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If you are planning a trip to Hawaii and want to experience the great outdoors there, then add these beautiful hikes on the Big Island to your itinerary…
The Big Island of Hawaii is a nature lover’s paradise, with giant volcanoes, stunning beaches, peaceful valleys, and otherworldly lava fields. The scenery is dramatic and varied, more than you would ever imagine for a tropical island.
And the best way to immerse yourself in all this natural beauty? Go hiking!
I have spent two months in total exploring the Big Island of Hawaii and it is one of my favorite places in the world. It feels less touristy, less crowded, and closer to nature. And one of my favorite ways to explore is to get outside on these Big Island hikes.
I put together a list of my absolute favorite hikes on the Big Island that showcase the diverse landscape of this special island. Enjoy!
Best Big Island Hikes To Explore the Island
Check out my interactive map for the best hikes on the Big Island.
1. Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Distance: 5.6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 370 feet
The hike to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is one of the most unique hikes on the Big Island – there aren’t many places in the world where you can see a green sand beach! Of the four green sand beaches around the world, Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is the most accessible so it is definitely worth tackling this hike.
This unique beach was formed when a cinder cone erupted 50,000 years ago. The mineral making the sand green is olivine, which is commonly found on the Big Island.
The trail has no shade so I definitely recommend starting early. You follow the trail slightly inland parallel to the coast on a rugged dirt road, occasionally meeting up with the coast at picturesque bays.
After a couple of miles, you will come to the striking viewpoint over Papakōlea Beach. Skirt around the edge of the cliff to the area above the middle of the beach where there is a steep path down to the beach. Take your time hiking down because the ground is unstable and it is easy to slip.
Only swim at the beach if you are a strong swimmer as it can be quite rough with big waves. It is definitely refreshing after a hot hike.
Hike back the way you came. DO NOT take one of the local pick up “taxis”, they are destroying the natural environment by driving all over the landscape.
2. Captain Cook Monument Trail
Distance: 4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1250 feet
The Captain Cook Monument trail (also known as the Ka’Awaloa Trail) is one of my favorite Big Island hikes because as well as the hike itself having gorgeous coastal views and being a great workout, it also ends in a peaceful bay with excellent snorkeling, a historic site, and possibly spinner dolphins!
The Captain Cook Monument hike will take you down a steep trail with expansive views over the South Kona coastline as you descend. We started early and saw wild goats and mongooses on the trail.
Once you reach the bottom, you will have a short hike to reach the Captain Cook Monument on Kealakekua Bay. The monument marks the approximate spot where Captain Cook was killed by native Hawaiians in 1779.
There is no beach here but you can swim and snorkel right off the rocks by the monument. The snorkeling here is some of the best on the Big Island and the only way you can reach it is by hiking this trail or taking a kayak or boat trip here.
More often than not you will see pods of spinner dolphins cruising around in the bay as this is a popular resting spot for local dolphins. Make sure not to harass the dolphins although sometimes they will come up to you when you are swimming/snorkeling in the bay because they are curious – this happened to us and it was incredible.
The hike back out is the tough part as it gets very hot and the heat radiates off the dirt path too. It is a good idea to bring lots of water and take your time, or leave it until later in the day when it is a bit cooler but make sure not to hike in the dark as it is a rough and rocky trail.
3. Pololū Valley Trail
Distance: 1.2 miles out and back
Elevation: 344 feet
The Big Island is known for its impressive valleys and the Pololū Valley is definitely that. While you could just visit the viewpoint looking over the valley at the top, I highly recommend you do this hike into the valley for a more immersive experience.
The hike into the valley is steep but it’s not long, and you will be afforded stunning valley and ocean views the whole way. It can be slippery when it rains (which is often in the Big Island valleys) so take your time making your way to the valley floor.
Once on the valley floor, cross the river and then explore the forest of ironwood trees and sand dunes, and the polished black lava rock beach. Don’t venture too far inland as a lot of the land further back is privately owned.
After hanging out in the valley, hike back the way you came or to continue the adventure, continue along the beach to the end of the valley and then hike up the other side to a viewpoint over the next valley, Honokane Valley.
You used to be able to hike into this valley also but a landslide destroyed the trail in 2006 so it now ends at the viewpoint.
I recommend hiking this in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds. The parking lot for Pololū Valley is small so this is another reason to arrive early. If you have to park on the road, make sure to heed no parking signs and don’t block any driveways.
4. Kiholo Bay and Wainanali’i Lagoon
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 328 feet
I did this hike on my first visit to the Big Island back in 2010 and I loved how peaceful it was. This easy hike will take you to a flooded open-air lava tube, a historic fishpond, and a beautiful black sand beach where you will hopefully see basking turtles.
Start this hike at the trailhead, reached by taking the unpaved and unmarked road just past mile marker 82 on Highway 19 north of Kailua-Kona on the Kohala Coast. This road can be rough in spots but is passable in a 2WD – just take it slow.
Erik Wilde on Flickr
Once you reach the trailhead at the end of the road, walk towards the ocean then take a right to check out Kiholo Bay. This is a popular place to swim and see resting sea turtles, make sure not to disturb them but admire them from a distance.
Once you have checked out the bay, head back the way you came and continue along the coast, past the trailhead.
You will reach the flooded lava tube first, it is slightly inland. You used to be able to swim here (I did in 2010) but it is now illegal. Further along the coast, you will see a large yellow mansion, built for the inventor of the pacemaker, and the intricately decorated Bali House.
Kristina D.C. Hoeppner on Flickr
After rounding the bay, you’ll cross a small bridge then in front of you is the turquoise Wainanali’i Lagoon which is what remains of a giant fishpond constructed by Kamehameha I over 200 years ago. Lava flow destroyed it in 1859, creating smaller brackish lagoons. You can swim in these lagoons and you may see turtles swimming here too.
Head back the way you came once you have enjoyed this beautiful spot.
5. Mo’okini Heiau
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
If you are interested in pre-Christian history in Hawaii, this hike to one of the oldest and most sacred places of worship in the Hawaiian Islands is a must.
Mo’okini Heiau is located in the north of the Big Island near the town of Hawi. You can actually reach Mo’okini Heiau via a rough 4-wheel drive road but I hiked along the road as we only had a 2WD vehicle.
Take Upolo Airport Road off the main highway west of Hawi then turn left down Upolu Point Road. Find parking on the side of the road and begin your hike.
This is an easy hike, following the dirt road along the coast for two miles, before you reach the historic site. This hike is more about the destination than the journey.
Mo’okini Heiau is a beautiful and rugged place with a heavy aura. The ruins are from the 13th to 14th century, when a temple was built on an older temple dating to the 5th century. Many human sacrifices occurred here and King Kamehameha I was also born nearby.
Be respectful and do not disturb anything at this atmospheric and sacred site.
6. Kilauea Iki Trail
Distance: 4.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
On this list of hikes on the Big Island, the Kilauea Iki trail is the only one that I didn’t get to do myself (it was closed when we were there). I had to add it because I have heard it is such a beautiful and awe-inspiring hike.
Located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Kilauea Iki trail takes through lush tropical rainforest and across the bottom of a volcanic crater. The crater formed after a volcanic eruption in 1959 and the bottom of the crater is relatively flat due to a lava lake that formed and cooled.
Start at the main trailhead and make sure to do a slight detour to see the Thurston Lava Tube. You will then pass through dense forest with occasional glimpses down into the crater. After around a mile, you will start switchbacking to the crater floor.
You will see steam vents at various spots on the crater floor so make sure to stick to the trail. After crossing the crater floor you will ascend back out of the crater and loop back through the forest to the trailhead.
For shorter hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, do the Sulfur Banks loop and the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs trail – both are under 1.5 miles.
7. Makalawena Beach
Distance: 2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: Negligible
For a beach day away from the crowds and with added adventure, hike to secluded and beautiful Mahai’ula Beach and Makalawena Beach near Kailua-Kona – one of the shortest and easiest Big Island hikes on my list.
Starting from the car park in Kekaha Kai Beach Park, reached by driving over a lava field (don’t worry – you can do this in a 2WD car, just take it slow), walk along the coast following the path that will be on your right if you are facing the ocean.
You will be hiking over old lava so make sure to wear proper footwear. It is only around 0.4 miles along the trail to reach Mahai’ula Beach. For Makalawena Beach, continue along the beach and rejoin the trail through a lava field that will take you to Makalawena Beach.
Both beaches are great places to see marine life – when we went there were two endangered Hawaiian monk seals lying on the beach, whales breaching offshore, and turtles surfing in the waves.
I think the more secluded Makalawena Beach is prettier and it is larger, making it easier to find a spot with no other people.
8. The 1871 Trail
Distance: 3 miles (one way)
Elevation Gain: 75 feet
The 1871 trail is a section of the historic coastal trail that originally stretched from Nāpō’opo’o south to Ho’okena, and was widened in 1871 to accommodate horse-drawn carriages.
This trail linked coastal villages in South Kona and you can see the remains of one of these villages, Kiʻilae Village, along the trail.
When I hiked the 1871 trail I only saw a couple of other people on the trail, and I loved the windswept ruggedness of the hike. The trail takes you through rough black lava fields, above steep sea cliffs, and through scrubby patches of trees.
Start the trail behind Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park in South Kona – don’t miss a visit here before your hike.
The trail ends at beautiful Ho’okena Beach which is a great spot for seeing spinner dolphins, humpback whales close to shore in winter, and watching the sunset.
It is a one-way hike so if you are traveling by car, you will want to either hike back the way you came or hitch a ride back – pretty easy to do on the Big Island.
9. Waipi’o Valley
Distance: 4.5 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1400 feet
UPDATE November 2022: Unfortunately, the valley is currently closed to anyone other than residents while they fix the road. They have not currently announced a reopening date although there are signs stating it is until 2025. You can still visit the lookout for views over the valley.
One of the most famous spots to visit on the Big Island is the awe-inspiring Waipi’o Valley, and like with the Pololu Valley, you could just view the valley from the top but I encourage you to take this hike to the valley floor to experience more of the valley’s beauty.
The Waipi’o Valley was once home to Hawaiian kings and was heavily settled. It is now home to around twenty people and a lot of taro fields.
You will hike down the road into the valley, and it is steep but just take your time and enjoy the spectacular views while watching out for cars traveling both ways.
Once you get to the bottom, take the trail on your right that will take you through tropical vegetation to the beautiful black sand beach. You will need to cross a river if you want to visit the other end of the beach and it can get quite deep – it was waist-deep when I crossed. It’s easier to cross at low tide.
If you want to swim, only do so if it is calm and don’t go out too deep. There are undertows and rip currents here, and no lifeguards.
As well as exploring the beach, you can hike part of the way into the valley on the road, but just make sure not to enter any private property – stick to the road only.
There are a couple of waterfalls in the Waipi’o Valley – the majestic Hi’ilawe Falls at the back of the valley, and Kaluahine Falls to the right of the beach, which only exists if there has been a lot of rain.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this hike – hiking back out of the valley is pretty brutal. If you are lucky like I was, a local might take pity on you and offer you a ride out. I don’t recommend driving to the bottom of the valley yourself and most rental car agencies don’t allow it.
For a bigger adventure, hike from the Waipi’o Valley over to the next valley, the Waimanu Valley, on the Muliwai trail – more details on that below.
Even if you only hike a small part of the Muliwai trail, you will get great views over the Waipi’o Valley and Hi’ilawe Falls so it’s definitely worth it.
10. Muliwai Trail to Waimea Valley
Distance: 20 miles (out and back)
Elevation Gain: 5,500 feet
UPDATE November 2022: Unfortunately, the Wai’pio Valley is currently closed to anyone other than residents while they fix the road, and there is no other access to Waimanu Valley. They have not currently announced a reopening date although it may not be until 2025.
If you are looking for a more challenging hike and you have camping gear with you, then the Muliwai Trail is a great option.
The Muliwai Trail links Waipi’o Valley to the remote Waimanu Valley – which can only be reached on foot or by boat. Both valleys are downright magical, with waterfalls everywhere and rugged black sand and stone beaches, and it is especially amazing to experience the remote beauty of Waimanu Valley.
First, you will hike the steep but scenic road into Waipi’o Valley, and across the valley floor to the official start of the Muliwai Trail. You will need to cross a river in the valley and when we crossed it was chest-deep and the current was reasonably strong – honestly, I found it pretty scary. Be prepared for this – although it might not be as deep for you.
Once you are on the official trail, it’s a steep climb to the top but you will be rewarded with gorgeous views over the Waipi’o Valley.
From there, it is a lot of ups and downs through thick vegetation, crossing numerous rivers and waterfalls, until you reach Waimanu Valley. Enjoy the stunning views over the valley and Wai’ilikahi Falls then make your way down the steep and slippery path into the valley.
Once you reach the bottom, cross the deep river (there is a rope to help you cross or cross where it is shallower close to the ocean), then you have reached the beach and the campground!
Toby and I hiked in one day from the Waipi’o Lookout, then hiked back out the next day. It was pretty intense doing it this way so I would recommend spending two nights at the Waimanu campground if you have the time so you have a day to relax and enjoy the valley.
Hike the three miles return to beautiful Wai’ilikahi Falls if you do have a day in the valley. Then you have to do the whole hike over again in reverse.
If you are renting a car, you will need to park near the Waipi’o Valley Lookout as the road into the valley is very steep and dangerous. Cars have been known to be broken into at the lookout so consider paying for secure parking – Waipio Valley Artworks has been known to provide this service.
Make sure you secure your permit for the Waimanu campground before you hike the trail. Be prepared for a muddy hike and bring bug spray, lots of water and/or a water filter, and water shoes for the multiple river crossings.
Planning For Your Big Island Trip
Tips For Hiking on the Big Island
- Start hiking early to avoid hiking in the hottest part of the day.
- Take at least a couple of liters of water – more than you think you will need for a hike because the heat can be brutal, especially on the Big Island hikes with no shade.
- Pack out everything you pack in, including all trash.
- Stay on marked trails to avoid trampling any plants, to not disturb sacred sites, and for your own safety.
- Pack rain gear – especially for the valleys because they have high rainfall.
- Take lots of photos but nothing else, including shells and rocks. If everyone took something, what would be left in the end?
What To Pack For Big Island Hikes
For day hikes, the Cotopaxi Luzon is an awesome backpack choice and is lightweight and will pack down easily when you’re not using it.
I highly recommend taking a CamelBak to hydrate easily while you are hiking. This also allows you to bring more water than just taking a water bottle. For hikes with water sources, pack the GRAYL Geopress Water Purifier – the best water filter and purifier on the market.
Take some trekking poles to help with the downhill – your knees will thank you!
Also, pack a raincoat in case it rains, and if you are hiking in winter and are starting early, take a lightweight but cozy thermal underlayer top.
And don’t forget a swimsuit and lightweight towel for the hikes that take you to beaches.
Where To Stay For Your Big Island Hiking Vacation
As these Big Island hikes are spread out over the island, I would recommend you base yourself in two to three places during your stay.
On my first trip to the Big Island, I stayed in Kailua-Kona, Hilo, and Volcano for my nine days on the island, and I would recommend something similar to this.
For budget accommodation, stay at Kona Beach Hostel or My Hawaii Hostel. Great mid-range options include Holua Resort and Banyan Tree Sanctuary Guest House. For vacation rentals, stay in this Private Rainforest Cottage or this condo in the heart of Kailua-Kona.
The best budget options in Hilo are the Big Island Hostel and the Hilo Bay Hostel. Solid hotel options include Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. For vacation rentals, stay at the Peace of Paradise Jungle Cabin or the Ohana Cottage.
There are lots of unique properties in Volcano to stay in like the Hale Hubner treehouse cottage, and the whimsical Lazy Lehua Cottage. Other fantastic options include At the Craters Edge Guesthouse and the historic Kilauea Lodge.
If you liked this post, check out some of my other Hawaii content:
- The Ultimate Big Island 7 Day Itinerary
- Everything You Need To Know About Hiking the Captain Cook Monument Trail
- Incredible Hawaii Tree Houses That You Can Rent!
- Ultimate 7 Day Maui Itinerary For the Budget Conscious Traveler
- One Week in Kauai: Impressions of the Garden Island
- The Best Things To Do in Waikiki to Escape the Crowds
- The Best Easy Hikes in Kauai
- The Best Things To Do on the North Shore Oahu