Kilauea'iki crater

Top 5 short hikes on the Big Island of Hawaii

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Our five favorite hikes on the Big Island are a good guide if you don’t have enough time on your hands to ‘see it all’: these 5 trails are “the cherries on the Big Island cake”. The island of Hawaii with its many different ecosystems and low population density is made for hikes – and there are enough hikes to keep you entertained for months.

If you are visiting and short on time, you should also read about the 3 coolest beaches on the Big Island in 3 colors. These are our favorite green, black and white sand beaches.

Unfortunately, as many visitors, you probably only have time for one or two short hikes, that is why we have put together a list with five short hikes. We include hikes that will not take up more of your time than maximum half a day, and that each shows a different highlight of Hawaii.

Kilauea’iki Trail

(4 miles round trip, difficulty: medium, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park)

Kilauea'iki crater
Overview of the Kilauea Iki caldera, This caldera hosts one of the most spectacular (and moderately easy) hikes on the island

If you only have time for one hike during your visit to Hawaii, this is the hike we recommend the most! The Kilauea’iki trail will lead you through a lush ohia forest down into the Kilauea’iki crater, straight over the fractured crater floor and past hot and steaming vents. The crater floor was formed only 50 years ago (in 1959, more about the Kilauea’iki crater eruption), and little ohia shrubs are only now starting to grow in the cracks of the solidified lava.

We grade this hike as of medium difficulty because, while it is relatively short,  you have to climb in and out of the crater. This means there are two relatively short stretches during which you have to cover 400 vertical feet up and down. We recommend that you start on this hike early (8 a.m.) to beat the heat and the crowds. Starting early also lets you hear the birds when they are most active and gives you the best photo opportunities.

The Kilauea’iki trail head is in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at the parking lot for the Thurston Lava Tube, 9.3 miles from the park entrance. Head down the stairs across the street and descend into the crater. Once you have passed the main crater keep right and look down now and then. In and between the cinders you can find the little green crystals (olivines) that are also responsible for the green sand of green sand beach (Papakolea beach). On the far right edge of the crater the trail snails up again. If you keep right at the following two intersections the trail will take you back to the Thurston Lava Tube parking lot.

Waipi’o Valley

(6.5 miles round trip, difficulty: hard, Kohala)

Waipio valley
Overview of Waipi’o Valley from the ‘opposite’ side. You can see the steep Waipi’o Valley access road, the black sand beach, and taro fields.

This hike will take you down 800 ft into the ‘Valley of Kings’. Waipi’o valley can be described as a lush, tropical, fairytale valley with many waterfalls and a black sand surfers beach. Make sure to take plenty of water, some food and a trash bag to pack out everything you take in. Did you know that the ending of the blockbuster “Water World” was filmed in Waipi’o Valley? (More about Waipi’o Valley)

Park your car at the end of Hwy 240 from Honoka’a, and stroll to the Waipio Valley Lookout. Here you can read about the royal and disastrous history of the valley (a Tsunami in 1946 wiped almost the whole valley clean), and take some postcard perfect pictures of Waipi’o Valley.

This is where the ‘fun’ starts. You will have to hike down the Waipi’o Valley access road. This road gains 800 vertical feet in only 0.6 miles, and has a 25% average grade! It is only accessible to 4WD cars (and rightly so, losing control over your car on this road would mean certain dead, as witnessed from the many overgrown car wrecks on the cliff!).  Take it slow on this road, you are not in a hurry and the payoff will be amazing!

On the bottom of the road, turn right to reach Waipi’o Beach after a short (10 min) hike. This fine grain black sand beach is popular with surfers. If you want to take a dip to cool down please go ahead, but watch out for the strong currents – don’t let the water get higher than your hips.

If you continue to the right on the coast, you will reach the Kuluahine falls. Hug the shore to reach the bottom of these falls. From here, double back to the Waipi’o Valley access road. If you have spare time on your hands, consider to also turn left (coming from the lookout) on the bottom of the valley, you will find taro fields, and probably will spot some wild horses. You can also see the 1400 feet high Hi’ilawe on the far left of the valley from here. Take care to stay on the road and not to trespass on private property.

Local grinds: On your way to Waipi’o valley, stop at Tex Drive Inn for a good breakfast or their specialty: Portuguese Malasada’s (deep fried donuts).

Pololu Valley

(2.5 miles round trip, difficulty: easy, Kohala)

Pololu is one of the most scenic valleys of the state! Don’t forget to take your camera and comfortable hiking boots (tennis shoes will do on a dry day), and plenty of water.

Pololu black sand beach
View of the Pololu black sand beach and the dramatic cliffs in the direction of Waipi’o valley

The steep but short hike will take you down a lush tropical cliff to a rugged black sand beach. The trip down can be made leisurely in 30-45 minutes one way, and we recommend to take a picnic basket along to enjoy while sitting one the rugged beach after a refreshing dip. (read more about picnic areas in Hawai’i)

The Pololu Valley lookout is at the end of the Akoni Pule Hwy (270), East of the quaint town of Hawi on the North tip of the Big Island.

Local grinds: Stop in Hawi for the best ice cream and fudge across from the Bamboo restaurant. Sushi Rock (past the gas station) is another good place to pick up some food.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens

(1.5 miles, difficulty: easy, HTBG website, Hilo)

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens are amongst the nicest on the Big Island. In the gardens you can see over 2000 different species of plants and trees. A visit here is a must-do for everyone with green fingers! There is no real hiking needed here, more a slow meandering around the gardens all day. Their self-guided tour is just over one mile long (round trip) and takes about 1.5 hours. However, If you would want to go ‘on a real hike’, you can take the donkey trail down to Onomea Bay and Turtle Cove which is a 2.5-mile round trip.

hawaii tropical botanical garden, waterfall, bamboo, big island,
A waterfall in between huge bamboo culms in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Image by AlaskaDaveOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

As an added extra, to get to these gardens you *have* to take one of the most scenic drives of the Big Island.

You get a trail guide when you enter the gardens. Try not to miss the bird aviary and the seascapes at the lower end of the gardens. Take some time to sit down and take in the sights, smells, and sounds at different places to get immersed in this peaceful place.

Admission to the gardens is not free! The fee for one day is $15 for adults, children ages 6 – 16 are $5. Children under 6 are free (2017 rates). The gardens are opened daily between 9 am and 5 pm, but the latest admission is at 4 pm.

To get here turn makai (towards the ocean) between mile marker 7 and 8 on Hwy 19, onto the scenic drive in the direction of Onomea Bay. Continue for 1.75 miles to reach the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.

htbg, hawaii tropical botanical gardens, big island, botanical garden
Path in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. By AlaskaDaveOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Have a look at the following video if you are interested in an impression of the gardens. Did we already tell you that it’s smart to take an umbrella? The gardens are in the rainforest after all :)

This is by far our favorite botanical garden on the island. If you want to see more however, have a look t our complete list of botanical gardens on the Big Island.

Mauna Loa Lookout

(variable, at least 1.5 miles, difficulty: easy, Volcano Village)

The road to this hike is at least half the fun (and is one of our 5 favorite scenic drives on the Big Island)! It leads you up the slopes of Mauna Loa and as you leave the Kilauea Crater behind you, you pass through a bird park, green Koa forests, old lava flows and plenty of places where you can stop your car and take in the surroundings! This hike, however, is at its best when the sun is out. When the sky is overcast, choose the Kilauea’iki trail instead.

Mauna Loa Access Road
The Mauna Loa access road is an 11-mile scenic road climbing Mauna Loa up to over 6000 ft.

From Volcano Village, take Hwy 11 in the direction of Kona, and turn mauka (towards the mountain) between mile marker 31 and 32 onto Mauna Loa Rd. After 1.5 miles you will reach a turnaround and the trailhead for the 1 mile Kipuka Puaulu (bird park) trail. On the far side of the turnaround you will find an open gate. Continue through this gate onto the Mauna Loa Scenic Strip. The road winds up the slope for 10 miles to an elevation of 6662 feet. Do take your time on this Scenic strip and look back to the Kilauea Crater often for dramatic views!

On the end of the road you find a little kiosk which is the trail head for the Mauna Loa Trail, also nicknamed the ‘Trail of Tears’. From this point it is still an 18-mile hike to the summit of Mauna Loa, so forget about reaching the summit.

You will only need to follow the Mauna Loa Trail for a short distance to see the rugged beauty of Mauna Loa. Follow the trail up the mountain over smooth red lava until you reach the black a’a lava of the Keamoku flow. The trail will take you more directly up the mountain from here, and the trail will become less distinct and signed by rock cairns. Somewhere here is a nice point to turn around. Keep looking back on your way up to make sure you know how to walk back.

Mauna Loa from Volcano Village
This will be your view back to the ocean after a 35-minute hike up the Mauna Loa trail.