Updated July 2, 2021.
It is Travel Tip Tuesday on the blog, and today it’s all about tips and tricks for hiking Hawaii’s Big Island! The Island of Hawaii has tons of trails. In fact, many of their best beaches and most unique sites are only accessible via hike (or 4 wheel drive + serious skills).We were only able to hit a few around the island in the week we were there, all inherently off the beaten path.
Ka’Aawaloa Trail (Captain Cook Monument Trail)
First up, Captain Cook! Captain Cook was the first European to find the Hawaiian Islands, and he named them the Sandwich Islands. He and his men came ashore here at Kealakekua Bay in 1779 and was mistaken for the ancient Hawaiian god Lono. He let them assume that for a while, then left on his way to his next adventure. Unfortunately, his ship’s mast broke and they all had to return. Well, this tipped off the Hawaiians that he was not Lono, so they killed him right here at this spot. Super creepy, right?! An obelisk monument marks the spot:
We took our time going down the trail. It’s rocky in some spots, so be careful about that. But the path is between two private properties, so it’s easy to follow because there’s only so far you can go on either side.
- Location: South of the intersection of Mamalahoa Highway and Napo’opo’o Road; 25 minutes south of Kailua-Kona (or search “Kaawaloa Road” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 3 hours (1.5 hours down, 30 minutes roaming around, 1 hour up)
- Distance: 4 miles round-trip
- Cost: Free
- Parking: Roadside
- Terrain: Dirt, rock, lava rock
- Restroom Facility: No, but this is the view from where I used the bathroom off a small cliff next to the trail–
More here: The Ultimate List of Hiking Tips
Wear your bathing suit and bring your snorkel gear if you like. Kealakekua Bay is beautiful and very swimmable. There’s great snorkeling here because the waters are clear, and there are tons of beautiful fish!
Also, this sign is the only thing that marks the trail, so be on the lookout. It is on the east side of Napo’opo’o Road, just past the intersection with Mamalahoa Highway:
Papakolea (Green Sand Beach)
The Island of Hawaii is one of only four green sand beaches in the world! It’s a pretty popular site, but the daunting hike or treacherous 4 wheel drive ride prevents many people from going. It’s not a hike for little kids, but it really wasn’t a difficult hike–so don’t be afraid! The sand is green because of olivine, or peridot, deposits nearby. Peridot is my birthstone (August), so that was fun for me to learn!
We made this a morning event because we’d read there are no trees and no shade. Lucky for us, it was a drizzly morning, but that subsided. It was also overcast the whole time, so the heat wasn’t so bad. But the best part was the fact that those things kept all the hikers away until we started back to the parking lot! We started just before 8:00 am, and we were done and on our way to the next destination at 10:30 am. All along the way, we knew we were heading the right direction because even the dirt was getting greener!
Also important to note is that we hiked until we got close enough to see the Green Sand Beach. Keep in mind we were about 3 miles from a nearly empty parking lot, and we had not seen one other person or truck the whole time we’d been hiking. Because it had been raining earlier and we read that the path down to the actual beach can be treacherous even on a dry day, we opted for the safer option of taking pictures of this unique phenomenon:
Even on an overcast day, you can tell the sand is green, and even the water has a greenish tint!
- Location: End of South Point Road, 1 hour 45 minutes south of Kailua-Kona (or search “Green Sand Beach” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 2.5 hours (1.5 hours in, 30 minutes at the green sand beach, 1 hour out)
- Distance: 6 miles round-trip
- Cost: Free; $15 round-trip to ride with a local in the back of a 4 wheel drive pickup truck; also $15 one-way to hike down and ride back up
- Parking: Non-lined paved and gravel parking lot
- Terrain: Beginning partially paved, then large gravel, then mixed dirt and sand; here’s where the blacktop ends
- Restroom Facility: No; however, there is a porta-potty at South Point (Ka Lae) 5 minutes north of the trail head; if you can’t make it, there are some big lava rocks to hide behind
Over the years, the trucks that shuttle people to and from the beach have created multiple trails. They all lead to the Green Sand Beach, but if you’re hiking it, keep close to the coastline for the best (most scenic) route.
Also, please take your valuables with you, and do not leave them in your car. My friend who lives on the Big Island said that there are so few incidents of break-ins on the island, but if you hear about one, it’s often at the Green Sand Beach parking lot. People know that you’ll be gone a long time and will be up to three miles away, so you won’t hear your car being broken into. We actually left a bag at our hotel in Kona (where we stayed the first two nights and would return for the last few mights of our trip) with our laptops and a few other things we wouldn’t need on our road trip and didn’t want to take a chance on. We did not have any trouble, but we also wanted to be smart about it!
Read next: Books to Read Before Your Trip to Hawaii
Volcanoes National Park
Full disclosure: we were so pooped after the Green Sand Beach hike, we did not do as much hiking in Volcanoes National Park as we’d hoped. I wanted to include it, though, because there are miles and miles of hikes both inside and outside this massive park. Some trails are short, some are very long. You can even rent bikes or hike a 4 mile trail to see some surface flow–while lava supplies last! We were even shocked to find some very green areas, almost jungle-like, among the browns and grays of the volcanoes.
In addition to interesting plant life, we also saw some surface flow lava just barely peeking over a crater, and we smelled the sulphur banks created by lava gases seeping out of the ground!
Take a short hike to the sulphur banks to see the colorful crystals and smell the stinky sulphur!
More here: What to Know Before you Visit the Big Island
You can easily hike between the main sites, so feel free to leave your car at one of the parking lots and set out for an adventure!
- Location: 1 Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI; 45 minutes southeast of Hilo (or search “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: As long as you like
- Distance: As many miles as you like
- Cost: $20 per vehicle/$10 per person to walk into the park
- Parking: Plenty of available space at the Visitor Center and at all sites
- Terrain: Volcanic rock, dirt, boardwalk, steps, asphalt, concrete
- Restroom Facility: Yes, several at main attractions and museums, but not on the trails
Your fee is good for 7 days, so feel free to come back any time for a week!
Well, I thought this would be a bit of a hike, but it’s not! So don’t be fooled like I was and expect this to be a mile or so down a scenic path. That can be a good thing! There are some steps and a tree-covered area to the left of the Falls to give you a different vantage point, and there are more steps in front of the Falls to give you yet another view of these beautiful falls.
The rainbow is sometimes visible around 10:00 am, but conditions have to be right, and you really need a sunny day. The day we went was just a little too overcast at the golden moment, but we still got some beautiful shots!
- Location: 967 Waianuenue Ave, Hilo; 3 miles north of downtown Hilo (or search “Rainbow Falls Hilo” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 10 minutes
- Distance: Approximately 0.5 miles
- Cost: Free
- Parking: Available, but limited; about 10 spaces +bus parking
- Terrain: Paved, uneven stone steps, dirt, watch for roots
- Restroom Facility: No
What to do nearby: Top 10 Highlights of Hilo, Hawaii
There is a coffee shop across the street; there will likely be several buses full of cruise passengers coming in and out, but don’t worry, they stay about 5 minutes and then they have to move on, so wait a few minutes and the area will be much less crowded until the next busload shows up!
Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls is 442 feet tall, and it’s beautiful!
If you get a clear day and it has snowed on Mauna Kea’s 13,000 foot peak (making it the tallest mountain in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor), you can get the falls in the foreground and the snow-capped mountain in the background.
Unfortunately, due to a botched tree removal job earlier this year, the longer loop to see both Akaka Falls and Kauna Falls is closed until further notice. Hopefully the whole trail will be open for your trip! I read one review that said you can hike down to the base of the falls, but we did not see how to get there–so it may not be true. Despite the shorter “hike” down and back up the paved steps, seeing such a powerful waterfall is impressive in itself!
- Location: 875 Akaka Falls Road, Honomu, HI; 30 minutes north of Hilo (or search for “Akaka Falls State Park” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 20 minutes (5 minutes in, taking photos 10 minutes, 5 minutes out)
- Distance: 0.5 miles via the currently accessible trail (as of May 2017)
- Cost: $1 per person to park outside and walk in; $5 per car to park inside the park; there is an easy-to-use kiosk to pay
- Parking: Small parking lot; roadside parking just outside the gate
- Terrain: Concrete steps, some uneven
- Restroom Facility: Yes
More here: 7 Steps to Plan Your Big Island Trip
You can visit the site any time from sunrise to sunset, but the gates are only open from 8:30 am-6:00 pm; The sun’s position early in the morning (around 7:30 am) casts a shadow across the falls, so your photos will probably be a little better later in the day!
I’ll let the picture tell you why this is a must-visit:
You must have a 4 wheel drive vehicle to drive this, and we’ve heard-tell that sometimes even those have been known to topple over the edge of the road. So we hiked it! The 25% grade is only 0.7 miles one way, but feel free to take it super slow. The way down is rough on your knees, and the way up will be tough on your booty, but it’s an absolutely stunning hike.
There are two stunning waterfalls side by side in the back of the valley, but there was a private property sign, so that was a bummer. We got a nice view of them from a distance, though!
Be prepared for the hike back up, and remember that any break you need can be used as a photo op to see what’s behind you!
- Location: 485546 Waipi’o Valley Rd, Waimea, HI; about 1.5 hours north of Hilo; about 1.5 hours east of Kailua-Kona (or search “Waipio Valley Lookout” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 1.5 hours (down just past the inaccessible waterfall trail and back up, no break at the turnaround point)
- Distance: 3 miles round trip +more if conditions permit or you turn right to go to the black sand beach
- Cost: Free
- Parking: Yes, limited 30 minute parking for the lookout only; limited 24 hour parking for hikers and campers; roadside parking for overflow
- Terrain: Rough asphalt, gravel, dirt
- Restroom Facility: Yes, at the lookout area near parking
Keep reading: Hawaii’s Best Adventures
Several locals told us to play it cool and not heed the kapu (or forbidden/no trespassing) signs, but we stayed on the main road just in case. One sign claimed “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” I’m from the South, and sometimes people mean that kind of thing, so we kept to the road!
Important: Pedestrians yield to all vehicles; vehicles going up yield to all vehicles going down.
Mo’okini Heiau and King Kamehameha I Birthplace
We ended up doing this hike in the afternoon, in the hottest part of the day. If you can do this earlier in the day, we advise doing it! The path is easy to follow, and there is signage:
The Mo’okini Heiau is the location of ancient Hawaiian human sacrifices, even up through King Kamehameha I’s reign in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Just another 0.2-0.3 miles down the path is King Kamehameha I’s birthplace. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’ve already come this far!
- Location: Trailhead at the Upolu Airport, 73200 Kupipi St, Kailua Kona, HI ; 1 hour 15 minutes North of Kailua-Kona (or search “Upolu Airport” in your GPS)
- Total Hiking Time: 2.5 hours (1 hour in, 30 minutes walking around, 1 hour out)
- Distance: 4 miles round trip
- Cost: Free
- Parking: Roadside
- Terrain: Dirt
- Restroom Facility: No
More here: Your Guide to Hawaii’s Big Island Royalty
You will know you’re on the right road to the trailhead because you will see huge turbines to the right.
There will be a fork in the road on your way to the trailhead. There is a sign to tell you which one to take:
Also, there is no shade! Also, the road is deeply rutted, so 4 wheel drive is necessary if you want to drive it; we drove part of the way until we met a rut that was so filled with muddy water we could not tell how deep it was. There are paths to the sides of the deep ruts on the trail, so follow those to stay dry.
Advice for All Hikes Around the World
- Flip flops and water shoes are not advisable; wear sturdy shoes!
- Bring sunscreen and plenty of water… and maybe a snack or two!
- Always bring tissues or toilet paper with you. You never know when you’ll need it!
So what do you think? Are you ready for some epic, unique, beautiful Hawaiian hikes? Let me know below! And don’t forget to check out my Hawaiian Islands Page for all things Hawaii.
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