Best Hikes On The Big Island
The Island of Hawaii, better known as the Big Island, is bigger than the rest of the islands in the chain put together. It is one of the most diverse islands in the world, a place where you could theoretically ski in the morning, hike in a tropical rainforest in the afternoon, and go for a dip in the ocean before sunset
Mauna Kea Summit Hike
At a height of 13,800 feet (4,207m), Mauna Kea is the highest peak in Hawaii. In fact, if the height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world! A sacred place to native Hawaiians way above the cloud line, the air at the summit is so clean and free from light pollution, that it is the perfect location for the largest array of high-powered telescopes in the world. The summit trail is an uphill battle from the start, but the pain in your legs, shortness of breath, and often cold conditions (maybe even snow) are constantly rewarded with superb Mars-like views.
Along the way, you’ll reach Lake Wai’au – the third highest lake in the US and a peculiar site amid the desert landscape. Once at the summit, you’ll feel extra tiny amid the giant telescopes and enjoy miles of unobstructed views. The hike can be combined with sunset viewing and stargazing at the visitor’s center. For a similar experience devoid of any man-made “interruptions”, hike to the summit of Mauna Loa (though, as of July 2019, Mauna Loa is showing signs of activity so it’s best to check before heading out).
Total distance: 16 miles (26 km)
Degree of difficulty: very (very) challenging
Time: 8-10 hours
Hi’ilawe Falls – Waipio Valley
The majestic Waipio Valley is the most impressive in a series of deep valleys on the Big Island’s remote northeastern coast. Slicing inland for over 10 km of thick jungle, freshwater streams, and giant waterfalls, Waipio Valley is also known as “The Valley of the Kings” and holds significant importance in native Hawaiian culture. The valley is the setting for a number of great hikes, such as the multi-day Muliwai Trail. But for the ultimate adventure, hike to the spectacular Hi’ilawe Falls and be one of the few that get to experience this pristine side of Hawaii.
Unfortunately, local residents claim that the path leading up to the falls is on private land and they do not want tourists hiking there, to say the least (though many locals do). So you ask locals for permission before undertaking this hike. After crossing the Hi’ilawe Stream at several points (sometimes in neck-deep water), you’ll reach the base of the falls (1450 ft, 442m) and likely be the only ones there!
Total distance: ~4.5 miles (7 km) starting from Waipio Valley Lookout
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: ~5 hours including a return visit to Waipio Beach (must ask permission from locals)
Green Sand Beach
Officially known as Papakolea Beach, the Green Sand Beach owes its fame to the unique composition of its eroded soil. Located “way out there” in the South Point Peninsula – the southernmost point in the 50 states – the beach is reached via a relatively easy (but long) coastal hike. Due to the fragile natural environment, driving to the beach is not permitted, not with your own 4WD or with locals who might offer a paid ride to the beach. The enjoyable hike takes you along the beautiful coastline on makeshift paths that were formed in the sand until eventually you can spot the gem from a distance. Though swimming is sometimes dangerous, I managed to visit on a clear day when the water was perfectly clear and calm.
Total distance: ~5.6 miles (9 km)
Degree of difficulty: very easy
Time: ~3-4 hours including beach time
Kilauea Iki Trail
If there’s only enough time for one activity during your visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it surely must be the Kilauea Iki hike. Basically taking you to “the moon and back”, the hike traverses a diverse landscape, starting from a misty rainforest and heading down to a steamy crater floor before climbing back to the top via a different section of the same forest. The highlight is without a doubt the time spent on the crater floor. You feel absolutely tiny and awestruck at the sight of steam vents popping out of the ash-covered ground from every corner, a stark reminder, in case you forgot, that the Kilauea Volcano is alive and kicking.
Total distance: 4 miles (6.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~2.5 hours
Kalapana Lava Viewing
At the present time, there is no way to get close to the current lava eruption from within the national park. So for an unforgettable experience of meeting the Fire Goddess Pele from up close, you must drive to the very end of scenic Highway 137 in Kalapana and… start walking (or cycling). It’s best to start hiking about 90 minutes before the sun sets to witness the incredible change of color as the lava trickles down from the hilltop like a waterfall. Once you reach the current flow, you can walk along “the banks” of the lava river and feel the intense heat as liquid-rock oozes in mesmerizing fashion. Before heading back and leaving “the gateway to hell”, turn to the seaside and witness the flow of the Kilauea Volcano cascading into the Pacific Ocean in a battle of the elements. It’s not exactly clear who is the winner at any given moment, but this experience will last in your memory for a lifetime!
Total distance: ~5 miles (8km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~3 hours