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  • Ryan Cowden

Discover Hawai'i Island (aka, Big Island)

Photo: Makalawena Beach

Big Island of Hawai'i in 5 Days

Each island has a different vibe. Oahu is home to Honolulu and the diversity a major US city offers. Maui is famed for the beaches and scenery while Kauai is covered in lush greenery and towering cliffs. Big Island (Hawai'i) is famous for the volcanoes but it is large enough to spend a few days visiting the distinct landscapes. Visitors could spend a week on Hawai'i exploring while getting to know the history of the archipelago.



This stretch of the western shoreline is where the bulk of most tourist oriented lodging is found. Staying here has the added benefit that many evening dining options, shops and more than a few bars are within walking distance of your lodging. It is also in a rain shadow of the massive peaks to the east, making it significantly drier.

Lava Fields and the volcano, Hualālai (photo), that they came from in the early 1800's.Heading north of Kona Airport you come to Kakaha Kai State Park. Nestled at the foot of a long black lava field (pictured just above this section) is Makalawena Beach. The short hike from the parking area is quite a sight when you reach the light golden sand, blue waters, crystal clear tidal pools and palm trees set against a barren black lava.

Photo: Makalawena Beach and the soft sands

South of Kona is Kealakekua Bay. Driving out here you find the road climbing high above the coastline heading into the Kona coffee growing region. On the south end of the bay you can go to a very small beach and go for a snorkel. The north side of the bay however is where Captain Cook perished and has a large white obelisk marking the site. Just a few yards from the historical marker is a reef where snorkeling is quite popular for daytrips on dive or snorkel boats from Kona.

Photo Right: Hiking trail down to the Captain Cook Monument and snorkeling

But if you really want an active experience, combine snorkeling with a hike down the slope, offering stunning views. But the climb up is no easy task and is exposed most of the way amidst the barren lava rock, come prepared!

TIP: When visiting this area try the roadside farm stands, food stalls or the occasional hiking trails. Fresh local produce, coffee farms, Poke, and Hawaiian BBQ pork abound but so do local flea markets. When you find a cluster of cars have a look on your map, you may be near a short hike or panoramic view. Finding off the beaten track spots like Kona Point below for watching whales in the distance at sunset, just a short hike from the roadside parking, perfect!

Photo: Kona Point. The cars parked on the side of the road provided the clue


South Hawai'i

Photo: Papakōlea Beach, aka Green Sand Beach

Heading south of Kona and through the higher slopes you pass the Kona Coffee growing region. There are no shortages of vistas on the island looking 2-3,000 feet below to the deep blue Pacific. All around are small towns, ranches, lava fields and coffee farms and you pass through a few small towns with their distintive and charming architecture.

Photo Above: Hiking across the grasslands to Papakōlea Beach

Photo Below: Olive green hued sand at Papakōlea Beach

A layer called "Tuff" was left by an eruption, which remains as a greenish colored sand and one of only 4 "green sand" beaches on Earth! From a distance it has a bit of an olive hue to it but up close and especially when it is wet, there are grains of emerald-olive green sand mixed with black and an almost a golden grain. The beach itself is a spectacular setting after the long and hot hike, the pounding surf and stiff winds just add to it!

Heading back to the main road and then east you will find several small towns. One oddity I noticed all over the island, every small town has an old movie theater in the center of town. Some were in use (well, would have been) while some were clearly abandoned. They often were the coolest building in the villages.

Photo: Quaint small towns on Hawai'i

The small town architecture all around the island is full of charm. Be sure to stop in at the galleries, bakeries, cafes or shops! One such bakery, the "Southern Most Bakery in the US" is Punalu'u Bake Shop with the wide variety of sweetbreads. Feeling inspired? Buy the mix and make it at home, thus extending your vacation experience! And yes, I have a box of Guava Sweetbread mix awaiting preparation!

Just before you reach Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park another highlight of the island is Punalu'u Beach, it is made of up of fine black pebbles and soft black sand. While the grains are larger and more course than the fine white or gold we love in a beach, it is still quite soft for digging your feet into. Or taking a nap as this very large, coffee table sized Hawaiian Green Turtle was.

Photo Below: Papakōlea Beach to the left and the thundering surf beyond


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Hilo

Photo: Overlooking part of the Kilauea Caldera and the smoke arising out of it.

Being on the windward side of the island has a disadvantage: it rains. Quite a lot.

With the plentiful rainfall, it also means the landscape is full of lush greenery and rainforests. Arriving via a highway that crosses up and over the center of the island you leave the relatively dry but green west side for the grasslands across the center where at some points it appears more like a desert. The road passes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both reaching over 13,000 ft. Mauna Kea was shrouded in clouds and hosts several observatories, all set amidst a snowy peak. Mauna Loa, very much an active volcano was clear and visibly capped in shimmering white snow.

Hilo is apparently one of the rainiest locations in the US. We passed around or through it twice on the same day while exploring the eastern side of the island and we didn't see much outside the windshield besides the wipers!

The main attraction for this side of the island is the fiery land of the Hawaiian Goddess Pele. She is the goddess of volcanoes, fire and the creator of the archipelago. It is also home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In December 2020, Kilauea began to erupt again and while lava isn't visible currently, through the non-stop fog and misty rain, thick white plumes of smoke rising up out of the massive caldera are clearly visible.

In 2018, the caldera floor of Kilauea was actually quite a bit higher. From the vantage point along the rim of the caldera, you get a view of a massive sunken crater. The floor of it, as you walk further along the rim you realize it is cracked and all leaning toward a deeper crater. This crater collapsed 1500' in 2018. When the supporting magma below followed a fissure opened up by a series of earthquakes, it blew out the eastern end of the Eastern Rift. With the support below removed, the floor of the caldera dropped.

Hiking to the caldera we followed a few short trails across a small valley filled with vents, complete with a light smell of Sulphur and steam. The landscape ranges from rocky and barren to a green rainforest.

One notable small tree scattered all around is the beautiful, and legendary, Ohia Lehua trees (photo to the right). Their brilliant red tufts set against all of the stark landscapes and the murky mist offer a vivid contrast.

Photo Left: Sulphur Banks area near Kilauea's crater. Standing near these rifts and vents you could smell the Sulphur while feeling the heat and steamy air visible here.

Magma eventually finds the path of least resistance to burst out along this string of fissures in the earth, which the Chain of Craters road follows. Once they stopped erupting, they leave a series of collapsed craters, conical shapes or barely noticeable vents where lava once flowed out. The lava also leaves a barren landscape like this one from Mauna Ulu (below).

Photoe: This overlook is above the Pacific and the lava fields originating from Mauna Ulu. It was active in the 1960's-70's while this point is 2000' above the sea, atop the long cliff in the following photo.

Photo Above: Descending down the winding Chain of Craters road you get a view of where the lava flowed over the crest of the 1000' drop off toward the Pacific Ocean.

TIP FOR YOUR VISIT: The climates vary so come prepared. Kilauea crater is at about 4000' and cool while the arches are just above the sea, and hot. Many of the trails are completely exposed to the sun while the entire region is on the wet windward side of the island.

Photo Right: The Holei Sea Arches at the base of HVNP are formed by the erosion of the crashing waves.

For more info visit the following links:

The image in this clip shows the fissure and what happened in 2018. Chain of Craters Rd follows the fissure and each crater is a point where the lava escaped out of the fissure at various points in time.

Photo: Finishing off the wet and cool day by chasing waterfalls​​​​, Akaka Falls State Park, near Hilo.


Photo: Overlooking the Pololu Valley Beach and the Kohala Coastal Cliffs.

Kohala Coast

Photo Below: Pololu Beach

Finally heading north you visit two more dramatic regions. Even on the drive out here, our Humpback Whale friends gave us a show by breaching just off the shore. Pulling over we waited and watched as they surfaced, hoping for another monumental splash, but we did see them surface. Humpbacks can be found here, easily visible from shore like this or our evening stop at Kona Point earlier in the trip, from December until April.

The main attraction of the Kohala Coast is along the shoreline itself. Kohala is the oldest volcano on the island and has been inactive for possibly 120,000 years. The south side of the slopes opens up to a wide grassland valley; the west on the leeward side is more arid and desert like; the northwest is a bit of both and is dotted with charming small towns while the northern flank of the volcano is a series of sea cliffs and 7 very green valleys that have eroded facing the Pacific Ocean. This region also played a significant role in the history of the Hawaiian Islands as it was the home of King Kamehameha who united all of the islands.

Photo Below: Trail leading down to Pololu Beach

Of the 7 valleys only two are relatively accessible, Pololu Valley on the west and Waipi'o on the east. The former is reached on foot descending 400' down a reasonably well trodden path while the latter is best reached by 4x4. Leave your rental parked and hire a ride down, the grade is 25-40%. If you have time, you can walk down and hike through part of the valley. At the head of the valley is the tallest waterfall in the US at 1000'. Sadly, it isn't easily visited and due to water diversion, it may only be a trickle.

But a hike down the Pololu Valley and up the opposing side to get a view of the Honokane Nui Valley is well worth the effort, and the workout. The trail from the valley floor toward Honokane Nui is not maintained, don't wear anything you aren't prepared to have covered in mud!

The beach along the open end of the Pololu Valley is mostly large round lava rocks, but there are brilliant crimson ones mixed in. Behind the beach toward the valley is one massive, tree covered sand dune that has created a tranquil lagoon.

Photo: Honokane Nui Valley Lookout


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Hi there, my name is Ryan Cowden and I am the founder and owner of Avid Nomad Travel.

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