Things to do in Hilo (Hawaii) and beyond

Once we decided on the third island we would visit island hopping Hawaii, 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 weather 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.

Gorgeous blue waters of Onomea Bay in Hilo Hawaii as seen from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

The part of our trip we were most unsure about, actually turned to be the most epic and adventurous part of our Hawaiian adventure.

Hilo map

For your convenience, we’ve created this map which includes our favorite Hilo things to do, all of which are mentioned in this article.

Our favorite things to do in Hilo, Hawaii

It’s a bonus if you can start your day by taking in the amazing views over Hilo bay. The hotel that offers these views from the room, without leaving your bed, is The Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton. Head for breakfast and then gather the freshest ingredients for a picnic at the Hilo farmers market to start your day off right.
Evening view over Hilo bay from our room at the Grand Naniloa Hotel on Big Island Hawaii

Visit Hilo’s Pacific Tsunami Museum

There’s actually only one Hilo attraction that’s located in downtown Hilo and that’s the Pacific Tsunami Museum. The small museum is housed in a former bank. It not only tells the story of the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis, with plenty of video footage, that hit the Big Island’s windward coast but also informs visitors about the Tsunami Warning System that is now in place. You can even try it out yourself by creating your own miniature tsunami.Very hands-on and ideal for kids to learn about this natural phenomenon.

Admire Rainbow falls

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 in Hilo Hawaii
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.

Mother kissing daughter in front of Rainbow falls

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.

The top of Rainbow falls where you can see the Wailuku RiverAbout halfway, you’ll see some beautiful giant banyan trees on your left which are just as photogenic.

Giant banyan tree next to Rainbow falls in Hilo
Climbing the giant banyan trees at Rainbow falls is one of our favorite things to do in Hilo

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 Hawaii 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 lagoon at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo where you can swim with turtles, one of many superb things to do in Hilo

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.

Turtle or honu swimming in the shallow waters at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo Hawaii

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 Hilo activities. 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.

The lagune at Carlsmith Beach Park in Hilo Hawaii

Enjoy a picnic at Liliuokalani Gardens

Located on Banyan Drive, along the bay in Hilo town, you’ll find the beautiful Liliuokalani Gardens. It’s the largest of its size outside Japan and features pagodas, fish ponds and even a teahouse. The park was a gift from Queen Lili’uokalani to honour the Japanese immigrants on Big Island. These gardens aren’t mentioned in the mainstream Hawaii travel guide, we just happened to discover them while exploring the direct area around our hotel.

Things to do along the Hamakua Coast

The Hamakua Coast hugs the rugged coastline from Hilo almost up to Waipi’o Valley for about 40 miles. Part us this old road is the scenic Pepe’ekeo scenic drive, which you’ll be taking to reach following highlights.

Admire Akaka falls

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.
We first visited Rainbow falls near downtown Hilo and then continued our way to Akaka Falls State Park along the Hamakua coast. 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. The Akaka falls trail may be the one of the shortest Big Island hike but it’s just amazing. 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.

A visit to Akaka Falls State Park is one of our favorite things to do in Hilo

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.

Get some freshly sliced coconut from a local food stall

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 it on your way to Akaka falls.

Two little girls drinking fresh coconut juice out of a coconut at a food stall near Akaka Falls State Park in Hilo

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.

A wooden trail in between tropical plants at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hilo Botanical Gardens, one of our favorite things to do in Hilo
A wooden trail in between tropical plants at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hilo Botanical Gardens, one of our favorite things to do in Hilo
Lush nature surrounding the trail at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, one of many great things to do in Hilo Hawaii
Lush nature surrounding the trail at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, one of many great things to do in Hilo Hawaii
View of Onomea Bay in Hilo Hawaii as seen from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens
View of Onomea Bay in Hilo Hawaii as seen from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens
Lush nature surrounding the trail at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hilo Hawaii
Lush nature surrounding the trail at the Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hilo Hawaii
Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hilo Botanical Gardens, one of the many top things to do in Hilo
Mother and two kids walking the trail at the Hilo Botanical Gardens, one of the many top things to do in Hilo
Profile of a man looking at the waterfall at the Hilo Botanical Gardens on the Big Island of Hawaii
Profile of a man looking at the waterfall at the Hilo Botanical Gardens on the Big Island of Hawaii

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.

Little girl looking at the map while resting on a Tiki statue at the Lush nature surrounding the trail at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hilo Hawaii
Two little girls sitting on a bench at the Hilo Botanical Gardens and overlooking Onomea Bay

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.

Little girl smiling at a water well with purple orchids at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens in Onomea Bay near Hilo

Tip: Just down the road from the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, you’ll find this small food shack with an amazing garden.

Best things to do beyond Hilo, Hawaii

Day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (a 1h 10m drive)

One of the main reasons we considered Big Island as the third island on our list, was Volcanoes National Park. This magnificent World Heritage Site and designated International Biosphere Reserve is home to two active volcanoes: the Mauna Loa, world’s largest volcano, and the infamous Kilauea, which erupted in the spring of 2018. 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.

The Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Feel the heat at Pohoiki black sand beach (a 50m drive)

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.

Sparkling black sand beach on Hawaii Big Island

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out our article on the best Big Island beaches.

 

 

Day trip to Waipi’o Valley (a 1h 10m drive)

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!

Enjoying the gorgeous views at the Waipio Valley look-out is one of the top things to do in Hilo

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 45m 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 daily from 9 am to 3 pm. It is mostly known for its “The Universe Tonight” program that is organized on the first Saturday of every month. This monthly event replaces the former, highly popular, stargazing program during which telescopes invited visitors to explore the nightly skies and rangers and volunteers answered their questions. The parking does fill up quickly and once full, arriving cars will be sent away.

Milky way during a stargazing activity at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station on the Mauna Kea

There’s also a monthly Observatory Experience for Hawaiian residents only, organized by Maunakea Observatories and ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

  • 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).

View from the summit of the Mauna Kea

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.

Where to stay: Hilo hotels

We have dedicated an entire article on the best places to stay on Big Island in which we cover both the Hilo and the Kailua-Kona area in great detail. Check it out!

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.

Spectacular Akaka falls in Hilo on Big island Hawaii

So, if you’re still doubting which Hawaiian island to visit on your Hawaii island hopping adventure, 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.


Pinning one of these images would be much appreciated!


Credits: Most pictures are ours, the ones from Mauna Keas and Waipi’o Valley are courtesy of Pixabay and Unsplash.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. For more information, visit the Disclaimer page.


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12 Comments

  1. Ooooh – you are making me feel so excited about our March trip back to the Big Island. I have been several times, but haven’t explored this side. It isn’t called the “Big” island for nothing! Last time I was there 4 years ago, I was on crutches (long story) so wasn’t up for a ton of exploring past the poke shack and closest beach, but this time I’m all over exploring more of the island! Definitely saving this for later! Thanks for linking up with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    1. Sarah

      How exciting that you have another Big Island adventure coming up, Erin! You’re right, there’s so much to experience on this island that it’s nearly impossible to combine it all into one trip. Kudos to you for making an attempt on crutches, I don’t know if would be up for that. We’ve given it our best shot during the week we spent there so, stay tuned for more Big Island posts. And feel free to give me a shout when you need some planning tips, I’d be more than happy to assist. Thanks for passing by! Sarah

  2. Such a great post! I’m so glad I came across it as we did almost the exact same itinerary on our honeymoon back in 2016. We were able to hike out to the Pu’u O’o lava flow and watch it flow over the cliff to the ocean. It was quite an experience. I’m glad you were able to visit Hawaii Volcanoes NP. So sad about all the homes lost in the Leilani eruption. Your astrophotography is amazing!! I love astro but couldnt go up to the summit of Mauna Kea as I was pregnant so not allowed at high altitude. Great post 🙂

    1. Sarah

      That must have been one amazing honeymoon! Hawaii Volcanoes NP was an incredible experience indeed. We had planned only one day because I wasn’t sure if this not-so-active family could handle the adventure. Now that we’ve found our inner explorer, we’d love to return and experience even more. I’ve also been following the updates about the NP’s reopening and really wonder how much the landscape must have changed. Unfortunately I can’t take credit for the Mauna Kea astrophotography: the source is mentioned at the end of the post. I’m just an amateur photographer with a mobile phone. 🙂

  3. This whole post gave me a serious case of wanderlust. Your images are beautiful and really make me feel like I’m there with you guys. Hilo sounds like it has lots of great stuff to see – those waterfalls look incredible and those trees! WOW!

  4. Really enjoyed this post. We had a wonderful trip to Hawaii and the Big Island 3 years ago. I wish we had got to The Hilo Botanical Gardens and the waterfalls which look amazing. However we did enjoy the volcanoes and as you say swimming with turtles is just amazing. Definitely a bucket list item crossed off. #FarawayFiles

    1. Sarah

      So happy to hear that you’ve had just as much fun exploring the Big Island as we did, Angela. Swimming with turtles even exceeded my expectations and made me feel like a kid all over again. This island is such a wonderful place to reconnect to nature and enjoy the simple things in life.

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