Once we decided on which Hawaiian island to visit, in addition to Maui and Oahu, and we knew where to stay on the Big island, it was time to start planning the trip. We felt pretty confident about the Kona coast but far less about the windward side. Not that there’s a lack of things to do in Hilo and nearby, au contraire, but mainly because of the climate. Hilo is known to be very rainy – as in pouring rain – which could have ruined our plans. But the luck was on our side since the few showers we had were in the evening or early morning.
The part of our trip we were most unsure about, actually turned to be the most memorable part of our Hawaiian adventure.
For your convenience, we’ve created this map which includes our favorite things to do in Hilo and beyond, all of which are mentioned in this article.
Our favorite things to do in Hilo
Downtown Hilo is not really worth a visit, except maybe to gather the freshest ingredients for a picnic at the Hilo farmers market. Do take the time to enjoy the amazing views over Hilo bay, though. Or stay in the hotel that offers these views from the room, like The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton. Then drive just passed downtown Hilo to find an abundance of nature and adventure.
Admire the Hilo waterfalls
We dreaded the pouring rain the region is known for but on the other hand, it’s what gives this side of the Big Island its appeal. After all, there wouldn’t be any Hilo waterfalls without the rain.
Rainbow falls or Waiānuenue falls is where the Wailuku river plunges about 80 feet (or 24 m). It is surrounded by lush rainforest yet very accessible. The main viewpoint for the Rainbow falls is located just a few steps from the Wailuku River State Park parking lot. There’s no entrance fee.
Rainbow falls got its name from the rainbows you can see in the morning, when the sun faces the waterfall and plays with the mist of the water. We were there around 8.30 am but, to our regret, didn’t get to see the rainbows because of the clouds. There were no other visitors at that time and so we had Rainbow falls all to ourselves.
The legend says that ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina, lives in the lava cave over which the waterfall cascades. A set of stairs is located on the left side so you can get closer to the Wailuku river and the top of Rainbow falls.
About halfway, you’ll see some beautiful giant banyan trees on your left which are just as photogenic.
We first visited Rainbow falls and then continued our way to Akaka falls state park. I would recommend you to plan your visit in the same order, because Akaka falls is more impressive than Rainbow falls. It’s also a quite a bit busier. By the time we arrived the – rather small – parking lot was full but there was plenty of space to park on the side of the road. The entrance fee is either $1 per person or $5 per car.
The Akaka falls hike is a 0.4-mile loop trail through tropical rainforest. The trail is well paved and does include several sets of stairs. You will first pass a small Kahūnā falls lookout before hearing the roaring Akaka falls cascading 442 feet (135 m) into the pool. It’s a spectacular sight and one of the highlights of our trip.
Visit the Hilo Botanical Gardens
We’re fans of botanical gardens and therefore the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Onomea Bay could not be missed. After a very scenic drive we arrived onsite around opening time. A meandering trail led us to the nature preserve, down in the valley.
The more than 2000 species of tropical plants are not only native-Hawaiian but have been gathered from jungles all over the world. No matter their origin, the plants thrive here because of the fertile volcanic soil and the privileged location, protected from the trade winds.
Tickets (and repellant) can be purchased in the shop for $20 per adult and $5 per child. We forgot to bring our mosquito repellant but luckily, even though our arms and legs weren’t covered, we didn’t see one mosquito. The Hilo Botanical Gardens are open daily from 9 am, the latest admission is at 4 pm. A visit takes about 2 hours.
Tip: Just down the road from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, you’ll find this small food shack with an amazing garden.
Swimming with turtles at Carlsmith beach park
The windward side of the Big Island doesn’t really have sandy beaches; you’ll find rocky lava pools instead. That’s also the reason why the tourist resorts are located on the other side of the island. As a result, most tourists don’t consider going to the beach near Hilo. A local lady, working at the Hilo botanical gardens, tipped us that Carlsmith beach park is known to often welcome turtles (honu in Hawaiian). The beach park is mostly frequently by locals and not very known among tourists. Parking is limited. During weekends and holidays, there’s a lifeguard on duty who, in our experience, is kind enough to point out where the turtles are swimming.
The water is only knee-high in the areas closest to shore but might be a bit deeper elsewhere. The bottom is rocky so water shoes are recommended. The shades of blue in Carlsmith bay are gorgeous. It’s a great place for snorkeling too.
So, if swimming with turtles is on your bucket list, you now know where to travel next. It sure counts as one of the most exciting things to do in Hilo. But keep in mind that you can’t touch the honu. That doesn’t mean that they can’t touch you, though. We feel so lucky to have been so close to these amazing animals.
Get some freshly sliced coconut from the food stands
We missed fresh fruit stands in Maui. Fruit bowls weren’t even mentioned on the resort’s lunch menu, which was so disappointing (we’re just not into burgers and grilled cheese). Only some Road to Hana stops offered freshly sliced coconut. You can imagine our joy when we found this fruit stand on the Big Island. This is what the Hilo area is all about and why we love it there so much: the authenticity. Would you resist a stand like this? You can find on your way to Akaka falls.
Feel the heat at Pohoiki black sand beach
One of the newest black sand beaches on Big Island, formed after the 2018 Kilauea eruption, is Pohoiki black sand beach in Isaac Hale State Park aka Pohoiki. When nature alters landscapes, the new risks can be an unknown factor. Since warning signs are not yet in place, keep your guard up for strong ocean currents and undertow.
We were on the island before the eruption, before this new black sand beach was created. The picture featured was taken at Punalu’u black sand beach near the southernmost point of the Big Island.
Superb things to do beyond Hilo
Day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (about a 1h 10m drive)
One of the main reasons we considered Big Island as the third island on our list, was Volcanoes National Park. We were lucky enough to visit just 2 weeks before the eruption. What an adventure! We hiked the Kilauea Iki Trail visited the Thurston Lava Tube and admired the Halema’uma’u crater.
Day trip to Waipi’o Valley
If there’s one thing we regret about our Big Island trip, it’s that we haven’t been to Waipi’o Valley. It’s one of those epic things to do in Hilo that we missed because our program was packed as it was. Plus, we try to limit driving times when we’re traveling with the kids. But hey, we have an excellent reason to return!
The view fom the Waipi’o Valley is out of this world and this alone is worth the drive. If you’re looking for some adventure then you could hike your way down to the black sand beach. Do note that this 6.5-mile hike is very steep. Another option is to explore the valley. We would advise against driving yourself, unless you’re an experienced 4WD driver and the car rental agency has no objection. Alternative means are a shuttle, a horse-drawn carriage or a horseback riding tour.
The majestic Hi’ilawa waterfall, plunging down 1,450 feet (442 m) in the back of the valley, is said to be amazing. Do note that the river feeding the waterfall is dammed which can make it (almost) dry. So, it’s best to inform about the circumstances before booking a tour.
Mauna Kea sunset or stargazing (a 45-minute drive)
The Mauna Kea volcano is a place where you’re encouraged to have your head in the clouds. There are two platforms that each offer a separate experience:
Stargazing at the Onizuka Center VIS (9,200 ft or 2,800 m)
The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station is open from Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 10 pm. It is mostly known for its stargazing program that is being held four days a week (at the time of writing, those days are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) from 7pm to 10pm. Advance booking is not required. The parking does fill up quickly and once full, arriving cars will be sent away.
Telescopes invite you to explore the nightly skies and rangers and volunteers are there to answer your questions. Should the weather circumstances not permit to go stargazing then the planetarium show at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center might be a good alternative.
Watching the sunset at the summit (13,796 ft or 4,205 m)
Even more telescopes can be found at the Mauna Kea summit, one of the ultimate places to see a Hawaiian sunset. The summit closes right after sunset. But getting there is a challenge because of the high altitude. Health issues can occur, especially when you don’t take the time to get acclimatized to the changing conditions. A 30 to 45 minute stop at the VIS can do wonders to eliminate most of these health risks (except for pregnant women, children and persons with respiratory or heart conditions). Then there’s the matter of getting there. Driving up there yourself is only recommended if you’re an experienced 4WD driver with a car that is made and equipped for these steep gravel conditions (4WD is required).
The Mauna Kea summit is a sacred place to native Hawaiians as it is said to be home to the snow goddess Poli‘ahu. So, be respectful at all times.
The Real Hawaii
With so many exciting things to do in Hilo and beyond, it’s no wonder why this area has conquered our heart. The Big Island was the absolute highlight of our Hawaiian trip. To us, this is the Real Hawaii: untamed, lush and pure.
So, if you’re still doubting which Hawaiian island to visit, then take it from us: Put the Big Island, and especially the Hilo area, on top of your list. You won’t regret it for a second.
Credits: Most pictures are ours, the ones from Mauna Keas and Waipi’o Valley are courtesy of Pixabay and Unsplash.
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