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, and #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.
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 often has massive breakers rolling in like this:
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:
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:
The hike to the valley takes about 20 minutes and is made daily by people literally 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:
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:
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:
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!
Near the Waimea end the sunset views are stellar:
The Koai'a Tree Sanctuary, described here, 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:
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. You can hike it or take a van down for a fee including a short tour. Most of the land below is very privately held (ie no trespassing) but there is a road to the beach and some excellent views once there of waterfalls at either end of the 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:
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:
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:
And when you do leave the surf, you must see the Banyan tree hidden near the gym:
6. Akaka Falls
The park bears the name of the waterfall within, and here’s what it looks like:
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:
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!
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:
and numerous tropical wildflowers like this:
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:
From either the Bioreserve or the Onomea Bay Trail, you can see views similar to these:
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:
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:
Not much else to see here since the trail above the falls has been closed, but this is pretty special. If they ever open the upper trail again, here is what you might see:
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:
Just below this area (to the right) are the Boiling Pots themselves:
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. 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 up close I prefer the view from the Mauna Loa access road that branches off the Saddle Road near the Mauna Kea Visitor's Center road:
Heading up towards the Visitors' Center you will quickly rise above any surrounding clouds and see an expansive view east towards Hilo:
or across the Saddle Road to the south to Mauna Loa, some 20+ miles away:
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.
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:
to huge lava fields:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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):
Or the desolation trail, where the Kilauea Iki crater obliterated all life from the surrounding area in 1959:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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. Next time I’ll post a list of “Hidden Gems”, locations that I think are special, but may not be everyone’s radar.