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Since Elvis Presley made Hawaii an overnight destination sensation with his three 1960s movies, the Hawaiian islands have ended up on many North American bucket lists. But what’s not to love about palm trees, warm breezes, and a whole lot of laid-back island time? The only problem most people have is deciding which — or how many — of the islands to visit.

We solved that problem by making our visit to Hawaii a cruise from Vancouver, with six days on the ocean and five on the islands. We spent two days at the Big Island, or officially, Hawaii Island, which is the largest in the chain of seven inhabited Hawaiian Islands. The first was on the Kona side, and the second, on the Hilo side.

Read on for our list of the best things to do in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.

What’s in this article?

(This article is a 15-minute read.)
Black Sand Beach — Richardson Ocean Park
About Hawaii’s Beaches
Rainbow Falls State Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Kilauea Stopped Erupting Continuously in 2018
Hiking the Lava Lake
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
Banyan Trees
Big Island Candies in Hilo
More Things to See & Do on Your Visit to Hilo
Plan Your Trip to Hilo

Black Sand Beach — Richardson Ocean Park

Richardson Ocean Park black sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Richardson Ocean Park black sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii.

We visited Richardson Ocean Park, which is the black sand beach closest to Hilo. You can probably guess that black sand is a result of volcanic rock. What you may not know, though, is Hawaii’s volcanoes have low-silica magmas, or lava, made of basalt. When this lava spews into the ocean, the cooling magma shatters into tiny pieces.

This means, of course, that black sand beaches are on newly formed land.

Indeed, the Hawaiian Islands are the most common area in the world to find black sand beaches. If you’re wondering how black sand feels, it’s coarser than regular sand, so I wasn’t tempted to try it in my bare feet. While we didn’t see any, locals told us that black sand beaches are the best places to see turtles.

About Hawaii’s Beaches

Hawaii Travel Tip

Beaches are on most people’s list of things to do in Hilo. In North America we tend to think as beach sand as something that ranges from white to sandy-brown. Once you reach Hawaii, though, it’s a sand of a different color including:

  • Red — Maui’s Kaihalulu Beach, south of Hana Bay
  • Orange — Molokai’s Papohaku Beach, located on the western tip
  • Green — Papakolea Beach, one of only four green sand beaches in the world, on the southern tip of the Big Hawaii Island
  • Black — numerous black sand beaches with Punalu’u beach the most famous on the Big Island

 

Rainbow Falls State Park

Things to do in Hilo - See Rainbow Falls on the Big Island in Hawaii.

Things to do in Hilo – See the Rainbow Falls on the Big Island in Hawaii.

If you have five minutes and a car, you can easily visit Rainbow Falls when you’re in the city of Hilo. And believe me, they’re worth the drive! Since it is a park area, there’s a paved parking lot. There isn’t, however, a charge for visiting, so you’ll want to make sure to go early or late, to avoid the tour buses.

But back to the falls.

With an 80 foot (24 meter) drop and 100 ft (30 meter) width, Rainbow Falls are nothing short of impressive. While I contented myself with walking along the front of the falls on the easily accessible walking platform, there’s a a series of uneven rock stairs you can climb to look down over the falls.

As you listen to the roar of rushing water, you can see that the falling water forms a curtain across a natural lava cave before hitting the Wailuku River below.

Hawaii Travel Tip

Rainbow Falls are on the 28-mile long Wailuku River, which also has its own state park — Wailuku River State Park. It’s best known for the geologic formation known as Boiling Pots, so called due to the flow of rolling and bubbling water. Hexagon-shaped columns create a succession of big connected underground pools the water flows through.

 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park - Kilauea volcanic crater.

Volcanoes National Park – Kilauea volcanic crater.

For many visitors to the Big Island, Mt. Kilauea volcano is one of the most important things to do in Hilo. It certainly was for us.

And while Mt. Kilauea erupted daily from 1983 until September of 2018, we missed seeing the world’s longest continuously erupting volcano in action. Indeed, the pattern changed after an earthquake hit the island on May 3, 2018, causing huge lava flows. Now, the lava lake inside Halema‘uma‘u crater has totally disappeared and the lava flows from nearby craters have ceased.

Kilauea Stopped Erupting Continuously in 2018

While you’ll still likely find there are thousands of webpages telling you Kilauea is continuously erupting, they’re out of date. There weren’t any active volcanoes in the park when we visited.

That’s not to say there isn’t still a lot to see in the park! Although some parking areas and Jagger Museum are closed indefinitely (much was destroyed), you can still see a lot of the crater and even hike it.

Inside the crater at Mt. Kilauea volcano at Volcanoes National Park.

Inside the crater at Mt. Kilauea volcano at Volcanoes National Park. Photo was taken with an 83 optical zoom lens into the sun, but it does give you an idea of what the caldera would look like if we could walk up to it!

We hiked the Crater Rim Trail and Steaming Bluff Overlook.

Ahead, the landscape stretched out as evenly as if someone had just run a level over it, then gouged out a crater at its center. Due to safety issues, visitors were kept well back, but it was still fascinating to see the crater — completely black and lifeless, with wisps of steam and sulfurous gas that rose from it as they might in an oven.

Hiking the Lava Lake

Things to do in Hilo - Hikers in the once molten lake of lava in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

Things to do in Hilo – Hikers walking across the the once molten lake of lava in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

While we walked for a distance through the rainforest around the rim, we didn’t take the 4 mile (6.4 km) hike down to the still-steaming crater floor. If you’d like a challenge, though, give it a try. The trail drops 400 feet (122 m) with steps and switchbacks, which is equivalent to climbing down and up a 40-story building!

 

Hawaii Travel Tip

Start your visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park t at the Kilauea Visitor Center, or, if you find the parking lot is full, follow the Chain of Craters Road first. Peak hours at the Visitor Center are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. so plan accordingly. For more on what’s open and what’s not, as well as the recovery of the park, click here for the NPS website.

 

Akatsuka Orchid Gardens

Orchid at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens.

Orchid at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens.

When you leave Volcanoes National Park, be sure to stop at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. They’re just 10 minutes away.

Be prepared to be amazed at the gardens as one of the things to do in Hilo, even if you’re not a gardener. Akatsuka has been cultivating orchids for over 30 years. And their efforts have paid off, as they now have over 2000 original Cattleya orchids. They even introduced the world’s first orchid maze in 2016!

No matter what color you love, you’re likely to find an orchid in that shade at the gardens. I know I walked around, somewhat mesmerized by the flowers. If you’re tempted to buy, don’t worry as they ship.

Hawaii Travel Tip

If you have time, take the 45 minute Orchid Farm Tour & Tasting. What’s there to taste? Poha berry ice cream, with its sweet pineapple and strawberry flavor.

 

Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

Banyan tree in Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

Banyan tree in Liliuokalani Park and Gardens

The beautiful Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, named for Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, are one of the free things to do in Hilo along the Bay. They’re near a number of hotels, so plan accordingly. If you stay nearby, you’ll be able to walk through them every day.

You may wonder as you stroll the almost-25 acre park why you see Japanese pagodas along with stone lanterns and a teahouse. The reason is that the park was dedicated in 1917 as a tribute to Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. Their labors in the island’s sugar cane fields, which played an enormous role in developing the local economy in the 1800s.

Banyan Trees

My favorite thing in the park, though, was the magnificent banyan trees. Banyans are the world’s biggest trees when considering the amount of space they cover, which can be several acres or more. They’re tall, too, reaching up to 100 feet (30 meters) high.

Hilo Walk of Fame

If you drive to the park, make sure to check out Banyan Drive or the Hilo Walk of Fame. What’s that? A street lined with banyan trees all planted by famous folks ranging from Babe Ruth to Cecil B. DeMille to Amelia Earhart to Louis Armstrong to President Franklin B. Roosevelt.

Hawaii Travel Tip

See 10 Things You Need to Know About Banyan Trees for these facts and more!

Wondering about the banyon tree? It’s actually a fig tree. Each of the about 750 species of fig trees is pollinated only by its own species of tiny wasps that breed only inside the figs of their partner trees.

 

Big Island Candies in Hilo

Worker making hand-dipped chocolates at Big Island Candy in Hilo at their flagship store.

Worker making hand-dipped chocolates at Big Island Candy in Hilo at their flagship store.

Big Island Candies is an interesting thing to do in Hilo, especially if you want to take a taste of Hawaii home. Their specialty? Handmade macadamia nut shortbread cookies dipped in chocolate.

Your visit starts with a sample of the day’s candy or shortbread, and some Kona coffee. Then, you can watch through windows as workers make the candy and pack it. There are half a dozen stations or so, from Chocolate Enrober to Cooling Tunnel to Hand Dipping. Each one is fun to watch for awhile.

Then, of course, you can walk through the enormous store to see all the products — and buy a few, if you’re like me.

Hawaii Travel Tip

Macadamia nuts and Kona coffee are two of Hawaii’s signature crops. If you’re interested in visiting a macadamia nut farm, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation has a 2500 acre plantation six miles south of Hilo on Macadamia Road. They also have a nut processing plant and a chocolate factory. For more about Kona coffee and visiting a Big Island coffee plantation, click for the LoveBigIsland.com page.

 

More Things to See & Do on Your Visit to Hilo

A wild orchid at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

A wild orchid at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Big Island is also nicknamed the Orchid Island.

There are many additional things to do in Hilo, whether you sign up for a tour or drive yourself. They include:

  • Mauna Kea volcano – The two hour drive takes you up almost 14,000 feet to the top of the dormant volcano. Part way up, you can stop at the Visitor Information Center to walk around and adjust to the altitude. If you can go at night, you’ll be able to take advantage of the free stargazing tours. It’s the world’s largest astronomical site with 13 powerful telescopes operated by astronomers from a dozen countries.
  • Panaewa Zoo – this zoo, the only tropical one in the U.S., is located about four miles from Hilo. A visit will introduce you to the rainforest with its botanical garden containing 100+ types of palms, orchids, bamboo and more. You’ll also see over 80 rainforest animals including the Hawaiian state birds, Nene geese. Admission is free.
  • Akaka State Park – this park is home to two beautiful waterfalls. The 100-foot Kahuna Falls is the first. Akaka Falls, which rush for 422 feet over the peak before hitting an eroded gorge below, are the second. It’s close to Hilo and admission is just $5 a car.
  • Best Botanical Gardens on the Big Island – a dozen plus spots to enjoy the lush tropics of the Big Island.
  • Adventure trips from ziplines to kayaking to snorkeling with manta.

Plan Your Trip to Hilo

All of the sights above (except More Things…) were part of a tour we booked through Expedia with Mauka Makai Adventures, although you can also book directly on their website. We found many advantages to having the small group tour (just six of us) with a van and experienced guide.

First of all, the guide knew the schedules of other tours. That meant we were pretty much always one step ahead of the tour buses of 50 or 100 tourists. Second, we could ask any question at any time. We loved that we got personalized information and insights into culture on the Big Island. Third, while the volcano was the highlight of the tour, we saw many things from other organized tours, so felt we experienced more of Hilo. Although it was higher priced than large group tours, we found the investment worthwhile.

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About the Photo

The photo in the header above was taken by Linda Aksomitis at Liliuokalani Park and Gardens in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in Hawaii, USA.

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