The island of Hawaii, or the Big Island as it’s affectionately known, is a nature-lover’s paradise. The biggest of the islands that make up the state of Hawaii, it’s actually still growing, thanks to the active volcano Kilauea, whose cooling lava flow has added some 500 acres to the island’s landmass in the past 20 years.
If you’re looking for natural highs, Big Island has a lot to offer—besides the three active volcanoes, there are lush forests, natural thermal pools, black sand beaches and some of the best star-gazing in the world. Here are some of our favorite outdoor excursions.
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
If Mauna Kea (the ‘white mountain’) was on dry land it would put Mount Everest to shame—the peak is an incredible 33,476ft tall, yet more than half of this is underwater, plunging to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. With its combination of climate and high altitude, Mauna Kea is considered one of the best places in the world for astronomy, and several countries maintain permanent telescopes at the summit.
To witness the beauty of the stars for yourself, drive to the Visitor Information Station at 9,200ft from Tuesday-Saturday at 6 pm for a free stargazing tour run by experts. The staff set up telescopes and explain the stars and systems as you gaze up at the sky. You’ll be amazed at how bright the stars appear from this altitude. Try to arrive early—there are a limited number of spots and once the parking lot is full you will be turned away. Remember to pack a warm layer or two as temperatures can drop to near freezing once the sun sets.
For the thrill seekers among us, the sight of watching bright molten lava flowing down a mountainside is a true bucket list item. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is currently one of the only places in the world to witness the spectacle. The Park is enormous—measuring some 333,000 acres—but the main attraction is Kilauea volcano, which has been active since it 1983, and shows no sign of slowing down. It produces up to an incredible 650,000 cubic feet of lava per day.
To see the incredible natural fireworks for yourself, jump on a boat trip (waves can be rough at times) and witness the clouds of steam and sparks fly as the lava hits the ocean, or if you’re of a nervous disposition, try a helicopter tour to take in the view from a safe distance. Lava conditions change frequently so check before you head out to make sure you get the best of the view.
Nahuku Lava Tube
A natural phenomenon that can only be seen in a few places around the world, a lava tube is formed when molten lava flows underneath an earlier lava flow that has started to cool, creating a tunnel. Nahuku, or Thurston lava tube as it is also known, was created by a river of lava 500 years ago. The tube can be found at Kilauea Crater inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The ceiling is 20ft high in places so visitors are able to easily walk through the 600ft of tunnel.
The first part of the tunnel is lit with lamps, and you be able to see the colorful mineral deposits and unique shapes left by the lava as it cooled. The second part of the tunnel is completely dark, so you need to bring a flashlight with you. As you navigate the dark tunnel before emerging into the bright green leaves of the rainforest beyond you’ll feel like a real-life Indiana Jones. If you’re feeling brave you can even switch off your flashlight to experience total darkness for a few seconds. Indy would be proud.
Thermal pool at Ahalanui Park
Experience the workings of thermal energy first hand from the naturally heated rocks and water at Ahalanui County Park. Right next to the ocean, this large open-air swimming pool is fed by a volcanic spring. The temperature is normally around a cozy 90°F, perfect for a little R&R. The pool feeds directly into the ocean, so you might even see some tropical fish swimming around with you!
The pool is popular with both locals and tourists and can get busy, especially on weekend afternoons, so try and visit in the morning. If you’re bringing kids along, rest assured there is a separate swimming area for little ones and a lifeguard on site. After you’ve dried off you can take a picnic and eat on the shady grass under the palm trees. Not your average hot tub!
Walk along a Black Sand Beach
Blue skies, swaying palm trees, the swell of the Pacific… you might expect white sand beneath your feet, but on the Big Island, the sand could be white, green or even black. The sand is made of volcanic rock which explains the unusual color.
On the southeastern Kau coast close to the town ofNaʻalehu, Punalu’u beach is a must-see experience. Up close the sand is not dull but dotted with sparkling elements. If you’re lucky you might also see Hawksbill or Green turtles relaxing on the sands as Punalu’u is a favorite spot for them on the island (remember to leave them in peace if you do). Take note that swimming is not the best here but Punalu’u makes a great picnic pit stop, before heading off to Honaunau Bay for an afternoon of snorkeling in the calm, clear waters and relaxing on the golden sands.