Whether you’re a budding astrophysicist or just a fan of Big Bang Theory, take the opportunity while you’re on the Big Island to visit the Mauna Kea Summit and Observatory.
At a lofty height of 13,796 ft (4,138 m) Mauna Kea is Hawaii's tallest mountain, and the summit is topped with astronomical observatories from around the world.
The Visitor Information Station is at a lowly 9,300 ft (2,790 m) elevation, and from here a rugged hiking trail winds to the summit. It takes around five hours and you need to be fit and prepared for all kinds of weather conditions.
The visitor center has interactive displays and videos, with interactive telescopes, talks and tours. It also runs escorted tours to the summit.
Like a lonely ribbon of black asphalt across the Big Island’s empty bosom, Saddle Road provides the fastest means of driving between Hilo and Kona. There was once a time when this remote stretch of highway was one of the worst roads in Hawaii, but substantial improvements and re-paving have made it accessible and open to cars.
From Hilo, Saddle Road climbs through residential neighborhoods towards a lush, mist-soaked rainforest. The green of ferns is gradually replaced by the brown of desert scrub brush, and fog is common as the road climbs toward 6,600 feet in elevation. Passing between the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—Hawaii’s dueling 13,000-foot mountains that are often snowcapped in winter—the road passes the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, where stargazers gather each evening. Cell phone service is spotty on Saddle Road, and for the entire duration of its 48-mile stretch there are no gas stations or supply shops.
It’s easy to look at the Kona coastline and wonder how Hawaiians survived. Barren, dry, and covered in black lava, this desolate terrain appears inhospitable and incapable of supporting life. In actuality, however, this harsh coastline boasted a thriving population of native Hawaiian inhabitants, who worked intimately with the natural surroundings to maximize all of its resources. At Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park—set just south of the Kona Airport—this ancient history is brought to life and is blended with recreation. Take a hike past ancient fishponds that were used for feeding the village, and follow trails past historic heiau that were used to worship the gods. If the Kona sun gets a little too hot, cool off at white sand Honokohau Beach, or a take a dip in the Queen’s Bath and enjoy the secluded, hidden surroundings. More than just the beaches and hiking trails, the Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park is as an outdoor museum of Hawaiian archaeology.
Hualalai is massive, and yet it’s unknown. For all of its size and volcanic grandeur—gradually rising behind the town of Kona and fading into the clouds—this dormant volcano is shrouded in obscurity by its famous, more active neighbors.
At 8,200 feet in height, Hualalai isn’t nearly as high as Mauna Loa, and having last erupted in 1801, it isn’t considered nearly as active as the currently erupting Kilauea. Nevertheless, Hualalai remains an active volcano just miles from populous Kona, and experts feel that this sleeping volcano is on the brink of waking up. It’s believed that Hualalai will erupt again within the next 100 years, potentially adding more black lava rock to Kona’s volcanic landscape. As the volcano sleeps, however, coffee farms continue to dominate its flanks and resorts now dot its shoreline.
For some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, visit the protected waters of Kealakekua Bay. This remote area is also popular with hikers, who might come across the ruins of ancient temples and villages on their travels. Dolphins frolic in the bay, and the shore is dotted with the white obelisk commemorating the death of Captain James Cook here in 1779.
British explorer Captain James Cook met his death at Kealakekua Bay on February 14, 1779 perhaps due to a misunderstanding over the use of a boat.
Today, a white obelisk marks the spot where he died, standing sentinel over the lush coast and its crystal-clear water. There’s great snorkeling from the coast’s black rock beaches, along with diving and kayaking.
Rainbow Falls create a rare instance where a Hawaiian name and an English name actually mean the same thing. Known to Hawaiians as waianuenue, the name is a reference to the arcing rainbows that can be seen in the waterfall’s mist. The image, it seems, is a natural occurrence of such beauty and wonder that it transcends linguistic lines, and today the waterfall is one of the most popular attractions when visiting the town of Hilo.
Only 50 yards from a paved parking lot in Wailuku River State Park, a large viewing area provides the best platform for gazing out at the falls. To see the waterfall’s namesake rainbow, visit the falls around 10 a.m. when the angle of light is just right. Behind the falls, a large cave forms the home of Hina—the mythological Hawaiian god who gave birth to the demigod Maui—and the turquoise pool and surrounding rain forest are the trademark photo of paradise.
Kilauea Volcano is the star of the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's only World Heritage Site. Kilauea Volcano remains active, spouting orange lava, venting steam, glowing and sputtering.
When conditions are safe you can drive around the volcano's edge on the 11 mile (17 kilometer) Crater Rim Drive, dotted with spectacular lookouts. Visit the park visitors center to learn about trail conditions and guided walks, and come prepared for changeable weather if you’re hiking the trails that crisscross the rim.
The mega attraction on the Big Island is Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii’s sole World Heritage Site. The volatile park’s centerpiece is Kilauea Volcano, which continues to blow its top and spout molten lava, ash and steam.
Crater Rim Drive is a spectacular driving route, skirting the rim of the caldera, stopping at lookouts and taking you from rainforest to desert.
The eerie and easily accessible Thurston Lava Tube is a long hollow cave-like formation, created by flowing lava.
Another driving route to follow is the winding Chain of Craters Road along the slopes of the volcano to the coast, where lava has pooled from recent eruptions.
Often called Kailua-Kona, and referring to the western Kona Coast district as a whole, Kona is on the leeward (dry and sunny) side of the Big Island.
The Kona Coast is the Big Island’s vacation central, with good weather, watersports, great beaches, Hawaiian temples, museums, restaurants and shops. The annual Ironman Triathlon is held here in October. While you’re here, sample the local Kona coffee, follow the scenic oceanfront drive to Kailua Pier, visit the former royal palaces of Kamakahonu and Hulihee, and drop into Hawaii's first church.
Flere aktiviteter i Hawaii
Ever had black sand between your toes? Because of the constant volcanic activity, sand comes in a variety of colors in Hawaii. Along with white, you can also find green and black, the latter of which is found on the well-known Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
Located on the southeastern Kau coast, between Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the town of Naalehu, this beach should be on your list of places to visit when on the Big Island of Hawaii. The coastline is framed by coconut palms, but what is often found at the edge of the sand tends to steal all of the attention. Large honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles, basking in the sun are a common sight here. Take as many pictures as you’d like, but be sure to stay a safe distance away. Swimming isn’t ideal here due to waves and currents. There is an area for picnics, so plan ahead and come prepared to enjoy lunch with a view. Don’t take any black sand from the beach—legend says that a curse will also go home with you.
Set inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Thurston Lava tube is the most accessible lava tube on the Big Island of Hawaii. Discovered in 1913 by newspaper publisher Lorrin Thurston, this dark recess is the result of subterranean lava which once flowed through this young section of earth. 400 years old and 600 feet long, the tube is now lit by electric lights to create an eerie glow for visitors who venture inside.
On the 15-minute walk down towards the cave the dense rainforest surroundings make it hard to believe that magma ever flowed through here at all. Nevertheless, as you make your way down a set of metal stairs, the entrance to the tube stares at you like a black abyss in the jungle. Although the ceiling can be a little low at points, the walk through the tube is completely safe and is a surreal contrast to the foliage outside.
When you first set eyes on Akaka Falls you can be forgiven if your heart skips a beat. After all, the beauty of this 422 ft. waterfall has been known to catch travelers off guard, as there is something about its vertical perfection that casts a hypnotic, time-stopping trance.
Or, perhaps it’s the dramatic jungle surroundings that give the falls their grandeur, where the heavily eroded theater of green seems to gently cradle the plunge. Either way, Akaka Falls is one of the Big Island’s most popular and scenic attractions, and the short hike to reach the falls makes it easily accessible for visitors. Located 25 minutes north of Hilo, the waterfall is found within the confines of Akaka Falls State Park. A short loop trail leads from the parking lot towards the overlook for the famous falls, and along the way offers peek-a-boo views of 100 ft. Kahuna Falls.
Forming a deep natural amphitheater, washed by the sea and waterfalls, the Big Island’s Waipi'o Valley is a natural wonderland of flowering rainforest and hiking trails.
Cliffs thousands of feet high line the famously steep valley, and waterfalls course their way down to the valley floor.
The curved black-sand beach here is reached by a steep route entering the valley, and lookouts give stupendous views from above.
It’s a magical place, where battles were fought by Kamehameha the Great, and the site of temples and royal burial caves.
Much like the neighboring town of Hawi, Kapa‘au is a town in North Kohala that is experiencing an artistic resurgence. Eccentric artisans and shabby chic galleries now populate sugar-era storefronts, and the pocket-sized town has an intriguing allure that is impossible to pass without stopping.
More so than any other sight, however, Kapa‘au is known for the King Kamehameha statue that stands just off the highway. Constructed in 1880 in Florence, Italy, the statue was lost during a terrible shipwreck off the coast of the Falkland Islands. For 32 years it sat at the depths of the Atlantic sea floor before it was amazingly found and eventually delivered to its rightful home in Hawaii. The statue was placed in Kapa‘au since it’s considered the birthplace of the king, who was born in a field on Upolu Point only a few miles from town.
Up until 1819, ancient Hawaiians adhered to religious laws that were generally known as kapu. Everything in Hawaiian life—from which fish you could eat in which season to the clothes you were allowed to wear—was regulated by thousands of different kapu that carried stiff penalties if broken. Should your shadow ever have fallen on a chief, or if you failed to kneel while he was eating, it was a broken kapu punishable by death since you had disrespected the will of the gods.
Once a sacred kapu had been broken, the only way to redeem yourself was to find a pu‘uhonua—a city of refuge where an elder or priest could cleanse you of the offending sin. Should you be found before your arrival, however, the punishment was often death. As you can imagine, pu‘uhonua were popular places during the days of ancient Hawaii, but a few are popular visitor attractions in this modern era of tourism.
Like a large thumb jutting into the sea, the Kohala district occupies the northwestern tip of the sprawling Big Island of Hawaii. Formed by a 5,400 ft. volcano which last erupted over 120,000 years ago, the Kohala district today is dominated by lush valleys, laidback plantation towns, verdant pastures, and ancient Hawaiian religious sites. It’s an outpost of cowboys and hippies, beaches and valleys, and architecture which ranges from the modern resorts of South Kohala to ancient temples constructed entirely of stone. Although the land area of Kohala only comprises 6% of the island’s total, it could still take weeks to explore in its entirety. More than just a part of the Big Island of Hawaii, Kohala is easily a destination unto itself.
Most visitors to South Kohala are familiar with the resort enclaves of Waikoloa and Mauna Lani where irrigated golf courses sit in stark contrast to the surrounding black lava fields.
If you’re like most travelers, Hawi is a town that you didn’t plan on visiting but you end up not wanting to leave. A one-street thoroughfare of art galleries and charm, browsing and lingering are about the fastest pace you will ever manage to attain.
Stop to nibble on locally made fudge and poke your head into art galleries, and browse the local bulletin board to get a feel for the sense of community. Cool off with a guava juice in a funky mom and pop restaurant, and watch as fellow passersby become ensnared by the small-town charm. The wet climate in North Kohala is a welcome change from Kona, and the lush surroundings and fresh tradewinds almost come as a surprise. Inland from town on Kohala Mountain Road, the winding journey through the pastures toward Waimea is one of the most scenic drives in Hawaii, and in the other direction toward the north end of town, the verdant recess of Pololu Valley is only a short, eight-mile drive.
Created by lava flow from Mauna Loa in 1881, the Kaumana Caves are located near Hilo. Legend says Princess Ruth sat in front of the lava flow praying to the goddess Pele to save the city and the flow stopped just in the nick of time. Concrete stairs (that visitors say can be slippery) lead down through the skylight to the entrance. The caves’ exterior is full of thick and lush foliage, while the inside is loaded with lava rock. You can explore the area near the mouth of the caves in a fairly quick visit, but if you are the explorer type, you’ll need to come prepared and have some time. The lava rocks can be slippery and sharp, and the caves get dark quickly. You’ll need good sneakers or hiking shoes and a good flashlight. A headlamp is even better since it keeps your hands free. The rocks can be sharp; gloves will protect them from scrapes and cuts. Headroom can get tight at times, and some who have trekked through say a hardhat and knee pads are something to think about too.
Hawaii is known for its tropical flowers, but the orchid isn’t one of them. At the Big Island’s Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, however, over 1,000 of these symmetrical, blossoming beauties create a vibrant greenhouse of color.
The owner of the gardens, Moriyasu Akatsuka, has been skillfully cultivating orchids for centuries here in the mountainside enclave. Considered a master of hybridization, Akatsuka creates orchids that will bloom more frequently and are unlike any others in the world. One orchid, an exceptionally rare type of Paphiopedilum, was found in Thailand and nursed back to health before being displayed here at the garden. Due to its symmetry and singular characteristics, the orchid is valued at $20,000, and travelers who visit between May and September can see it in bloom. Like many of his other unique orchids, this famous plant was given its own name and is now known as the “Volcano Queen” due to its regal home on the mountain.
When it comes to the macadamia nut, never has a nut been so difficult to crack but so tremendously easy to eat. Whether eaten whole, covered in chocolate, or crushed into a succulent brittle, the macadamia is a culinary staple of Hawaiian treats and desserts. Luckily for travelers visiting Hilo, there is an entire factory and sprawling orchard devoted solely to the wonders of this nut. At the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory, a self-guided tour explains the process of harvesting these off-white nuts, from the lengthy and protracted growing process right up through roasting and canning. More than just a look at the production process, there are also recipes on the dozens of ways to consume a macadamia. From standard methods of baking them in cookies to wasabi or onion flavoring, even the most accomplished gourmands and foodies will likely pick up some tips.
For as overly dramatic as the name might sound, this road is literally a winding journey that weaves past volcanic craters—many of which still steam with life from magma within their core.
Located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Chain of Craters Road drops 3,700 feet over 20 scorched Earth miles. It's the main conduit for exploring the park and accessing its numerous hikes, and it ends at the point where lava crossed the road in a 2003 eruption. There are numerous trailheads that start from the road, although hiking can be hazardous across the sharp lava rocks and there are no facilities or supplies. Even if you don’t venture out the trails, the views simply from driving the road are spectacular in their geologic beauty. Patches of rainforest over a thousand years old appear as islands amidst a sea of lava rock, and pit craters that formed from collapsing Earth lie pockmarked just off the road.
On a grand section of the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the best way to see Onomea Bay is with a scenic drive — granting views of the coastline, turquoise waters, and tropical forest. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is located along the route, as is the Onomea Arch (which collapsed during an earthquake in 1956.) With many streams and waterfalls, it is a particularly lush area of the Big Island.
Historically the bay was a small fishing village for early Hawaiians, and became one of the Big Island’s biggest landing spots for large ships. There were once taro and sugarcane fields growing in the hills above, with both products being shipped out from the bay. The “Donkey Trail” is the path (now hike) from the remains of the old sugar mill that was used to take products down to the water for wider distribution. Now the bay is a much-loved scenic spot popular with snorkelers and those driving through.
The Big Islands Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is 17 acres of lush greenery, with pathways inviting visitors to explore. The garden began taking shape in 1977, when the land was purchased by a couple from San Francisco. Over eight years, they cleared paths through what was thick jungle, and in 1984 they opened the garden to the public. It's now run by a nonprofit.
The botanical garden and nature reserve includes waterfalls and streams among more than 2,000 species of plants. One side of the property is on Onomea Bay, where there's a boardwalk overlooking the ocean. The garden is home to some wildlife, too, including geckos, frogs, and several types of local birds.