Top 10 Things to Do: Big Island, Hawaii

What area of the world contains 10 of the 15 climatic zones of the world? Better yet, what island has both tropical and temperate rain forests, hot, arid landscapes and even periglacial climates?


But not Hawaii the state–Hawaii the island, more commonly referred to as the Big Island.

Earlier this month, Nick and I spent 8 days traversing the Big Island by foot and by Jeep Wrangler. It’s difficult to pick a favorite activity, let alone a favorite place, as the island is so big that all of the other Hawaiian islands (Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lana’i, Kaua’i, Kaho’olawe, Ni’hau and yes, I’m including the yet-to-surface young Lo’ihi) still don’t fit within the expanse of the Big Island. That said, I narrowed down ten of my favorite things to do if you visit (and you really should).

  1. Captain Cook Hike & Snorkel

If you’re on a budget or simply more interested in warming up before jumping in the cool waters of the Pacific, hike to the Captain Cook Monument on the northern edge of Kealakekua Bay. Many companies offer boat and catamaran tours to this location, but to avoid large crowds, take a hike! This spot is notable for three reasons:

  1. The famous explorer Captain Cook died here after a skirmish involving a stolen rowboat, demi-gods and the Hawaiian kapu system. A white monument is erected in this spot in memoriam but you won’t see signage about the why of the matter (find that info here).
  2. It’s one of the best snorkeling locations on the Big Island. Know what trumpetfish look like? How about Hawaii’s national fish, humu humu nuku nuku apua’a? You’ll find both, along with more than enough vibrant yellow tang, at this location. Nick and I spotted well over twenty different species during twenty minutes of snorkeling. I dare you to spot more!
  3. Few tourists venture around the corner to where the waves get choppy. Don’t swim, but hike across the lava here, heading north towards the grove of palms. Careful not to venture too close to the cliffs, as powerful, large waves crash against the cliffs–but do take pictures! Water is blasted up through the arches and holes, creating spectacular photo opportunities. If you stick close to the grove of palms, you’ll also see remnants of heiaus (ancient temples) built of stacked volcanic rocks.

The hike isn’t long at 1.9 miles each way, but it is exposed (and steep, with 1,300 feet of elevation gain/loss). Nick and I (dorks that we are), ran down in 23 minutes and back up in 29 minutes, but budget an hour plus if you’re taking your time (or you’re post-swim and tired from the sun). Bring water and a picnic lunch as there’s a full day to be spent here.

  1. Kona sunset

Chances are, you’ll be spending some time in the town of Kona (alternately known as Kailua-Kona, Kailua or Kona town). This touristy location, situated along Ali’i Drive, is a mile-long section of restaurants, boutiques, ABC convenience stores and some great museums. Grab a bite in town (Lava Java serves delicious fish salads and entrees, but if you’re looking for fast & cheap, you can’t beat Sushi Shimaichi’s $3 rolls.) Ali’i Drive is ocean-front, so be sure to enjoy the setting sun at one of the numerous parks and beaches. If you’re lucky, you might even see a green flash!

  1. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

How many times can you say that you’ve visited the most active volcano in the world? If you’ve been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can at least say once. Kilauea volcano is currently erupting in two locations and if you have at least an hour to spend in the park, you can see the gaseous plumes arising from the crater from Jaggar Museum. Since the park is open 24 hours each day, the best viewing times are at night, when you can see the bright red of lava spewing from the crater. In the day this view is obscured; regardless, it’s awesome.

We spent two full days in the park yet still saw less than half of what the park has to offer: plan to spend some time here! There’s a lot to cover. If I had to pick just one, the Crater Rim Trail to Kilauea Iki Crater is phenomenal. Expect to feel as though you’ve landed on mars when you’re walking along the cracked lava surface!

  1. Go birding

As a birder, this one is an obvious pick for me, but hear me out: Hawaii has 42 endemic bird species, meaning that you can’t see them anywhere else in the world.  Additionally, most are found in the most beautiful native habitats that the Big Island has to offer, so you’re getting gorgeous flora and fauna at the same time.

The nene is Hawaii’s state bird, though it may not appear like much upon first glance. Standing slightly shorter than a Canada goose but strikingly similar, the nene produces calls  and honks that sound just like its name: “nay”, or if it’s feeling frisky, “nay-nay.” You’re likely to spot these geese within Volcanoes National Park. Be careful not to offer them any food–many have been tragically hit after becoming accustomed to people and begging for food alongside highways.

If there’s one other bird to see, it’s the Hawaiian Honeycreeper, more commonly referred to as the I’iwi. This bright red bird with a long, curled bill is adapted to suck the nectar from the equally astounding Ohia tree. I spotted this tree in the forests surrounding Mauna Kea, but you may catch a glimpse within the park.

  1. Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers (and gelato)

This isn’t an activity, per say, but it’s well worth a visit. Made with local grass-fed beef (from the northern Waimea region), Annie’s offers a variety of burgers topped with local & organic produce. Their sides are equally delicious–giant Maui-sweet onions and cupfuls of Japanese purple sweet potato salad. Opt for the Bacon Bleu Burger or the Garden Salad, topped with a beef or taro patty. Save room for dessert at Gypsea Gelato, next door. Homemade and creative, try flavors like Smooth Macadamia (made with local macadamia nuts) or ginger–coconut-lemongrass-turmeric, a sweet twist on the popular Thai dish, Tom Kha soup.

  1. Mauna Kea

Care to stand on the tallest mountain in the world? Technically, it isn’t Everest. If you’re measuring from base to summit, Mauna Kea claims the title since it tops out at a little over 32,000 feet. However, a good portion of this is underwater (which explains why Everest is frequently called the tallest mountain. From sea level to summit, or altitude, its summit is at 29,035 feet.) Still, Mauna Kea offers spectacular views, both day and night. Be warned that you’ll still be looking for oxygen at a hefty 13, 796 feet. Many tour companies offer adventures in star gazing, but the sunsets are equally spectacular (and free!). Spend some time at the Visitor Center at 9,300 feet to learn more about the summit’s observatory.

  1. Mana Road and The Dr.’s Pit

Few roads are more scenic or diverse than Mana Road, a 44-mile off-road route that travels around the base of Mauna Kea. If you begin at the Waimea side, expect to see expansive green fields dotted with Parker Ranch cattle. Further along, you’ll catch glimpses of unexpected eucalyptus forests, then transition to native Hawaiian habitat as you ascend above the clouds. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle for a few sections so make sure you’ve got insurance if you rent a car! At mile 28, you’ll come to a sign that reads “Dr.’s Pit.” This is well worth a stop and by far the most beautiful, paradise-like scene on the Big Island. Park just off the road and hike down the 1/4 mile trail where you’ll come to a monument. This is where Scotsman Dr. David Douglas (well known as the botanist who named the Northwest’s Douglas Fir) died after falling into a cattle trap. Legends say he was gored to death, though it’s hard to imagine a gruesome end in such a pretty location. Expect to catch flashes of the Hawaiian ‘apapane (a type of honeycreeper) darting amongst the strand of Douglas firs planted in the Dr.’s  honor.

  1. Pu’uohonua o Honaunau

The majority of the park  was closed down due to high winds and high surf while we were there. Recently, too,  it’s been closed in light of dengue fever (as of February 2016)–hopefully it”ll be open for you! This traditional Hawaiian site is as beautiful as it is historic: translated as Place of Refuge, Pu’uohonua o Honaunau served as a sanctuary for defeated warriors and those who violated kapu. If one could reach this spot, then he or she could be forgiven of his crime through a purification ceremony. Stroll along the royal grounds or watch a demonstrator weave grasses into grasshoppers or explain the history that lies beneath your feet. Noni, a highly nutritious and medicinal–though horrendously fragrant– fruit also abounds in the park. It’s worth a smell, just to say you’ve done it. Expect to gag!

  1. Basik Acai

Acai bowls aren’t endemic to Hawaii, but Basik Acai started well before the inundation of acai bowl cafes came to Southern California. Located above Snorkel Bob’s, Basik is tiny and offers only two options, a bowl or smoothie–so don’t expect a big Sunday brunch here. What Basik lacks in variety, they make up for in taste. Try their Puna bowl–sweet acai blended with spirulina (I swear you can’t taste it!) topped with homemade granola, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, hemp seeds and a swirl of local honey. Grab a seat at their bar and enjoy the ocean view as you enjoy your meal.

Photo by Flickr user Robert.Montalvo


  1. Kekaha Kai State Park

If your flight leaves at noon and you want a last-minute beach session, you’re in luck. Just a few minutes from the airport, this beach is as close to paradise as you’ll get. Between the mile 90 and 91 markers on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, the road to the park is a rough 2-mile road. Park at the lot, then meander your way along the trail leading to the north: here you’ll find your Eden. Expect to find freshwater springs and feral goats scrambling along the lava that surrounds the beaches. Relax on the white sand beach underneath the shade of a palm tree. You can’t get much better than this.

Have you been to the Big Island? What must-do activities am I missing?


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