Hawaii’s Big Island gets its name because of its sheer size. Fun fact: all 7 Hawaiian Islands – Kaho’olawe, Kaua’i, O’ahu, Moloka’i, Ni’ihau, Lana’i, and Maui) can fit inside of Hawaii Island, that’s how large it is! Needless to say, if you’re planning a trip here, you’ll want to do thorough research and depending on the amount of time you have on your holiday, select an area you’d like to focus on, otherwise you can end up driving all day and seeing nothing. There are a few routes to get from the Kona (touristy more developed) side to the Hilo (wild East, rugged, rainy) side. Drive time is around 2 hours if you go straight through the middle. Hawaii Island has around 8 of Earth’s 13 different climate zones. It’s pretty wild to drive through jungle rain forest to desert to a live volcanic lava field, all in a few hours.
Because we live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, our version of “road tripping” is to fly to a neighbor island. Be sure to check out my post on visiting Volcanoes National Park as well. Below I will detail the fun activities to do and places you should see in Hilo. Additionally, if you’d like to know where to eat, I’ve compiled a Food Guide to Hilo.
Hilo town is very small; I’m talking, around three-blocks-you-blink-and-it’s-gone-small. Therefore, if you want to explore outside of this tiny town, you’ll need a rental car.
If you fly into ITO (Hilo Airport), you’re going to hear something you’ve likely never heard unless you’ve visited Puerto Rico. The sounds you hear are not birds, they are Coqui Frogs. The Coqui Frog is endemic to Puerto Rico and are an invasive species to the Big Island. Their croak very much resembles a bird’s chirp, and the island seems to be 50/50 split on either loving them or hating them. They can actually get ear-piercingly loud, especially if you are staying in an area where there is a high concentration of these little guys. Sasha and I quite liked them, as they lulled us to sleep every night. They start croaking at around 5:00 PM, and don’t stop until around 6:30 AM when the glorious symphonic cacophony of coqui frogs, crickets, birds, lizards and roosters begins. Ahh, yes. We’re in the country now.
HOW TO PACK FOR A TRIP TO HAWAII:
Layers, layers, layers! Hilo is similar to Seattle in that it’s very rainy and gloomy most months out of the year. In fact, all the residents were telling us that they hadn’t seen the sunshine in over one month! During winter months, it can get down to the 40’s F at elevations of 4,000′ and higher. Especially if you plan on stargazing at Mauna Kea, at nearly 14,000′ elevation, temperatures can dip far below freezing. I know, you’re probably thinking, “never in my life would I have imagined I would need a beanie and a puffy jacket in Hawaii!” Some other items you’ll want to bring with you are the obvious sunscreen, bug spray, hat and sunnies. Also, be sure to pack sturdy hiking boots if you plan on trekking to the lava (more on that later) and hiking in Volcanoes National Park. I also recommend a Platypus / Camelbak water bladder and a day pack if you want to hike. Also come prepared with cash, as some of the eateries do not accept credit card.
Hilo reminded us of Ecuador. Whenever there is high humidity and heavy rains, it can be difficult to maintain buildings, so they appear to be dilapidated and run-down. However, Hilo still has a certain charm to it that can’t really be described. I work in Waikiki on Oahu, so it was surely nice to slow our pace down a bit and enjoy the scenery without loads of tourists surrounding us at all times.
Below I will outline 14 fun and adventurous things to do in Hilo as well as how much money we spent on our three-day staycation getaway.
1) VISIT THE HILO FARMER’S MARKET
Visiting a town’s local farmer’s market is one of our favorite things to do when we visit a new place. We find it to be the best way to learn about the culture and pulse of a town, as well as a great opportunity to meet the farmers behind all the delicious and interesting products that are being sold. Depending on the season, you’ll find mangoes, liliko’i (passion fruit) rambutan, lychee, papaya and avocado, all locally-grown.
We love to learn the stories behind local businesses and how they came to be. Our favorite stalls were Bee Boys, and Filthy Farm Girl Soap.
Their bee farm is located on the slopes of Mauna Loa (translating literally to “long mountain”) on the Big Island. They practice sustainable bee farming and utilize the wax into making health products, such as salve for eczema and Kona coffee lip balm. And of course, raw honey!
This is Jay, originally from Portland, Oregon. He is the master soap maker behind all of these amazing-smelling and organic products at Filthy Farmgirl. The colorings in the soap come from natural elements, such as beet root made into a powder, turmeric, and lavender. You can buy 3 large soaps and 1 mini soap for $20, which is far cheaper than purchasing them at a grocery store. We bought four soaps and kept them in our car, which was a natural air freshener for the rest of our trip. (This was highly welcomed, as our stinky wet hiking shoes were starting to become a bit too much for even us to bear!)
2) VISIT POLOLU LOOKOUT
Located about a two-hour drive North from Hilo, is this stunning lookout with tall cliffs and azure blue water. You can hike down to Waipio Valley, where wild horses roam free in a fairytale land that will make you feel as though your’e part of a fantasy book.
3) GO ON A CULTURAL ATV TOUR THROUGH WAIPIO VALLEY
To read more about this tour, check out my post on Kona & West Side.
4) VISIT RAINBOW FALLS
This easy drive-up lookout will reward you with a gorgeous waterfall and giant banyan tree.
BONUS: you get to play with leafs the size of your body and pretend you’re a Hawaiian princess.
5) ZIPLINE OVER ONE OF THE TALLEST WATERFALLS ON THE BIG ISLAND
By far the best zipline I’ve ever done anywhere in the world. We booked with Skyline Eco Adventures Akaka Falls Zipline. This experience will surely not disappoint.
They warm you up with some shorter ones in the beginning, and you gradually step up to the big leagues, culminating in the grand finale of one of the tallest waterfalls on the island, only accessible by this excursion, as it is on private land. The last zipline is nearly one mile long and lasts around 56 seconds. Talk about exhilarating!
6) TAKE A RELAXING SOAK IN AHALANUI WARM POOL
This gorgeous gem on the Puna Coast of the Hilo area, is walled off, creating a warm pool due to the geothermal energy below. We visited on a cold, rainy day, so there were very few people in the pool, and it felt amazing to submerge in the warm water for an hour. Don’t expect it to be hot, as there is an exit to the ocean, so fresh ocean water is constantly coming in and mixing with the warmer waters, so it’s lukewarm. (Photo below from Google since I couldn’t get a good shot with all the rain.)
TIP: The pond closes at 7:00 PM, which is around the time it gets dark. Go around 5:30 – 6:00 PM just before closing, and it will be far less crowded than right in the middle of the day, when the crowds can make it a less appealing experience.
Free parking on the street, but don’t leave any valuables in the car.
7) HAVE A LOOK AT BLACK SAND AT RICHARDSON’S BEACH PARK
Where can you find black sand beaches on the Big Island? Richardson’s is where! The coast line is gorgeous and filled with moss, roots and black crabs.
What about the turtles? There are heaps of Hawaiian sea turtles to be found in Hilo! Just on the other side of the beach (the area was taped off when we were there, but it didn’t stop people from entering), was a little tide pool protected from the wrath of the ocean. Here is where we discovered over 8 Hawaiian sea turtles seeking sanctuary and having a nap in peace and quiet. It was quite the sight!
8) WALK AROUND DOWNTOWN HILO TO CHECK OUT THE VIBRANT WALL ART AND LOCAL ART GALLERIES
You may even see these colorful guys!
9) GET YOUR ORGANIC FIX AT ISLAND NATURALS OR ABUNDANT LIFE NATURAL FOODS GROCERY STORES
If you need a good organic snack, Abundant Life Natural Foods is right in downtown Hilo. You can even find a giant soursop bigger than Sasha’s head!
10) VISIT VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Entry fee is $25 per vehicle, and your pass is valid for four days.
TIP: There is free entry after 7:00 PM and the park is open 24 hours. Go to see the red glow from the Halema’uma’u Lookout at Jaggar Museum.
We spent a full day hiking and exploring Volcanoes National Park. You can find my detailed blog post on how to maximize your time at Volcanoes National Park.
11) CAMP AT NAMAKANIPAI’O CAMPER CABINS
Bonus points if you say the name correctly. Nam-ah-kah-nee-pie-oh For a truly rustic (yet somewhat glamping) experience, book your stay here. (it books up several months in advance, so jump on it!) They provide linens, towels, one double bed and two bunk beds in each cabin. Toilets and showers are shared, and there is no heat. Each camper cabin comes with a picnic table and grill. They do offer a Kama’aina (local residents) discount if you present your Hawaii drivers license.
12) MAKE THE TREK TO SEE ACTIVE LAVA FLOW AT NIGHT!
This trek is no joke. We hiked a total of 10.5 miles in five hours across uneven, active lava fields in the rain and pitch black. The tour begins when it is still light outside, but darkness quickly falls and you must rely on your guide and your headlamp to get you back safely. Read more about this excursion, how to book it, and to see the rest of the epic photos from our trip Hiking to Active Lava.
12) GET YOUR SOUVENIR GIFTS FROM BIG ISLAND CANDIES
This is a local favorite, specializing in hand-dipped chocolate cookies, brownies and toffee brittle. They offer samples and coffee while you walk around the store, and you can also see where everything is being made behind the glass inside the factory.
There is no shortage of good food in downtown Hilo, which is only about two blocks long and looks like a ghost town, especially on Sundays when most joints are closed. You can learn about the best places to eat in Hilo in my Foodie Guide to Hilo. Additionally, if you’re visiting Oahu, check out my Local’s Ultimate Oahu Foodie Guide.