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The Big Island of Hawaii is full of natural wonders waiting to be explored. From volcanic craters to black sand beaches, waterfalls, historic sites, and scenic drives, there is something for every type of traveler.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Don’t miss visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see Kilauea volcano and take a helicopter tour for an aerial view of the island’s diverse landscapes.

Also make time for snorkeling, visiting historic Kona villages, and watching the sunset at Mauna Kea.

In this comprehensive guide of about 3000 words, we will provide detailed information on the top attractions and sights you must see on the Big Island. We have carefully curated recommendations based on popularity, reviews, and insider tips from frequent Hawaii visitors and residents.

Explore Volcanic Landscapes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Crater

Kilauea crater is a must-see when visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This crater is located within Halemaʻumaʻu crater and contains an active lava lake that has been continuously erupting since 2008.

The glowing molten rock is an awe-inspiring sight, especially at night when the red-hot lava illuminates the steam rising from the lake. Several lookout points like Jaggar Overlook and Halemaʻumaʻu Overlook provide safe vantage points to take in the view day or night.

Just be prepared for sulfur dioxide gases that can cause respiratory irritation.

Thurston Lava Tube

For an up-close look at the aftermath of Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions, take a walk through Thurston Lava Tube. This geological formation was created centuries ago when the outer crust of a lava flow hardened while the molten lava inside continued to flow downhill, leaving a hollow tunnel behind.

Lit by electric lights, this chilly subterranean tunnel gives visitors a glimpse of the power of Kilauea volcano. The contrast between the lush rainforest surrounds and the lava cave is striking. Thurston Lava Tube is suitable for all ages and fitness levels.

Chain of Craters Road

One of the most scenic drives in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is along Chain of Craters Road. This 19-mile roadway descends 3,700 feet in elevation from the park entrance, providing jaw-dropping views with every twist and turn.

The road ends abruptly where a past lava flow met the sea, which is a fascinating landscape to explore on foot. In fact, 150 acres of new land was recently added here when Kilauea Volcano erupted underwater.

Highlights along the drive include the thundering Lua Manu crater, volcanic pit craters, and a walk through a lava tube. Picnic areas dot the route for taking a driving break. Allow at least 90 minutes for this unforgettable adventure.

Soak in the Tranquil Beauty Along the Hilo Coast

The Hilo coast on the eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island brims with gorgeous scenery and serene places to visit. From thundering waterfalls to lively farmers markets, you’ll find plenty of ways to soak up the area’s peaceful beauty.

Rainbow Falls

True to its name, Rainbow Falls showcases lovely cascades and pools that shimmer with color when sunlight hits the mist. The waterfall stands an impressive 80 feet tall and almost 100 feet wide. Take the short hike to viewpoints for photographing this natural wonder.

Gaze downward from footbridges arching over the stream or admire the billowing curtains of water from overlooks.

The area surrounding the waterfall abounds in tropical foliage like giant ferns, banana trees, yellow hibiscus, and red ginger. Listen for the melodic calls of native birds as you stroll along. For the best photo opts, go in the morning when sunlight sparkles through the tumbling water.

Akaka Falls State Park

At 442 feet tall, Akaka Falls ranks as Hawaii’s largest waterfall. Nearby, you’ll also see the smaller 100-foot Kahūnā Falls. Follow paved paths through lush rainforest overflowing with fragrant flowering plants on your way to view these gorgeous falls.

Stop at numbered posts along the trail that describe the plants growing beside the walkway. Botanical signs even teach you the Hawaiian names for each tropical species.

Picnic tables scatter throughout the park, so you can enjoy a tasty bite along with stellar waterfall panoramas. To learn about the area’s cultural history and lore, read signs posted around the park. They tell fascinating stories of ancient Hawaiian gods, goddesses, and supernatural beings tied to the land.

Hilo Farmers Market

Each Wednesday and Saturday, Hilo’s farmers market fills with over 200 local farmers and artisans. They offer fresh, delicious tropical produce straight from the fields as well as quality Hawaiian crafts and cuisine.

As you browse through the market’s colorful rows of vendors, look for exotic fruits like rambutan and lychee along with more familiar mangos, avocados, bananas, and fragrant pineapple. Sample freshly made taro chips or enjoy a cone of shave ice drizzled with tropical syrups.

Pick up Hawaiian sea salt, Kona coffee beans, jars of macadamia nut spreads, handmade jewelry, and pretty flower leis woven on the spot while you wait.

With prices up to 50% less than grocery stores, make sure you stop by Hilo’s farmers market while visiting. Immerse yourself in welcoming Hawaiian culture while gathering tasty ingredients for a beachside picnic or sunset dinner.

Discover Historic and Cultural Sites in North Kona

Puuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park preserves the site of an ancient Hawaiian place of refuge. The 420 acres of land contain royal grounds, including temple platforms, royal fishponds, sledding tracks, and thatched houses where Hawaiians once lived.

This National Historical Park allows visitors to step back in time and learn about the culture and history of the native people who inhabited the islands centuries ago.

The most striking feature of the park is the Great Wall bordering the royal grounds. This imposing wall stands 10 feet high and 1,000 feet long, built from lava rock to protect the sacred area. Inside the Great Wall, visitors can see the Hale o Keawe temple that once housed the bones of chiefs.

Other highlights include ki’i (statues), fishponds, petroglyphs (rock carvings), and the Kii Hulu Manu heiau used for healing the sick.

The park offers regular cultural demonstrations from native practitioners on topics like quilting, net fishing, canoe carving, and thatching houses with palm fronds. These demonstrations showcase ancient Hawaiian skills and crafts that have been passed down through generations.

The park also has an oceanside picnic area, walking paths, and a visitor center with cultural exhibits.

Historic Kailua Village Walking Tour

The small oceanside village of Kailua-Kona offers a glimpse into Hawaii’s past. A stroll through the historic district reveals 19th century missionary homes, small shops and cafes housed in early 20th century buildings, and Huliheʻe Palace where Hawaiian royalty once lived.

Many of the buildings have been preserved or restored and now house little museums, boutique shops and restaurants.

One landmark is Mokuaikaua Church, built from lava rock in 1837 by the first missionaries to arrive in Kailua. Its old cemetery contains the graves of Hawaiian royalty. The small, one-room Huliheʻe Palace across the street served as a vacation home for Hawaii’s second to last monarch King Kalakaua and his sister Queen Liliuokalani.

Along the main Aliʻi Drive, tourists will discover souvenir shops selling local Kona coffee, boutiques filled with authentic Hawaiian artworks, and cafes serving locally-grown tropical fruit. An open-air market takes place every day along the waterfront where local farmers and fishermen sell fresh produce like avocado, mango, pineapple, and macadamia nuts as well as freshly caught fish.

Ka Lae (South Point)

At the southernmost tip of the Big Island lies Ka Lae, also known as South Point. Tourists make the hour drive along the two-lane highway just to stand at the edge of this remote and rugged place. Here the rocky cliffs plunge into the ocean hundreds of feet below, whipped by wind and waves.

Visitors come to marvel at the views, ride ATVs on old fishermen’s paths, watch wild horses, or try their luck fishing from the shore.

The actual Ka Lae point sits about a half mile walk from the parking lot along an uneven dirt path. Along the way sits an old collapsed stone house, windswept Cook Pines, and panoramic views. At road’s end rises the Ka Lae lighthouse standing tall on the bluffs to warn ships of the rocky shores.

Be awed by Mauna Kea – The Tallest Mountain

Mauna Kea Summit Adventures Tour

When visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, one of the top sights to see is the towering Mauna Kea volcano. At 13,796 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the Pacific and home to the most epic views on the island.

One of the best ways to experience this natural wonder is by taking a Mauna Kea Summit Adventures tour.

These expertly guided small group tours take you to the very top of Mauna Kea aboard specialized 4×4 vehicles equipped to handle the rugged terrain. As you climb higher, you’ll be amazed by the changing scenery and geology around you.

The air grows crisp and clear as you near the summit, where on a good day visibility can extend over 100 miles.

Stargazing and Astronomy Programs

The peak of Mauna Kea is also one of the world’s best locations for stargazing and astronomy. The dry atmosphere, elevated position, and lack of light pollution come together to create perfect star-filled skies. When the sun goes down, an endless glittering blanket of stars is revealed overhead.

For the best Mauna Kea summit stargazing experience, join one of the exceptional astronomy programs offered by local experts. Their high-powered telescopes provide an unforgettable opportunity to closely observe planets, galaxies, nebulae and more that are invisible to the naked eye.

It’s an experience that will leave you in awe of the vastness of the cosmos.

Mauna Kea Beach

In addition to its towering volcanic slopes, Mauna Kea is also home to one of Hawaii’s most beautiful white sand beaches. Mauna Kea Beach (also known as Kaunaoa) is consistently ranked one of the top beaches in Hawaii and the U.S.

Flanked by palm trees, this crescent-shaped beach features powdery white sand sloping down to brilliant turquoise waters perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Gentle currents create calm conditions, making Mauna Kea Beach an ideal spot for families.

The surrounding Mauna Kea Beach Hotel offers fine dining with incredible sunset views.

Truly, Mauna Kea delivers awe-inspiring sights unlike anywhere else on the Big Island. From sand to summit, add seeing this majestic mountain to your Hawaii bucket list!

Immerse in the Island’s Diverse Marine Life While Snorkeling

Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park

Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park is a protected marine conservation district that offers some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island. The clear, calm waters make it easy to spot a variety of tropical fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and even whales during their winter migration.

One of the bay’s top snorkeling spots is the Captain Cook Monument, a white obelisk marking the spot where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779. Snorkelers can swim around the monument’s rocky shoals to see schools of convict tangs, Moorish idols, and yellow tangs.

For an unforgettable experience, take a kayak or boat tour to snorkel the monument.

Kahalu’u Beach Park

Another fantastic snorkeling destination is Kahaluʻu Beach Park, a family-friendly beach with a protected reef that’s home to over 80 species of fish. Green sea turtles are commonly spotted munching on limu (seaweed) growing on the lava rocks.

Beginners can snorkel the inner lagoon’s sandy bottom, while more advanced snorkelers can venture out towards the reef drop-off. Lifeguards are on duty, making Kahaluʻu a safe spot for swimmers and snorkelers of all ages. Don’t forget to pack reef-safe sunscreen to protect this fragile ecosystem!

Kapoho Tide Pools

The Kapoho Tide Pools near the eastern tip of the Big Island offer a unique snorkeling experience through a maze of lava rock pools filled with marine life. These natural pools were created during the 1960 volcanic eruption that produced the easternmost Cape Kumukahi.

Now they act as a natural laboratory to observe sea creatures like pufferfish, octopus, crabs, and needlefish. Exploring the tide pools when they are filled is an adventure, but make sure to check tide schedules for the best viewing conditions.

And always take care not to harm the fragile marine ecosystem in this special spot.

Explore the Big Island’s Dramatic and Diverse Landscapes

Waipio Valley Lookout

Waipio Valley offers one of the most breathtaking lookout views on the Big Island. This valley features steep cliffs dropping over 2000 feet down to a lush landscape filled with forest, taro fields, and waterfall streams.

Standing at the Waipio Overlook, visitors are amazed by the stunning emerald green valley stretching out before them. Only a winding single-lane road leads down into the valley, with no outlet and limited admittance for rental vehicles, making witnessing Waipio from above truly a spectacular sight.

Pololu Valley Lookout

On the island’s northeastern tip lies the dramatic Pololu Valley. The Pololu Lookout, located at the trail head to the valley, delivers striking views of intricately eroded cliffs covered in green flora, plunging down to remote black sand beaches and a forested valley.

This raw landscape looks as wild and untouched as when the first settlers arrived in Pololu generations ago. It delivers an unbeatable glimpse into the island’s ancient lava formations and the natural wonders created over time.

Saddle Road (Route 200)

Saddle Road, also known as Route 200, is a striking drive traversing from east to west between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. As the road climbs to over 6,000 feet, magnificent views abound in all directions — sprawling ranch lands, tiny towns, and both island peaks.

Especially beautiful at sunset with ever-changing colors glowing on the towering shield volcanoes, this diverse landscape showcases the Big Island’s dramatic landscapes unlike anywhere else on the island.


With its dramatic volcanic landscapes, historic sites, scenic drives, secluded beaches, and incredible snorkeling spots, the Big Island has endless sights and activities for travelers. We hope our guide gives you a great starting point to plan your own perfect itinerary.

Just be sure not to try fitting everything in one trip! The island’s diverse regions and attractions deserve enough time to explore at a relaxed pace. Have a wonderful time discovering the magnificent natural beauty of Hawaii’s largest island.

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