The Big Island of Hawaii is 4028 miles square, home to five massive volcanoes, sweeping hillsides, deep-cut valleys, rolling plains, rugged coastlines, and the majesty of the boundless Pacific Ocean. It is home to one massive National Park, several smaller federally-protected areas, and numerous state parks and reserves which provide endless opportunities for exploration and adventure. Here are our Top 5 favorites:
1) Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) will be at the top of just about anyone’s list of parks on the Big Island, and that is exactly where it belongs. It has everything from the raw, humbling fury of volcanic eruptions to the quiet serenity of misty highland forests, plus a rich history, both ancient and modern. The park encompasses an area the size of the island of Oahu. This includes most of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, which has been erupting consistently since 1983. Nowhere else in the world can visitors come within such proximity of an active eruption. There is an overlook on the ledges above Halema’uma’u Crater which allows for direct viewing of the fiery heart of the volcano, the home of the wrathful Hawaiian goddess Pelehonuamea. The park’s Chain of Craters road also provides direct access to viewing areas for the Kamokuna ocean entry, where Kilauea’s molten lava meets the turbulent Pacific. HVNP is a hiker’s paradise, with over 150 miles of trails and backcountry campsites which take you from dry, barren coastlines adorned with ancient rock carvings, up through primordial native forests to within view of Kailauea’s Pu’u O’o eruption, and further up miles of gentle incline to the summit of the towering (13,678′) Mauna Loa. A week at HVNP would not be enough to cover everything the park has to offer, but even an afternoon visit is sure to leave the most worldly traveler awestruck.
2) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau cannot match the grandeur of Hawai’i Volcanoes, but it is a place of exceptional beauty and enduring cultural significance. The park sits along the southern shore of Honaunau Bay, where tremendous North swells smash fiercely against the point of lava coastline in direct contrast to the shimmering calm of the waters within the bay. The park has two halves; within the first, where visitors enter, is a recreation of the royal grounds of the chief of Honaunau Ahupua’a (region), including traditional A-frame hale (shelters), stone artifacts, and plantings of Hawaiian crops. The second half of the park is separated by a thick stone wall, 12 feet high by 18 thick, and nearly a thousand feet in length. The Great Wall, as it is known, was erected by Hawaiians at least 400 years ago. Curiously, the wall is not a defensive structure in the traditional sense; it was instead meant to delineate the bounds of the Pu’uhonua, or Place of Refuge. The Pu’uhonua was a place of peace in an otherwise tumultuous world. Anyone, whether they be women and children escaping a conflict, law-breakers evading punishment, or soldiers of a defeated army, could find shelter within the sacred grounds of the Pu’uhonua. Violence of any sort was forbidden, or kapu, in this place, and the kapu was further strengthened by the presence of a temple containing the remains of powerful chiefs and carved wooden ki’i statues of the gods. Today visitors can stroll the grounds of both the chief’s residence and the Pu’uhonua and take in a self-guided tour, all while enjoying the fine weather and sea breezes of the South Kona coast.
3) Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls State Park provides one of the most outstanding waterfall views on the Big Island that can be accessed without four-wheel drive and/or a treacherous multi-hours long hike. It is conveniently located just off Highway 19, about 15 minutes’ drive north of Hilo, above the sleepy town of Honomu. The park consists of a single, paved loop path which allows visitors the option of a quick back and forth walk directly to the Akaka Falls overlook or a longer, stair-filled loop which takes in a view of Kahuna Falls before arriving at Akaka. Either way, the path winds through a rain forest populated by towering trees and fragrant flowers and crisscrossed with meandering streams, then culminates in the majestic view of Akaka Falls’ 422′ drop along verdant walls into a seemingly bottomless chasm. The falls is fullest after a heavy rain, but it is breathtaking any time of year. The loop path makes this park an ideal place for visitors to stop and stretch their legs during the long drive down the Hamakua Coast into Hilo, but the waterfall view makes it a destination in its own right.
4) Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
We have talked about Pu’ukohola Heiau before in our “Off the Beaten Path” blog series, but it deserves a second entry here because it is awe-inspiring, tremendously significant to Hawaiian history, and too seldom visited by locals and tourists alike. The centerpiece of the park, the heiau itself is a bridge between the ancient and modern history of the islands. It was the last major temple dedicated to the ancient gods, and it is also the place where Kamehameha the Great defeated his cousin Keoua and began his campaign to unify the islands into the first Hawaiian kingdom. It is a massive structure, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was constructed of river stones transported 25 miles by tens of thousands of laborers in the early 1790s. The park is also home two smaller temples, one of which is submerged just off the coast and regularly visited by sharks. After walking the park’s paved pathways and allowing ample time for shark viewing, visitors can stop in the gloriously air-conditioned museum adjacent to the park exit. The museum alone makes for a fascinating visit, as it contains a respectable collection of rare artifacts and historical accounts. Pu’ukohola Heiau does not require much time to experience in full, but it definitely deserves to be counted among the best parks on the island. Again, there is a shark temple. Need we say more?
5) Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve
The final entry on our Top 5 list makes for the most committing and time-consuming day out of them all, but the beauty and solitude of the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve are unrivaled. Most visitors who drive or take tours to the Mauna Kea Observatory at the top of Hawai’i’s tallest volcano (13, 803′) remain unaware that the southern slopes below the summit are home to an archaeological reserve steeped in ancient Hawaiian history. For nearly 800 years, dating back to about 1000 AD, the area contained a large quarry for the high-density basalt rock that ancient Hawaiians favored for making adzes. The remains of seasonal work camps and shrines dot the area, as does the litter of scrap rock and debris. The main quarry is above 10,000′, and any visitor to the site must wonder how people lived and worked in such unforgiving conditions. Once the quarry must have resounded with the blows of rock on rock and the chatter and laughter of men working, but today the adze quarry is wrapped in the type of all-encompassing silence that is made possible by the thin atmosphere at altitude. Most days a hiker will be able to walk the reserve without encountering anyone else, and they will have the harsh beauty of the surrounding landscape and the sky-filling views of neighboring Mauna Loa to themselves. Near the top of the Reserve, around 13,000′, is the mysterious Lake Waiau. It is one of the highest alpine lakes in the world, and it was believed to be the bathing place of one of the goddesses who resided on the mountain. This park is not suitable for a casual day out; visitors should check the weather report beforehand and bring layers of clothing, food, water, and flashlights for high-altitude backcountry. This means it is probably not suitable for most itineraries, but for those with enough time and the right preparations, the Mauna Kea Ice Age Reserve might just be one of those uniquely unforgettable places to visit on the Big Island.
Start your adventure at our Big Island bed and breakfast and fuel up for the day ahead with a farm-to-table breakfast and estate-grown coffee. Looking for even more Big Island fun? Make sure you check out our adventure packages as well!