Best Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii: Volcano Adventure & Lush Gardens

Ready to uncover the best things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii? You’re in for a treat that’s as big as the island itself! From the fiery glow of active volcanoes to the soothing sands of its many beaches, there’s an adventure waiting for you around every corner.

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Dive into the crystal-clear waters for snorkeling or take a hike through lush rainforests. Whether you’re up for a thrilling helicopter tour or a peaceful day exploring botanical gardens, the Big Island’s diverse landscapes offer something for every traveler.

Exploring Volcanoes National Park

When it comes to raw, natural beauty, few places can match the thrill of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Spread across a vast area, this park is your gateway to witnessing the primal forces of earth creation in action. You’ll stand in awe as you watch the dramatic landscapes constantly reshaped by volcanic activity.

Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth, offers a rare opportunity to see glowing lava flows. Safety’s key though, so make sure you stick to marked trails and updates from park rangers. Start at the Kilauea Visitor Center for the latest safety information and trail closures. Remember, the park’s landscape changes frequently due to the lava flows, so what was accessible yesterday might not be today.

Take a drive down Crater Rim Drive for panoramic views of the Kilauea Caldera. It’s a surreal experience to see the steam vents emitting plumes of volcanic gases—nature’s own testament to the power beneath the surface. You can’t help but feel the magnitude of Earth’s inner workings here.

If you’re up for a hike, don’t miss the Thurston Lava Tube also known as Nāhuku. This natural tunnel was formed by flowing lava and offers a glimpse into the geological processes that shape our world. The tube is lit, making it easy for you to navigate and admire this wonder, but you’ll want to bring a flashlight to catch all the details.

Photography buffs, gear up. The contrasts of the park’s terrain, from lush rainforests to barren lava deserts, demand to be captured. Early morning or late afternoon light brings out the textures and colors of the volcanic landscape, so plan your visit accordingly for those perfect shots.

For the ultimate volcanic experience, consider booking a helicopter tour. Soaring above this ever-changing land, you’ll gain a perspective that’s impossible from the ground. Witnessing the sheer scale of the volcanic destruction and creation from the sky is something you’ll never forget.

Remember, Volcanoes National Park is not just a destination; it’s an ongoing natural event. Each visit offers a unique experience as the story of the earth unfolds right before your eyes. So, bring your sense of adventure and get ready to explore one of nature’s most awe-inspiring showcases.

Relaxing on the Beaches

After your adventure-filled day at Volcanoes National Park, you might be yearning for some serene downtime. You’re in luck because the Big Island’s beaches are as diverse and impressive as its landscapes. Feel the warm sun and soft sand beckoning you to unwind.

Hapuna Beach State Park is one you can’t miss. It’s renowned for its expansive, white sandy shores and is often rated as one of the best beaches in the United States. The gentle slope into clear, turquoise waters makes this an ideal spot for swimming and snorkeling. Keep your eyes peeled for colorful fish and perhaps a sea turtle gliding by.

Head north and you’ll find the Mauna Kea Beach, which is perfect for a lazy afternoon dip. The crescent-shaped bay offers calm waters that are protected from the strong ocean currents. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a tropical paradise, with fine sand that squishes pleasingly beneath your toes.

If you’re looking for a more secluded experience, Makalawena Beach is your hidden gem. It’s a bit of a trek, but the reward is a pristine and often uncrowded stretch of beach. Here, you can truly feel like you’re on your own private island.

Safety reminder: Always check the current conditions before venturing into the water. The ocean is as powerful as it is beautiful.

Beachgoers also love Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, where the sand is a striking shade of black courtesy of volcanic activity from times past. It’s a unique sight that also offers the chance to spot endangered Hawksbill turtles basking on the shore.

For those looking to add a splash of luxury to their beach experience, consider spending a day at one of the island’s resort beaches, such as Kauna’oa Bay. Delight in amenities like beachside service and lounge chairs, making it easy to indulge in total relaxation.

Whether you choose to soak up the sun, take a leisurely swim, or simply stroll along the coastline, the Big Island’s beaches offer the perfect respite to balance your Hawaiian adventure. Grab your sunscreen, a good book, and let the rhythm of the waves recharge your spirit.

Snorkeling in the Crystal-Clear Waters

After a day exploring the island’s geological wonders, you’ll be ready to cool off and the Big Island is renowned for its underwater paradise. Snorkeling in Hawaii is an experience that belongs on any traveler’s bucket list. Imagine slipping beneath the surface where the hustle of island life gives way to serene marine tranquility.

The Big Island’s waters are astonishingly clear, often allowing for more than 100 feet of visibility. It’s a whole different world where vibrant coral reefs play host to a kaleidoscope of marine life. Kealakekua Bay, a marine sanctuary, teems with vividly colored fish, sprawling coral gardens, and frequent appearances by spinner dolphins. It’s also a historic site — the location where Captain James Cook first landed on the island.

When you’re floating in the water, look out for the Hawaii state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, along with sea turtles that might glide companionably by. For those wanting a guided experience, snorkeling tours offer the chance to learn about the island’s ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them. These outings often include all the gear you’ll need, as well as local insight into the best spots for sightings.

Your snorkeling adventure doesn’t have to end at the shoreline. Night snorkels with manta rays are an unforgettable encounter with nature. These gentle giants swoop and somersault through the water, feeding on the plankton that’s drawn to the lights from your group. You’ll watch, transfixed, as the mantas perform their ballet, an experience that truly defines the magic of the Big Island’s waters.

Remember to prepare for your underwater excursion: wear reef-safe sunscreen to protect the environment, and bring waterproof cameras for those picture-perfect moments. Whether you’re a first-timer or an expert snorkeler, embracing the underwater world of the Big Island is sure to be a highlight of your Hawaiian journey.

Hiking through Lush Rainforests

Imagine the scent of wet earth mixed with the fragrance of tropical blooms as you step into the emerald embrace of Hawaii’s rainforests. The Big Island offers some of the lushest hiking grounds where nature lovers like you can immerse themselves in the island’s vibrant flora and fauna.

When you’re on the Big Island, don’t miss out on a hike through Akaka Falls State Park. Here, you’ll find a short loop trail that leads you to the awe-inspiring 442-foot Akaka Falls. Surrounded by wild orchids, bamboo groves and ferns, the trail offers an accessible walk for most fitness levels; just remember to wear sturdy shoes for those slippery spots.

For a more challenging trek, the trails at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park wind through rainforest to craters and lava flows, showcasing the island’s diversity. But if serenity is what you’re after, the Peaceful Kīpuka Puaulu (Bird Park) Trail provides a tranquil escape. Here’s where you can spot some of the Big Island’s rare bird species amidst old-growth forest.

Your rainforest adventures wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Valley of the Kings in Waipio Valley. The hike down is steep, yet once you’ve descended the trail, you’re rewarded with a view of taro fields, wild horses, and dramatic sea cliffs. It’s a bit of a workout, but the pristine beach at the valley’s bottom makes it all worthwhile.

Before heading out on these trails:

  • Wear comfortable, high-traction footwear
  • Bring plenty of water and some snacks
  • Check the weather—it’s not uncommon for tropical showers to appear
  • Respect the land; stay on marked trails to preserve the delicate ecosystem

Remember, these tropical wonders are best explored with patience and an open heart as nature reveals her secrets slowly to those who walk her paths with respect. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just love a casual stroll, the Big Island’s rainforests offer enriching experiences that invigorate the soul. So, grab your backpack, it’s time to tread softly through these ancient groves and listen to the stories they whisper through the leaves.

Thrilling Helicopter Tour over the Island

When you’re on the Big Island, elevate your experience by taking to the skies on a helicopter tour. Nothing compares to the breathtaking aerial views of Hawaii’s largest island. From the comfort of your seat above the clouds, you’ll see the island’s splendor unfold beneath you.

Imagine soaring over the Volcanoes National Park, where the primal forces of Earth are on full display. You’ve driven Crater Rim Drive, but from the air, the sheer scale of Kilauea’s smoking caldera and the vivid lava flows is truly humbling. Spot lush rainforests giving way to volcanic deserts and black sand beaches—all in one sweeping gaze.

Each tour offers something unique, taking you over waterfalls, coastlines, and valleys otherwise inaccessible. The Hamakua Coast will leave you spellbound with its towering sea cliffs and cascading waterfalls plummeting into the Pacific. For those of you seeking the ultimate thrill, some tours offer doors-off experiences, letting you feel the island’s breeze as you fly through the sky.

Here’s a tip: book your flight for early morning. Not only is the air smoother, but the early light casts a golden hue over the landscapes, perfect for photographers chasing that magic shot.

And let’s not forget the exclusive access you get with a helicopter tour. You’ll dip into hidden valleys, hover over ancient Hawaiian ruins and, if Pele, the volcano goddess, is willing, witness new land being born. This is a front-row seat to creation!

Helicopter tours on the Big Island cater to all. Whether it’s your first time, or you’re a seasoned visitor with a fresh perspective each trip, the awe is perpetual. Don’t just take my word for it; you’ll remember these views for a lifetime. Just make sure to book in advance, as these coveted tours fill up quickly. Bring your camera, but also be prepared to put it down—some moments are best experienced with your eyes, etched into memory.

Exploring Botanical Gardens

While the Big Island’s volcanoes and beaches captivate the most attention, its botanical gardens are unsung heroes, providing a tranquil retreat amongst lush flora and unique fauna. As someone who’s roamed these gardens since childhood, I’ve seen firsthand the serenity they can offer amidst the island’s diverse landscapes.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden near Hilo is a natural greenhouse cradled by the Onomea Bay’s craggy coastline. You’ll wander through over 2,000 species, creating a vivid tapestry of tropical flowers and plants. Here, it’s not just about gazing at the orchids or the towering palms; it’s about immersion in an ecosystem that thrives in Hawaii’s rich volcanic soil.

  • Don’t miss the Garden’s Orchid Wall, a stunning display that may very well redefine your concept of beauty.
  • Listen for the natural symphony of birds; with your eyes closed, their songs are as mesmerizing as the scenery.

At Lili’uokalani Gardens in Hilo, you’re treated to an unexpected Japanese-style sanctuary. The gardens pay homage to Hawaii’s cultural melting pot and feature traditional Japanese bridges, teahouses, and koi ponds that peacefully coexist with the island’s tropical background.

  • The meticulously maintained grounds showcase the fusion of Japanese garden design with the raw beauty of Hawaii.
  • The garden is perfect for leisurely strolls or simply sitting and appreciating the blend of cultures.

For those of you who crave a more off-the-beaten-path experience, Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens in Kona offers a more intimate environment. This garden specializes in educating visitors about Hawaii’s native plants and how they’re integral to the traditional Hawaiian way of life.

  • Make sure to see the native plant section for an understanding of Hawaii’s botanical history.
  • The gardens are smaller but pack a significant punch in terms of learning about conservation efforts.

Each botanical garden on the Big Island tells a unique part of Hawaii’s story. These green havens offer an alternative way to appreciate the island’s splendor, relished by locals and visitors alike. Remember, when you’re walking through these earthly paradises, you’re not just a visitor; you’re part of the ongoing story of the Hawaiian Islands. So take your time, breathe in the fragrant air, and let the gardens’ beauty wash over you.


So there you have it—your guide to some of the most breathtaking experiences the Big Island has to offer. Whether you’re marveling at the fiery heart of Volcanoes National Park or losing yourself in the serene beauty of the island’s botanical gardens, you’re sure to carry home memories that’ll last a lifetime. Don’t forget to capture those moments, but also make sure to put the camera down and let the island’s spirit truly sink in. Get ready to embark on an adventure that’s as rich in culture as it is in natural wonders. Happy exploring!

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the main attraction at Volcanoes National Park?

Volcanoes National Park’s main attraction is the active volcano, Kilauea, allowing visitors to see glowing lava flows and experience the raw, natural beauty of an ever-changing geological landscape.

Is it safe to visit Volcanoes National Park?

Yes, it’s safe to visit Volcanoes National Park if you follow park safety guidelines and stay updated with the latest park announcements regarding volcanic activity and trail closures.

What is Crater Rim Drive?

Crater Rim Drive is a scenic route within Volcanoes National Park that offers panoramic views of the Kilauea Caldera, providing an accessible way to witness the park’s stunning volcanic features.

Should I bring anything when visiting the Thurston Lava Tube?

When exploring the Thurston Lava Tube, it’s recommended to bring a flashlight to improve visibility inside the tube, as well as to assist with navigation through the dimly lit path.

Can I photograph the park’s terrain at Volcanoes National Park?

Absolutely, photography enthusiasts can capture the stark contrasts of the park’s terrain, from verdant forests to the dramatic volcanic landscapes, especially during the soft light of golden hour.

Is a helicopter tour worth it to see the Big Island’s volcanoes?

Booking a helicopter tour offers a unique and breathtaking perspective of the Big Island’s volcanic landscape, especially for those who want to experience the grandeur of the area from an aerial view.

What kind of experience do the botanical gardens on the Big Island offer?

The botanical gardens, like the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden and Lili’uokalani Gardens, offer a peaceful retreat amidst lush flora and fauna, highlighting the fusion of different cultures and providing a serene way to enjoy the island’s natural splendor.

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