Unmissable Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii – 2024 Guide

The Big Island of Hawaii offers an incredible array of experiences that cater to every kind of traveler. From breathtaking landscapes to unique cultural encounters, this island is a treasure trove of adventures waiting to be discovered. Having recently spent some time exploring its wonders, I’ve compiled a list of must-do activities that will make your visit unforgettable.

Whether you’re into hiking through lush rainforests, snorkeling in crystal-clear waters, or simply lounging by the pool, the Big Island has something for everyone. The journey itself is part of the adventure, with a purposeful layover in Seattle providing a much-needed break from the long flight. So, pack your bags and get ready to dive into the diverse and enchanting world of Hawaii’s Big Island.

Island of Hawaiʻi Activities

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park Helicopter Tours

Helicopter tours on the Big Island focus on showcasing Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. These tours often include stunning aerial views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. If Kīlauea is erupting, booking a helicopter tour becomes even more exciting. Observing an active eruption from the air, especially during early or late hours, is a unique experience.

Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)

Nāhuku, also known as the Thurston Lava Tube, is a popular destination within the park. It’s located along Crater Rim Drive. Formed by a 2,000-degree Fahrenheit lava flow around 500 years ago, this tube is lit from 8 am to 8 pm daily. Visiting just before 8 am or 8 pm offers the chance to experience the tube in both light and dark. It’s open 24 hours, so bring a flashlight if exploring outside of lit hours. Wear hiking sandals or boots and a light rain jacket since the tube can be damp with puddles. A small parking lot is nearby, but it fills up quickly, so visiting early is recommended.

Local Dining in Hilo

Hawaiian Style Café in Hilo has a stellar reputation for serving some of the best food across Hawaii. Just 0.4 miles (0.6 km) from the town center, it’s an excellent place for breakfast lovers looking for a local experience. The café is highly rated and offers a variety of traditional Hawaiian dishes.

Activities Around the Island

Beyond the national park, numerous activities make the island an adventurer’s paradise. Hiking trails through lush rainforests, snorkeling in crystal-clear waters, and relaxing by volcanic beaches are among the many options. Each activity offers a unique view of the island’s diverse ecosystems, making the Big Island a perfect destination for nature enthusiasts.

Accommodations in Volcano

Accommodation options in the Volcano area are limited, primarily consisting of inns and cottage rentals. Commercial hotel chains are absent here. For a more intimate and local stay, these inns and cottages provide a cozy retreat amidst the island’s natural beauty.

Things to Do on the Island of Hawaiʻi

Explore the native plant biodiversity of Hawaiʻi, with 90% of the native plants being endemic. For instance, the ʻŌhā (Clermontia parviflora) is only found on the Island of Hawaiʻi. Minimize your impact on trails to help preserve these unique species. For more details on identifying native plants, check out my separate post on native Hawaiian plants.

Visit the Green Sand Beach at Papakōlea, one of the few green sand beaches in the world. Located at the southern tip of the island, Papakōlea’s olivine-rich sand gives it a distinct green hue. You can either hike the 5.6-mile roundtrip trail, take a shuttle, or opt for a 4-wheel drive experience. Each option offers a unique way to experience this natural wonder. Read more about the options in my post on the Papakōlea Green Sand Beach Trail.

Head to the local beach at the end of the dead-end road near Aaron’s Cottage. This little-known spot is only a few minutes away on foot and offers a quiet respite from the more tourist-heavy areas. It’s an excellent place to relax and enjoy the local scenery.

For a taste of local nightlife, visit the Hilo Town Tavern. It’s a quintessential small-town bar that provides an authentic local experience. Enjoy live music, friendly banter, and a laid-back atmosphere.

Additionally, the Big Island offers incredible helicopter tours that focus on the best sights. From seeing active volcanoes to flying over lush rainforests, these tours provide unparalleled aerial views of the island’s diverse landscapes.

Don’t miss out on traditional Hawaiian dining at the Hawaiian Style Café in Hilo. Indulge in delectable local dishes that capture the essence of Hawaiian cuisine.

Explore, relax, and immerse yourself in the natural beauty and unique experiences that the Island of Hawaiʻi has to offer.


Kaunaoa Beach

Kaunaoa Beach, also known as Mauna Kea Beach, is one of Hawaii’s most picturesque white sand beaches. It’s located on the central Kohala coast, about 30 miles north of Kailua-Kona off Highway 19. I recommend arriving before 9 am to snag one of the 30 free public parking spots. If these are full, valet parking costs $30, especially handy if you’re planning to dine at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

This beach offers plenty of activities to keep you entertained. Snorkeling is popular at either end of the beach. You can also try bodyboarding or join a pickup volleyball game. Facilities here include restrooms and showers.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area is another must-visit. This expansive white sand beach lies just south of Kaunaoa Beach. I love the crystal-clear waters and consistent waves, perfect for swimming and bodyboarding. Lifeguards are on duty, making it a safer choice for families. The beach park includes picnic areas, restrooms, and showers.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, located on the southeastern coast, features unique black sand created by volcanic activity. It’s a great spot for watching sea turtles basking on the shore. Although swimming isn’t always ideal due to rough waters, it’s still worth visiting for its striking landscape. Amenities include picnic tables and restrooms.

Papakōlea Green Sand Beach

Papakōlea Green Sand Beach offers another unique coastal experience. Found near South Point, the olivine-laden sand creates a green hue. Reaching the beach requires a challenging trek of about 5 miles round-trip. I suggest wearing sturdy shoes for the hike and bringing plenty of water.

Anaeho’omalu Bay

Anaeho’omalu Bay, often called A-Bay, is situated near the Waikoloa Beach Resort. This beach is ideal for water sports like snorkeling, paddleboarding, and kayaking. Coconut palms line the shore, providing picturesque scenery and some shade. Facilities include restrooms, showers, and picnic areas. The nearby Lava Lava Beach Club offers food and drinks, perfect for a beachside meal.

Water Activities

Exploring the waters around the Big Island offers unparalleled experiences. I recommend trying the following activities for memorable aquatic adventures.


Snorkeling is a must-do activity on the Big Island. Popular spots include Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay. These locations feature vibrant coral reefs, tropical fish, and crystal-clear waters. The best time for snorkeling is early morning when the waters are calm.

Dolphin Watching Cruises

Dolphin watching cruises offer a dolphin-friendly way to see these incredible creatures. Since October 2021, it’s not allowed to swim close to or approach dolphins actively. Instead, join a snorkeling cruise; dolphins often follow the boats and play in the wake. This way, you’ll see dolphins without disturbing them.

Scuba Diving

Scuba diving allows you to explore deeper waters and see diverse marine life. Various dive spots like Kona’s underwater lava tubes and coral gardens provide unique experiences. For certified divers, night dives to see manta rays are popular.

Sailing and Boat Tours

Sailing and boat tours provide excellent views of the coastline and marine life. Set sail from Keauhou Bay or Kailua Pier to watch for whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Catamaran cruises often offer sunset views, adding a magical touch to the experience.


Kayaking is another fantastic way to explore the Big Island’s waters. Launch from places like Kealakekua Bay or Puako Bay for serene paddling experiences. You might even spot dolphins or whales during your adventure.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP)

Stand-up paddleboarding tests your balance while letting you soak in the stunning views. Calm bays like Anaeho’omalu Bay are ideal for beginners. Rentals are readily available, and some beaches offer lessons.


Surfing is iconic in Hawaii. Beginners can take lessons at beaches like Kahaluu Beach Park, where the waves are gentle. For experienced surfers, Honolii Beach provides robust waves and exciting challenges.

Fishing Charters

Fishing charters offer a chance to catch big game fish like marlin and tuna. Depart from Honokohau Marina with experienced guides. These trips can range from half-day to full-day excursions.

Water activities on the Big Island provide diverse and enriching experiences. From the vibrant underwater life to the exhilarating surf, there’s something for every water enthusiast.

Land Activities

Exploring the Big Island’s land activities offers a diverse range of experiences. From thrilling ATV tours to hiking ancient lava tubes, there’s something for every adventurer.

ATV Tours

ATV tours are a fun way to explore difficult-to-access places such as the wild forests and cliffs on the Hamakua and Kohala coasts. These tours typically take you on a 10-mile drive through private lands, with stops at scenic points, historic sites, and waterfalls. ATV tours are spread evenly along the coast, with two on the Hilo side and two on the Kona side. One suggested tour covers over 55 miles of off-road trails with incredible ocean views and a swim at a private waterfall. The tour, offered by Umauma eXperience, lasts about 1.5 hours. Complementary lessons and both solo and multi-passenger vehicles are available, making this a great family activity.

Thurston Lava Tube

The Thurston Lava Tube, located along Crater Rim Drive, is one of the park’s most popular attractions. Formed by a 2,000-degree Fahrenheit lava flow around 500 years ago, this tube is lit from 8 am to 8 pm daily. To experience the tube in both light and dark, arrive shortly before 8 am or just before 8 pm. The tube is open to the public 24 hours a day, so if you plan to explore outside of lit hours, bring a flashlight. Wear hiking sandals or boots and a light rain jacket because the inside is damp and dotted with puddles. There’s a small parking lot close to the Thurston Lava Tube that fills up quickly, so visit early in the morning to secure a spot.

Hiking Trails

The Big Island’s hiking trails offer varying difficulty levels and scenic rewards. The Kilauea Iki Trail provides stunning views of the Kilauea Iki Crater. This 4-mile loop descends through lush rainforest before crossing the still-steaming crater floor. For a more rigorous hike, the Mauna Loa Summit Trail covers a challenging 13 miles one way, leading to the summit of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano. Proper preparation is key, so pack adequate water, snacks, and warm clothing.

Air Activities

Exploring the Big Island of Hawaii by air offers unmatched perspectives. Helicopter tours focus on the spectacles of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. These tours often cover Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Experiencing an active eruption from Kīlauea is unforgettable, especially during early or late hours. Seeing molten lava flow seamlessly from the sky provides a breathtaking view unavailable from ground level.

Fixed-wing aircraft tours offer a different aerial experience. These tours usually encompass the island’s entire coastline, providing views of lush valleys, cascading waterfalls, and pristine beaches. Charter flights can also take passengers over remote areas like Waipio Valley and Kohala Mountains, which contain stunning, inaccessible scenery.

For those who seek an adrenaline rush, skydiving stands out. Tandem skydives offer an exhilarating free-fall experience over the island’s beautiful landscapes. The views while descending from high altitudes include green valleys, volcanic craters, and the shimmering Pacific Ocean. Skydiving centers provide necessary training and ensure safety.

More tranquil but equally thrilling, paragliding offers a way to glide silently over the island’s picturesque landscapes. Tandem paragliding operators usually launch from mountain slopes, allowing participants to soar above beaches, forests, and volcanic plains. This activity grants a unique mix of serenity and adventure, giving aerial views of the island with minimal noise.

Below is a table summarizing these air activities:

Helicopter ToursMauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Kīlauea eruptionsHawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Fixed-Wing AircraftCoastline, waterfalls, remote areasWaipio Valley, Kohala Mountains
SkydivingFree-fall, panoramic island viewsVarious skydiving centers
ParaglidingSilent gliding, scenic landscapesMountain slopes

Each of these activities showcases the Big Island’s diverse beauty from a unique vantage point. Whether soaring high above or diving swiftly toward the earth, aerial activities offer a compelling way to appreciate Hawaii’s majestic landscapes.

Popular Attractions

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is one of the most popular attractions on the Big Island. Located in the southeastern regions of Kaʻū and Puna, the park features two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Exploring the park, I can witness dramatic volcanic landscapes, lava tubes, and steam vents. Hiking trails like the Kilauea Iki Trail and Crater Rim Trail provide immersive experiences.

Thurston Lava Tube

The Thurston Lava Tube, positioned along Crater Rim Drive, is a must-visit. This tube was formed by a 2,000 degree Fahrenheit lava flow around 500 years ago. It’s lit from 8 AM to 8 PM, allowing visitors to experience it in both light and dark. When I explored it, a flashlight was essential for the unlit hours. Hiking sandals or boots and a rain jacket came in handy due to the damp conditions.

Waipio Valley Overlook

Waipio Valley Overlook offers breathtaking views of one of the most beautiful and historic valleys on the Big Island. Although road construction prevented a closer view of the large waterfall during my visit, the overlook itself remained a stunning vantage point. The area is known for steep cliffs, lush vegetation, and a rich history, making it a popular spot for tourists and photographers.

Historic Places

The island of Hawaiʻi is home to numerous historic places. I found the birthplace of King Kamehameha, the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands, particularly fascinating. The history of the paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, also intrigued me. Exploring these sites, I gained a deeper understanding of the island’s rich cultural heritage.

Scenic Overlook and Waterfalls

Scenic overlooks and waterfalls are abundant on the Big Island. Some noteworthy spots include Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls. In these locations, I saw awe-inspiring views of cascading waters and lush, green surroundings. Each site offered unique photographic opportunities, showcasing the island’s natural beauty.

Air Activities

Though not a specific site, air activities provide a unique way to enjoy the island’s attractions. Helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft tours offer unparalleled views of the Big Island’s diverse landscapes. During my helicopter tour, panoramic vistas of lush valleys, volcanic craters, and pristine coastlines left me in awe.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park spans over 523 square miles and features some of the most dramatic landscapes on the Big Island. It houses two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, offering an unparalleled opportunity to witness geological activity. Notably, a visit to this park reveals unique ecosystems ranging from lush rainforests to barren lava fields.

Must-See Attractions

  • Crater Rim Drive: An 11-mile drive around the Kīlauea Caldera that includes stops at steam vents, vistas, and the Jaggar Museum.
  • Thurston Lava Tube: A 500-year-old lava cave that invites exploration.
  • Chain of Craters Road: A scenic drive passing numerous craters and offering access to the coastline.

Hiking Trails

  • Kīlauea Iki Trail: A 4-mile loop descending from the lush rainforest to the floor of Kīlauea Iki Crater.
  • Devastation Trail: A one-mile round trip showcasing the aftermath of Kīlauea’s 1959 eruption.
  • Kaulana Manu Nature Trail: A 0.6-mile trail that winds through pristine native Hawaiian forest, perfect for wildlife photography.

Visitor Centers

  • Kīlauea Visitor Center: Offers exhibits, films, and information about current volcanic activity.
  • Jaggar Museum: Provides educational displays and a close view of Halemaʻumaʻu Crater.
  • Timing: Early mornings or late afternoons avoid peak crowds and heat.
  • Safety: Stay on marked trails and heed all warning signs about volcanic gases and unstable terrain.
  • Gear: Comfortable walking shoes, water, and rain gear are advisable as weather can change rapidly.

This park encapsulates the raw power and beauty of nature, making it a must-visit on your Big Island adventure.

Historic Places

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, also known as the Place of Refuge, spans 180 acres and holds immense cultural and historical significance. Until the early 19th century, Hawaiians who broke sacred laws, or kapu, could escape death by fleeing to this site. Here, a priest would grant them forgiveness. The National Park Service now maintains this sacred landmark. Visitors will see reconstructed temples and intricate kii, symbolic representations of Hawaiian gods carved into wood or stone. The park also boasts beautiful ocean views and sightings of honu, Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Kealakekua Bay

Kealakekua Bay is another significant historic area on the Big Island. This site marks the first contact between Hawaiians and Westerners when Captain James Cook arrived in 1779. The bay features a monument dedicated to Captain Cook, accessible only by boat or a long hike. Beyond its historical value, Kealakekua Bay is a favorite spot for snorkeling, offering clear waters and vibrant marine life.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park preserves the traditional Hawaiian culture and natural resources. This park showcases ancient fishponds, petroglyphs, and historic trails. It’s a prime location to learn about traditional Hawaiian aquaculture and ancient stone structures. Hikers can explore trails that reveal more about the island’s history and geology.

Hulihee Palace

Hulihee Palace in Kailua-Kona served as a vacation home for Hawaiian royalty. Built in 1838, this palace now operates as a museum, displaying King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani’s artifacts. The structure itself combines Western architecture and traditional Hawaiian craftsmanship. Hulihee Palace offers guided tours that provide insights into the island’s royal past.

Lapakahi State Historical Park

Lapakahi State Historical Park, located on the Kohala Coast, features the remnants of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village. Visitors can walk through the partially restored village, observing ancient dwellings and community structures. Informational plaques along the trails help visitors understand the lifestyle and cultural practices of the early Hawaiians.

Snorkeling & Scuba

Snorkeling and scuba diving are must-do activities on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kealakekua Bay, located on the island’s west coast, is a prime destination for snorkeling enthusiasts. The calm, shallow waters make it easy to spot tropical fish, sea turtles, and Hawaiian spinner dolphins beneath the surface. The bay’s historical significance adds another layer of intrigue; it’s where British explorer Capt. James Cook first landed in January 1779 and was later killed on the same shore.

I recommend heading to the Captain Cook Monument, which stands across the bay, for a unique snorkeling experience. The underwater visibility is excellent, and the variety of marine life impressive. It’s not uncommon to see colorful coral reefs teeming with fish. Across from the monument, Hikiau Heiau, a traditional Hawaiian religious site, offers a glimpse into the island’s rich cultural history.

Another great snorkeling spot is Honaunau Bay, also known as Two Step. Named for its easy water access via natural lava steps, this location is ideal for both beginners and experienced snorkelers. The bay is part of the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, adding historical value to your visit. Keep an eye out for green sea turtles, often seen navigating the clear, warm waters.

For scuba diving, the Big Island offers diverse and thrilling options. The Kona Coast is particularly famous for its night dives, where divers can witness the mesmerizing manta ray ballet. These gentle giants flock to the area due to the abundance of plankton, creating a unique and unforgettable experience. Daytime dives along the Kona Coast reveal volcanic formations, underwater lava tubes, and a plethora of marine life.

Consider diving at Puako, one of the island’s top scuba destinations. The area features a rich ecosystem, with vibrant coral gardens, underwater arches, and various fish species. The calm water conditions make it suitable for divers of all levels. Exploring the underwater landscapes of this island provides a close-up view of Hawaii’s unique marine biodiversity.

Snorkeling and scuba diving on the Big Island offer a perfect blend of underwater adventure and historical exploration, making these activities essential on any traveler’s itinerary.

Coffee Farms

Exploring coffee farms on the Big Island is a must. Hawaii is a significant coffee producer, renowned for its unique Kona coffee. I visited two fantastic farms offering free tours and samples.

Mountain Thunder Coffee

This farm provided a comprehensive tour showcasing the entire coffee-making process. From the coffee cherry to the final roasted bean, every step was meticulously explained. The guide shared insights into their sustainable farming practices and processing techniques, making the experience educational and engaging.

Greenwell Farms

Although Greenwell Farms didn’t offer a full-process tour, it allowed visitors to see various parts of the farm and different tropical plants. The lush fields and array of fruit trees added a scenic touch to the visit. We enjoyed the free coffee samples and learned about the farm’s history.

Tips for Visiting

Check farm websites for opening days to avoid disappointments since not all farms are open daily. Saturdays appeared to have more available tours. Both farms provided ample parking and had gift shops where you could purchase freshly roasted coffee and other local products.

Visiting these coffee farms not only offers a deeper appreciation for Kona coffee but also supports local farmers. The Big Island’s coffee farms provide an enriching experience, blending education with the rich flavors of Hawaii’s famous coffee.

For lunch, after touring the farms, I headed into Kailua and dined at Huggo’s On The Rocks. The food was delicious, and the service was quick. The pork nachos came highly recommended, and I found the fast service exceptional without needing reservations. The restaurant’s vibrant atmosphere by the waterfront made it a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the island’s offerings.

Exploring the Big Island’s coffee farms and sampling fresh coffee directly from the source offers a unique and memorable experience. Don’t miss this on your itinerary when visiting Hawaii.

Travel Pono Pledge

Respect local culture and natural resources by embracing the Travel Pono Pledge. It’s essential to leave no trace during your visit to the Big Island. When hiking, stick to designated trails to protect fragile ecosystems. Litter should always be packed out to preserve the natural beauty of the island.

Support local businesses to help sustain the community. Dining at locally-owned restaurants not only offers authentic culinary experiences but also boosts the local economy. Buy souvenirs from local artisans to ensure your spending benefits the local people.

Conserve water and electricity as resources are limited on the island. Be mindful of your usage in hotels and vacation rentals, turning off lights and air conditioners when not in use. Water conservation helps maintain the island’s freshwater supply, assisting both residents and wildlife.

Educate yourself about local wildlife to coexist responsibly. Maintain a safe distance from animals such as sea turtles and monk seals to avoid disrupting their natural behavior. Use reef-safe sunscreen to protect coral reefs from harmful chemicals.

Participate in volunteer activities to give back to the island. Many organizations offer opportunities to help with beach cleanups, reforestation projects, or wildlife conservation efforts. Volunteering can deepen your connection to the island and contribute to its preservation.

Show respect for Hawaiian culture by learning basic Hawaiian phrases and understanding cultural protocols. When visiting sacred sites, dress appropriately and follow guidelines to ensure these places remain undisturbed. A respectful attitude towards local customs enriches your travel experience and fosters goodwill.

By taking the Travel Pono Pledge, you contribute to the sustainability and preservation of the Big Island, ensuring it remains a cherished destination for future generations.

Island of Hawaiʻi Attractions and Activities

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube, positioned along Crater Rim Drive, is a must-visit. Formed by a 2,000-degree Fahrenheit lava flow around 500 years ago, it’s one of the park’s most popular attractions. The tube is lit from 8 am to 8 pm daily, but arriving shortly before 8 am or just before 8 pm allows you to experience it in both light and dark. The tube remains open 24 hours a day, so bring a flashlight if you explore it outside lighting hours. Wear hiking sandals or boots along with a light rain jacket because the inside is damp and dotted with puddles. There’s a small parking lot nearby that fills up quickly, so arrive early.


Accommodations in Volcano are mostly inns and cottage rentals; no commercial hotel chains exist here. Volcano House, the closest option, is a historic hotel on the rim of the Kilauea crater with panoramic views of the caldera and steam vents below. Rates start from $350 per night. Though the hotel feels dated, the view is spectacular, and it’s located within the park, just minutes from top attractions. They even offer bike rentals and guided walking tours. Another option is Volcano Village Lodge, a rainforest bed and breakfast on the outskirts of Volcanoes National Park, starting from $300 per night. Accommodations feature private baths, kitchenettes, electric fireplaces, and in-room breakfast each morning, with the choice of a private lodge or a room at the inn.

Manta Ray Snorkel Tour

The moonlight manta snorkel tour with Sea Paradise offers an unforgettable experience. It’s a quick two-hour tour where you can swim with majestic manta rays. This tour allows for a closer connection to marine life and the natural beauty of the island’s waters. Make sure to book in advance, as spots fill up quickly.


Whether exploring the Thurston Lava Tube, staying in charming Volcano accommodations, or swimming with manta rays, the Big Island offers diverse activities that cater to various interests. Embrace these experiences while respecting the local culture and environment to ensure the island remains a cherished destination.


Exploring the Big Island offers a blend of adventure and cultural richness that leaves a lasting impression. From land to sea activities, there’s something for everyone. Each experience, whether it’s hiking through lush landscapes or diving into crystal-clear waters, reveals the island’s unique charm. By engaging with the local culture and respecting the environment, we help preserve this paradise for future visitors. So pack your bags and get ready to discover the magic of the Big Island of Hawaii.

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