Best Day Trips on the Big Island of Hawaii: Stargaze Atop Mauna Kea

Ready to explore the Big Island of Hawaii beyond the beach? You’re in for a treat! With its diverse landscapes and unique attractions, this island’s made for day tripping. From the lush rainforests to the stark beauty of volcanic deserts, every turn’s a new adventure.

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Imagine yourself walking on a black sand beach in the morning and watching the sunset from a world-class observatory. That’s the kind of magic you’ll find here. So, grab your sunscreen and let’s dive into the best day trips you can take on the Big Island—each promising an unforgettable experience.

Exploring the Lush Rainforests

As you venture away from the golden shores, you’ll find yourself enveloped in the emerald embrace of the Big Island’s rainforests. Imagine the symphony of native birds as your soundtrack while the fresh, aromatic air fills your lungs with every breath. Hawaii’s rainforests are not just a feast for the eyes but a sanctuary for the soul.

Your journey might start with Akaka Falls State Park, home to the island’s most famous waterfall. The relatively short hike leading up to Akaka Falls is a must-do. The path is lined with lush ferns, towering bamboos, and the kind of flowers you’ve probably only seen in dreams. Don’t forget to snap a picture of the falls, which plummet over 442 feet into a gorge below, a sight that’s stunning at any angle.

  • Akaka Falls State Park Details:
  • Entry Fee: $5 per person
  • Trail Length: 0.4 miles loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Best Time to Visit: Morning to avoid crowds

For those seeking solitude, the Honokaa Peace Garden offers a tranquil escape. Wander through botanical collections and marvel at the intricate way man and nature intersect here. Benches are strategically placed for reflection or perhaps a moment to indulge in a good book.

Amidst the dense tropical growth, the calls of the ‘I’iwi and Apapane resonate, allowing you a rare chance to witness these vibrantly colored birds in their natural habitat. Don’t be surprised if a Hawaii Amakihi decides to join your party; these small, inquisitive birds are known for their friendly disposition.

Don’t miss the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden near Onomea Bay. With over 2,000 species, this garden isn’t just a walk; it’s an exploration through a living museum of tropical flora. Each path reveals something new, from exotic orchids to towering palms.

  • Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden:
  • Entry Fee: $20 per adult
  • Trail Length: 1.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Notable Feature: Over 2,000 species on display

Discovering the Volcanic Deserts

Beyond the lush landscapes and dazzling shorelines, you’ll find the stark contrast of Hawaii’s volcanic deserts. They beckon with a raw beauty unique to the Big Island’s vast terrains.

Your first encounter might be with the lunar-like landscape of the Kaʻū Desert. As your feet tread upon volcanic ash and sand, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped onto another planet. You’ll witness footprints of past lava flows and stand mesmerized by the collection of footprints fossilized in the ash—a stark reminder of past eruptions from Kīlauea Volcano.

Exploring further, you’ll reach the sulphurous banks near the Halemaʻumaʻu crater, where volcanic gases create an otherworldly haze. Here, you’ll bump into the famous Pele’s hair—fine strands of volcanic glass named after the Hawaiian goddess of fire. You’ll note their delicate threads glittering under the Hawaiian sun, a product of the fire goddess’s occasional temper.

Driving along the Chain of Craters Road may be your next escapade. Winding down the volcano’s slope to the sea, it offers breathtaking scenic overlooks. Pit stops along the way unveil geological history through broken roads and crumbled infrastructure—testaments to Pele’s enduring power.

Amid the deserts, one must not overlook the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, once a place of refuge. While not as barren as other desert areas, it’s marked by a stark lava rock coastline and rich cultural significance. Here, you’ll walk among ancient Hawaiian artifacts and structures, experiencing a profound sense of history.

Remember, in these desolate expanses, the sun reigns supreme. Hydration is key, and sun protection is non-negotiable. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and protective clothing.

Be sure to schedule your visit to these volcanic deserts during the early hours or late afternoon to avoid the harshest rays. Early risers are often treated to crisp morning air and fewer crowds, while sunset seekers will capture photos with the most dynamic colors painting the desolate landscape.

Relaxing on the Black Sand Beaches

After trekking through volcanic deserts, it’s time to discover another one of the Big Island’s natural wonders – its stunning black sand beaches. Created by lava flowing into the ocean and cooling rapidly, these beaches offer a unique seaside experience you won’t find just anywhere.

Punalu’u Beach is the most famous of its kind on the Big Island, renowned for the endangered Hawksbill and green turtles that bask on its shores. Remember, these majestic creatures are protected, so while it’s tempting to snap a close-up photo or paddle up for a better look, you’ve got to give them space. Instead, bring your binoculars and a camera with a good zoom, and marvel from a respectful distance.

Apart from turtle watching, Punalu’u offers ideal conditions for some low-key snorkeling or just lounging on the cool sands with a picnic. The striking contrast between the black sand and the lush green palms creates a backdrop you’ll never tire of. If you plan to get in the water, be mindful of the ocean conditions, as the currents can be strong.

Another gem is Kaimū Beach Park, a newer black sand beach formed by the 1990 lava flows. While it doesn’t have the maturity of Punalu’u, Kaimū has its own raw beauty. The beach is surrounded by new vegetation and offers panoramic views of the ocean. However, keep in mind that swimming is not recommended here due to rough waters.

To enhance your black sand beach experience, pack the following:

  • Reef-safe sunscreen
  • Water shoes to protect your feet from the coarse sand
  • Beach mat or a chair
  • Snorkel gear

Visiting these beaches allows for a relaxing interlude in your Big Island adventure. You’re not just going to a beach; you’re witnessing the island’s continuous cycle of destruction and rebirth—a truly humbling experience.

Hiking to Spectacular Waterfalls

As you venture beyond the sun-soaked beaches, the Big Island’s interior offers some of the most breathtaking waterfalls in Hawaii. These cascades are nestled in lush tropical forests, making them the perfect destinations for a day trip filled with adventure and awe-inspiring scenery.

Akaka Falls State Park is a must-visit with its easy loop trail leading you through a verdant rainforest to the famous Akaka Falls, a majestic 442-foot freefalling cascade. Remember to bring your camera; the sight is picture-perfect. It’s a straightforward hike, so even if you’re a beginner, you’ll manage just fine. Just ensure you’re wearing sturdy footwear for the sometimes-slippery path.

Not far from Akaka is the lesser-known Kahuna Falls. While it boasts a shorter drop, the surrounding foliage makes it a hidden gem worth exploring. Often less crowded, you can take your time absorbing the tranquil atmosphere that these falls create.

For the more adventurous souls, you could hike the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden to see waterfalls amid an incredible collection of tropical plants. What makes this place special is the combination of botanical beauty with the natural sounds and sights of cascading water—a true feast for the senses.

In the Waipi’o Valley, you’ll find Hi’ilawe Falls, one of the tallest and most powerful waterfalls in Hawaii. Accessing Hi’ilawe Falls is more challenging and requires a good level of fitness and sometimes permission from local landowners, but the reward is well worth the effort.

Before setting out, pack some essentials:

  • Plenty of water to stay hydrated
  • Snacks or a picnic lunch
  • Bug repellent to ward off any unwelcome insects
  • A swimsuit and towel if you plan on taking a dip in the waterfall’s refreshing pool

Remember to respect the ‘aina (land) by staying on marked trails and taking all your trash with you when you leave. The preservation of these natural beauties depends on the actions of each visitor.

Whether it’s the grandeur of Akaka Falls or the serene ambience of Kahuna, these treks will lead you to some of the most unforgettable sights on the Big Island. Enjoy every step, every sight, and every sound as you discover these natural wonders.

Stargazing at World-Class Observatories

Hawaii isn’t just your playground for sand, surf, and verdant trails; the Big Island also beckons with skies so clear they’ve drawn astronomers from around the world. Nestled atop Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest sea mountain when measured from its oceanic base, stand some of the most advanced astronomical observatories on Earth.

At an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, the summit of Mauna Kea provides an unparalleled viewing experience. You’ll have the chance to gaze into the depths of space, seeing the cosmos in a clarity that’s unmatched. But before heading to this celestial observatory, keep in mind that reaching the summit requires a bit of planning.

For safety and adaptation to the high altitude, make a stop at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,200-foot level. Here, you can acclimate and learn about the science and cultural significance of Mauna Kea. The journey upward can be challenging, so consider a guided tour that includes a four-wheel drive transport.

Elevation Advisory
9,200 feet Acclimate at Onizuka Center
14,000 feet Summit, site of Observatories

Once night falls, the observatories open their doors for educational programs and stargazing sessions. You’re not just looking at stars; you’re peeking back in time, observing constellations and planets in a dance that’s been ongoing for millennia. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the otherworldly glow of the Northern Lights.

Donning warm clothing is a must, as temperatures can drop dramatically at this elevation. Pack your jacket, a cozy hat, and gloves to stay comfortable as you explore the wonders of the cosmos. Remember, light pollution is minimal here, so the Milky Way will be sprawled above you like a glittering blanket—you won’t want to miss a moment of this breathtaking sight.

While you’re reveling in the beauty above, give a thought to the sacredness of Mauna Kea to the Hawaiian people. Respectful observance of the area ensures it remains pristine for fellow stargazers and future generations.


So there you have it – your gateway to the stars awaits atop Mauna Kea. Remember to take it slow as you acclimate and bundle up for the cool summit air. Whether you’re peering through a telescope or simply gazing up at the glittering night sky, this day trip promises to be as unforgettable as it is awe-inspiring. Don’t forget to tread lightly and honor the sacred land you’re exploring. Here’s to your next adventure under the Hawaiian sky – may it be as magical as the islands themselves. Safe travels and happy stargazing!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii beyond the beach?

The Big Island offers world-class observatories atop Mauna Kea for an exceptional stargazing experience, far beyond just its beautiful beaches.

Can you see the stars from Mauna Kea?

Yes, Mauna Kea’s summit provides a unique opportunity to observe the stars, planets, and constellations due to its high altitude and clear skies.

Do I need to acclimate before going to Mauna Kea’s summit?

It’s advised to acclimate at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy to avoid altitude sickness before heading to the nearly 14,000-foot summit.

Are there guided tours available to Mauna Kea’s summit?

Yes, considering the challenging journey, guided tours are recommended for those visiting Mauna Kea’s observatories and summit.

What should I wear for a stargazing session on Mauna Kea?

Dress warmly as temperatures at the summit can be very low, especially after sunset during stargazing sessions.

Is Mauna Kea considered a sacred place?

Mauna Kea is highly respected and considered sacred by the Hawaiian people, and visitors should be mindful to treat the area with reverence.

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