Hawaii's natural attractions include jungle-like tropical environments, mountain valleys, stark fields of lava, and the jewel in the crown, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where visitors can see firsthand how the islands were formed, and—at least on this island—how they continue to grow. The following sections provide some basic information to help get you started in your exploration of the Big Island's numerous natural wonders.
Visit a Volcano
A trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is something every Big Island visitor should do. The park encompasses a huge area that stretches from the east coast all the way to the summit of Mauna Loa. In between are a variety of ecosystems and dramatic volcanic landscapes. There are a lot of things to see. Both the Kilauea Visitor's Center and the Jaggar Museum (featuring earth-science exhibits) will educate you well on the subject of Hawaiian volcanology. A good way to explore the park is to take the 11-mile Crater Rim Dr. and stop at the pullouts along the way to observe volcanic phenomena.
There are hikes in the park of various lengths. The short, easy strolls through the Thurston Lava Tube and along the Devastation Trail are fascinating for the whole family. Consider having a meal or staying overnight at the Volcano House, perched on the edge of a huge crater.
Volcanic conditions are constantly monitored. It's sometimes possible to see where lava flows into the ocean down at the end of the Chain of Craters Road. Don't even think about going there until you get the latest information from the park rangers. Needless to say, you should seriously heed their advice in what is potentially a very hazardous environment.
The Park is located 30 miles from Hilo and 96 miles from Kailua-Kona. It's open all year. The visitors' center is open daily from 7:45 A.M.–5 P.M., and the Jaggar Museum opens from 8:30 A.M.–5 P.M. The $10 entrance fee is good for 7 days, or you can use your National Parks Pass. Be prepared for wet and cool weather up in the area of the visitors' center and nearby craters, and hot and dry near the coast should you venture down there.
You can obtain current information by contacting the park by calling 985-6000, visiting their site at www.nps.gov, or e-mailing them at HAVO_Interpretation@nps.gov.
The Hilo Neighborhood
In the Hilo area, there are several charming natural attractions. Rainbows are often visible in the sprayed mist of beautiful Rainbow Falls and churning water in the Wailuku River is responsible for the picturesquely named Boiling Pots. Both can be viewed in Wailuku River State Park up Waianuenue Ave. off Hwy. 200.
North of Hilo, off Hwy. 220 at Honomu, is ‘Akaka Falls State Park, featuring a wonderful waterfall tumbling more than 420 feet.
Valley of the Kings
Waipio Valley is a very special and historic place on the island's northeast windward coast. It is sometimes called the Valley of the Kings, as it was a favorite spot of Hawaiian chiefs. The valley is visually spectacular and can be viewed from above at the lookout at the end of Hwy. 240. Some people live down there growing taro or engaging in other traditional practices, but it is largely undeveloped. There is a very steep road heading down, but it should not be attempted without a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle and even then maybe not. The best way to visit the place is with a tour.
Waipio Valley Wagon Tours does four 1½ hour trips a day with mule-drawn wagons. They charge $45 for adults and $22.50 for the kids, with tours offered every day but Sunday. 775-9518 www.waipiovalleywagontours.com email@example.com
The Waipio Valley Shuttle will take you on a valley tour in a four-wheel-drive van with an informative driver. The tour lasts from 1½ to 2 hours, and the cost is $40 for adults and $20 for kids under 11. 775-7121 www.waipiovalleytour.com
You can also explore the Valley on horseback with Waipio Na‘alapa Trail Rides. 775-0419 www.naalapastables.com
Top of Waipio offers a variety of modes for exploring the wild areas above Waipio Valley, including adventures on horseback, ATVs, four-wheel-drive, and on foot. 1-877-757-1414 www.topofwaipio.com
Three Gardens and a Zoo
The wet, warm leeward side of the island provides a great environment for lush tropical vegetation. There you'll find some great gardens and even a zoo!
Nani Mau Gardens 421 Makalika St., Hilo 96720 959-3500 www.nanimau.com
Situated on 20 acres in Hilo, the gardens feature a variety of trees and flowers and gorgeous landscaping. Amidst the beauty are special gardens, including those featuring orchids and anthuriums. They also have a botanical museum. Open daily from 8 A.M.–5 P.M. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 4–10.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden 27-717 Old Mamalahoa Hwy. Papa‘ikou, HI 96781 964-5233 www.hawaiigarden.com
The garden features more than 2,000 tropical species and is located at Onomea Bay, 8½ miles north of Hilo. Trails will lead you through palms and other exotic plants to the beautiful Onomea Falls and even down to the ocean.
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens 967-8234 1-888-967-6669 www.akatsukaorchid.com firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested in orchids, this is the place for you. The Akatsuka Orchid Gardens grows and sells an enormous quantity of lovely orchids. The gardens are located near the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park off Hwy. 11, between mile markers 22 and 23. You can visit from 8:30 A.M.–5 P.M. daily.
Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo 959-9233 www.hilozoo.com
The zoo is located just a few miles south of Hilo and has an interesting collection of creatures from around the world, including a white Bengal tiger, monkeys, birds, and tortoises. The petting zoo is open on Saturdays from 1:30–2:30 P.M. The zoo is open daily from 9 A.M.–4 P.M. Admission is free.
One Big Mountain
The tallest mountain in Hawaii, is, of course, Mauna Kea, whose broad slopes tower to an elevation of 13,796 feet. The clear air on the mountain's summit is perfect for observing the heavens, and the mountain is home to a good number of observatories manned by scientists from around the world. It's possible to drive up there, but not recommended, and certainly not without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. From Highway 200 (the Saddle Road), visitors can drive up to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy located around the 9,300-foot level. The Onizuka Center contains some exhibits and plenty of warnings about proceeding up the steep road beyond.
One way to experience the summit of Mauna Loa is with a tour. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures conducts trips to the top for spectacular sunsets and stargazing. Escorted by well-informed guides, guests are provided with warm clothing and taken up in vans. This exciting trip can take up to eight hours and costs $155. Because of the altitude, people with heart or lung problems, pregnant women, and those who have been scuba diving in the last twenty-four hours need to take caution. 332-2366 1-888-322-2366 www.maunakea.com
There's quite a bit of lore surrounding the Big Island's volcanoes, including alleged sightings of Madame Pele, the goddess of fire. Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are instructed not to remove rocks or other natural things from the area. Over the years the Park has received quite a large collection of rocks sent back to Hawaii by visitors who felt that the stolen items had brought them bad luck.