Best Big Island hikes: volcano, valley and waterfall hiking in Hawaii

The Big Island of Hawaii is a playground for active types and the best island in Hawaii for families with a taste for adventure. Especially the east side, described as windward, receives a lot of rain resulting in the most spectacular scenery. Volcanoes, valleys, waterfalls and lush jungles delight the adventurous souls. Hiking on the Big Island of Hawaii is the best way to see the island’s many treasures. Are you ready to unleash your inner adventurer and discover some of the best Big Island hikes?

Unleash your inner adventurer and discover the best Big Island hikes. Find out everything you need to know about hiking on the Big Island of Hawaii.

From the intro, you would assume that we’re seasoned active travelers. Well, we’re not. Or at least we weren’t before our Hawaiian island hopping adventure. We choose to include the Big Island in our itinerary because it’s home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Along the way, we got so intrigued by the island’s beauty that we got out of our comfort zone and let Hawaii happen. And we’re glad we did, because it turned out to be the highlight of our trip. So, Hawaii’s main island is a great choice even if you’re not all that adventurous.

You’ll find a map with the best Big Island hikes at the end of this article.

7 best Big Island hikes

Kilauea Iki hike

  • Type: Big Island volcano hike.
  • Length: 4 miles (6.4 km) round trip.
  • Difficulty: Moderate. Some parts are rather easy but the transition from rainforest to crater lake is pretty rocky and steep.
  • Cost: The entry to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is $25 per vehicle. Should you plan on visiting the other Hawaiian National Parks (Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park and Haleakala National Park) within the year, you could opt for the Tri-Park Pass at $50.
The Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park counts as one of the best hikes on Big Island

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage Site and designated International Biosphere Reserve, is home to two active volcanoes. The Mauna Loa, the largest volcano in the world, and the Kilauea, which erupted in the spring of 2018.

The Kilauea is a pit crater, with vertical walls around a sunken surface. There’s actually more than one crater, the side crater being known as Kilauea Iki or Little Kilauea. The Kilauea Iki trail is a well-marked loop trail around and inside this side crater. It ranks as one of the best Big Island hikes. The landscape varies from the rim’s lush rainforest on to crater’s solidified lava lake. It’s there, on the naked lava, that you can feel the heat coming from the ground and see the steam coming through the vents. You can feel the force of nature under the palm of your hands, which is so overwhelmingly exciting. If there’s one Big Island hike you need to do, then make it this one.

The hike is mostly easy yet I classified it as moderate because the transition from the rim to the lava lake is pretty challenging. Inexperienced as we are at hiking, we still managed to do it with two young kids in tow. We dedicated a full article on our Kilauea Iki hiking experience. Since we were lucky enough to be there weeks before the 2018 eruption, we got to explore the Thurston Lava Tube as well. Unfortunately, this tube is no longer open to the public.

Some final tips:

  • It’s a good idea to pass by the Kilauea Visitors Center before starting the hike to check the latest safety updates.
  • On a sunny day, bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat. The black lava intensifies the heat.
  • Don’t let the morning mist put you off. When we started this hike, we couldn’t even see the crater from the rim because of the mist. But after an hour or so, it cleared.

Do you prefer to join a small group to see and learn more about the Hawaiian volcanoes? Then these GetYourGuide tours might be exactly what you’re looking for:

‘Akaka falls hike

  • Type: Big Island waterfall hike
  • Distance: 0.4 miles roundtrip (0.9 km).
  • Difficulty: Easy.
  • Cost: ‘Akaka Falls is located inside ‘Akaka Falls State Park. The entrance costs $5 per vehicle or $1 per pedestrian.
One of the most impressive Big Island hikes is in Akaka Falls State Park

The ‘Akaka Falls hike is the easiest out of all Big Island hikes on this list. A paved loop trail and several stairs take guide visitors through the lush and fragrant vegetation of this fern jungle. The scenery is amazing with giant ferns and gorgeous orchids along the trail. The first waterfall you come across is Kahūnā falls but you can only catch a glimpse of it from the lookout. A little further down the path, you’ll hear roaring ‘Akaka falls cascading into the pool. This 442 feet (135 m) Big Island waterfall is spectacular yet so easily accessible from the trailhead.

Final tip:

  • Stop by the food stall on the road to ‘Akaka Falls State Park for some fresh coconut juice and sliced pineapple.

Waipio Valley hike

  • Type: Big Island valley and waterfall hike.
  • Length: 3.8 miles (6.1 km) in and out.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Cost: Free.
Waipio Valley along the Hamakua coast offers one of the best hikes Big Island Hawaii
Source: Manfred Wallner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On the windward side of the northern Hamakua Coast, in the Kohala mountains, you’ll find seven verdant valleys. Waipi’o Valley is the southernmost one, also known as the Valley of the Kings. Its significant cultural and spiritual importance to Hawaiians is due to the fact that it was once the home of King Kamehameha I, the first monarch of the islands. Waipi’o translates as curved water in the Hawaiian language. The Waipi’o stream winds through the valley before it enters the ocean at the black sand beach.

To reach the Waipi’o Valley, you need to make your way down from the Waipi’o Valley Lookout, along the very steep but paved Waipi’o Valley Road, for about 1 mile. This road is accessible by 4WD however, with the 25% grade descent, it’s recommended to park your car near the lookout and hike your way down. Do so with caution because, depending on the time of day, many vans will take the same narrow and winding road down and up. Most car rental agreements mention this road as off-limits as well. You’ll see a fork in the road once you arrive at the floor of the valley.

The best Big Island hike in Waipio with Hi'ilawe Falls lookout point

Turn left for the Hi’ilawe Falls, the majestic waterfall that cascades down 1,450 feet into Waipi’o Valley. Do note that you’ll only be able to catch a glimpse of this waterfall from afar. For a closer look, you’d be trespassing private land. Always respect the private property signs and respect the residents’ privacy. But most of all, take in the spectacular valley views where horses roam free between the taro fields, shielded by 2,000 foot tall vertical cliffs. It’s easy to see why this is one of the most epic Big Island hikes, right?

If you want to pass for the steep way up and down and/or see more of the valley, consider booking one of these options:

Black sand as part of the Waipio Valley hike on Big Island Hawaii

When you turn right at the fork after the first part of the Waipi’o Valley trail and continue down the muddy path, you’ll reach the black sand beach. Depending on the time of day, you’ll see many other visitors there. If it has been raining a lot before your visit, you could spot the Kaluahine Falls. To see them up close you could walk east along the boulders for less than 1/2 mile. Don’t do it if you can’t see the boulders (at high tide) or if the ocean is rough. Another nice viewpoint is from the westside of the beach, crossing the Waipiʻo stream which separates the beach in two parts. Same thing here, be cautious when wading the stream, the water could come up to your waist. You see how being at the beach at low tide is a huge advantage.

The westside of Waipi’o beach is also the trailhead for the Muliwai Trail (a.k.a. Z-Trail) to Waimanu Valley.

Some final tips:

  • A word of caution: The Waipi’o streams are known to contain the leptospirosis bacteria, so avoid contact with open cuts and with the eyes.
  • Making your way down to the valley can be hard on the knees. Zig-zagging the road makes it less stressful. Do take traffic into account, though.
  • You might catch a ride along the Waipi’o Valley Road to the top.
  • The lush vegetation does create some shade, which is welcome especially when hiking your way up.
  • Your shoes will get muddy and your clothes wet (if you decide to cross the stream). Pack an extra pair of clothes and shoes to change when you return to the car.

You could opt for an organized tour from both Hilo and Kona. Here are some options:

Papakolea Green Sand Beach hike

  • Type: Coastal hike.
  • Length: 5.3 miles (8.5 km) round trip.
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate.
  • Cost: Free.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach hike is one of the best options when hiking Big Island Hawaii

The Papakōlea Green Sand Beach hike takes you to a must-see on Hawaii island: one of two green sand beaches in the United States and one of four worldwide. You’ll find it in Mahana Bay, part of the Kaʻū region near the southernmost point in the 50 states. It’s located inside the remains of a volcanic crater which was breached and eroded by the waves. The sand on Papakōlea beach gets its color from olivine in the cliffs. This mineral crystallises from magma when molten lava solidifies. The fragmented crystals form this unusual green sand and put this Big Island beach on the map.

Reaching this exclusive location does require some effort. The trail itself is pretty easy, although not very well marked, but the harsh conditions make it a tough hike. You could be tempted to catch a ride in the back of a local jeep, for which the going rate is $20 roundtrip, but know that driving up to the beach is actually illegal. There are ancient cultural sites along the dirt road and the fragile local ecosystem gets damaged by the constant traffic. There is a plan to ban these illegal shuttle services. But why would you give up on one of the best Big Island hikes anyway?

Some final tips:

  • There’s zero shade on this trail and it can get very hot. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat.
  • The earlier in the day you start this Big Island hike, the better.
  • Sunglasses are a necessity because it gets extremely windy at the cliff and the sand blasts you in the eyes.

Mauna Kea hike

  • Type: Big Island volcano hike.
  • Length: 6 miles (10 km).
  • Difficulty: Strenuous.
  • Cost: Free.
The Mauna Kea hike is one of the epic Big Island volcano hikes

The Maunakea is the highest mountain in the Pacific Rim and the tallest one on earth, since more than half of it is submerged in the ocean. It just sticks out less than Mount Everest. Check out more record-breaking features about this volcano in our list of surprising Hawaii facts.

You can drive from sea to summit in an hour or two, gaining 13 800 ft (4 200 m) in altitude. Feeling like you’re on top of the world does come with its challenges: Altitude sickness is a potential risk and makes this the hardest hike on the Big Island. It’s a day hike, experienced hikers need 8 to 9 hours to finish it, that requires careful preparation. You can leave your car at the parking lot near the Visitor Information Center (VIS) at 9 200 ft (2 800 m). It’s advised to stay there for at least 30 minutes in order to adjust to the change in altitude. You’ll have to complete a registration form and drop it in the box next to the entrance.

The trailhead can be found across the road from the VIS. You’ll notice that the first small section takes you along the road. Then the well-marked trail bends to the left. After about a mile, you’ll see that the trail is pretty visible. Take in the views from this alpine desert over its alpine lake and the Big Island and its volcanoes. You’ll notice that the trail stops about 1 mile from the actual summit. There’s a reason for that: This is a sacred site for Hawaiians, who consider the Maunakea summit to be a spiritual place. Respect that cultural belief: don’t go building rock piles, don’t disturb offerings and don’t take souvenirs.

The Maunakea summit offers one of the best sunset

Don’t expect to be at the summit for sunrise or sunset. The visiting hours are from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset so you can only experience this pre-hike or post-hike by driving up from the Visitor Information Center to the summit. Don’t forget to inform VIS staff after your hike that you’ve returned safely. After the sunset, head back to the VIS for the most memorable stargazing experience.

Some final tips:

  • Know the symptoms of altitude sickness. Head back to the road or the VIS as soon as they appear. Access to the Maunakea summit area is not advised for pregnant women, children and visitors with known heart and respiratory problems.
  • Check the weather forecast before starting your hiking trip.
  • Dress appropriately (layers are advised): During summer months, you can expect an average temperature between freezing and 50° F (8° C). The weather can turn quickly so bring a poncho too.
  • Bring plenty of water, hydration is extremely important under these conditions.
  • Pack a sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
  • Follow the designated trail.
  • You’ll find porta-potties next to the Hokukea telescope at the summit.

Pololū Valley hike

  • Type: Valley hike.
  • Length: 1 mile (1.4 km) round trip.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Cost: Free.
Source: David Grant via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Pololū Valley is the northernmost of the Hamakua coast’s seven valleys. Pololū is Hawaiian for long spear and refers to the centuries of erosion that carved out the valley. It’s a mesmerizing place where tome stands still and nature has free play.

You can catch a glimpse of the beauty that awaits from the Pololū Valley Lookout before starting your descent along a very steep and rocky trail. The valley views are breathtaking and it’s easy to see why Pololū Valley hike counts as one of the most rewarding short hikes in Hawaii. Depending on the amount of rainfall before your visit, the path can be slippery and muddy. After good half an hour, you’ll reach a long black sand beach towered by rugged sea cliffs. It’s very tempting to head deeper into the valley but the land upriver is private property. You can just walk up to the edge of the Pololū stream in the valley.

If this amazing hike leaves you wanting more, then you could add the Awini trail to your hike, up to Honokane Nui. The trailhead can be reached from the beach, behind the ironwood trees.

Final tips:

  • Parking near the lookout is very limited so come early, especially on weekends.
  • Swimming is not advised: the conditions are rough and Portuguese man o’ war have been spotted on several occasions.
  • Your shoes will get muddy so pack an extra pair for after the hike.

Onomea Bay hike

  • Type: Coastal hike.
  • Length: 1 miles (1.5 km) round trip.
  • Difficulty: Easy.
  • Cost: Free. If you want to access the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens to enjoy more views over the bay, you’ll pay $20 per adult.
Getting to Onomea Bay via a short hiking trail on Big Island

Onomea Bay is located on the grounds of the former Hawaiian fishing village Kahali’i and later became a shipping port for the export of raw sugar from the mill up in the hills. After years of neglect, the impenetrable jungle was transformed into the privately-owned Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Gardens. But around the gardens, there’s a state trail that leads hikers to a gorgeous cove.

The trailhead for the Onomea Bay hike starts 0.5 mile south of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, along the scenic Old Mamalahoa highway. You’ll find off-road parking for 2 cars at the side of the road near the brown sign with yellow lettering indicating the trail.

It follows the Old Government Road, which descends towards the Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Garden. Before the trail continues to the Garden, you can make a detour towards the Kukilu Bay on the short Alakahi trail along the Alakahi stream. When you return to the Onomea trail, continue north passing a gate and/or guard seperating this path from the Garden. You can then cross the Onomea freshwater stream (if it’s not flooding) and connect to the Onomea Donkey trail which is a steep and challenging path leading to the rocky shore between Kenenue Bay and Kahaliʻi Bay. To get back to the parking lot, you could make a loop walking the road for just over half a mile. The hike itself is probably the least spectacular of these best Big Island hikes but the views are just amazing.

Some final tips:

  • Bring mosquito repellent and wear long sleeves and pants. There’s plenty of mosquitos out there.
  • Keep your distance from the cliffs.
  • Stop at What’s Shakin’ a little further down the road for an avocado wrap and passion fruit smoothie.

Map of these scenic Big Island hikes

When will you go hiking on the Big Island?

These gorgeous Big Island hikes are just one part of this island’s amazing attractions. There’s much more to it. Just have a look at our other articles on this untamed Hawaiian island:

We spent one action-packed week on the island yet we can’t wait to return and explore even more. Nature at its best. Plus, on some of these Big Island hikes you’ll hardly see another soul. So, if you’re looking for some adventure then you now know which Hawaiian island to travel to. Should you decide to give one of these Big Island hiking trails a go then let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear all about it!

Looking for more adventure on Hawaii? Then get to know a different side of Maui, away from the glamorous resorts. Click here to check out our post on the best Maui hikes.

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Unleash your inner adventurer and discover the best Big Island hikes. Find out everything you need to know about hiking the Big Island of Hawaii.
Unleash your inner adventurer and discover the best Big Island hikes. Find out everything you need to know about hiking the Big Island of Hawaii.

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