Hawaii’s main island is a paradise for nature-lovers and adventurers. Active volcanoes, gorgeous green and black sand beaches, lush rainforest and amazing Big Island waterfalls make it the best Hawaiian island for families looking for an active vacation. The one reason why we hesitated to include this island in our Hawaii itinerary, was the unpredictable weather. Especially the island’s East coast is known to be rather rainy and we really didn’t want to spend a week of our Hawaiian vacation in the pouring rain. But in the end, we’re really glad that we didn’t let that one unpredictable element stop us from visiting. Hawaii island turned out to be the highlight of our trip. And in some way, the rain has something to do with that: The lush, natural beauty was overwhelming and the Hawaii Big Island waterfalls nothing short of spectacular.
Best Big Island waterfalls
Let’s start our tour of the best waterfalls on the Big Island from Hilo, the main town on this side of the island, and continue along the Hamakua coast all the way up to the Kohala coast.
1. Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls or Waiānuenue Falls is located just a few miles from Hilo, in Wailuku River State Park. There’s no need to hike because you can almost see this tropical waterfall from the parking lot. Rainbow falls is surrounded by lush rainforest yet very accessible. According to the Hawaiian legend, moon goddess Hina lived in the lava cave over which the waterfall cascades. On a clear morning, when the sun faces the waterfall, the light forms a rainbow on the spray. Hence the name Rainbow Falls. Unfortunately it was too clouded when we were there. But, even though we didn’t get to see the rainbow, we still had a great time. The setting is very idyllic and we had this gorgeous Big Island waterfall all to ourselves. Here are some specifics on Rainbow Falls:
- Cost: Free.
- Height: 80 ft (24 m).
- Time to get there from Hilo: 5 minute drive.
Some insider tips at Rainbow Falls:
- On the left side of Rainbow Falls, there’s a set of stairs that takes you closer to the Wailuku river and the top of the waterfall. About halfway, you’ll notice a path leading to this impressive banyan tree.
- The Wailuku river feeds another waterfall called Pe’epe’e Falls, located about a mile past Rainbow Falls on Rainbow Road. There’s a scenic overlook which also offers a view over the Boiling Pots, a series of lava pools that bubbles with river water as if it were boiling. Technically, you could hike down to the water but this is highly discouraged. The Hawaiian term Wailuku translates as water of destruction for a reason, after all. Go another mile upstream and you’ll find yet another waterfall, one you won’t find in most travel guides. Wai’ale Falls offers easy access to the large pool that’s popular with cliff jumpers.
2. Onomea Falls
Onomea Falls is located on the grounds of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, which can be reached via the most scenic drive from Hilo. We arrived around opening time and meandered down the elevated boardwalk amidst a vast collection of palms and ferns. Just a few decades ago, this was a neglected and impenetrable jungle. Nowadays over 2000 species of tropical plants, both native-Hawaiian and from jungles around the world, thrive on these grounds thanks to the fertile volcanic soil. Protected from the trade winds, they show their lively colors and fill the air with a delicate perfume. Onomea Falls, named after the bay that borders the tropical gardens, can be found at the heart of this idyllic setting. This multi-tiered waterfall cascades down the rocks amidst a landscape of mosses and ferns. There’s a small bridge right opposite this Hawaiian waterfall, offering an excellent view of the falls.
- Cost: Either $20 per person.
- Time to get there from Hilo: 15 minute drive.
Insider tip on Onomea Falls:
- Make the most of your visit to these botanical gardens, there’s just so much beauty to found. From the heleconias and purple orchids to the gorgeous vistas over Onomea bay, this is a wonderful place to spend some time.
- Head to the What’s Shakin’ food shack a little further down the road for a refreshing smoothie offering a view of its beautiful garden.
3. Umauma Falls
Umauma Falls is a triple-tiered waterfall located in the heart of the Umauma Experience adventure park north of Hilo. After a stop at the visitor center, you can drive down to Umauma Falls, park your car and take the self-guided Garden & River Walk. The trail leads along the Umauma River and a natural palm forest. Notice the gorgeous native Ohia tree, a native species which we also saw on our Kilauea Iki hike. Two viewing platforms offer amazing views of enchanting Umauma Falls in its idyllic setting.
- Cost: Either $12 per person.
- Height: 300 ft (91 m) cumulatively over the three levels.
- Time to get there from Hilo: 21 minute drive.
4. ‘Akaka Falls
This majestic Big Island waterfall is located in the ‘Akaka Falls State Park. A well-paved loop trail and different sets of stairs led us along giant ferns and fragrant flowers. The lush rainforest and beautiful trees provided plenty of shade during one of the shortest Big Island hikes. You’ll actually find two waterfalls in ‘Akaka Falls State Park. The first one, located in the northeastern corner of the park, is Kahuna falls. The view point is pretty narrow and only allows to catch a glimpse of this waterfall. The second one is spectacular ‘Akaka Falls, which you can hear well before you see it. It’s such an amazing sight that we spent quite some time admiring this natural delight. Both the trail and viewing platform provide plenty of photo opportunities. ‘Akaka Falls State Park is easily accessible and allows inexperienced hikers to behold the untamed beauty of the Hilo region.
- Cost: Either $1 per person or $5 per car.
- Height: 442 ft (135 m).
- Time to get there from Hilo: 23 minute drive.
Insider tip on ‘Akaka Falls:
- We first visited Rainbow falls before continuing our way to ‘Akaka Falls. We’d recommend to plan your visit in the same order since ‘Akaka falls is just that bit more impressive than Rainbow falls.
- Unlike in Maui, where we only found fresh fruit stands at some Road to Hana stops and hardly anywhere else, you’ll find several stalls with freshly sliced pineapple and coconut juice on the Big Island. To our delight, we found one just down the road from Akaka Falls State Park. Could you resist a fresh fruits stand like this?
5. Hi’ilawe Falls
Along the northern Hamakua Coast, amidst the Kohala mountains, you’ll find seven verdant valleys. Waipi’o Valley, also known as the Valley of the Kings, is the southernmost one. According to Hawaiians legends, it was once the home of King Kamehameha I and therefore this place is of significant cultural and spiritual importance to native Hawaiians. Reaching Waipi’o Valley requires a steep and winding mile-long descent from the lookout point. Once you arrive at the valley floor, you’ll see a fork in the road. Turn left for the majestic Hi’ilawe Falls. Unless you want to risk trespassing on private land, you’ll only be able to catch a glimpse of this beautiful Hawaiian waterfall. Take in the spectacular views over the valley, home to free-roaming horses and vast taro fields. Then make your way back up and find out why this counts as one of the most strenuous Big Island waterfall hikes.
- Cost: Free.
- Height: 1,450 ft (441 m).
- Time to get there from Hilo: 1 hour drive to the Waipi’o Valley lookout point.
If you’re not up for the steep descent into and climb out of the valley, consider booking one of these waterfall tours:
- Shuttle tour.
- Horse-drawn wagon.
- Horseback riding, possibly the best way to explore the valley.
- More options can be found on the Veltra site.
Map of these Hawaii Big Island waterfalls
For your convenience, we’ve created this map mentioning the 5 best Hawaii waterfalls mentioned in this article:
Places to stay close to the Big Island waterfalls
You’ve noticed that all waterfalls on Hawaii Big Island are located in the (north)eastern region of the island. That’s why it’s recommended to stay in that area, in the main town of Hilo. We dedicated an entire blog post on the best places to stay on Big Island in which we cover this town in detail, including suggestions on hotels and vacation rentals. We stayed at the The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton where we got to enjoy these gorgeous scenic views from our hotel bed.
Which Big Island waterfall should you visit?
- Tallest and therefore most impressive Hawaii Island waterfalls: ‘Akaka Falls and Hi’ilawe Falls.
- Best accessible Hilo waterfalls: Rainbow Falls and Umauma Falls.
- Medium accessible waterfalls: ‘Akaka Falls (some stairs) and Onomea Falls (steep platform in the beginning of the tropical gardens).
- Least accessible waterfall on Big Island: Hi’ilawe Falls.
- Hawaii Big Island waterfalls that you can visit for free: Rainbow Falls and Hi’ilawe Falls.
- Hilo waterfalls to visit with kids: Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, Umauma Falls and Onomea Falls. So essentially, all of the waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii that we mentioned except for Hi’ilawe Falls.
Can you swim in the Big Island waterfalls?
The freshwater on Big Island is known to contain the leptospirosis bacteria, so it’s essential to avoid contact with the eyes and open cuts. Since the amazing Big Island waterfalls are not as pure and pristine as one would expect, swimming involves a risk.
Another issue is flash flooding. Even if the conditions at the pool of a fall may seem sunny and ideal, rain could be pouring mountain-side. This could cause the water level at the pool to rise very fast – in a flash – and these floods often brings debris flows.
So, while technically you could swim in the Big Island waterfalls, it’s not recommended. If you decide to go for a dip anyway, then be aware of the risks. The safest way to admire these natural wonders is from a distance.
Big Island waterfall tours
Here are some options to visit the waterfall with an organized tour, which is especially interesting if you’ll be staying at the Kona coast. Or go for the most thrilling of Hawaii tours: the Big Island helicopter tours take you to the most remote areas of the island.
What’s your favorite waterfall on the Big Island of Hawaii?
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