Big Island waterfalls: 8 spectacular waterfalls on Hawaii | 2021

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 had something to do with that: The lush, natural beauty was overwhelming and the Hawaii Big Island waterfalls nothing short of spectacular. To top it all off, you’ll find some of the most mesmerising Airbnbs of Hawaii hidden in the most unlikely places.

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Big Island waterfalls that are publicly accessible

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.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls Big Island waterfalls

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.

  • Cost: Free.
  • Height: 80 ft (24 m).
  • Driving time from Hilo: 5 minutes.

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.

Insider tip on 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.

‘Akaka Falls

Man enjoying the view at ʻAkaka Falls state park Hawaii Big Island waterfalls

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. Make sure to include a visit to these stunning falls on your Big Island bucket list.

  • Cost: Either $1 per person or $5 per car.
  • Height: 442 ft (135 m).
  • Driving time from Hilo: 23 minutes.

Insider tips 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?

Hi’ilawe Falls

Hi’ilawe waterfall in Waipio Valley is one of the best waterfalls on the Big Island

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).
  • Driving time from Hilo: 1 hour to the Waipi’o Valley lookout point.
GoPro for your Hawaii vacation

Insider tips on Hi’ilawe Falls:

  • Your shoes will get muddy and your clothes wet (if you decide to cross the stream). Make sure to wear water resistant hiking shoes from a trusted brand such as Merrell or Keen. Also, pack an extra pair of clothes and shoes to change when you return to the car.
  • Pack a GoPro with Karma Grip or hand/wrist strap plus some spare batteries.
  • This is the one waterfall in this article that’s rather difficult to reach. If you’re not up for the steep descent into and climb out of the valley, consider booking this small group Waipio Valley and waterfalls adventure tour or any of the following excursions:

Big Island waterfalls on private property

Onomea Falls

Onomea waterfalls Big Island Hawaii

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 the grounds of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens 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.
  • Multi-tiered.
  • Driving time from Hilo: 15 minutes.

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 heliconias 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.

Umauma Falls

Umauma Falls big waterfall Big Island Hawaii

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 in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 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.
  • Driving time from Hilo: 21 minutes.

Kulaniapia Falls

Kulaniapia Falls is one of the best waterfalls in Hawaii to swim
Source: Svein-Magne Tunli – – CC BY-SA

This is the largest privately accessible waterfall in the state of Hawaii, at 120 ft tall. It’s located on the grounds of the fully working farm of the Kulaniapia community, which is entirely off-grid.

You can swim in the large pond underneath Kulaniapia Falls. It’s the perfect playground for big and little adventurers thanks to onsite activities such as kayaking, paddle-boarding and even waterfall-rappelling.

Kapehu Falls

Stay at this scenic property and enjoy the private waterfall with a natural swimming pool beneath it. Both available accommodations are separated by a creek and a ravine and the lush grounds give out to a eucalyptus forest. Pick your own fruit from the orchard and enjoy your secluded slice of paradise.

Kikala Falls

This gorgeous Big Island waterfall is located on the grounds of a lush farm near Hilo. The setting is truly stunning, with a stream that runs right through the garden and a the best views over Hilo Bay. Enjoy this tropical paradise to the fullest by taking a dip in the deep blue pool of Kikala Falls amidst a native rainforest.

  • Guest can enjoy a family-friendly stay in the Ohana cottage or the Guest suite.
  • Height: unknown.
  • Driving time from Hilo: 12 minutes.

Map of the Island of Hawaii waterfalls

For your convenience, we’ve created this map indicating the Hawaiian waterfalls mentioned in this article:

Car rental Hawaii family vacation

As you can see, most of the Big Island waterfalls are located in close proximity of one another. The drive from Hilo to the Hamakua and Kohala coast is also very scenic, so it makes for the perfect little road trip. We used this website to to book our rental car and were very happy with the process and service.

How to decide which Big Island waterfall to visit?

Mother and daughter near Rainbow Falls Hawaii, one of the best waterfalls on Big Island

Let’s sum it all up in a checklist which you can use to determine which waterfalls in Hawaii island to visit:

  • Must-see Big Island waterfalls that allow for a quick visit: ‘Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls.
  • Most impressive Hawaii Island waterfalls: ‘Akaka Falls and Hi’ilawe Falls.
  • Best accessible waterfalls near Hilo: 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.
  • Free visit Hawaii Big Island waterfalls: Rainbow Falls and Hi’ilawe Falls.
  • Family-friendly Hilo waterfalls: Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, Umauma Falls and Onomea Falls.
  • Entrance-fee Big Island waterfalls: Umauma Falls and Onomea Falls.
  • Guests only Big Island waterfalls: Kulaniapia Falls, Kapehu Falls and Kikala Falls.
GoPro for your Hawaii vacation

Big Island waterfall tours

Here are some options to visit the waterfalls with an organized tour, which is especially interesting if you’ll be staying at the other side of the island, near Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa.

  • Legends of the Waterfalls & Volcano Full-Day Tour: Learn all about the fascinating history and legends of this interesting area. Take a dip in the ocean, explore a tide pool, and check Rainbow Falls. Pickups from Hilo hotels and vacation rentals included.
  • Deluxe ATV Waterfall and Swim Experience: Experience the scenic beauty of the Hamakua Coast on this thrilling off-road adventure on automatic ATVs. Explore the amazing scenery and take a dip in the Umauma Falls private pond. This tour departs and ends in Hakalau.
  • Kohala Waterfalls Small Group Adventure Tour: Explore the rugged landscape, hike along tunnels and aqueducts, take in the sweeping coastal views, discover interesting rock formations and admire no less than seven Kohala waterfalls on this small group walking tour (9 persons tops). Pickups can be arranged at various locations, including Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa.
  • Small Group Waipio Valley and Waterfalls Adventure: This is a fabulous small group single day tour that truly captures the essence of the leeward side. You get to visit Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls and Hi’ilawe Falls, explore Waipio Valley, sample macadamia nuts at a Hilo fruit farm and swim at a private waterfall so this adventure really includes all of the top things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii. Pickups can be arranged at various locations, including Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa.

Your shoes will get muddy and your clothes wet (if you decide to cross the stream). Make sure to wear water resistant hiking shoes from a trusted brand such as Merrell or Keen. Also, pack an extra pair of clothes and shoes to change when you return to the car.
Pack a GoPro with Karma Grip or hand/wrist strap plus some spare batteries.

If you want to see even the most remote waterfalls on Hawaii island, or experience a thrilling Hawaii waterfall ziplining adventure: the Big Island helicopter tours take you to the most remote areas of the island.

Places to stay close to the waterfalls on Big Island

We’ve dedicated an entire article on where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii to help you choose the best area. Since all waterfalls on Hawaii Big Island are located in the (north)eastern region of the island so we’d certainly recommended adventurous souls to stay in the wider Hilo area.

We stayed at The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton where we got to enjoy these gorgeous scenic views from our hotel bed.

View over Hilo Bay from a room at the Grand Naniloa Hotel near the Big Island waterfalls

This part of Hawaii Island is home to some of the dreamiest Airbnbs in Hawaii. Since we’re determined to return, we’ve put together a wish list of places to stay in the future and we’d love to share it with you:

Is it safe to swim in these Hawaiian 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.

That’s it for this list of waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii. Now, we can’t wait to find out what your favorite is. Let us know in the comments.

Dreaming of planning a new vacation in these uncertain times? The AXA Assistance USA Platinum travel insurance includes a CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) option which allows you to cancel your trip without any explanation, up to 2 days before departure. Conditions apply. Click here to learn more.

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