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Visiting the Big Island of Hawaii for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do

From bubbling volcanoes to sand-swept beaches, don’t miss these key spots on your Big Island adventure.

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Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

The Big Island of Hawaii has one of the most unique landscapes on the planet. Whether you’re into hiking and outdoor activities or prefer cultural experiences, Hawaii’s largest island has something for you, from trekking volcanoes to sipping Kona coffee.

Even those that just want to relax on gorgeous beaches have plenty to see, with sands ranging from typical golden to volcanic black—and yes—even green. Here’s everything first-time travelers should see and do when heading to this volcanic Hawaiian island.

Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the sun.
A hiker explores Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.Photo Credit: MNStudio / Shutterstock

Discover lava tubes, craters, and jagged peaks.

Simply put, no other US national park glows orange from fiery lava. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to drive the 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) Crater Rim Drive, hike through lava tubes, wander through fields of craggy black basalt, witness fresh rocks tumbling into the ocean, and admire the views from some seriously incredible viewpoints. When you need a lunch break, dine at the Volcano House overlooking the Kilauea Iki Crater.

If lava flows are active during your visit, plan to splurge on a helicopter tour—it’s a fantastic way to see Mother Nature doing her thing from up above.

Seek out black-sand beaches

A beachgoer in shorts enjoys Pohoiki Black Sand Beach and its palm trees.
A beachgoer enjoys Pohoiki Black Sand Beach.Photo Credit: Billy McDonald / Shutterstock

There’s nothing like feeling volcanic particles between your toes.

If you get bored of all those picture-perfect golden-sand beaches, head to one of the Big Island's volcanic beaches, featuring gray, black, and pebbly basalt sands.

In fact, one of the newest beaches in the world can be found just northwest of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at Isaac Hale Beach Park: Pohoiki Black Sand Beach. The beach, drenched in black sandy particles, formed back in 2018 from Kilauea’s most recent eruption.

Visit the green-sand beach

Papakolea and its olive sands.
Papakolea and its famous olive sand.Photo Credit: Pavel Tvrdy / Shutterstock

These unique olive sands are worth the trek.

Papakolea—one of only four green-sand beaches on the planet and the only one in Hawaii—is near the island’s southernmost point, carved into an ancient cinder cone. It’s a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer), fairly easy hike to the beach from the parking lot over sandy, uneven terrain. The beach appears green thanks to a special particle (olivine) inside the sand.

Skip the offer for a ride from the parking lot, as these are illegal. Make sure to bring water and snacks, and leave this rare phenomenon exactly as you left it.

Get to know Hilo

A rainbow over Rainbow Falls in Hawaii.
Rainbow Falls at Hilo.Photo Credit: Michael Warwick / Shutterstock

This small town will charm you.

Hilo is a small Hawaiian town with a big history—Polynesians settled there roughly 1,000 years ago. Besides wandering around to enjoy the quaint shops, restaurants, and museums, make sure to visit the nearby Wailuku River State Park, home to Rainbow Falls, where you can enjoy colorful rainbows on misty mornings.

Don’t forget to visit the peaceful, Japanese-inspired Liliuokalani Gardens and stop at the Hilo Farmers Market to pick up traditional crafts, sip Hawaiian coffee, and admire the tropical fruits and flowers.

Drink the world’s best coffee

Kona coffee beans ripening and red on the stalk in Hawaii.
Kona coffee beans ripening.Photo Credit: Keith Levit / Shutterstock

Kona coffee is unlike any other.

Grown on the slopes of the Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes on more than 650 different coffee forms, Kona coffee is one of a kind. Its earthy and rich taste comes from special Hawaiian soil, conditions, and cultivation methods.

Coffee lovers can taste and tour many local coffee farms on The Big Island. Two standouts are Kona Joe’s and Greenwell Farms, which make the process from harvest to cup interactive and fun. Or, consider taking a Kona Coffee Tour of the island to understand more about this specialty product.

Scout out the lesser-known natural gems

A man looks out at the ocean from Pololu Valley in Hawaii.
A hiker looks out at the ocean from Pololu Valley.Photo Credit: MNStudio / Shutterstock

Escape the tourist crowds.

A tour is the best way to find the best off-the-beaten-path destinations, as they may be harder to come by without local insight. Or, consider an app-guided driving tour to avoid busy groups and big bus tours.

To give you a start, check out the underrated Pololu Valley. On your way there, stop at the Fresh Off The Grid farmstand for smoothies and treats.

Related: How to Get Off the Beaten Path on The Big Island of Hawaii

Hit the water

A snorkeler enjoys the warm ocean.
A snorkeler swims in the Pacific Ocean.Photo Credit: Brian Fulda / Viator

There’s no shortage of aquatic fun on The Big Island.

There’s so much to do in the warm Pacific waters around the Big Island—and you don’t even have to get wet. Besides the obvious, which is going for a swim, consider snorkeling or learning how to surf.

Those that prefer to stay dry can opt for a luxury dinner cruise around Kealakekua Bay, which glides down the scenic Kona coast. There are also dolphin-spotting excursions, glass-bottom boat tours, catamaran sails, and even submarine tours.

Visit Mauna Kea for sunrise, sunset, or stargazing

The viewing summit at Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea is the tallest peak on the planet.Photo Credit: Brian Fulda / Viator

Feast your eyes on the skies from a sacred volcano.

If it weren’t for the water, Mauna Kea would be the tallest peak on the planet—some 33,500 feet (10,200 meters). But even with all that ocean, this is still the highest summit in the Pacific basin, and its slopes have attracted some of the finest telescopes in the world. Though the observatories are off-limits to the public, visitors are encouraged to explore the Maunakea Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters); if you can, stick around after hours for some epic stargazing.

Night snorkel with manta rays

A manta-ray in the ocean at night.
Hawaii has a few manta-ray hot spots to choose from.Photo Credit: Shane Myers Photography / Shutterstock

Experience these graceful creatures up close and under the moonlight.

On the Kona side of the island there are a few reliable manta-ray hot spots, and a smattering of local outfitters have found ways to get travelers experiencing them like never before—at night. Your guide will take you onto Honokohau Harbor, zooming out to that night’s ray hangout, for what is quickly becoming one of the Big Island’s most sought-after experiences. Once your gear is on, they’ll switch on the lightboard, turning the waters a neon blue—and getting the ray party started.

Scout out some Hawaiian history

The exterior of Naha Stone.
Learn about Hawaiian history at sites like Naha Stone.Photo Credit: Nikki Gensert / Shutterstock

Witness the island’s past, during the reign of kings and queens.

In 1893, Hawaii’s last monarch—Queen Lili’uokalani—was overthrown. That’s not that long ago, meaning you can still see Hawaii’s pre-US past today. To get started, visit spots such as the Naha Stone, the 3-ton rock that proved King Kamehameha I’s power, in front of the Hilo Public Library; stroll the royal, temple-lined gardens of Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park; and hop through the small, historic towns that line the Hamakua Coast, on the island’s northeastern side.

More things to do on the Big Island

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