Top 5 Things to do on Big island

top 5 things to do on big island mccallwrites

The Big Island of Hawai’i is genuinely one of the most beautiful, diverse places on Earth. Despite it only taking an hour and a half to drive all the way across her, the island manages to feature several very different environments and climates that host a whole world of unique opportunities for visitors.

I got the chance to spend a few days on Big Island in mid-July this year, and I absolutely loved it, so I wanted to share five of my favorite things to do on Big Island!

Table of Contents

1. Visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Entry Fee: $30 for a 7-day non-commercial vehicle pass


Kilauea from the Crater Rim Trail, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to some of the world’s biggest–and most active–volcanoes. 

Kilauea is probably the most well-known volcano at the park as it’s been consistently erupting more lava into the Halemaumau Crater since the 1980s making it a top contender for Most Active Volcano on Earth. 

Fortunately for visitors, it’s super easy to access Kilauea as it’s basically a drive-in volcano. Keep in mind, though, that because this site is so popular for tourism, you may have trouble finding parking at the visitor’s center.

I made the park my first stop of the day driving out from Hilo and ended up arriving around 10:00 on a Tuesday morning. I got super lucky and found a parking spot right at the visitor’s center, but the parking lot was already super crowded, so if you like to play trips safely, I would highly recommend getting there a bit earlier in the day.

There are several trails you can hike to get to the crater’s rim, or if you’re less actively inclined, you can drive the route, too, and just stop at various overlooks along the way.

Pro tip: If you visit Kilauea in the morning or afternoon, you may not see lava flowing very well. Go back after sunset for the best possible view–and make sure to bring a jacket, even in summer. The temperature drops like crazy at night, even with the lava flow!


Kilauea’s lava flow after sunset

2. See Punaluu Black Sand Beach

Entry Fee: Free


Punaluu Black Sand Beach, Big Island, Hawai’i

Genuinely one of my favorite beaches in Hawai’i is the Punaluu Black Sand Beach. It’s one of only twenty black sand beaches in the world, and it’s absolutely gorgeous!

The sand there is black thanks to volcanic activity on the island, and it has a really unique grainy texture that’s a lot thicker than normal beach sand. It’s very lightweight, too, and so much fun to wiggle your toes in. And despite the sand being so dark, it’s surprisingly cool to the touch, even in direct sunlight.

But humans aren’t the only creatures that enjoy the black sand. Large honu–Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles–also really enjoy laying out on the beach, so you may see a few when you go. Just be careful not to touch them as they are protected creatures.

Keep in mind that while this beach is beautiful, it’s not the best for swimming. Large lava rocks line the shore just under the waves which can make it hard to safely navigate. But there are loads of gorgeous palm trees to hang hammocks from, picnic areas for a lunch break, and lots of cool, black sand to relax on.

Pro tip: No matter how tempting it is, don’t take any black sand from the beach. It’s an illegal offense that can cost you up to $100,000 in fines.

3. Drive Down to South Point at Ka Lae

Entry Fee: Free


South Point at Ka Lae, Big Island, Hawai’i

Another destination I really enjoyed on Big Island was South Point–the southernmost tip not only of the island but of the entire United States. It is also believed that this is the location where the Polynesians first landed in 750 A.D.

The drive down to the Point is gorgeous, but make sure you have a car that is up to the challenge of narrow dirt roads because while the path starts out as a paved road, you’ll eventually end up on dirt tracks dotted with potholes. I drove a sedan with four-wheel drive and didn’t have any problems, but I also went on a day with near-perfect weather, so I didn’t have to worry about rain or storms.

Google maps will take you right to the “parking area” for the Point, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about whether you’re in the right place. The parking area isn’t really marked, but if you go during the day, there should be other cars parked along the side of the road as it’s a popular fishing spot for locals.

From your car, you’ll have a short, 5-minute walk to the actual southernmost tip where you’ll be able to see waves breaking against some really cool lava rocks. If you walk down anywhere close to the water, make sure you don’t turn your back to the waves unless someone is watching your back. The waves are super powerful and super changeable, and several tourists have died there either from cliff jumping into the sea or being swept away by a surprise wave.

Pro tip: If you stop to visit South Point Historical Lighthouse, make sure you don’t climb it–I have been reliably warned by locals that it brings bad juju. 

4. Visit the Akaka Falls

Entry Fee: $5 


Rainy day at Akaka Falls, Big Island, Hawai’i

Akaka Falls is a 442-foot waterfall on the Hilo side of Big Island. To access it, visitors can take a short, half-mile walk through a rainforest to see both it and one other waterfall. The walk is super easy, and I loved getting to adventure through an actual rainforest–all the different plant life was incredible to see that close-up!

The day I went, it was raining pretty steadily, so we didn’t have the best view of the falls, but what little I did see was incredible–totally worth the trip out, and one of my favorite Hawai’ian experiences!

Keep in mind that on top of the entry fee, you’ll also have to pay a $10 parking fee if you park in the Akaka lot. It’s a smaller parking lot, and typically fills up really quickly, so I was told it might be better to save money and park alongside the road heading to the falls instead but decided to take a chance and lucked out with a spot at the falls.

Pro tip: Mr. Ed’s bakery is, like, a 10-minute drive from the falls, and if you’re a fan of delicious flavor, you have to stop there for a lilikoi (passionfruit) bearclaw. Sweet mercy, were they good!

5. Hike Mauna Kea

Entry Fee: Free


Summit of Mauna Kea, Big Island, Hawai’i

If you’re an athletically-inclined person, or if you’re just someone like me who enjoys signing up for ridiculously exhausting physical activities you have no business trying to do–hiking Mauna Kea may be exactly the challenge your Big Island trip needs.

Mauna Kea is technically the tallest mountain on Earth–even taller than Mt. Everest when they’re measured from the same base. The difference is that Mauna Kea extends far below the island’s surface to the ocean floor whereas Everest does not. 

So, while you don’t necessarily need oxygen tanks or an overnight bag to hike Mauna Kea, you definitely need to be prepared to make several stops–especially once you hit 10,000ft in elevation–and to have enough food, water, and warm clothing on hand for the trip. 

I hiked Mauna Kea in mid-July and still layered up with fleece-lined leggings, t-shirts, a sweater, and even a lined trench coat I brought on the trip for some still-unknown reason.

This hike is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and it took my friends and I approximately 8.5 hours to reach the summit after starting on the trail at 6:30 A.M. We were absolutely exhausted by the time we made it to the top, so we were ecstatic to be able to hitch a ride back down.

If you want to see the summit without doing the grueling eight-to-ten-hour hike, you can drive to the top, but typical tourist vehicles are not allowed on the mountain. There are lots of pothole-covered dirt roads for the first bit of the trail that a sedan may not be able to drive up, but once you make it past there, it’s all paved & easy going.

Pro tip: If you choose to hike this dormant volcano, keep in mind that there is a chance you may get altitude sickness thanks to the elevation you’ll have to hike at. If you notice any signs of altitude sickness, immediately turn around and start hiking back down. Altitude sickness is no joke, and it can be life-threatening if not treated properly.

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