Things to do on the Big Island are as varied as the island itself.
The youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii boasts 8 of the world’s 13 climate zones including arid deserts, tropical rainforests, and even polar tundra on the tops of its mountain peaks.
The island is a geological and ecological wonderland. It is bursting with unique flora and fauna, active volcanoes that add to the island’s landmass each day, and even the highest mountain peak in the world when measured from the sea floor.
Black Sand Beaches
There are more than 260 miles of coastline to explore on the island of Hawaii. Thanks to the island’s young history, a significant portion of the island’s coast is covered in black lava rock, but there are still plenty of family-friendly places to hit the water.
Finding soft, powdery sand on the Big Island of Hawaii is just a matter of knowing where to go! Below are a few of the highlights.
Magic Sands is a good spot in Kailua-Kona. It is a popular local place in the summer and there is good snorkeling as well. The beach earned its nickname because winter storms often consume the beach and the sand disappears. It is a good place to boogieboard when the swell is up.
Waikoloa Beach is the best spot to swim in Waikoloa Village. It is a nice beach with protected waters, and there is some snorkeling on the southern end of the beach. The beach is in front of the Waikoloa Beach Marriott.
If you are looking for black sand and sea turtles, check out Punalu’u Black Sand Beach on the south end of the island. This black sand doesn’t stick to your skin, making post beach cleanup a breeze. There is a small concession stand on the beach where you can grab snacks and rent snorkel equipment, but check water conditions before swimming.
If it is green sand you are after, head to the southernmost point in the United States at Papakolea Beach. The green is a dull olive shade formed by olivine present in the lava. The 2.5-mile trail that leads to the beach is beautiful but hot so arrive early if you want cooler temps and the beach (mostly) to yourselves.
Due to the vast amount of lava rock, low tide brings a wealth of tide pool exploration across the Big Island’s Shores.
Thanks to the western facing Kailua-Kona coast, there are plenty of opportunities for amazing sunset views while visiting Hawaii. We recommend seeing the views by hiking to a striking mountain top view at Mauna Kea (or the Visitor Information Center halfway up the summit).
Numerous ocean-front restaurants and hotels along the western shore offer tables with stunning views. The Kona Inn (Restaurant) and Lava Lava Beach Club are among the favorites.
Go Snorkeling and See Sea Turtles
One of our favorite things to do when staying on the Big Island with kids is go snorkeling and spot sea turtles. Of all the Hawaiian Islands we have visited (and we have visited five), we have found the most sea turtles while vacationing on the Big Island.
The sea turtles seem to be attracted to the algae growing on the lava rock that hugs much of the Big Island coastline.
Snorkeling on the Big Island is a fun adventure where families can experience calm water in numerous bays, hundreds of brightly colored fish, stunning masses of coral, sea turtles galore, and even manta rays and eels!
Kahaluu is a shallow cove in Kailua-Kona that is full of fish and is a popular sea turtle hangout. Since most of the cove is only neck high and the waters are usually calm it is a great place for first timers snorkelers and surfers.
Take a small-group surf lesson here for an unforgettable experience.
There is also a good snorkeling spot off the beach at Magic Sands that is better for more experienced snorkelers. The reef is about 100 yards offshore (flotation devices for safety with kids are suggested) and is filled with big fish!
Kiholo Bay is a great place to snorkel with sea turtles at a black sand beach. The walk is about 25 minutes to the beach from the park along the highway, but this special place is worth the effort.
Another highlight of this beach is the partially submerged lava tube that you are able to swim in. You can go back pretty far but you will need a flashlight because it is pitch black once get back in there.
ATV Guided Tours
To explore the amazingly beautiful and secluded Waipi’o Valley, we suggest you take an ATV guided tour as the climb back up the canyon is incredibly difficult, and it is the steepest paved road in the US. You definitely don’t want to miss exploring this special place which is so stunning that it was once the former retreat of Hawaiian royalty.
Some of our favorite kid-friendly hikes include walking to the fishponds at Honokohau Beach, trails within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (see below), and the Pololu Valley trails.
One of the great things to do on the Big Island with kids involves getting on top of the water. From sunset dinner cruises and dolphin excursions to parasailing, kayaking, taking off in an outrigger canoe or even venturing into the depths in a submarine, there is a boating experience for just about everyone.
The Atlantis Submarine Cruise is a family-friendly hit, especially for more cautious kids. It gets kids under the water without the requirement of masks, snorkels, and wildlife encounters.
If you are looking to try your luck at securing your own dinner, there are dozens of fishing charters to choose from. There are private charters that allow for up to six people and focus on catching mahi mahi, marlin, and tuna. Our family loved this Dolphin & Snorkel Cruise. During this half-day excursion from Kailua-Kona, we saw dozens of dolphins swimming in our wake. We also snorkeled in a secluded bay we never could have reached on our own. Another great option is a Boat Tour of Kealakekua Bay. It is one of the best places to snorkel on the island and gear and picnic lunch is provided. There are also great opportunities to spot dolphins on the way. For those who like to kayak, you will please to know there are great kayak and snorkel tours available on the Big Island as well.
Explore Historic Sites
The history of the Hawaiian islands dates back much further than the state’s adoption into the United States in 1959. Throughout the Hawaiian Islands, visitors can get a sense of the native Hawaiian culture at various events, cultural exhibitions, and museums.
There are many educational things to do in on the Big Island with kids. Don’t miss a stop at the three national historic parks scattered throughout the western shore of the island.
You can complete the hands-on Junior Ranger program at all these national park sites. The program gets kids involved and helps make learning more approachable.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is an easy drive 20 minutes north of Waikaloa Village and protects the ruins of the temple of King Kamehameha built around 1790.
Not far from Kailua-Kona, the Kaloko Honokohau National Historic Park is the site of ancient Hawaiian fish ponds. It is also an extremely popular place for sea turtles to hang out. We saw at least a half a dozen feeding on algae covering the shoreline rocks.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park is a nice place to learn about the traditional Hawaiian lifestyle and culture. Ancient temples and ki’i (wooden images) help tell the stories of Hawaii’s past. The park is also adjacent to a really popular snorkeling site with lots of turtles and fish.
Ready for the royal treatment? Visit the Hulhe’e Palace in downtown Kailua-Kona.
Experience Amazing Wildlife
There are many things to do on the Big Island if you are an animal lover. Top animal attractions on the island include Dolphin Quest at Hilton Waikoloa Village and the unique Seahorse Farm right next to the airport in Kailua-Kona.
The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo is a great (and free!) option while visiting Hilo on the east side of the island. It is a tropical zoo with monkeys, Hawaiian Nene geese, and even tigers!
One of the most memorable experiences is taking a tour which allows you to snorkel with the manta rays. Hang Loose boat tours guarantee sightings on their trip which includes a sunset on the water, snacks, drinks, and snorkeling with harmless manta rays in their natural environment.
If you aren’t up for snorkeling, don’t miss the chance to see massive manta rays most nights outside of the Sheraton Kona at Rays on the Bay. Water timid travelers will be happy knowing they can check out the manta ray talks, and enjoy the above the shore views of the manta rays who make their way to this region nightly to feed on plankton attracted to the hotel’s lights.
One of the more epic things to do on the Big Island with kids is visit a legendary waterfall. After all, it isn’t a trip to Hawaii if you don’t snap a few pictures in front of a waterfall.
422-foot Akaka Falls is one of the island’s most famous and impressive. Even more impressive are the shrimp that make the annual swim up the waterfall to spawn- take that salmon!
Other must-see and easy-to-reach waterfalls include Rainbow Falls, PeePee Falls (the name alone will peak most kids’ interest), and Hiilawe Falls.
Another great option is taking a zipline tour to see some less accessible waterfalls. Umauma Falls Zip Line Tours are surely an experiences your family won’t forget.
Umauma Falls Zip and Dip combo is available for kids as young as four. It take you soaring across the canyon with stunning views of the falls and also includes a chance to swim and kayak at their base. There is also a giant swing on property and hiking trails throughout the grounds.
If you would like to take a tour which visits several of Hawaii’s major waterfalls and includes a stop at Waipio Valley, this small group waterfall tour is a good choice. Your tour will travel along the Hamakua Coast to Akaka Falls, Hi’ilawe Falls, Rainbow Falls, and even includes a swim at a private waterfall.
See the Stars
Visitors arriving from urban destinations around the world will marvel at the night sky views no matter where you are on the Big Island. The small amount of light pollution makes for some stunning stargazing.
If you are looking for a more hands-on experience, consider taking the road to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. A nightly stargazing party is held every day of the year and special events are offered throughout various seasons.
We were able to spot the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, and up-close views of the moon through free-to-use telescopes during our visit. The center also boasts educational exhibits, a gift shop, and clean restrooms.
Kids over the age of 16 are allowed to make the climb to the summit of Mauna Kea Observatory. Altitude sickness and a guarded ranger station keep little ones out of this area.
The road to the observatory is dirt, rough, steep, and a thrilling adventure on its own. If you don’t want to brave the drive yourself, consider booking a trip with one of the many tour operators who will package the event into a lovely sunset and stargazing combination tour.
Have a star lover in your family? Don’t miss a trip to the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. It is hands-on exhibits and daily planetarium shows.
Visit a Volcano
One of the most exciting things to do on the Big Island with kids is see the active lava flow of a volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It is one of the few places on planet earth where this phenomenon can be observed by traveling families, so a visit to this national park is a must.
There is so much more to get excited about at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park besides lava. Among the fun at this great national park are great trails, sulfur banks, and lava tubes to explore. Take this driving tour through the park to explore on your own pace.
Make sure you give yourself at least a week to enjoy this beautiful destination, as you can see, there is so much to experience!
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