This post contains affiliate links.
Looking for things to do on the Big Island? Look no further, we’ve got you covered for Big Island adventure activities including the best hikes, the best beaches, the best place to swim and snorkel, night markets, volcano action and unique places to watch a sunset.
7 Big Island Day Trips covered in this post
Green Beach, Pololu Valley, Waipi’o Valley, Uncle Roberts Night Market, Captain Cook monument hike, Snorkeling Kealakekua Bay, and Mauna Kea for sunset – these are just seven of the amazing adventure day trips to plan during your tip to the Big Island.
There are 14 climate zones in the world, and you’ll find eight of them on Hawaii’s Big Island. While it’s an extraordinary feat to have so many diverse regions concentrated in one relatively small island – it’s equally enticing to plan hiking adventures to experience them all.
During our last holiday to the Big Island in March 2020, literally the week before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, when borders closed and flights were suspended, we spent two weeks exploring all eight of those zones, blissfully unaware of what was to follow.
It’s that memory, and travel which continues to be restricted a year later, which made revisiting this material, yet to have been published, bitter sweet. But I hope this piece will inspire others to explore the Big Island, beyond just the beaches, when travel regulations, flights and personal comfort levels allow it. And if you happen to be an American able to travel there freely, or on the island right now, and found this article, lucky you! If you’re Canadian, check here for flight deals once you’re safe to travel!
We stayed in an Airbnb in Kailua-Kona, about 10 minutes from the airport. It was a wonderfully central location to explore all sides of the island, and offered up a beautiful sunset view from the hill, where we toasted to our days adventure each evening at sunset. We planned “adventure days” with relaxed “beach days” to recover in between, but admittedly many hiking adventure days involved a beach at some point – it is Hawaii after all. Why try to escape them?
VRBO and Booking.com often list some great accommodation options. But if you want to expand the search, be sure to compare offerings through Hotels.com and Expedia. Honestly many offerings start to overlap through these listings, but it’s amazing how the odd incredible deal slips through – either on price, or just a seriously upgraded or hard to find place. Be sure to check around!
We rented a 4×4 Jeep at the Kona airport, in anticipation of driving to the top of Mauna Loa, to experience the Polar Tundra climate at sunset, as well as being able to access some steep roads in the northern regions of the island by Waimea, and to travel lava rock roads in the south by Pahoa – not to mention seamlessly making the pass over the top of the island from Kona to Hilo, which can see snow at elevation in inclement weather. If you plan to venture beyond beaches and restaurants in the Kona and Kailua-Kona Coast areas, a 4×4 definitely is a consideration. Check out these car rental deals from several different rental companies. We’ve had good experiences with both Alamo and National Car Rental in the past.
Touring Big island beaches
I’ve written about many of the beaches on the Kona side previously, which we revisited on our rest days. In fact, last year we rented twin scooters and visited eight. Link here to get a run down on some magic places to spend a restful beach day: Touring Hawaii’s Big Island Kona Coast Beaches by Scooter
One resource we found extremely valuable was Lonely Planet’s Hawaii the Big Island. Be aware it was written in 2017 though, prior to some volcanic activity since then in the southern regions. We’ve updated you here with our experiences since then.
Green Sand Beach hike
If you want to go as far south as possible without falling off the edge of the US, South Point at the southern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island is the place to go. It is also the access area for a 2.5-mile hike in to Green Sands Beach, one of only four green sandy beaches in the world. The others are in Guam, the Galapagos Islands and Norway. The South Point Road turn off is about 50 miles south of Kona, and it’s another 30 minute’s drive on South Point Road before reaching a parking lot, where you disembark for the hike in to the beach. Along South Point Road there’s the Swedish Space Corporation’s satellite tracking station, a grassy plain, and wind turbines in the distance, but not much else on the drive in.
The hike (more of a walk if you’re reasonably fit, since there’s no elevation change) follows the rugged open coastline, at times along rutted and worn sand and rock trails, from years of vehicle passages.There’s even a few abandoned vehicles along the way…
Some ruts are close to 6ft deep and have centers sure to remove a muffler! The area is now deemed ecologically sensitive and prohibits public vehicles. However there is a thriving unofficial service by some locals who will shuttle you either way for $10 each. After a one-way trip in beating sun to get to the beach, with a wind whipped sandblasting facial exfoliation as a bonus, there were indeed several folks taking the entrepreneurs up on their offer for the return trip. We pressed on, determined to make the round trip as bipeds, but do be sure to take water, snacks and a sun hat. You need to be self-sufficient, since there are no facilities to replenish at the beach.
It’s best to plan a trip to Green Sands in lighter winds, but that can be tricky for such an open exposed area. Fortunately the beach itself offers some shelter in the wake of a large lava eruption rock face. Indeed the mineral run off from the cliff is what gives the beach its green sandy color. The granules sparkle and come to life like diamonds in your hand as you massage the taupe-green course sand for closer observation.
Beneath the wind-blown and ocean worn eroding cliffs are slabs of piled rock. After watching an Instagramer pucker and pose in her bikini for close to an hour, in search of the perfect selfie angle on the cliff, my husband and I moved in for a quick mockery glamour shot – much to the delight of other 50-somethings cheering us on. Let’s just say we held our breath for the shot!
Of course there’s more to do than sunbath at Green Sands beach with swimming and bodysurfing in the waves a possibility. But with a strong undertow and no lifeguard, it would be best to exercise caution, especially with younger children in tow.
Be sure to allow time for the 2.5 mile walk from the beach back to your parked car in daylight. The sun sets in Hawaii around 6pm daily, a fact that can trip up mainlander sun seekers who can equate warm weather with long summer nights in more norther climates . Although the stars would no doubt be outstanding in the thick of night from South Point, the hike from the beach is not one you would want to be doing in the dark.
A perfect way to top off the trip back to Kona is with a stop at a coffee plantation. There are numerous ones as you head back north. We visited Miranda’s Coffee Farm and learned about the family plantation, different crops which are grown, how the harvest is hand-picked and roasted locally. In fact is was truly a family affair with Jose and Berta Miranda’s nephew Nilo who showed us around, keenly educating us between sample sips. He also offered back stories and phone video about Uncle Roberts Night Market, which was another adventure we planned to take. Never hesitate to take the turn offs that lead to serendipitous moments!
Check out the best big island hikes
Here are a few of our favorite day hikes from Kona. Of course the access to many Big Island beaches also qualifies as a hike, so be sure to check out the run down in this post Touring Hawaii’s Big Island Kona coast beaches by scooter.
Pololu Valley hike
The Kohala and Waimea region in the north offers some terrific hiking and adventure exploring opportunities. In contrast to the south’s desert climate, North Kohala is lushly otherworldly with pastures, plantation towns and the Polulu Valley’s cascading cliffs, which was our destination. From Kona we took the Kahola Mountain Road (Hwy 250), offering amazing views of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai at 2,000 – 3,000 ft elevation, along the way.
Looking back towards the Kahala-Kona coastline as we climbed from the town of Waimea was stunning. The rolling pastureland from Waimea was beautiful, with stiff winds blowing at the car. Parker Ranch, the 5th largest cow-calf ranch in the US is located here. Hawi was a major sugar plantation town in the past, and is now a Bohemian enclave of cafes, galleries and artisan gift shops.
We hiked from the Pololu Valley lookout approximately 3 miles, which took us, as physically fit 50-somethings, 4 hours with breaks. The lookout to cliffs and pounding surf was spectacular, and the trail down, about a 1/3 mile, offered vistas at every turn.
While it’s safe to marvel at the beautiful beach, we were cautioned to not venture into the water, due to currents being very dangerous.
The valley floor is where the trailhead starts and climbs up through lush forest, and vines along a well-worn muddy trail towards the Pololu Valley. It was quite rutted and when it started raining (a warm hard rain) the ground became muddy and slippery. We hiked to the top of the Honokane Nui Valley lookout, which was very steep, and then decided due to the rain and slippery trail conditions, we would return before reaching the final leg of the Pololu Valley. We had to laugh at the two shirtless, barefoot dreadlocks guys, who passed us on the way back. We were left wondering if barefoot was perhaps a better choice to the traction of muddy trail runner shoes? The tropical rain was warm, but with strong winds we were soaked through by the return. The sudden change of weather was a great reminder of the diverse conditions that exist in the region. Hikers are well advised to plan for rain, even if they start out on a sunny morning.
We drove back to Hawi and checked out the Bamboo restaurant – rated the best restaurant on the island, and we were not disappointed! Despite looking like we had emerged from a mud wrestling match with a fully clothed tropical storm shower, they welcomed us with open arms.
We shared a double order of fresh caught tuna, rice and seasonal veggies, the absolute best breaded and crisp deep-fried calamari I’ve ever tasted, and washed it down with a couple Long Board beers. They do a Sunday brunch, but at 2:45pm, we were one of the last to be seated. There was a live band with guitars, twin ukuleles and singers for entertainment. Le Bamboo dates back to the late 1800s as a hotel for sugar plantation workers, and was refurbished as a restaurant in what was the general store floor area, using the hotel’s original kitchen.
Of course the views going from Waimea to Hawi are spectacular, it truly is saving the best for last in making the return decent back to Kona, as the entire Kahola and Waimea coastline gives way to the Kailua-Kona coast at sunset.
Waipi’o Valley hike
Hiking the Waipi’o Valley was the second day venturing north to the Kahola and Waimea region. We took the upper highway (Mamalahoa Hwy 190) to Waimea and then Hwy 19 at Waimea out to Honaka’a, instead of Hwy 250 towards Hawi, as we had the previous trip. We learned a little more about Parker Ranch that day. When Captain George Vancouver imported cows to the island that proliferated, Parker was the sharp shooter hired the help control the heard numbers. He was given land in return.
We stopped in Honoka’s old plantation downtown street, which resembled something out of a wild west movie with its storefronts built in the late 1800s – 1930s. A thriving community, fueled by the sugar plantations and cattle industry at the time, it is now being revitalized. There’s even a “town jail” on the main street, a curious old barred window structure, placed prominently to humiliate those tossed in it. Be sure to grab a photo of yourself in the slammer! The 1930s Peoples Theatre, that still shows nightly movies, is definitely on our list for a return visit.
We drove to Kukuihaele and Waipi’o Valley lookout. The valley hike was 3 miles return, initially down a very steep 25 degree, and at points 40-degree angle. While there were a few 4-wheel drives trying to cut down the exercise, we happily made it part of the workout (both going and the return). Our rental car agreement had prohibited taking our vehicle to the valley, so be sure to check the fine print or your agreement.
There’s a river running through the beautiful green valley, with wild horses munching grass along the road. Hi’ilawe Falls, flowing off the high ridge to valley bottom is visible, and another hiking option to reach its base. We had our sites set on the Muliwai Trail on the far side of the valley, but to get there it’s necessary to cross the river entrance as it flows out to the ocean. This is easier said than done, since the river current flows out and the ocean waves roll in, all the while challenging your footing on uneven rocks, at times deeper than anticipated without being able to see the bottom clearly. Unless you are prepared to get your hiking shoes wet, having sandals or water shoes would be beneficial, and definitely place phones and camera equipment in waterproof bags, just in case you slip and take a swim! (insert waterproof bag link) Using a hefty walking stick for support was also really helpful. These seem to be left at either side of the river by previous travelers, so it’s well worth grabbing one for extra balance!
The Muliwai Trail is on the far side of the valley, and takes 15-20 minutes to reach the base, across a valley best described as a Jurassic Park experience, with its huge lush plants, before beginning the assent. There are also numerous “brickett stone circles” used for the Ho’oponopono ceremony, a practice of placing stones and removing them in a ceremony of life.
A permit is required to do the whole 8.5-mile trail and overnight stay in the Waimanu Valley, along this ancient Hawaiian footpath. The trail, part of the Kahola Forest Reserve, Muliwai section, rises 1200 ft, is exposed and hot, and has a sign at the base: “Dead End Trail, wild pigs next 20 miles, good luck!” We climbed about half way up to a switch back and outlook view from the cliffs over the ocean, a view of the valley below, and the decent we had made from the Waipi’o Valley lookout. Of course what goes us must come down, so you’ll get round two of this hiking workout on the return, plus a second chance at “river dancing” as you navigate the crossing, armed with knowledge from your initial experience.
We chose to make the return trip back to Kona via the Mamalahoa Hwy 19 down Hamakua down to Hilo, and back through the Saddle Road mid island. The Mamalahoa Hwy meanders along the northern areas of the Big Island, through areas littered with huge waterfalls and streams through the valleys and out to the ocean below. Trees and plants seem lush green and super-sized in the area, no doubt the result of frequent warm rains. If you happen to hit Hilo on a sunny day, count yourself lucky (we did!) Hilo gets some kind of precipitation 236 days of the year.
Pahoa and Uncle Roberts Awa Bar Night Market
We visited Uncle Roberts Night Market in Pahoa, Wed March 4, 2020. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would be the last public market before tourism would close down a week later due to Covid. While I’ve since heard that officially the market is still cancelled, a visitor in January 2021 reported that there was a band playing on the evening of Wed Jan 6, but despite a sign “no mask, no service” and having some services, non-locals were being asked to leave. It would be best to check for updated information before venturing there for the evening as long as Covid19 is a threat.
Uncle Roberts Night Market is held Wednesdays between 5-10pm. Music, dancing, food and craft vendors abound, and several thousand attend weekly. To get there, drive literally to “the end of the road” which is where Uncle Roberts Awa Bar is located. After a lava flow cut off the road abruptly in 1962, and created new land out to the ocean, locals were drawn here. It’s been a community gathering place ever since.
Uncle Roberts is an open-air market with semi -permanent tent/tarp structures for protection, picnic tables for seating, and a self-serve bar.
The crowd is a mix of primarily locals, with a few adventurous tourists tossed in. Hippies and free spirits young and old mix with families and kids, in a scene that can best be described as an eclectic mix found at a family wedding. The dance floor is uneven, but it didn’t seem to concern the crowd enjoying the 8-piece band and Polynesian male vocals, with a banjo, two ukuleles, sax, electric guitar and drums. We weren’t sure if the older lady by the stage doing hula hand movements, while tapping her feet, and supported by her walker, was with the band, but she certainly added to the entertainment.
We had thought Uncle Roberts Night Market was a big late-night party place, but after speaking to locals, we realized it was simply a weekly gathering of the community for food, music and a good time. This was the intent when the Uncle Roberts Awa Club was established in 1962. At the time, the market was literally “the end of the road”, marking an area of lava flow that had created land that previously did not exist. After Uncle Roberts death in 2015, the family continued to host Wednesday evening events.
We had stayed at The Tropical Zen in Pahoa, a small town about 15 minutes from the market the previous year. Pahoa, with it’s lush and chill atmosphere, had narrowly escaped the 2018 volcanic devastation, and was a great base for exploring the lava flows that dramatically altered the area.
In 2018 Seaview Estates, in the Pahoa region, turned into ground zero with the lava eruption, causing the Kapoho Tide Pools to be filled in, and Pohoiki Bay to no longer be a bay, but instead a new black beach at Isaac Hale Park. The acceptance of impermanence is real in a live volcanic zone.
We were reminded of all of this on our drive along the Red Road through patches of land completely decimated by fragments and shards of impermeable cooled lava flow, which now prevent through passage on what used to be the Puna Triangle through the South Puna coast . We made the drive back to Kona, via Hilo, but the sound of the Coqui frogs at night along the ocean road to Uncle Roberts as we returned to our car, brought back wonderful memories of staying in Pahoa.
Be sure to get updated information when touring this area, since access has been altered, some sites destroyed, and new ones created. The Lonely Planet Guide book for Big Island Hawaii is great, but make sure you have a copy that has been updated since 2018.
Get your swim, snorkel and hike combo in!
Think of it as the triple header day trip activity. Add a snorkel, swim and some cool history to this day hike option.
Captain Cook monument hike & snorkeling Kealakekua Bay
There are countless touristy boat charter trips that will take you from Kalua- Kona to snorkel Kealakekua Bay. But a fun (and much cheaper, as in FREE) way to access the area is by foot. You’ll not only get some great snorkeling in, but also a scenic day hike in and out of the area. We took Hwy 11/Mamalahoa Hwy from Kona, and turned at Napo’opo Road. Within the first 10th of a mile, park along the narrow road shoulder. To find the trail head, count five telephone poles from the start of the road. There are three tall palm trees at the beginning of the trail.
The hike down to the bay takes you through tall grasses initially, then lava flow trails overlooking expansive ocean views, before reaching the valley. There’s a 1300 ft elevation change over the 1.8-mile trail, which took us about an hour from the parking area to the bay. We’d suggest allowing 1.5hrs for the return though, since it is a steady climb the whole way. Bring water, much of the trail is exposed to sun and heat.
The monument in the bay marks Captain Cook’s January 17, 1779 arrival to Kealakekua Bay, and the controversy of his visit – first welcomed by 1000 canoes and 9000 people on shore, and celebrated by local chiefs. But within a month the generosity decreased, petty theft occurred, and suspicion replaced polite curiosity on both sides. It would all come to a fiery battle of misunderstanding that saw a chief’s body guard killed, and later Captain Cook stabbed and clubbed to death. But the disagreement didn’t end there. With Cook’s death stunning both sides, the Hawaiians dismembered the body, an honored practice reserved for high chiefs, and the English demanded the body parts back in a gruesome rampage that torched homes and slaughtered Hawaiians. Eventually some bits and pieces were returned, but the Hawaiians kept the bones which held the most mana (spiritual energy). They are placed beneath the monument. Something to ponder while you swim and snorkel the warm aqua-blue waters of Kealakekua Bay, feeling more like a visitor dropped into a tropical fish tank as colorful tropical fish swim amidst you and the coral reef below. The area is actually an underwater State Park.
You can pick up a snorkel, mask and fins at the local Walmart in Kona, or just use swim goggles if you prefer to pack light. Swim shoes are helpful for accessing the shore area, where spiny red and black sea urchins can sometimes be found.
Be prepared for lots of charter boats in the area, and groups floating about with noodles. It’s also a popular spot for dive boats, and you’re likely to see a few double pontoon, waterslide and BBQ off the back equipped vessels, hosting guests there for a good time, not a long time. Spinner dolphins are also known to frequent the area, further adding to its attraction. Once you get used to the fact you’re unlikely to be enjoying it in solitude, you can still find peace and tranquility beneath the surface. Since charters typically visit mid-day and afternoon, a morning hike and swim, mid-week and outside school holidays, is a good way to experience fewer crowds. If you prefer an organized boat tour to the area, be sure to search for options on get your guide referencing Kona.
Take your Big Island activities to a new height
No trip to the Big Island is really complete without seeing Mauna Kea up close. And nothing beats the perspective, and true appreciation for the island’s diverse climate zones, than a trip to the top of Mauna Kea. Visiting the mountain at sunset is one of the most memorable things to do on the Big Island.
Mauna Kea for sunset
There are charter bus tours offered through get your guide listings from Kalua-Kona to experience sunset atop Mauna Kea, the highest point on Hawaii’s Big Island, but if you’re an independent adventurer, you can arrange your own self-guided tour, provided you have a 4×4 vehicle to access the high alpine road. This is one of the Big Island activities you won’t want to miss. We rented a Jeep with this in mind, since the previous year we were denied access in our sedan rental car by the park ranger who checks cars before allowing them up the final unpaved access road to the top at 13,579ft.
All vehicles are required to stop at the check point regardless, to allow occupants to climatize for 30 minutes to the elevation. Although we were amidst mostly SUVs when we visited in March 2020, there was a Ford Mustang that had scooted through, so it appears that the checking for appropriate vehicles might be spotty at times.
We had targeted to leave Kaula-Kona between 1-3pm, taking the Saddle Road Hwy and turn off to Mauna Kea, and arrived at the top by 4:30pm, having taken the brief break on the way up at the ranger station. This allowed time for some exploration and a setting sun beginning around 6pm. In previous years we’ve also done some day hiking in the Ranger Station area, which is a nice additional activity if you have arrived early, and are not yet ready to make the assent to the top.
By 6:30pm the sun had dropped from the horizon, and so had the temperatures, which by then were hovering around 24 F degrees (-4C), and feeling much colder with a stiff wind chill. The evening we were there it was forecast to dip down to 14F (-10C). Most observers stay huddled in their cars for warmth to watch the big show, after the requisite shivering selfie, often in shorts and flip flops – likely not a good idea if they were to experience an engine break down!
The Mauna Kea Observatory is a premiere atmospheric research facility, which has been continually monitoring and collecting data related to atmospheric change since the 1950s. The undisturbed air, remote location and minimal influence of vegetation and human activity make it ideal for monitoring the causes of climate change. The observatories can be seen at the top, and guided tours of some of these facilities can be arranged.
It’s worth monitoring the weather and planning this trip for a clear night, since the blue open sky that gave way to absolute darkness and stars atop a snow-covered mountain was a spectacular contrast to the earlier beach day in the baking sun we had experienced. We packed warm cloths, hats and mitts with the cold weather in mind. Yes, those 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic mittens came in handy!
I hope you enjoyed exploring the adventures and Big Island activities that can be had in the various climate zones of Hawaii’s big island. Don’t forget to link to Touring Hawaii’s Big Island Kona Coast Beaches by Scooter to learn about eight great beaches all accessible from Kalua-Kona as easy day trips on two wheels (or by car). We found alternating adventure days with beach days was a great mix for activity (and saving your hide from the intense sun!) You can’t go to Hawaii without taking time to kick back at the beach and relax with the sand between your toes. Aloha!
Great for planning, and you’ll want to pack it along for the trip – check out Lonely Planet’s Hawaii the Big Island. Or search out all of the Hawaii guidebook options on chapters.indigo.ca or on Amazon. If you prefer immediate access in e-book format you can get that through Chapters/Indigo as well, or at ebooks.com
We stayed at the Garden Paradise, in Kailua, hosted by Martina. It was just 10 minutes drive from the airport, and very central for all of these day trips. Book with Martina below, or check out other options in the area available through VRBO and Booking.com
I also love what BookingCredits.com is doing in the accommodation space. Most hotel booking sites have access to rates not available to the public, but are required by the hotel to sell them at a the retail price. When you book your stay, they will pocket the difference between what you paid, and their commission — as profit. With BookingCredits.com instead of pocketing all the margin as profit, they give the majority of that back to you. Booking Credits was founded by former travel industry experts including the President of Delta Vacations and Senior executives from Expedia. There’s no membership required, and the credit goes back as cash on your credit card within 60 days of your booking. A simple, but cool concept! Do an accommodation search HERE and check them out.
Expedia and Trip Advisor are viable options for putting together accommodations and flights, but if you’re in Canada check out CheapOair.ca They are constantly searching for flight deals to offer. There is also a sister site, CheapOair.com for my American friends! They make it super easy to compare different flight options, plus they also help you search for car rental deals and a place to stay.
One resource we found extremely valuable was Lonely Planet’s Hawaii the Big Island. Be aware the current version was written in 2017, prior to some volcanic activity since then in the southern regions. We’ve updated you here with our experiences since then. Lonely Planet is currently updating the book. They were selling pre-orders in spring 2021 when I last checked.
If you enjoyed this article, SIGN UP for my monthly e-newsletter with tons of travel inspiration and tips! You’ll get all the best stuff delivered direct to you inbox, over coffee on Sunday morning.
This post contains affiliate links, which at no cost to you, help us to continue to provide helpful travel content, while supporting reputable travel product and service providers we have used ourselves.