You will find a large variety of Big Island Attractions on Hawaii. The attractions range from active volcanoes to beautiful rainforests full of waterfalls. There are too many attractions to name them all, so here is a list of 21 great attractions close to Hilo and Kona.
1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
In my opinion this is the #1 Big Island Attraction. Imagine walking on dried lava, walking through a lava tube, looking down into Pele’s Home, hiking across a crater, feeling the hot steam being emitted from the earth’s core and seeing lava flowing into the ocean. This is one attraction that must be seen. See more about the park and photos on Volcanoes National Park page.
The first time I visited the big island in 1979, Kalapana was a beautiful black sand beach where local families would come and enjoy a picnic and spend the day playing in the water. Today lava flows from Kilauea have pretty much destroyed most of the beach and surrounding homes. You can see homes and cars engulfed in the hardened lava. There is still a black sand beach here but you need to hike over hardened lava to reach this big island attraction. It is a real eerie sight. Read more about Kalapana’s history and on the page entitled Kalapana Beach.
3. Place of Refuge
Pu’uhonua O Honuna National Historic Park (Place of Refuge) is a national park and great big island attraction located about 30 miles south of Kona. This well restored Heaiu was a sacred sanctuary for ancient Hawaiians who broke laws (Kapu). Kapu breakers would be able to save their lives if they were able to safely reach the place of refuge before being caught. This is a very nice cultural experience where you can also see an ancient Heiau, ancient fishponds, thatched roof homes and lava rock walls. There are also live demonstrations of how early Hawaiians built canoes and tikis. This is a great cultural stop near Kona.
4. Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve
This Big Island attraction is located along the Kohala Coast. When you come to the Waikola Golf Course, The Moloma trail is located across the street. The Trail takes about 1 hour to travel both ways. You will hike over an old lava field on a trail that winds through a beautiful Kawe tree forest. At the end of the trail is a large lava field with more than 3,000 petroglyphs carved into the lava by Ancient Hawaiians. This archaeological site is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in all of the Hawaiian Islands. The meanings of the carvings are still not known, but it is believed that they are birth and death records as well as any other significant events in the lives of the people who lived here thousands of years ago. If you like archaeology, this is a great big island attraction.
5. Akaka Falls State Park
This big island attraction is awesome. Akaka Falls State Park has a nice self guided ¼ mile walk through a lush tropical rainforest that leads to the 100 foot Kahuna Falls. As you complete the loop, you will reach the spectacular scenic vista of the majestic 442 foot Akaka Falls. The waterfall is absolutely amazing. It runs down a sheer volcanic cylinder-like cliff. Along the trail you will see a variety of birds and geckos. The plants you will see are beautiful. We saw orchids, ginger, ferns, a grove of bamboo trees and beautiful banyan trees. J This is an awesome way to spend and hour or so.
6. Rainbow Falls State Park
Rainbow Falls is located on the Wailuku River. This big island attraction is a natural wonder, Rainbow Falls drops 80 feet into a large pond about 100 feet in diameter. When the water from the falls hit’s the pool below, it creates a mist which catches the sun causing rainbows. It is best to see this natural phenomenon early in the morning. Behind the waterfall is a deep cave which is the home of the legendary Goddess Hina who made beautiful tapa cloth from the bark of Mamake and Wauke trees. The Rainbow falls are much more powerful and beautiful after a rain. If you come to the falls after a big rain, you gain a new respect for the power of nature. There is a lot of vibrant green vegetation around the falls and along the river. Two mile from this spot is the next Big Island attraction, The Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls. these big island attractions are free.
7. Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls of Wailuku River State Park
This big island attraction known as Pe’epe’e Falls is a lesser known waterfall a few miles up the river from Rainbow Falls. Pe’epe’e Falls plungers about 80 feet to a pool below that is surrounded by lava from eruptions from Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea 3,000 - 10,000 years ago. The water from this waterfall enters an area where it become rapids. These rapids rush through and under old lava rocks, lava slabs and lava tubes where the water mixes with the air under the lava and bubbles back up creating a Jacuzzi-like effect or the look of a pot boiling. The boiling effect is much better after a big rain when the water is moving faster and more powerful. You can view the falls and Boiling Pots from the parking lot, or you can walk down the trail closer to the river. DO NOT ENTER THE RIVER!!! The river is very strong here and people have drowned in this area.
8. King Kamehameha’s Birthplace
This is another free and historically importanat big Island attraction. King Kamehameha I was a great warrior and leader that conquered the Hawaiian Islands and united the islands into one kingdom in 1810. There was a prophecy that a bright light in the sky with feathers like a bird would signal the birth of a great chief. King Kamehameha I was born in 1758, the same year as Haley’s Comet sailed through the sky. When the baby was born, his name was Pai’ea. The islander’s warriors believe he was the dangerous prophecy that was foretold. It was ordered that the child be killed. Runners carried the newborn child to the mountain ridges of Kohala to protect him from enemies. When it was thought that the danger was over, Pai’ea came out of hiding and was renamed Kamehameha (The Lonely One). Kamehameha was trained as a warrior and his legendary strength became well known when he overturned the 3 ton Naha Stone. Legend had it that whoever overturned the Naha stone would rule Hawaii. Today the Naha Stone can be seen in front of the Hilo Public Library. The Kamehameha statue can be seen in Kapa’au in north Kohala. Kamehameha’s birthplace is very close to Mo’okini Heiau. The 1500 year old Mo’okini Heiau is the oldest and most sacred temple in all of Hawaii. To reach Kamehameha’s birthplace and Mo’okini Heiau, take Akoni Pule Hwy turn north on Upolu Point Rd. near the town of Hawi. When you reach Upolu Airport, take the dirt road to the birthplace which is marked with a sign. This is a great historical big island attraction.
9. Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park is a marine life conservation area is a fantastic big island attraction, that also marks the spot of the first westerner to set foot on the Island. Captain James cook arrived in the Hawaiian islands on the island of Kauai in 1778. In 1779 he sailed to Kealakekua Bay and was killed there in a fight with the natives. A white obelisk monument stands across the bay as a memorial to Captain Cook. On the east side of the bay is Hikiau Heiau. This Heaiu is dedicated to the Hawaiian God Lono. Lono was a God associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall and music. Captain Cooks Monument can easily be reached by Kayak. Being a marine life conservation area, this is a great place to snorkel, kayak or scuba dive.
10. Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Garden.
Pana’ewa Rainforest zoo is the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States and the admission is free. This is a great little zoo (about 12 acres) just outside of Hilo. This big island attraction is a lush tropical rainforest and a terrific place to view over 60 species of animals. There is also more than 40 species of plants, trees and flowers. There is an aviary that has a large number of tropical birds as well as a petting zoo for children. The main attraction at the zoo is Namaste, a white Bengal tiger. He was donated to the zoo by Dirk Arthur, a magician at the Tropicana Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. This zoo is very tropical and pretty and it is a great way to spend a couple of hours or the whole afternoon.
11. Lava Tree Monument State Park
This is a very different type of big island attraction. Lava Tree Monument State Park is a 17.1 acre state park in the Nana wale Forest Reserve full of native plants and trees. As you enter the park, you will walk through a grove of Monkey Pod trees. The trail is an easy loop that winds through Bamboo , orchids and ferns. Then you will reach the area of the Lava Trees. Kilauea Volcano erupted just after a big storm in 1790. The east rift spewed hot molten lava through the forest. The lava hit the wet Ohia trees and cooled around the trunks. The hot lava turned the trees to ash leaving the cooled lava molds standing where the ohia trees once stood. A fissure opened up in the ground allowing the hot lava to flow back into the earth leaving only the lava trees. This is a terrific stop on the way to see the lava flows. There are picnic areas and restrooms located within the park
12. Mauna Kea Observatory
Mauna Kea Observatory is the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared and sub millimeter astronomy and a great big island attraction. You will need a four wheel drive vehicle to make it to the summit. I suggest stopping at the visitor center for at least one hour to get acclimated to the elevation and avoid sickness. The visitor center is at an altitude of 9200 feet. The visitor center has handouts, videos to watch, magazines showing the observatory and what is seen there as well as telescopes to view the night skies. The telescopes are available for viewing from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm each night. There is also a nice gift shop located at the visitor center. The summit is at an elevation of 13,796 feet and causes atmospheric pressure sickness. These symptoms include: Vomiting, severe headaches, coughing, breathing difficulties, extreme tiredness, disorientation and blue lips and fingernails. The Observatories on the summit are not open to the public, but the views from the summit are amazing.
13. Banyan Tree Drive
Banyan Tree Drive is a great big island attraction that contains more than 50 giant banyan trees with the long roots hanging form their branches. These roots are filled with ferns and orchids. In 1933, Hawaiian park commissioners came up with the idea of having visiting dignitaries plant small banyan trees on the peninsula in Liliʻuokalani park and put plaques on the trees to commemorate their visit. They thought it would be a little like Hollywood’s walk of fame. In 1933 Cecil B. De Mille, his wife and several actors planted trees to commemorate the filming of “Four Frightened People” on the island. That same year, 8 more trees were planted by celebrities including Babe Ruth. In 1934 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited and planted a tree, the commission decided to build a crushed coral road through the grove so visitors could drive through the trees. In 1934 10 more celebrities planted trees in the grove. The tradition continued and in 1935 15 trees were planted by celebrities. In 1936, 6 more trees were planted. In 1937, 5 celebrities planted trees in the grove. In 1941, 2 more trees were planted. In 1952, Richard Nixon Planted one that was destroyed by a Tsunami. In 1972, Pat Nixon Planted 2 trees. She Planted one for President Richard Nixon to take place for the tree that was destroyed and she planted one for herself as “First Lady”. More than 50 of these trees thrive today. The have survived numerous storms as well as several Tsunamis that devastated most of Hilo. This big island attraction is a nice drive or stroll down memory lane.
14. Lili’uokalani Gardens
Lili’oukalani Gardens is a beautiful authentic Japanese garden built in the early 1900’s to commemorate the Japanese immigrants that came to work on the island. This big island attraction is located on Banyan Tree Drive in Hilo. The garden is 30 delightful acres of Hawaiian and Asian plants. You can stroll along the peaceful walkways past ponds, bridges and pagodas. I love this place. I watched as teenage boys walked home from school and quietly stopped to fish in one of the ponds. I was amazed at how tranquil it was. Not at all like the teenagers elsewhere. You can have a picnic lunch in the park and then walk across the footbridge to Coconut Island. This is a lovely, peaceful park well worth the stop. Be sure to visit the banyan trees along the drive.
15. Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Plantation and Factory
The Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory was established in 1946 and is located about 5 miles south of Hilo. Although is could be considered “touristy”, it is also fun and educational. After driving through acres of Macadamia Nut Trees, you will reach the visitor center. At the visitor center, you can look through glass windows into the factory and follow the nuts down the assembly line from cracking to roasting to chocolate dipping to packaging and on the gift shop where you can buy them. This is a nice stop on the way to Volcano National Park or anywhere else south of Hilo. The Plantation is opened to the public daily from 8:30 am until 5:00 pm. This is a touristy but nice big island attraction.
16. Na’alehu Town
Na’alehu (The Volcanic Ashes) is the southern most town in the United States. This is a quiet picturesque little town who’s latitude is the same as Belize and Cuba. Na’alehu is located South of Kona. The southernmost point in the United States is Called Ka'lae. This is a great big island attraction to go to be able to get a picture and tell everybody you have been to the Southernmost point in the United States. There are gift shops with Southernmost Point souvenirs as well.
17. Parker Ranch
This big island attraction was founded in 1847 by John Palmer Parker. The ranch is 225,000 acres, which is 2/3 the size of Oahu. This is one of the oldest most historical ranches in the United States. It is also one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States. Parker Ranch is a great place to learn about the history and culture of the Paniolo (Hawaiian Cowboy). The history of Parker Ranch starts way back in 1809. John Parker was a 19 year old sailor that jumped ship and hid in the brush around the bay until his ship had sailed out of sight. John Parker became friendly with King Kamehameha. In 1815 John married a daughter of one of the islands Chiefs, Princess Kipikane (Rachel). John and Rachel had three children, two sons and one daughter. These children eventually ran the ranch as did their children and grandchildren. The last Parker heir, Richard Smart died and left the ranch to The Parker School Trust Corporation. The trust supports healthcare, education and charitable giving. For three years beginning in 1942, Parker Ranch became a base for 50,000 marines who trained at the ranch and surrounding areas for the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Along the highway outside the ranch is a monument to commemorate these marines. Some interesting facts about Parker Ranch:
1. The Ranch is 225,000 acres. 2/3 the size of Oahu.
2. The Ranch has 850 miles of fence with 300 padlocks.
3. There are 15 corrals.
4. There is 175 miles of pipeline to carry water throughout the ranch, 3 water dams, 4 reservoirs, 145 water tanks, 40 ground tanks and 650 water troughs for the cattle and horses.
5. Parker Ranch produces more than 12 million pounds of beef per year.
If you enjoy history or like horseback riding, this is a great day trip.
18. Kaloko-Honokohau Natural History Park
This big island attraction looks like a big barren lava field at first glance but this 1160 acre oceanfront park is home to an ancient Heiau and ancient home sites, burial caves, fishponds, petroglyphs and a restored one mile segment of the ancient King’s Trail Footpath. The park gets very hot in the afternoon, so I suggest visiting in the early morning. At the far south end of the park is the 'Aimakapa Fishpond. This royal fishpond is the largest in Hawaii. There are a lot of native endangered birds that enjoy this area as well as sea turtles who like to come ashore on the south beaches. There has been speculation that Kamehameha’s bones have been buried at this site also. The Main entrance to the park is between mile markers 96 and 97. There is a gate that marks the northern entrance and the southern entrance is at Honokohau Harbor on Kealakehe Parkway. There are signs to the entrance.
19. Hulihe’e Palace
Hulihe’e Palace is located on Ali’I Drive in Historic Kailua-Kona village. This royal big island attraction, Hulihe’e Palace was once the vacation home of Hawaii’s Ali’I (royalty). The palace was built in 1838. The house was built using Koa and Ohia timber, lava rock and coral lime mortar. The 3 foot thick walls were paneled with Koa wood. The house has 2 floors and a basement. There are six rooms: an entry hall, dinning room, parlor, a sitting room and two bedrooms. The house was originally built for the Governor of Hawaii, John Adams Kuakini. Kuakini lived there until his death in 1844. The house was then handed down to his son William Pitt Le’leiohoku and his wife, Princess Ruth Luck Le’Leiohoku. When she died in 1883, the house was left to her cousin, Princess Bernice Pauah Bishop. She died within a year and the house was bought by King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapi’olani. Kalakaua remodeled the house, widening the lanai’s, stuccoing the exterior and plastering the interior. He had put extensive gold leaf, crown molding and decorative ceilings in the home. He also added redwood pillars and crystal chandeliers. When Queen Kapi’olani died, the house was left to their sons Prince Kuhio Kalaniona’ole and Prince David Kawananakoa. The house was sold and it’s contents auctioned off in 1914. The house was then purchased in 1925 by the territory of Hawaii to be operated as a museum by the Daughters of Hawaii. A large company wanted the property to build a large hotel in Kailua-Kona, but the Daughters of Hawaii would not sell and the home today is a fantastic museum filled with a collection of ancient Hawaiian artifacts along with personal belongings of Hawaii’s Ali’I. This is a great collection of Victorian artifacts from the era of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi’olani. You will see beautiful Koa wood furniture, ornaments and artifacts from Hawaii’s past. One Sunday per month, the Hulihe’e palace Concert offers free performances from the Hulihe’e Palace Band and The Merrie Monarchs Chorale. The 2006 damage from the earthquake has been repaired and the Palace restoration was completed in 2009. There is also a gift shop on the property. Enjoy a piece of Hawaii’s Royal past while visiting this big island attraction.
20. Black and Green Sand Beaches
If you are looking for a great big island attraction, you must go to see the black and green sand beaches. There are only a few places on earth were you can see these masterpieces. Black sand beaches are formed when hot lava hit’s the ocean and cools, breaking into tiny particles of black sand. The dark sand and dark ocean water are an outstanding combination. Green Sand Beaches are also formed from volcanic rock and lava. The difference is that these particles have been compressed under high pressure. When coal is compressed under high pressure, a diamond is formed. When volcanic rock is compressed under high pressure, The “Hawaiian Diamond” is formed. This is a green colored lava glasslike rock. The green sand beaches are tiny particles of the same process. There are a few black and green sand beaches on the Big Island. To see a black sand beach, I recommend Punalu’u Beach. This is a beautiful nice sized black sand beach that is located off of highway 11 on the southern tip of the island between mile markers 55 and 56. Swimming at this beach is safe although there are no lifeguards. Honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) often visit this beach. Please do not disturb these turtles. They are protected and it is illegal to disturb them in any way. Kalapana is another black sand beach that has been devastated by lava from Kilauea. There is still some black sand at this beach and it is a great place to see Pele’s wrath, and how the lava swallows everything in it’s path. A third black sand beach is located in Waipo Valley. This black sand beach stretches across the valley on either side of a fresh water river that runs into the ocean. The currents at Waipo are very strong and swimming is not recommended. Puu Mahana, Green Sand Beach, is located in the Kau' district. It is primarily located on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the world's largest and most massive active volcano on the southwestern part of the island. To get to this beach, you must either use a four wheel drive or hike six miles from South Point, Ka Lae, the southern most tip of the United States. This is the only green sand beach on the island.
21. Kailua-Kona Town
This big island attraction is a perfect place to learn about some of Hawaii’s rich history. Kailua-Kona is located about 15 minutes south of Kona International airport. If you take a pleasurable walk down Ali’I Drive you will find a number of historic Hawaiian treasures. Hulihe’e Palace is located on Ali’I Drive. This was home and summer retreat for a number of Hawaiian royalty since 1838. Also along Ali’I Drive across from the Palace is Mokuaikaua Church. The Mokuaikuaua Church was the first stone church built on the island of Hawaii and was completed in 1837. King Kamehameha spent his final years until 1819 living in the area near King Kamehameha Kona Beach Resort. On the grounds of this hotel is The Ahuena Heiau. This temple was rebuilt by King Kamehameha. Kailua-Kona was the original Capital of Kamehameha’s unified Hawaiian islands. The Capital was later moved to Lahaina, Maui and then to Honolulu on Oahu. Kailua-Kona which was once a quiet fishing village is now also a great place to catch a submarine excursion, take a sunset dinner cruise, go parasailing and wind surfing, go fishing or whale watching. The pier is a great place to watch the sunset across the bay. In August the Kona Coast hosts the International Billfish tournament and the International Canoe races in September. October is the month for the Kona Coffee Festival and the Iron man Triathlon. There are a lot of activities to enjoy in Kailua-Kona, but don’t forget to check out the important historical sites as well while visiting this big island attraction.
I am sure that when you visit Hawaii, you will have a great time visiting any of these big island attractions. Have fun and be safe.
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