Big Isle Activity Guide

All of the best spots on Hawaii’s biggest island…

The Island of Hawaii, or Moku o Keawe, is the youngest and largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. An archipelago is a chain, cluster, or collection of islands. The Hawaiian archipelago, once the Kingdom of Hawaii, was united by King Kamehameha I who hailed from the Big Isle.

I spent the summer of 2019 in Pāhoa and had the chance to visit again in June 2020. The island is shaped like a diamond, with Waimea in the North, Kaʻū in the South, Hilo in the East, and Kona in the West. The island is host to two of three of our state’s national parks (I think we should have at least one on every island but <3).

National Parks

I encourage you to get the Tri-Park Pass, which is an annual pass allowing access for one full year from date of first use at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Haleakalā National Park, and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. The pass is currently $55 (2020), while entry for a private vehicle into Volcanoes is $30. Basically, if you plan to visit the parks more than once, it’s worth it.

Volcanoes National Park

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park protects some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the world. Extending from sea level to 13,677 feet, the park encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.

Driving through the whole park, on the Chain of Craters Road, with stops for short walks & photos, takes about 3 hours. During that time, you’ll leave the elevation of Volcano’s rainforests, be surrounded by lava fields, and finally reach the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

I actually have never witnessed an eruption, but could definitely feel the seismic activity in the last few years! The most recent eruption began again in December 2020. Make sure you visit the National Park Service before visiting so that you can stay up to date with any closures or advisories.

Steam Vents

At Ha’akulamanu (Sulphur Banks), volcanic gases rise out of the ground, as does ground water steam. These fumes can be amazingly hot. In 1922, scientists drilled two holes to measure underground heat in the area, which they found remained constant at 205° F (96° C) down to 50 feet (15 m), the maximum depth drilled. Fumes emitted here include sulfur dioxide (SO2), which smells like a struck match, and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), the gas that smells like rotten eggs. These two gases react chemically to produce pure sulfur, a yellow mineral known to Hawaiians as kūkaepele, or the waste of Pele

Illustration showing cracks in the crust of the earth and fumes rising
Illustration of steam vents and sulphur banks at the Kīlauea summit. Shallow cracks allow the release of water vapor and create steam vents. Deeper fractures may allow the transport of volcanic gases, and create sulphur deposits (NPS Graphic)

“The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.”

–Mark Twain about the summit of Kīlauea, 1866

Kīlauea Iki Loop Trail

Kīlauea Iki is a moderate to challenging hike with steep and rocky terrain. It’s descent & ascent is 400 feet. From the Overlook, it’s a four mile loop. You should plan for an hour and a half to two hours, though the NPS recommends up to three.

Kilauea Iki

Lava Fields

The lava fields can be extremely windy but provide an opportunity for you to see Native Hawaiian hieroglyphs. There are numerous longer trails in these areas, with limited parking so do be careful.

Hōlei Sea Arch


The Hōlei Sea Arch is a 90-foot-high natural arch located in Hawaii, at the end of the Chain of Craters Road. This rock formation was is a result of marine erosion, as waves create this natural bridge of lava cliffs. The arch is made of basalt. 

Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau

While Volcanoes features natural variety, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau showchases the Native Hawaiian culture. Alongside an amazing snorkeling spot are some of the most significant traditional Hawaiian sites. One of the most prominent features of the park is the puʻuhonua or place of refuge, enclosed by a massive 965 foot long masonry wall. In ancient times, this sanctuary served defeated warriors, noncombatants, and those who violated the kapu (sacred laws), the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau remains a most sacred place to those who step foot on its grounds. The protected waters of Hōnaunau Bay combined with the availability of water from brackish springs provided the ideal location for the aliʻi – Hawaiian royalty – who established important residential and ceremonial sites nearby, an area known today as the Royal Grounds. Today, the brackish water provides great conditions for snorkeling and you will see a mixture of locals and tourists enjoying the waters.

On over 420 acres of land, extending through three ahupuaʻa (Hawaiian land divisions that flow from the mountain to the sea), this park reflects over four hundred years of Native Hawaiian history, gaming, sport, and culture.

As you walk through the park and visit these historical sites, please stay on the marked trails and paths, and limit media to photographs. Federal laws prohibit the excavation, destruction, defacement or disturbance of archeological resources. Damages to resources can also occur from walking on top of or climbing on or over walls, platforms, and other structures. For more information about this, please read about Preservation.

State Parks

ʻAkaka Falls

ʻAkaka Falls is a state park about 11 miles north from Hilo, west of Honomū off the Hawaii Belt Road at the end of Hawaii Route 220. It features a 442 feet tall waterfall. You do have to pay for parking here, but it’s a great place to picnic. You can pick up some snacks at Honomu Goat Dairy, and pet their baby therapy goats.

Hāpuna Beach

Hāpuna Beach is a beautiful bay-like setting with soft white sand. You will likely see swimmers making their way across. You may also get the chance to see a stingray, as I did.

Keaukaha Beach

The best snorkeling spot, ever! So many large honu (green sea turtle), as well as a variety of different fish. The area that you can snorkel is very large with brackish water. It does get very cold if you are in a section with lots of fresh water.

Markets

Hilo Farmer’s Market

During the summer, lychee are plentiful. Lychee is a small rounded Chinese fruit with sweet white scented flesh, a large central stone, and a thin rough skin.

Open on Wednesday and Saturday, the Hilo Farmer’s Market is a classic open-air market that features a variety of fruits and vegetables, local products, and island crafts. The Big Island has some of the best produce that I have ever had – you really feel the nutrition 🙂

Many varieties of papaya & avocado are grown on the island.
Elise wears a puakenikeni lei at Kalapana Black Sands.

Puakenikeni means ten-cent flower. Its name comes from early 1900’s. Before air travel, visitors arrived by boat, and the harbors were alive with music and the sweet scent of flower lei.

I bought this beautiful and fragrant puakenikeni lei at the Hilo Farmers Market and wore it to the beach in Kalapana.

Kalapana Night Market

When I was living in Puna, I had the chance to shop, sing, and dance at Uncle Robert’s! Every Wednesday, starting at 5pm, there are local artists, jewelers, and musicians that convene at the south end of the Red Road near Kaimu Black Sand Beach. If you come during off hours, it’s also located next to House of Fire, an art and gift gallery perfect for picking up pottery – or just a postcard.

Normally Kalapana is a quiet beachside neighborhood, but a night market transforms it into a bustling open-air market with people eager for fresh produce, tasty food, and live music. Everyone is very welcoming and it’s a definite good time.

Shopping

Pāhoa

The little town of Pāhoa is definitely my favorite place to shop for clothes (in possibly the whole world)! The hippie vibes that this town brings are next-level, with a kava bar and monthly block party featuring music and art. Aside from the few boutiques on the main drag, Maku’u Farmer’s Market also features a number of artists and vendors selling clothing and jewelry.

Honokaʻa

Another small town, Honokaʻa has some cute shops and restaurants, including natural foods. There are small shops and a weekly farmers market, too.

Waimea

Waimea has a number of antique-level shops featuring jewelry and more. It also has more baseline stores that cater to a wider audience. You can venture up to Hawi for more boutique finds.

For a free trip planner, follow this link!

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