Hawaii is like a second home to us. Luckily, Yana’s sister lives in Maui. This gives us a perfect excuse to stay for extended periods. On one of our recent visits we explored Hawaii Island aka the Big Island. The youngest and largest of the islands, it is the only island with active volcanoes. The rugged terrain is a haven for adventure junkies. The island holds claim to one of only a few green sand beaches in the world. If all the stars align an incredible sight is watching a stream of lava flow into the Pacific Ocean. Hiking, viewing waterfalls, and exploring lava fields, the Big Island is a perfect Hawaiian getaway.
When to Go
While the Big Island is great year round, we recommend going in the fall. Between the months of September and November, the weather is cooler and room rates go down. Aside from Christmas and New Years, winter is another great time to visit. There is a high chance of seeing humpback whales as they migrate each year from Alaska to mate and calve.
Where to Stay
The island has two main towns from which to base your activities, Kona and Hilo. These two towns are where the bulk of hotels, guesthouses, B&B’s, AirBnB, and lodges are located. Kona is the largest city on the Big Island with some hikes and beaches in the vicinity. However, we recommend staying near Hilo because of the close proximity to Volcanoes National Park. Prices vary by season and start around $75 for basic guesthouses and go up to $150 for basic hotels.
Camping on the Big Island
Camping is a great way to save money on the Big Island. There are different options for camping that include 10 county parks, four state park campgrounds, and two national park campgrounds. County campgrounds cost $21 per adult for non-residents and can be booked online up to one year in advance. State parks cost $12 per campsite per night, and can be booked online on the Hawaii State Parks website. The two National Park campsites, Nāmakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki, are first come first serve. We recommend Nāmakanipaio which costs $15 per night regardless of the number of campers. Kulanaokuaiki has only nine campsites, does NOT have water, and costs $10 per night. For more information, check out the NPS website. Both campsites are within the National Park and also require payment for the park entry.
Main Attractions on the Big Island
Overnight Hike from Waipio Valley to Waimanu Valley
For serious hiking, this trail will get the legs burning. It is 7.65 miles between both valleys, but could end up 9 miles depending on where you park. This is an excellent coastal hike which includes several river crossings, waterfalls, and two black sand beaches. It is best to make this a 3-day trip to enjoy a day off at Waimanu. If hiking is not your thing or you don’t have enough time, check out the Waipio Valley overlook or head down to Waipio Beach (4wd access only). For more information read our Trip Report on Waipio Valley to Waimanu Valley.
This short stop near Hilo is a must. Located off the main road, the walk is super easy. Parking is free just outside of the car park. Entry is $1 per person.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach
One of only four green sand beaches in the world, Papakolea is one of the top activities in Hawaii. The green sand is caused from olivine sand erosion which was once a volcanic cinder cone that was swept out to sea. Now what is left is one of Hawaii’s best and most unique beaches. If equipped with a 4×4 and confidence, you can drive to the beach. If not, the parking area is accessible by standard car and requires a 2.5 mile walk to the beach. On weekends locals sometimes offer 4×4 rides for $10 per person each way. We were able to hitchhike each way. For an awesome cliff jump stop at Ka Lae, or South Point, just a few minutes from Papakolea.
This black sand beach is one of the finest in Hawaii and has resident sea turtles to boot. We have seen many black sand beaches, but this one has strikingly black sand. It is great for snorkeling and relaxing.
Volcanoes National Park
The main attraction on the Big Island is Volcanoes National Park. It has one of the most active volcanoes in the world. There are several things to see in the park, requiring a minimum of two to three days.
$25 for a 7-day pass
$30 for an annual Hawaii tri-park pass, good at Volcanoes, Haleakala or Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau
$80 for an annual Interagency pass, good at every NP in the United States
Jagger Museum – Overlook to the Halema`uma`u crater which is fuming and at times lava is possibly seen.
Ha’akulamanu Sulphur Banks – This 20 minute walk is through beautiful vegetation and nearby steam vents.
Puʻu Puaʻi overlook – This overlook has spectacular views to the Kīlauea Iki crater and is the start to hike down into the crater itself.
Kīlauea Iki hike – This 2-4 hour loop hike is through lush rain forest down to the crater floor. The exposed old lava flow is incredible. This was our second favorite hike in the park.
Thurston lava tube – At the end of the Kīlauea Iki Trail is the Thurston Lava Tube. This is a 20 minute walk through a dark lava tube. Headlamp required.
End of Chain of Craters Road – Drive to the end of the road near the Hōlei Sea Arch. Walk to where the lava takes over the road for an awesome photo opp.
Kamokuna Lava viewing – This is by far the best activity in the park and should be done in the afternoon and early evening to see the lava in full glory. The lava flow is constantly changing. As of August 2017 access is available from two directions. From the east side of the park the trail is a 4.2 mile hike or bike ride over gravel road. For the best lava experience we recommend to go from the west side of the park at the End of Chain of Craters Road. This is a 5 mile hike, partially on gravel road and partially over old lava flow is our favorite hike on the Big Island. For this hike, it is crucial to have good shoes and a flashlight or headlamp to return after dark. For up to date information, check out whats going on with the lava flow.
Check out these other articles on Hawaii:
- Adventures in Kauai on a Budget
- Big Island Getaway
- Dayhike in Haleakala Crater, Maui
- Six Best Hikes in Maui
- Ultimate Guide to Road to Hana
- Waihe’e Ridge Trail Hike, Maui
Visited in January 2017.