Visit in the morning, when the crowds are low, and don't forget an umbrella, as the weather can change on a dime.

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Shop at the Hilo Farmers Market

Families shopping at the Hilo Farmers Market
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Corner of Kamehameha Avenue and, Mamo St, Hilo, HI 96720, USA
Phone +1 808-933-1000

If you want to find the freshest Hawaiian produce and specialty items, head to the Hilo Farmers Market, considered one of the best markets in the country. It's open seven days a week. Yet, on Wednesday and Saturday (considered "market days"), the market draws over 200 local farmers and vendors selling a wide assortment of locally-sourced merchandise, like fruits and vegetables, orchids, artisanal foods, handmade crafts, and jewelry. About 10 to 30 retailers service a smaller crowd every other day of the week. The market is located in historic Hilo, near museums and other attractions, and makes a great stop for lunch in between sightseeing.

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Visit Akaka Falls State Park

Akaka Falls State Park in Hawaii

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875 Akaka Falls Rd, Honomu, HI 96728, USA
Phone +1 808-961-9540

About 11 miles north of Hilo sits Akaka Falls State Park, a Hawaiian rainforest, complete with 65 acres of walking paths and scenic viewpoints. The most coveted aspect of this park is the 442-foot waterfall, Akaka Falls. You can also view the smaller Kahuna Falls. Both can be accessed via a short loop trail, but the route can be slippery (so wear suitable footwear) and is not wheelchair accessible, as it contains stairs. The park is open every day and costs $5 for non-residents. State residents can get in for free.

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Walk the Black Sand at Punaluu Beach

Black sand beach at Punaluu

Tim Truby / Getty Images

Punaluʻu Beach, Hawaii, USA

The volcanic activity on the Big Island produces a number of black sand beaches, the most famous being Punaluu Beach. The backdrop of towering coconut trees and gardens of volcanic rock here is hard to beat aesthetically, and the ample parking and convenient facilities make things easy for visitors. Also, Punaluu Beach is known as a haven for Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles who come out of the water to sunbathe on the warm, dark sand and munch on the abundance of sea algae on the rocks. This beach is located just off Highway 11, between Volcano Village and the town of Naalehu, near Volcanoes National Park.

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Experience Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls in Hilo, Hawaii

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Rainbow Falls, Hilo, HI 96720, USA

Rainbow Falls is, undoubtedly, the most accessible waterfall on the Big Island, making it perfect for families. It is just a quick five-minute drive from the town of Hilo, and the paved parking lot connects to a viewing platform that overlooks the falls. When the weather is sunny, as it often is in Hawaii, rainbows can be seen bouncing off the mist from the 80-foot waterfall. If you'd like to see the falls from above, take a short staircase off of the main viewpoint to the upper Wailuku River.

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Tour a Coffee Farm at Greenwell Farms

Coffee plant on the Big Island, Hawaii

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81-6581 Mamalahoa Hwy, Kealakekua, HI 96750, USA
Phone +1 808-323-9616

Home of world-famous 100% Kona Coffee, Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua has been cultivating and processing award-winning beans since it first opened in 1850. Complimentary farm tours are offered every day, giving visitors the chance to experience all the parts of coffee production, as it goes from farm to cup. Walk through the coffee fields, tour the processing facilities, and taste samples of Kona Coffee products, all for free. After that, you can sign up to receive monthly deliveries of their coffee back at home.

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Night Dive With Manta Rays

Two manta rays on the Big Island, Hawaii

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74-380 Kealakehe Pkwy, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740, USA
Phone +1 808-325-1687

A once-in-a-lifetime experience, swimming with Hawaii's majestic manta rays is an otherworldly adventure. These mysterious, gentle giants love to glide through the water off the coast of Kailua-Kona, especially at nighttime. The most popular local company that specializes in manta rays tours, Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii, offers daytime and nighttime underwater tours for both divers and snorkelers. Check out the distinguishing patterns on each sea animal's underside, similar to a fingerprint. These markings are used to help divers identify what rays they are seeing.

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18 Best Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii