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Fine Art Images of Hawaii by Thomas Upton

Big Island Landscape Photography
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  • Thomas Upton

My Top 15 Big Island Must See Places for Great Photos

Updated: Apr 6

There are many great spots to visit on the Big Island, but the Island is BIG and visitors are often here for only a short time and have to be selective. Almost any list of great sights will be impossible to cover in a single day. And there are lots of lists out there to pick from! Here, I'll take you from Pololu Valley, Waipi'o Valley, Akaka Falls, and Rainbow Falls, and go all the way down to Green Sand Beach, from north to south.

Since landscape photography is what I do, my list will take you to what I think are the most beautiful and photogenic places on the Island. You'll go home with a great set of shots to show your family or immediately share on Social Media. None of these require hiking (though some involve a walk on paved paths, but 2 and 15 are best enjoyed on a hike).

I've put them on a map for you here so you can pick and choose when you hit the road. In the description that follows, they are ordered north to south, not by popularity.

Map of the Big Island showing Top 15 Photo Locations
My Top 15 Photo Locations on the Big Island of Hawaii

1. Keokea Beach Park.

This park is not so well-known, especially compared to it’s nearby neighbor, Pololu Valley. You’ve probably driven right by it on the way to Pololu. It’s one of the northernmost spots on the Island, and is easy to get to by following signs west of Kapa'au onto Keokea Beach road. Keokea Bay is open to waves from the north and sometimes has massive breakers rolling in like this:

Monstrous waves at Keokea Beach in Hawaii
Monstrous Surf at Keokea Beach Park

The cliffs surrounding the bay are carved from red sedimentary rock, which contrast beautifully with green trees, deep blue bay, and bright blue waves. There are a lot of great photo opps in this small but beautiful park:

Red-orange cliffs and blue waves at Keokea Beach in Hawaii
Keokea Beach Park

It is not a good swimming beach, since it is so exposed, but the park is well-maintained and actively used. You’ll find other photos of this fabulous spot on this website and read a Blog post here about a poor cow stuck in harms way by the massive breakers. Check them out!

2. Pololu Valley

Whether hiker, photographer, or car-based tourist, you will enjoy a visit to the Pololu Valley. The road east from Kapa'au ends at the Pololu Valley lookout, so you literally cannot miss it. For many, the lookout view is enough:

Kohala Coast  in rough weather from Pololu Lookout on the Big Island
Angry Sea from Pololu Lookout

The hike to the valley takes about 20 minutes and is made daily by people truly of all ages. There are several coastal lookouts on the way down that are perfect vista photo opps. One of my very favorite Big Island shots was taken from one of these:

Kohala coast on calm day from the Pololu trail
North Kohala Coastline from Pololu Trail

The reward for the hike is a garden-of-eden valley floor facing a beach with powerful surf and framed by steep hills on either side:

Ironwood forest and sand dunes on Pololu Valley floor
Pololu Valley Ironwood Forest

For many, this is the number one Island attraction. Go early if you can, to avoid crowds and enjoy the serenity of the valley more privately. The morning light, and mist from the breakers rolling in is not to be missed:

Misty forest in Pololu Valley
Morning Light in Pololu Valley

3. Kohala Mountain Road

This road connects Hawi in the north with Waimea to the south and runs across elevated flanks of the Kohala volcano, most of which is now ranch land. At the Hawi end, the road mostly passes through forested areas. Heading south, elevation increases and the road opens up to become lined with windbreak trees and vistas downslope to the coast. Gorgeous!

View from Kohala Mountain Road towards the ocean over pastures
Coastal pasture and pu'u from Kohala Mountain Road

Near the Waimea end the sunset views are stellar:

Sunset with pink clouds and the pacific from Kohala Mountain Road
Sunset over Kawaihae from Kohala Mountain Road

The Koai'a Tree Sanctuary is found near the Waimea end of this road too. The challenge here is that most of the best scenes are on private land and finding spots to park on the road can be difficult in places. But go slow and persevere. There is a lot to see on this road.

4. Waipi’o Valley Lookout

This lookout above Waipi’o valley is probably the most well-known destination on the Big Island. Here’s why:

Waipi'o Valley, seen from the lookout.
Waipi'o Valley from the Lookout

This is a great vista and photo opp spot, but it may leave you wishing you could get down into the valley itself. The road down is one of the world’s steepest and (to me) very scary. Previously, you could hike it or take a van down for a fee including a short tour, but the road is now under repair for an extended period, so no traffic down is allowed at the moment. Most of the land below is very privately held (i.e. no trespassing) but there is a road to the beach and some excellent views, once there, of waterfalls at either end of the valley:

Kaluahine Falls, seen from the Waipi'o Valley floor
Kaluahine Falls from the Waipi'o Valley shore

Waiamoa Falls visible from the Waipi'o Lookout
Waiamoa Falls on the north edge of the Waipi'o Valley

The most famous falls in the valley are the Hi'ilawe Falls which can really only be seen from a van tour that has access to the private viewing points. Here's what they look like:

Hi'ilawe falls, only visible from Waipio Valley
Hi'ilawe Falls

Hopefully, access to this beautiful valley will be reopened, but meanwhile you can enjoy the view from the lookout.

5. Laupahoehoe Point

One of the things I like about the Big Island is that nature is not subtle. Things can get a bit extreme, and this place, for my taste, is the best. If you like wild, crashing, sometimes terrifying surf, this is the place:

Surf crashing on rocks at Laupahoehoe Point
Relentless surf at Laupahoehoe Point

I have taken more photos here than probably any place on earth. My wife would say they all look the same, but I keep looking for that ultimate moment. If you go, you will too. You will have to tear yourself away. But Laupahoehoe has many moods, depending on the weather and it is never exactly the same and never boring. Check out my special gallery for more views of this amazing place.

Long exposure of crashing surf at Laupahoehoe Point
Long exposure of Laupahoehoe coast

When you do leave the surf, you must see the Banyan tree hidden near the gym:

View from underneath the  GIant Laupahoehoe Banyan Tree
Underneath the GIant Laupahoehoe Banyan Tree

6. Akaka Falls

The park bears the name of the waterfall within, and here’s what it looks like:

Clear view of Akaka Falls in Hawaii
Akaka Falls

The water falls 400 feet into a round basin surrounded by vertical walls covered in lush growth and even a few brave trees. In periods of high flow it can become a muddy torrent and a 2nd smaller waterfall appears nearby:

Akaka Falls, a torrent after heavy rain
Akaka Falls Torrent

There is another large waterfall in the park, called Kahuna falls. It is easily heard, but hard to see as the surrounding foliage has slowly engulfed it. Too bad!

Kahuna Falls, seen in Akaka Falls Park
Kahuna Falls in Akaka Falls Park

Big waterfalls are really only a small part of what this park has to offer. There is a 0.4 mile loop trail that takes you through bamboo forests, a few stream crossings, and other rainforest views. There is a gorgeous hidden cascade:

A peekaboo view of a beautiful grotto in Akaka Falls park
Hidden Grotto in Akaka Falls Park

and numerous tropical wildflowers like this:

A beautiful red blossom and green foliage at Akaka Falls Park
Red flower blooming in Akaka Falls Park

The flowers, foliage, and even the falls vary across the year so every visit is different.

7. Onomea Bay Trail and Old Mamalahoa Scenic Road

Just north of Hilo, there is a 4 mile section of Old Mamalahoa Road that splits off from the main highway and takes you on a marvelous rainforest tour. There is no other road quite like it on the Big Island. The two biggest attractions, the Bioreserve and Onomea Bay Trail, are intertwined with each other (the trail passes through the Bioreserve). There is a separate Blog post here that covers the trail in more detail. The Bioreserve is a managed botanic garden with a reasonable entrance fee, given the beauty of the gardens within. Without attempting to do it justice, here are a couple of examples of what you can see:

Flower cluster in Bioreserve near Hilo Hawaii

Red flower cluster in Botanical Garden near Hilo Hawaii

From either the Bioreserve or the Onomea Bay Trail, you can see views similar to these:

A long exposure of the twin rocks in Onomea Bay
Twin Rocks of Onomea Bay

View across Onomea Bay at small islands and surf
Across Onomea Bay

Further south on the scenic route you come to a series of old bridges passing over streams and cascades. Do yourself a favor and stop near a couple of these and look over the edge of the bridges. Here is what you will see:

Cascade and river in rainforest near Hilo Hawaii

Cascade on Old Mamalahoa Road near Hilo

Waterfall in rainforest on the Old Mamalahoa Road near Hilo
Views from Old Mamalahoa Road in the Rainforest

8. Rainbow Falls

This postcard perfect waterfall is in a small park near the Hilo hospital area on the west edge of town. On a sunny day, during the morning, a rainbow may appear in the mist below the falls and looks like this:

Rainbow falls, near Hilo, with rainbow showing
Rainbow Falls with a Rainbow

Not much else to see here since the trail above the falls has been closed, but this is pretty special. Recently we found the the upper trail open again, and if it stays open, here is what you might see:

View from the top of Rainbow Falls
Top of Rainbow Falls

9. Boiling Pots and Pe'epe'e Falls

Further to the west, along the same river (Wailuku) as Rainbow Falls, you can find a lengthy cascade (the Boiling Pots) fed by a set of large waterfalls (Pe'epe'e). It's hard to fit into a single frame, but here is my attempt:

Pe'epe'e Falls and the cascades leading to the Boiling Pots
Pe'epe'e Falls and the Boiling Pots Cascades

Just below this area (to the right) are the Boiling Pots themselves:

The Boiling Pots on the Wailuku River near Hilo
The Boiling Pots

which are a series of basins carved from the lava by fast flowing streams. It's impressive, but AGAIN, trails that could get you close to all of this are closed and the trees in front of this view are overgrown now. Frustrating!

10. Mauna Kea

The giant Mauna Kea volcano dominates the northern part of the Island, but is accessible from the Saddle Road that runs from Hilo to Waikoloa. With the right vehicle (4WD), it is possible to drive to the top, but there is plenty to see without doing that. There are monumental views of the volcano from almost anywhere, but here is a less-commonly seen view from the Mauna Loa access road that branches off the Saddle Road near the Mauna Kea Visitor's Center road:

The Mauna Kea summit with snow and telescopes from Mauna Loa road
Mauna Kea Summit from the Mauna Loa Road

Heading up towards the Visitors' Center you will quickly rise above any surrounding clouds and see an expansive view east towards Hilo:

View towards Hilo and Puna underneath clouds from  Mauna Kea slopes
View towards Hilo and Puna from Mauna Kea

or across the Saddle Road to the south to Mauna Loa, some 20+ miles away:

View of Mauna Loa summit from Mauna Kea visitor center
Mauna Loa Summit

The air clarity at this elevation and massive scale of these mountains makes you forget just how vast is the area that you are viewing. Everything seems much closer than it actually is. If you have, or rent a 4WD vehicle, you can drive to the top. The air is thin there and hiking can be quite difficult, but the views are otherworldly. You can see a gallery of photos from the top here.

11. The Saddle Road

The "New" Saddle Road is a wonderful creation for residents, who previously had no fast and safe way to cross the Island. The old Saddle Road was treacherous and poorly built, having been quickly put up during WWII. The road passes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at a peak elevation of about 6000 feet and encompasses everything from pastures, to massive Pu'us (some of which are a relatively easy hike):

Large Pu'u on Saddle Road with trees
Pu'u on the Saddle Road

to huge lava fields:

View of Mauna Loa and lava from Saddle Road
Endless lava field looking towards Mauna Loa

and a military base (and access to Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea too). Coming from the Kona side, the temperature often drops 15-20 degrees. As you descend into Hilo, the landscape evolves from barren lava to rainforest in a slow and steady progression. It is a unique way to traverse multiple climate zones in about one hour. There are several short hikes that leave from the roadside as you head to Kona, but the best stop is the fairly-new Kaulana Manu Kipuka preserve. This wonderful oasis in the lava is a must-stop.

12. Kaumana Caves

Near Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots is a small state park dedicated to the Kaumana Caves. What's above ground is easy to miss as there is not much more than a small parking lot, restrooms, and a steep staircase that leads down to the caves. There are two cave entrances and much has already been written about them, such as here. They are extremely dark, so you must have a real flashlight or headlamp to safely wander into them. Your cellphone flashlight is all but useless. Because it is so dark, photography is difficult. Here is a view from inside the cave to the right at the bottom of the stairs:

Kaumana cave entrance with smooth slippery lava
Looking out of a Kaumana Cave

The lava flow inside the entrance is mostly smooth and slippery requiring good shoes. The lighting here will test the dynamic range of your camera! You will need a tripod or extremely high ISO (or both) to get much detail and decent focus. The stone coloration along with the hanging vines and ferns make for unusual photos. With a good light, you can see back into the cave for a hundred yards or more:

Photo inside Kaumana Cave using a light to reveal cave walls
Looking into a Kaumana Cave

To get this shot, I made a very long exposure and used my flashlight to "paint" the walls with light and bring out detail while the shutter was open. It's a fascinating place. Remember that Hawaii has almost no "critters" to bother you when you enter, so you can comfortably take a slow careful walk within.

13. Mauna Lani Fishponds

The South Kohala Coast has a long history of Hawaiian fishing and trekking along trails cut in the lava. Near the coast there are natural Anchialine ponds, where seawater seeps through the lava into natural depressions and creates crystal clear brackish ponds. There are also manmade ponds that were used to trap fish by early Hawaiians, and the most photogenic group of these are the 7 ponds at Mauna Lani. Since I live near these ponds, I've spent a lot of time wandering among them. I could make a whole website about these alone, but here are just a few views to give you an idea of what they look like:

One of the historic Mauna Lani fishponds

One of the ancient fishponds at Mauna Lani in early morning
Mauna Lani Fishponds

Early morning, when the water is calm and the light angle low, is best for photographing the ponds. It is also the most quiet and beautiful time to be there whether taking photos or not. The area is filled with paved trails and there is public parking nearby.

14. Volcano National Park

It would be pointless for me to write a travel guide to this park as there many excellent sites for this. But my ideas for taking photos might be different than others, so read on. Yes, the Kilauea Caldera is an obvious choice, and yes the most interesting time to see it (when there is at least some activity) is at night:

Nighttime view of the Kilauea Crater showing the crater glow and many stars above
The Kilauea Crater at Night in early 2021

This photo was taken from a great, and relatively unknown outlook near Volcano House. We had it to ourselves one evening. The view of the Crater was unobstructed. Be aware that it can get very cold there at night! There are other must-see photo spots, like the steam vents (the steam varies from day to day, so try again another day if it doesn't look like this):

Steam rising at the steam vents in Volcano Park
Kilauea Steam Vents

Or the desolation trail, where the Kilauea Iki crater obliterated all life from the surrounding area in 1959:

Lone tree on the Desolation Trail in Volcano Park
Desolation Trail near Kilauea Iki Crater

Our favorite area to wander around is well down the Chain-of-Craters road, near the start of the petroglyph trail. A sign labelled "Polei Hali" marks a turnout. Here you can walk out onto a recent lava flow, with spectacular ropy patterns like these:

Later afternoon view across ropy lava flows at Volcano Park
Moonlike fields of ropy Pahoehoe lava on the Chain of Craters road

Much of the lava here is new enough to still possess a coper-colored glassy crust that cracks like ice when you walk on it (so we try not to). We haven't seen this anywhere else:

Beautiful copper colored crust coats newer lava fields at Volcano Park
Copper Colored Lava Crust

15. Green Sand Beach

Finally, here’s another popular location that is well-documented in books and online. It’s accessible from the parking lot via a bumpy ride in the back of a pickup truck, or you can take the one hour hike which is what we prefer. Read about our hike here. The landscape along the way is unique, with giant ruts carved from the red/orange clay that dominates the area:

Trucks have carved 6 foot high ruts in the orange clay near Green Sand Beach
Massive ruts in the road to Green Sand Beach

There are also some amazing seascapes, as the wind and waves can be very rough on the Island’s southern shore. But the main attraction is the half-submerged pu’u that comes into view after a while, and the greenish beach that lies within it:

Looking down from the cliffs around Green Sand Beach
Green Sand Beach and the Pu'u that contains it

The green color is due to the volcanic mineral olivine and there are only 4 beaches in the world known to have this coloration. At first glance, it appears to be almost impossible to get down from the rim to the beach. Fortunately, there is a trail that even small children can take that will take you down over the rocks to the beach. It’s definitely a pack-it-in and pack-it-out location, so come prepared to carry all your stuff both ways or hitch a ride.

That’s my list of top 15 photo locations on the Big Island. Hopefully some of yours are here and perhaps you’ve learned about some new ones too. Head over to my Hawaii gallery where you can select specific destinations or types of scenery to view more photographs. Next time I’ll post a list of “Hidden Gems”, locations that I think are special, but may not be everyone’s radar. 🔼

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