The Big Island gets its name for being the largest of the Hawaiian islands. It is also home to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that sits almost 14,000 feet above sea level. Only on the Big Island is it possible to swim in the ocean and see snow on the same day!
- Big Island Regions
- Best Area to Stay on Big Island
- How to Plan a Hawaii Trip
- Things to Do on Big Island
- Explore Volcano National Park (day & night) (Volcano Region)
- Rent a 4×4 to visit the Mauna Kea Summit (Volcano Region)
- Sign up for a manta ray snorkeling tour (Kona)
- Kayak out to Kealakekua Bay to see dolphins & marine life (Kona)
- Hike in Waipo Valley and Pololu Valley (Waimea)
- Snorkel at popular beaches to see marine life
- Honorable mentions
- Things to Do in Each Big Island Region
- End Notes
Big Island Regions
The island is primarily split into the “west” and “east” sides. The main town on the “west” side of the island is Kailua Kona, while the primary city on the “east” side is Hilo. Other popular areas to visit are Waimea in the north and Volcano region in the south.
Kailua Kona is on the west side of the island, where the airport is located. The Kona side is generally sunny and is where you’ll find many of the picturesque, white sand beaches you’ve seen in pictures. Click here if you’re interested in reading about my favorite beaches on the Kona side!
Hilo is the capital city of Hawaii and the rainiest city in the United States. Due to the trade winds, Hilo experiences more than 130 inches of rainfall per year regardless of the season. Thanks to the rain, Hilo has several tall waterfalls and is surrounded by expansive, verdant landscapes.
Informally referred to as the “Volcano” region, the south side is home to the Big Island’s highest point Mauna Kea as well as Volcano National Park.
Waimea is located in the north and is home to the Big Island’s dramatic valley views. You’ll want to stop here if you’re interested in visiting the famous Waipo Valley or the lesser-known Pololu Valley. At both points, you are surrounded by views of massive, lush valleys hugging the coastline that make the region a popular tourist destination.
Best Area to Stay on Big Island
Where you want to stay depends on what you want to see and do while on the Big Island. You can generally split time between Kona and Hilo to be within a comfortable distance from all of the major things to do. Generally:
- If you want to spend more time going to the beach, then you’ll want to stay in Kona.
- If you’re interested in chasing waterfalls, then you’ll want to be near Hilo.
- If you want to go to Volcano National Park more than once, then you’ll want to spend at least one night in the Volcano Village area.
Most other popular attractions such as Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook), Green Sand Beach, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Waipo Valley, Pololu Valley, and Mauna Kea are doable as half-day or full-day trips from the Kona or Hilo side.
How to Plan a Hawaii Trip
For many of us who are visitors to the Big Island, we can only do so much in one trip. I’m a firm believer in planning trips based on what you enjoy doing and around your constraints, rather than checking off a to-do list for fear of missing out.
Our guiding planning principles are to (1) group activities by location, (2) space days/activities out so you’re not always on the go, and (3) factor in buffer time to adapt your schedule. Especially in Hawaii, you are always at the mercy of the weather so be patient and flexible. Below are the most important factors to weigh as you plan your list of things to do and where to stay.
How many days are you visiting, subtracting travel time? Are you in town over a long weekend? 5 days? 7 days? 10 days? What part of the year are you traveling? Will you need to adjust to Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time (GMT-10)?
Are you looking to stay at an all-inclusive resort or do you have a preferred budget per night you’d like to stick to? Do you have a certain budget for activities? Do you have a preference or budget for private tours versus something self-guided?
What do you enjoy doing and seeing on your trips? Are you more of a sunbather or do you want to snorkel or surf (or some other water activity)? Do you want to hike? What sights have you seen or can see regularly (versus what would be completely new)? Is there anything you want to see or do that is an absolute “must?”
How fast or slow-paced do you like to travel? Do you enjoy having an action-packed itinerary or would you rather focus on 1-2 activities per day (or a mix of both?) Do you prefer to stay in one spot during your whole trip and don’t mind taking long day trips?
Mike and I always ask ourselves the same questions before planning any trip. For us:
- We spent about 7 days on the Big Island after subtracting travel time.
- Since we were traveling from California (+2-3 hours ahead depending on Daylight Savings), we didn’t need to account for adjusting to the time zone.
- We visited in April, which is generally after the rainy season and on the cusp of summer (read: high likelihood of sunny days but expect some rain).
- Since we’re often on the go, we don’t need an all-inclusive resort with top-of-the-line amenities which we won’t use. For us, we care that wherever we stay is comfortable, clean, located close to things we want to do, and safe.
- We prefer self-guided activities rather than tours so we can stay however long or short as we want.
Things to Do on Big Island
Based on what we like to do and our travel preferences, here is our must-do list of things to do on Big Island.
Explore Volcano National Park (day & night) (Volcano Region)
Volcano National Park is home to the active volcanoes Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Home to the world’s most active and largest volcano respectively, Volcano National Park is one of the few places in the world where you can bear witness to the raw power of volcanic activity. If there’s been an eruption recently, you’ll see the lava flow vividly through the park at night.
Rent a 4×4 to visit the Mauna Kea Summit (Volcano Region)
Not to be confused with Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and is the tallest point on the island. The sunset (and I imagine sunrise) views from Mauna Kea are breathtaking. I have never witnessed the sunset with clouds, not oceans, as the horizon.
While all vehicle types are able to get to the observatory, you’ll either need to rent a 4×4 or pay for a guided tour to go to the summit. There is a mandatory checkpoint where someone will check your car and your brakes to make sure you’re safe for the drive-up. Since we only needed a 4×4 for one day, we rented one using Airbnb experiences to save on our overall rental car costs. At the time we were looking, the cost of renting a 4×4 was double that of a 2WD vehicle.
Sign up for a manta ray snorkeling tour (Kona)
The Kailua Kona coast on the Big Island is one of the best places to see manta rays. While massive creatures spanning up to 18 feet, a manta ray’s sole defense mechanism is its ability to swim fast, earning the nickname “gentle giant.” Manta rays are nocturnal and feed primarily at night so you’ll have the highest chance of seeing them once the sun has set. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to swim amongst these giant, graceful creatures – I cannot recommend it enough.
Kayak Kealakekua Bay to see dolphins & marine life (Kona)
Kealakekua Bay is a protected marine area that’s famous for its diverse marine life and clear waters. The Bay has some of the best snorkeling the Big Island has to offer and, if you’re lucky, you may even spot manta rays or spinner dolphins. Because the area is protected, there are only 3 ways to get to the area: by hike, kayak, or boat. If you’re interested in seeing dolphins, you’ll have the greatest chance while kayaking from one part of the bay to the snorkeling area around the Captain Cook monument (this is how we were able to see them).
Hike in Waipo Valley and Pololu Valley (Waimea)
Waimea is located inland and home of paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country. In Waimea, you’ll find rolling, green hills and endless views of the Pacific Ocean hugging the base of lush verdant valleys for miles on end.
Of the places to visit in Waimea, Waipo Valley is the most famous. You can get dramatic views of the valley and the coastline that snakes around the base of the valley from the lookout point. However, due to high foot traffic from tourism, the locals have advocated for more restrictions to restore and protect the land. When we went in April 2022, the path to get down to the beach was designated as “closed” so we were unable to go beyond the lookout point.
Do note that the restrictions around Waipo Valley are dynamic. When we started planning our trip in January, the road was blocked off for cars but accessible for hikers. That changed less than a month before we went on our trip. Whatever the rules, please respect them as the valley is first and foremost a home.
You can get similar valley views from the lesser-known Pololu Valley. Here, there is also a lookout as well as a short hike that will take you to the black sand beach at its base. You can also hike past the beach to Honokane Nui Valley.
Snorkel at popular beaches to see marine life
No trip to Hawaii is complete without at least a few stops at the beach. With good weather and some luck, you’ll discover countless varieties of fish including humuhumunukunukuapuaa and green sea turtles. All of our favorite beaches for snorkeling were on the Kona side of the island, including Hāpuna Beach, Kaunaʻoa (Mauna Kea) Beach, and Honaunau Bay (Two Step Beach). Click here if you’re interested in learning what are our favorite Big Island Beaches and why.
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach: Punalu’u is the Big Island’s most popular black sand beach. Most people stop by to watch the turtles lying on the beach, ourselves included. It’s a short, easily accessible stopping point if you’re already planning on driving between Hilo and Kona.
- Kaimū Black Sand Beach: While Punalu’u is better known, Kaimū Black Sand Beach was actually our favorite black sand beach. A byproduct of Mauna Kea’s eruption in 2018, Kaimū is a newly formed beach where black sand and lava rocks meet the ocean. While we wouldn’t drop any of our listed activities above to stop at Kaimū, we stopped by since we had extra time and enjoyed our visit as we drove from Hilo to Kona.
- If I had 10 days on Big Island: I would spend a full day in Volcano National Park to drive and stop along the Chain of Craters Road. The Road takes you through lava fields all the way to the oceanside, with lookout points and hikes along the way. I would also spend a day hiking and swimming at the beaches in Kua Bay, as well as a day hiking to Papakōlea Beach – one of only 4 green sand beaches on the planet.
- What we skipped: Mike and I are fortunate to live on the Pacific West Coast with waterfalls aplenty and have traveled to destinations known for their majestic waterfalls. We intentionally skipped Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls, and others because we were interested in seeing other things that are especially unique to the Big Island as compared to the rest of the world.
Let me know in the comments if you think there’s anything to add to this list of things to do on the Big Island! Also, if you’re looking for places to eat in Hawaii, I’ve got you covered here. 🙂
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