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Hawaii/Big Island - the island of volcanoes and lava

Big Island, also known as Hawai'i, is an incredibly unique and versatile island. It is the youngest island in the Hawai'i archipelago. With more than 10,000 square kilometres, it is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, hence the name Big Island.

The island is home to active volcanoes, and due to the volcanic activity, the island is still growing today as the erupting lava flows down into the sea and solidifies, increasing the island's surface area.


There are five volcanoes on the island, the two largest being Mauna Kea (4205 m) and Mauna Loa (4169 m). Mauna Kea is also called the Dormant Giant because it last erupted about 4,500 years ago. Although it is "only" 4,205 metres above sea level, it is more than 10,000 metres high including the part below sea level, making it the highest mountain on Earth. Because of its height, the top of the mountain is often covered in snow. Which is quite an extraordinary sight, especially when you're at the beach enjoying the 30 degrees.

Mauna Loa, on the other hand, is a much more active volcano, which was erupting again in 2022 after almost 40 years of dormancy.


The Big Island is one of the most ecologically unique places in the world, with 8 climate zones due to the island's topograph. Tropical monsoon, tundra and desert climates are all within an hour's drive.

This means that it is possible to have 30 degree heat and sunshine in the west and rain in the east. Hilo, the central city on the East Coast, is one of the cities in the world with the most precipitation with 272 days of rainfall per year. It is no wonder that the major waterfalls are located on the east coast of the island - Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls.


There are so many wonderful attractions on the island and it's not worth getting stuck on just one side of it. A 5-day road trip will fit most of the sights, but then there's no stopping. I'll give you a daily breakdown of our road trip which include Big Island's best sights, tours and places that I think you shouldn't miss.


Day 1:

  • Two step Beach

  • Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

  • Captain Cook Memorial Hike

  • Kona

  • 'Alula Beach

Day 2:

  • Punaluʻu Beach, black sand volcanic beach with lots of turtles

  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

  • Halemaʻumaʻu Crater

  • Thurston Lava Tube

  • Kīlauea Iki Crater Hike

  • Chain of Craters Road

  • Sea Arch

Day 3:

  • Kaumana Caves

  • Akaka Falls

  • Onomea Bay

  • Hilo

Day 4:

  • Kaimū Black Sand Beach, Pāhoa

  • Rainbow Falls

  • Waipio Valley Lookout

  • Kēōkea Beach

Day 5:

  • Pololū Trail

  • Hapuna Beach

  • Manta ray snorkeling adventure


Day 1: West side of Big Island

Two step Beach

This beach is said to be one of the best beaches for snorkeling on the Big Island. We've heard from several people that dolphins tend to come very close to shore on this stretch of beach, and it's not inconceivable that you can swim with dolphins here quite naturally without any organized tours.

When we were here there were pretty big waves. We saw a couple of corals, fish and turtles, but unfortunately no dolphins. (Although as I wrote in the Kauai post, it's far from a Gili's snorkeling experience.)


Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

After snorkeling, we walked over to Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a beautiful beach with many palm trees showcasing the old Hawaiian culture, wood carvings (Tiki sculptures) and old primitive buildings. It's a beautiful park and if you're lucky you can even see a turtle resting on the beach.


Hike to the Captain Cook Memorial

After the morning of snorkelling and visiting the historic park, we headed to the Captain Cook Memorial. We did it in that order so we wouldn't have to drive here and there, but in retrospect it would have been a much better idea to drive a little extra in the morning and start the day with this hike.

One thing to know about the hike is that there is about 400 meters elevation difference between the parking lot and the sea level. And there are about two trees along the way where you can stop for a cool down, except for that it's the hot sun all the way. The hike is about 6.4 kilometers (round trip). It's downhill all the way there and uphill all the way back. We started the hike at about 11 am, it was already hot on the way down.

So it was really nice to be able to swim in the ocean down below, and to be honest I think it was the best snorkeling spot in all of Hawaii. The water along the coast is shallow and the marine life is abundant. And sometimes you can even see dolphins in this bay.


However, due to the late start, we climbed back up in the early afternoon in the biggest heat of the day, which was not very pleasant, especially with no shade on the way.

I would therefore recommend everyone to go on this hike in the early morning or late afternoon, and to have at least 1 liter of drinking water and a baseball cap/hat per person, and of course sunscreen. By the way, the hike is beautiful because the ocean is the view all the way, so don't miss it.


Kona

Kona is the largest town on the west coast. It's a very cozy little seaside town with a Mediterranean impression. Lots of flowers in the streets, bustling with life, full of restaurants, worth a short stop and walk at the beach promenade.


‘Alula Beach

We started our Big Island road trip with the west coast, partly because we were flying to Kona and partly because we had planned to do a manta ray snorkeling on our first day. However, when we finished the Captain Cook Hike, we got the message that unfortunately today's tour was canceled due to big waves. Well, we were not very happy, because as the plan was to drive around the island, we didn't have time to wait until the next day, so our only option was to reschedule the manta ray dive for the last day (the night before departure). Luckily there were still places available for that day, we just had to hope that the weather was in our favor as well.

So we spontaneously changed the plan and visited a couple of beaches on the evening of the first day that we had planned for the last day on the west coast, when we were sneaking back to Kona.

So we visited 'Alula Beach, a real little hidden gem. It's in a nature reserve. A cute little calm beach that is also very popular with turtles, so we saw at least 7 of them.


We watched the sunset from another beach, then headed off in the dark to the accommodation we booked at Hipcamp. We spent the night in a beautiful garden, surrounded by sheep, goats and avocado trees.


Day 2: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Punaluʻu Beach, black sand volcanic beach with lots of turtles

This full day was dedicated to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. On the way there though we stopped at Punaluʻu Beach. This was a great decision because it is a beautiful volcanic beach with sooty black sand. It's surrounded by a fabulous palm forest, and turtles like to rest here.


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This national park offers amazing things for visitors. Here, you can get up close to the world's most active volcano, Kīlauea, which last delighted photographers in 2018 when a large lava flow hit the ocean, creating some very spectacular natural phenomena.


Halemaʻumaʻu crater

When we were in Hawaii in February 2022, there was no major eruption or news of volcanic activity, so we never dreamed we'd see real lava, so when we were walking by Kīlauea's Halemaʻumaʻu crater, we were very surprised when a couple shouted us “come quickly”. Lava was shooting out of the ground at the bottom of the crater. It was quite far away, but you could still see it with the naked eye, but with binoculars it was really enjoyable. So it turns out that even though there's no big volcanic eruption, there's still this kind of small activity going on all the time. So it was a great experience to see live lava. It must have been spectacular at night as well!


Thurston Lava Tube

Our next stop was the Thurston Lava Tube.

Lava Tubes are underground tunnels formed by a lava flow.

Lava usually leaves the eruption site in channels. These channels remain very hot even when their close surroundings cool down. This means that walls slowly form around them as the surrounding lava cools and as the channel melts deeper. These channels may be deep enough to be buried in crust, forming an insulating tube that keeps the lava molten and acts as a conduit for the flowing lava. These types of lava tubes are usually closer to the lava's eruption point.

They are effectively like an underground tunnel several kilometres long with solidified lava on all sides.


Kīlauea Iki Crater Trail

The Iki hiking trail takes you all the way down into the crater, I highly recommend you take the time to do this, it's a super experience, it's like walking on the Moon. Everywhere you look, everything is covered in lava. There are plants sprouting up from one or two cracks. But apart from these few plants, the crater is completely barren, with only the various lava shapes visible everywhere.


Chain of Craters Road

This road (motorway) is a 29km long road that descends from 4000m to sea level. Along the way, it is breathtaking to see how the lava has reshaped the landscape. You can clearly see how the lava flow solidified into stone while flowing down the mountain, giving you the feeling of still flowing, even though it is no longer moving. You can also see in places where the old asphalt road used to go, and how the lava flow, knowing no obstacles, has made the old road disappear. Perhaps it is the Chain of Craters Road that best suggests and conveys the power of nature.


At the end of the road is the Holei Sea Arch, this lava arch is almost 30 meters high and constantly being shaped by the sea.


If you do all of the above, a day will go by in a flash. I think it's worth a whole day to visit this national park, because you can see something special here that you can see in very few other places on Earth. And as I said, it really feels like you're on another planet, not even on Earth


Day 3: East side of the island

Kaumana Caves

This morning was also dominated by lava, as we started the day at Kaumana Caves, a lava tube formed by the eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano. You can walk a little longer into the tube, which is on the left-hand side. You can walk so far that you can't see any natural light at all, so if you turn off your torch it's literally pitch black and you can't see anything at all. It's very humid inside and it constantly looks like fog is drizzling when you hold up your flashlight. I liked this lava tube much better than the Thurston Lava Tube in Volcanoes National Park. There were a lot less people and it was really pitch black all the way.


Akaka Falls

There are many places in Hawaii where you have to pay extra for parking and extra for admission to a certain natural attraction, in which case it's worth parking a little further away from the gate and walking an extra 100 meters, you can save $10-20, legally. Akaka Falls is a good example for this.

The entrance fee to the falls was $5 per person. The trail leads through a very beautiful rainforest, the scenery itself is beautiful, and after a short walk you can see the waterfall plummeting from 135 meters height. Here you can only walk on the marked trail, so it's a loop hike, but it's also beautiful in the parts where you can't see the falls.


Onomea Bay hike

This is an easy, short but very scenic route. It's very interesting because the route cuts a botanical garden in half and then goes all the way down to the shore, where there are often huge waves lapping the beach.

It's an hour max, depending on how much you enjoy the ocean view.


Hilo

Hilo is the largest city on the East Coast, with over 44,000 inhabitants and a significant Japanese population.

In honour of this, there is a beautiful Japanese garden in the city, next to the beach, which is free to visit. Also, next to the Japanese garden is a small tiny island called Coconut Island. It is a great place for a short walk.

In Hilo there is a beautiful public park, the Wailoa River Park, which is the favourite place for locals to hang out in good weather, to play outdoor games or to have a picnic. This park surrounds the Waiākea Pond, and there are a few beautiful, unique bridges to cross the pond easily.


Day 4: South and East of Big Island

Kaimū black sand beach, Pāhoa

We spent this morning with our Couchsurfing host, who was a very nice guy by the way, who welcomed us as if we had arrived at a Michelin-starred restaurant. He was a very active, youthful 73-year old man full of joy. He invested so much time into his beautiful garden, he grew pineapples, lemons, bananas, avocados, special trees, flowers...


That morning he took us to the black sandy beach of Kaimū. This beach was also flooded with lava and it was incredible to see how life was growing again despite of the thick lava layer. Small plants grew in the lava cracks, palm trees were growing out of the discarded coconuts, without any proper soil, just lava.

When we visited this beach, it apparently was the day for the local farmers market. It was very cool. The locals gathered, chatted, sold their goods…


We hit a few other beaches on the way back, then said goodbye to our host and headed north, as we had a long way to go to get to the northernmost point of the Big Island, where we booked our overnight Hipcamp accommodation.


Rainbow Falls

We made our way to Rainbow Falls. It's a short little stop, because you don't have to hike at all to see the falls, as the viewing point is right next to the parking lot. It's not as big as Akaka Falls, but if you're on your way nearby, make sure you stop, because it's not every day that you can see such a beautiful waterfall right next to a parking lot.


Waipio Valley Lookout

Heading north past the Mauna Kea volcano, you approach the old extinct Kohala volcano. This is the oldest of the five major volcanoes on Hawaii (Big Island), some research suggests it may be up to 1 million years old, but it hasn't erupted for the past 120,000 years. The volcano can be circumnavigated from the south, and before you get away from the ocean the last lookout point with a beautiful view of the volcano (with the ocean in the background) is the Waipio Valley lookout. It is worth stopping here and having a picnic with this beautiful view.

Alternatively, you can hike down to the valley and the black sand beach.


Kēōkea Beach

Kēōkea Beach is the perfect end to the day. There are picnic facilities, toilets and even a small lookout for whale watching.

Stay out at night for some stargazing. There is very little light pollution at the northern area and when it's not cloudy you can see the stars beautifully, even shooting stars :)


Day 5: Northern tip, west coast, manta rays

Pololū Trail

We started our last full day with the Pololū hike. From Honokane Nui Lookout and back, it's about a 5.5 km hike, first along the oceanfront and then mostly through the forest. A pleasant hike, although the first section in particular is quite steep. On the way up we had to stop for a rest, but the local youngsters were happily running barefoot with surfboards under their arms… :)

All in all, it's not a difficult hike, and it's definitely worth the effort because of the beautiful views from the lookout point. Just you, the dormant volcano and the endless ocean.


Hapuna Beach

After the hike, we headed back towards Kona, passing the famous Hapuna Beach on the way. It's worth parking outside the gate here too! It's quite touristy, but has a nice sandy (not black) beach with big waves. It's a great place to cool down and freshen up...

There are quite a few beaches meandering down the east coast: Beach 69, Kua Bay, Mahai'ula Beach. The latter is supposed to be a beautiful beach, but only a dirt road is leading there through solidified lava, full of potholes. We didn't dare to take the trip with our campervan as we didn’t want to cause any damage to the van in the last half day, so we turned back and looked for more accessible beaches.


Manta ray snorkeling adventure

And last but not least, it was time for our last adventure in the Big Island, the manta ray snorkeling, and luckily the weather was on our side this time.

The manta ray is known as a gentle giant. The adult is 3-5 meters long and has a swim span of 4.5-7 meters, but can be even longer. Manta rays thrive in shallow, plankton-rich waters. With their wide mouths they can catch up-to 5 kg of plankton a day. Each ray has a different pattern on its abdomen. The different number of spots, size and location of the spots being practically like a human fingerprint.

(These are not my photos, just wanted to show you some proper ones, where you can actually see the details.)


This manta ray adventure starts in the late afternoon, you sail out close to the rays' favourite place, and after the sun goes down the adventure begins. Special surfboards with LED lights mounted on the bottom of them are put in the water. At night after the sun goes down the ocean gets dark, but this light attracts plankton and therefore manta rays.


The surfboard is fitted with handholds to hold onto when you are submerged in the water, and a styrofoam pole is placed under the foot so that people can be completely on to the surface. You breathe through a pipe, minimizing the chance of accidentally touching the manta rays.

The rays will suddenly appear in the deep and approach the surfboard (and the ~ 10 people attached to the board), and just when you think they're going to hit the board, they suddenly barrel and turn upside-down, they “fly” a few inches away from you and the surfboard, gobbling up thousands of plankton.

It's a unique experience, as a creature the size of a king-size bed approaches you with its giant mouth and glides just a few centimeters below you, while hunting for tiny creatures that are almost invisible to the naked eye. It's a huge experience.


I think this program crowned our Big Island adventure and was a perfect ending to our 5-day road trip.


Many people ask which islands are the most worth visiting, if one does not have time to visit them all. On these lists, the Big Island is not usually at the top of the list, even though it has a lot of wonderful things to offer. To be honest, I don't really want to rank them, because every island has its own charm.


And if you're going to Hawaii, literally to the other side of the world, it's worth going for a longer trip. And I would honestly recommend skipping the relaxation part, because you can relax anywhere, but there are very few places in the world where you can find so many natural wonders in such a concentrated way and easy access. Once you are already in Hawaii, there are several daily flights between the islands at relatively reasonable prices. It takes 30-40 minutes to fly to the neighboring islands, and renting a car is a great way to explore each island.


If you enjoyed my Big Island post, come with me to Oahu, Kauai and Maui as well! 🙂

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