Hawaii is so much more than the famous beaches it’s known for. The Big Island is home to some of the most scenic day hikes across the island chain. The five trails listed lead hikers to green and black sand beaches, down valleys and into craters to traverse across lava lakes and to some of the best snorkelling on the island.
If you’re visiting for only a few days and want to experience the best hikes on the Big Island, these are the top trails to choose from – and they’re only an hour or two from Kona and Hilo.
Best Hikes on The Big Island
Here are five of the best hikes to experience on the Big Island:
1. Pololu Valley to the Honokane Nui Lookout, Kohala Coast
Distance: 7 km / 4.35 miles return
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard, 334m / 1095 feet elevation change
Why Hike It? Stunning combination of black sand beach amongst an ironwood forest in the valley
At the end of Highway 270 on the north end of the Big Island on the Kohala Coast is the Pololu Valley hike and incredibly scenic views of its erosional valleys.
The parking lot is limited so most vehicles parallel park along the shoulder of the road. While many people only hike down into the Pololu Valley, it’s worth hiking up the other side to the Honokane Nui Lookout. The hike down is well-marked with a very distinct path. The trail switchbacks down and has several spots great for photo-ops.
At the bottom, you’ll come out to the valley floor. While the beach area is public, the land beyond the ironwood trees is private property. There are also sacred burial grounds in this area so please be respectful of where you explore.
Continuing down along the ironwood trees between the beach and the valley, you’ll find a well-trodden trail that leads up through wild guava trees. (You’ll notice the pungent smell of fallen guava fermenting on the trail.) The path may be muddy depending on recent rain so step cautiously. Once you reach the top, you’ll follow along a ridgeline that opens up to impressive views. There’s a bench at the top of the viewpoint. It’s a great spot to enjoy lunch or a snack and take in the trio of islands – Mokupuku, Paokalani and Pa’alaea and the steep drop of the valley.
This trail is considered moderate to hard because of the 334 m / 1095 ft elevation change to the valley below and subsequent trek up the other side. There are switchbacks as well as shade from nearby trees which makes the trip down and up easier.
Occasionally, local surfers hike down to catch waves along the black sand beach in the bay. However, the water here is dangerous with strong currents and riptides. If you choose to swim, do so at your own risk.
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2. Ka’Awaloa Captain Cook Monument Trail, South Kona
Distance: 6.6km / 4.1 miles return
Difficulty: Hard, elevation change of 371 metres / 1217 feet to climb back up
Why Hike It? Access to some of the best snorkelling on the Big Island
The easiest part of the Ka’Awaloa Captain Cook trail in South Kona is the descent to Kealakekua Bay below. The trail, located in Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park is well marked, with the first third through overgrown grass nearly 10 feet tall. Keep an eye out for wild goats in the brush as you hike.
The trail opens up to expansive views of the edge of the Big Island and becomes rockier as it descends to the water. An excellent way to break up the hike before returning to the top, is to pack a lunch as well as your snorkelling gear. While many stop to take in the white obelisk monument built in 1874 to commemorate fallen British explorer Captain John Cook, most are here for the snorkelling. It’s rumoured to be some of the best on the island. Those willing to hike (or paddle) to the spot will get to see a variety of fish, particularly yellow tang and cowfish, in the coral near the shoreline. Dolphins and rays can also be spotted in the bay.
The hike back up is non-stop straight up and does not have switchbacks. The elevation change is 371 m / 1217 ft over 3 km / 1.9 miles. The Hawaiian sun packs a punch so make sure to carry lots of water, sunscreen and a hat.
For one of the best reef-safe sunscreens, buy it here.
Alternatively, you can book a snorkel or kayaking trip through local companies. All kayaks are required to have a permit to land here, but permits are free and available through the State Parks website. Paddlers can start their trip across the bay from Napo’opo’o Pier.
If parking at the hiking trailhead, be sure to park only in designated areas. Vehicles parked illegally often get ticketed.
3. Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Ka’u District
Distance: 10.2 km/ 6.3 miles return
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate, no shade en route and the descent to the beach is short but steep
Why Hike It? One of only four beaches in the world made of green sand
Papakolea Green Sand Beach is one of only four in the world (Guam, Galapagos Islands and Norway are home to the other three). A hike out to see the green olivine crystals of the beach is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Olivine is a common component of lava and is weathered from the headlands in the bay. The green crystals accumulate on the beach. (Please note it is illegal to take any sand away with you ).
The beach is located close to Ka Lae, the most southern tip of the United States. It’s not accessible by rental vehicle (check your fine print), so you’ll have to hike in on foot. While you’ll see locals offering rides in their 4×4 jeeps and trucks, there is no commercial access and they are not operating legally. The vehicles are also responsible for the degradation of the sensitive ecosystem here so please don’t take a ride with them.
The hiking trail leads south from the parking lot and follows a rough dirt pack road to the Kaulana boat launch. Turn east (left) from here and continue along the road and through rough pastureland, parallel to the ocean. There are ruts up to 10 feet deep from vehicle traffic. While the terrain isn’t hard to hike on, shoes (not sandals) are recommended. The hike offers no shade and neither does the beach area so make sure to carry in extra water, a hat, and sunscreen. Be aware of 4×4 vehicles as they pass.
As you approach the bowl-shaped cinder cone, hike along the rim to the middle where it’s easiest to climb down to the beach. The descent down into the bay is the most difficult part of the hike. There is a ladder near the top but once it ends, the final stretch of the trail is on crumbling hardpacked sand and rocks. The waves at the beach are strong and there are no lifeguards on duty so please swim with caution.
READ MORE: Best Beaches on the Big Island
4. Pu’u Kalepeamoa Sunset Hill Trail, Mauna Kea Visitor Centre
Distance: 2 km / 1.6 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy, elevation change of 80 m / 260 feet
Why Hike It? Watch the sunset with a cloud inversion on the highest peak in the world
Mauna Kea is the highest peak in the world at 10, 210m / 33,500 feet (when measured at its base under the ocean). While a hike to the summit is a challenging and cold trek, an easier and just as rewarding hike is up Sunset Hill Trail near the visitor centre.
This is by far the best hike in terms of exertion vs. reward. The panoramic views of Saddle Road from atop the hill south of the Mauna Kea Visitor Centre are some of the best on the island. Also called the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, the visitor station sits at 2,800m / 9,200 ft. Since you’re still quite high, there’s often a cloud inversion that makes viewing the sunset extra special.
The trail starts across the highway from the visitor centre and is clearly visible to follow. It leads up the hill to a flat viewing point with plenty of rocks to sit and wait for the skies to change colour. Make sure to stick around after the sun has gone down to enjoy blue hour and the impressive view of the stars overhead.
At this high of elevation, weather conditions are cooler than near the coast. The weather can also change quite quickly. Sturdy boots and a warm jacket and layers are recommended. A headlamp or cellphone flashlight are helpful when hiking down in the dark. Parking at the visitor centre is limited to 115 spots and it’s first-come, first-served. There are outhouses available for public use in the parking lot.
READ MORE: Top 6 Unique Things to Do on the Big Island
5. Kilauea Iki and Crater Rim Trail, Volcanoes National Park
Distance: 5.3 km / 3.3 mile loop
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard, 122 m / 400 ft descent into the crater
Why Hike It? An opportunity to walk along a lava lake in the middle of a volcanic crater
Kilauea Iki is a pit crater in Volcanoes National Park that began filling with a lava lake in 1959. The hike takes you from the Kilauea Iki Overlook parking lot along the northern rim of the crater and through dense rainforest. There are numerous viewpoints of the crater’s lava lake. It’s also easy to see a view of the trail that traces back through the middle of the crater (where you’ll be walking on the loop back.)
The trail is well marked along the rim and eventually takes you down into the crater. The descent is rocky and quite sharp so be careful where you step. Once in the crater, you can easily follow the path through the middle of the lava lake to the end. There are giant cairns to help guide you. Take time to explore the unique cracks on the lake. Notice the ohi’a lehua trees dotting the landscape – they’re the first to grow on cooled lava flows.
The hike back up to the parking lot is not technical but it is steep with switchbacks leading up 122 metres / 400 feet to the top. Once at the top, you’ll arrive into the Nahuku Thurston Lava Tube parking lot. (It’s worth taking the time to walk the 800m / 0.5 miles through the 500-year-old lava tube). To get back to where you parked, you’ll have to continue along the pathway in the rainforest back to the Kilauea Iki Overlook.
Parking to access the trailhead is limited so arriving early ensures you’ll have the opportunity to experience this hike. For those who only want to hike down into the crater and then back up again, start from the Nahuku Thurston Lava Tube parking lot (parking in this lot is even more limited so go early).
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