Hawaii’s biggest and youngest island is appropriately called the “Big Island”, and is at the south-eastern-most point of the archipelago. It’s constantly expanding due to the continued eruptions from some of the five volcanoes found on this island. Currently, Kilauea is erupting and sending lava down towards the town of Pahoa. While you cannot access this site of the current lava flow due to safety and consideration for locals, there is always plenty of interesting geological wonders to see here, as well as beautiful beaches. The Big Island is where your adventurous side can shine by hiking into volcano craters, exploring underground caves and driving up to the summit of the highest mountain in the world.
Hawaii Volcanos National Park
Kīlauea is an active volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1983, and can be accessed by visiting the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. It’s somewhere between 300,000 to 600,000 years old and has been erupting since 275,000 years ago (Wikipedia, Kilauea). You can actually hike down to the floor of this volcano via the Kilauea Iki Trail that descends 400 feet into the crater. Cross warm 50 year old lava with cracks of hot steam escaping. Be careful, the rocks and steam can be extremely hot! The landscape also includes some peculiar trees with red flowers called ōhi’a lehua trees, they are the first life to begin to grow on lava flows.
Be prepared and bring light layers, rain gear and water on the hike with you.
From the crater rim, if you go left of the parking lot you’ll access the trailhead to the Thurston Lava Tube. Follow the 0.3 mile loop trail to the entrance of the tube.
Thomas A. Jaggar Museum
Continue down Crater Rim Drive and park at the museum where you can learn more about the volcano and its history. Also try the seismographs and see real volcanic rock and glass.
But the real action is outside. Go to the look-out to get a view of the Kilauea caldera and crater where you can see real red lava about a mile away. Make sure to get here after sunset and it’s advisable to check the weather before you go, you want to make sure you have good visibility to get the best view.
The museum closes at 7:30pm, but the look-out is open 24 hours a day, so stay as long as you need for the best view.
Mauna Kea Summit
Mauna Kea is one of the dormant volcanoes on the island of Hawaii. Standing at 13,803 ft (4,207 m) above sea level, it’s the tallest mountain on earth (twice the height of Mt. Everest). It’s last eruption was 4,600 years ago (Wikipedia, Mauna Kea).
Before visiting the summit, you’ll need to stop at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200ft for important safety information, weather updates and to acclimatize yourself for at least 45 minutes before heading upward. Don’t forget to be prepared for the summit. Firstly, with 40% less oxygen at the summit, if you have any medical conditions, are pregnant or recently went scuba-diving, it is not recommended that you go to the summit. Also, you need a true 4X4 vehicle to make the climb, as there are 4 miles of gravel road at a steep grade. And don’t forget how cold it can get up there, temperatures dip to close to freezing. Check conditions and weather before you go on the website.
If you can’t make it to the summit, the Visitor Information Station offers a free daily star gazing program.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (Place of Refuge)
Take a walk through the Royal Grounds of Kona’s place of refuge for Hawaiians that broke the ancient Hawaiian law. If the offender made it here, then they could be absolved by the priest. Inside the walls, you’ll find temples and examples of Hawaiian homes, as well as fish ponds, canoe building and ancient Hawaiian games. The grounds are beautiful and surroundings even more so. Entrance fees are $5.00 per vehicle.
This beautiful valley is located in the Hamakua District of the Big Island and is rightly so one of the most photographed places in Hawaii. Also called “the Valley of the Kings”, it was where Hawaiian kings took residence. The valley is at sea level, at 2,000 ft below the surrounding terrain. There is a lookout you can park at to get an amazing view and snap some pictures. If you’re feeling adventurous, and you have a true 4×4 (seeing the trend here), then you can drive down into the valley for a closer look. I will warn you that you this descent is tough even with the proper vehicle, it’s extremely steep, narrow and full of hair-pin turns. Watch out for hikers walking down, and take your time (the wrecked cars at the bottom might help reaffirm this).
At the bottom, turn left and drive until you see the clear “No trespassing” or “Kapu” signs. There you’ll see a beautiful waterfall in the distance. Be respective of the local’s private property and do not block the roads.
If you turn right at the bottom, you’ll come to a black-sand beach that’s popular with surfers and a great view of the Waipi’o Valley floor.
Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls State Park offers a self-guided tour of beautiful Hawaiian vegetation and a loop-trail with views two waterfalls. The free-falling Akaka Falls are 442 ft high and the cascading Kahuna Falls are 100 ft high. Entrance fee is $1 per person, and you can avoid the parking fee by parking on the side of the road outside the park grounds.
You can’t leave Hawaii without experiencing a real “luau”!
Luaus are a celebration of Polynesian culture, food and dance. Most large hotels on the Big Island offer an evening luau that typically includes an open bar, buffet and entertainment consisting of Polynesian stories expressed through hula dance. The feast is called the “luau” and usually consists of poi, kalua pig, poke, lomi salmon, opihi, haupia, and beer. Combine great cuisine, Mai Tais, enchanting hula dancers and the beautiful Hawaiian sunset, and you have the best party your money can buy!