Nicknamed the “Big Island”, Hawaii’s largest island is known for volcanoes, beaches and diverse landscapes. It has world-class stargazing, memorable manta ray snorkeling and one of the rarest types of beach in the world.
I spent four days on the Big Island of Hawaii and here, I share practical tips on visiting it. This post covers:
- 🗓️ Four-day itinerary that optimizes your time on the Big Island
- 🏖️ Practical tips on amazing things to do on the Big Island
- 📍 Big Island map with all recommended places pinned
- 🚙 How to get around and where to stay on the Big Island
- ✏️ Big Island trip planning template
- Big Island at a Glance
- Getting Around
- Big Island Map
- 4-Day Itinerary
- Itinerary Details
- Day 1: Kona and Manta Rays
- Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Day 3: Green Sand Beach
- Day 4: Hilo and Mauna Kea
- Big Island Trip Planning Template
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!
The Big Island at a Glance
Here’s some general information on the Big Island to help you plan your trip.
🌋 Known For
The Big Island, which is officially called “Hawaii Island”, is the biggest and the third most visited Hawaiian island, behind O’ahu and Maui.
The Big Island is known for:
- Volcanoes. It has five volcanoes, three of which are active: Kīlauea, Mauna Loa and Hualālai, with the former being one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
- Beaches. Like many of the other Hawaiian islands, the Big Island has stunning beaches, as well as black sand and green sand beaches.
- Diverse landscapes. Due to the volcanic activity and size, the Big Island has lush sceneries, deserts, mountains with snow and other diverse geographic features that the other islands do not have.
The four-day itinerary below incorporates all the great things that the Big Island is known for.
The Island of Hawaii (aka the Big Island) is the southernmost Hawaiian Island and is located in the Pacific Ocean, west of the United States.
☀️ Best Time To Visit
Although the Big Island has year-round warm, tropical weather, the best time to visit it is during the dry season and when there are less crowds.
- During the dry season, which runs from April to October, you’ll experience more sunshine and less rain. April to mid-June and September to November are ideal times to visit because it will be less crowded. I visited in October and thought it was great with fewer visitors.
- During the wet season, which runs from November to March, the Big Island sees more rain, but the rain is often localized and won’t significantly impact travel plans.
🗓️ How Long To Visit
You can spend anywhere from three to seven days on the Big Island.
- With just three days on the Big Island, you’ll only be able to visit a few of its top attractions and have to choose one to two areas of the island to visit.
- With four to five days on the Big Island, you’ll be able to cover many of the island’s big attractions and visit three to four sides of the island.
- With one week or more on the Big Island, you won’t run out of things to do since it has a diverse set of landscapes and activities.
💰 Is The Big Island Expensive To Visit?
Hawaii is the most expensive state in the United States to travel to and the Big Island is the fourth most expensive Hawaiian island out of the eight.
- A mid-range budget traveler can expect to spend $200 a day on the Big Island.
- A budget traveler can spend $110 a day on the Big Island and anything lower will require more inconvenience and a higher commitment to primarily doing free activities.
The Big Island has good credit card infrastructure, but some places require cash, so bring at least $40 in US dollars. Other money-related tips and all my Big Island travel expenses are detailed in this Hawaii trip cost breakdown.
All the information above is available in the Big Island trip planner below in a downloadable Notion.
Getting Around The Big Island
Once you land in one of the Big Island’s international airports, Kona International Airport (KOA) on the west side or Hilo International Airport (ITO) on the east side, the primary way to get around the island is by driving a rental car (like most of the United States).
Aside from driving, other ways to get around the Big Island include ridesharing, booking a taxi and taking the limited public bus.
🚙 Rental Car
The best way to get around the Big Island is by driving. Due to its bigger size, expect to spend 30 minutes to two hours driving to get around the different areas of the island. Luckily, a lot of the drives are scenic with ocean views.
You will also need a 4×4 if you plan to summit Mauna Kea, but not all rental companies will allow you to drive up there.
A standard rental car on the Big Island costs about $30 a day, not including gas.
The Big Island has a limited bus system called the Hele-on bus, which is the cheapest way to get around the island. However, given how infrequently it runs and how long it takes between the stops, the bus is only viable if you have a lot of time.
🚕 Taxis and Ridesharing Apps
Taxis, Uber and Lyft are available on the Big Island and will be more expensive than a rental car unless you’re using them for a few one-off rides. Taxis are mainly available near airports and a few big attraction areas.
When I was on the Big Island, a one-way Uber ride from the west side of the island to the Kona airport was more than the cost of a rental car for an entire day ($21 per person).
Big Island Map With Recommended Places
This Big Island map has all the recommended places pinned and organized by itinerary day.
4-Day Itinerary for the Big Island
Below is a great way to spend four days on the Big Island (Hawaii Island) while doing some of the best things the island has to offer.
This four-day itinerary minimizes transportation time and efficiently sequences attractions and activities. I’ve included some of my actual timestamps to give you an idea of how long you might need for each activity.
Here are the itinerary’s highlights by day:
- Swimming with manta rays on day 1. This is a remarkable snorkeling experience where you’re surrounded by manta rays.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on day 2. This national park is home to two active volcanoes and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see lava flow.
- Papakōlea Green Sand Beach on day 3. This is one of the four green sand beaches in the world, making it a rare beach.
- Driving up to Mauna Kea on day 4. Mauna Kea is a world-renowned stargazing location due to its low light pollution.
Big Island Itinerary
The Big Island trip planning template below has this itinerary prefilled.
|Day 1||Kona and Manta Rays Snorkeling|
🤿 Hike Captain Cook and snorkel Kealakekua Bay (9 am–2 pm)
🍺 Snorkel at Two Step Beach or grab a beer at Kona Brewery (2:30–4 pm)
🌕 Snorkel with manta rays at night (6–8:30 pm)
|Day 2||Hawaii Volcanoes National Park|
🐬 Visit Ho’okena Beach for spinner dolphins (8–9 am)
🚗 Drive to the national park (10:30–12 pm)
🌋 Explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (12 pm–5 pm)
🐢 Visit Punalu’u Black Sand Beach for sea turtles (5:30–6 pm)
🚗 Drive back to the west side (6–7 pm)
|Day 3||Green Sand Beach|
🤿 Snorkel at Kukio Bay or Hapuna Beach (10–11:30 am)
🚗 Drive from the west side to the south side (1–3 pm)
🏝️ Hike Papakōlea Green Sand Beach (1–4 pm)
🚗 Drive back to the west to Kona or head east to Hilo (4–6 pm)
|Day 4||Hilo and Mauna Kea|
🍍 Eat fresh food at Hilo Farmer’s Market (11 am–12 pm)
🌈 Stop briefly at Rainbow Falls (12:15–12:40 pm)
🚘 Drive to the state park (12:45–1:15 pm)
🥾 Walk through Akaka Falls State Park (1:15–3 pm)
🚗 Drive to Mauna Kea (5–6 pm)
🌟 Go up to Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and stargaze (6–8 pm)
4-Day Big Island Itinerary Details
This four-day itinerary was thoughtfully put together to take full advantage of your time on the Big Island. It contains all the top activities and popular things that the island is known for and is sequenced to minimize transportation time.
Day 1: Kona and Manta Rays
Start your Big Island trip on the west coast snorkeling at some of the best spots and swimming with manta rays.
Stop #1: Captain Cook Trail and Kealakekua Bay
On your first day, start your Big Island trip by snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay.
🤔 Why: Kealakekua Bay is one of Hawaii’s best snorkeling spots. With tons of tropical fish, limited crowds in some areas and clear water, the bay is one of my most memorable snorkeling experiences.
🥾 Getting there: Kealakekua Bay is on the Kona coast and you can get to it two different ways:
- By taking a boat ride from the south side of the bay. This increases your chance of seeing dolphins since you’ll cross the bay, but you’ll need to pay a tour operator. Here’s a highly-rated Kealakekua snorkeling tour.
- By hiking the Captain Cook Monument trail on the north side. The hike can be challenging, but it’s free and you can enter the water in a non-crowded area with many tropical fish.
This Captain Cook and Kealakekua Bay guide shares, in detail, how to hike to the bay and where to enter it to see tropical fish.
💰 Expected cost: If you hike the trail, getting into Kealakekua Bay is free. If you take a boat tour, expect to pay approximately $115 to $150 for a three to four-hour tour.
⏰ Duration: A Kealakekua Bay tour typically lasts three to four hours. If you hike the Captain Cook trail, budget a little over an hour to walk it each way and at least an hour to snorkel.
🍀 My take: I found the hike to Captain Cook a bit challenging due to the lack of shade and tall grass, but the snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay was stunning and very well worth it.
Stop #2 (Option 1): Two Step Beach
After Kealakekua Bay, you can continue to snorkel at another top beach or you can take a break and grab a beer at Kona Brewery.
🤔 Why: Two Step is another beautiful, top snorkeling site on the west side of the Big Island. Unlike Kealakekua Bay, which can be challenging to enter, Two Step Beach has easy access to the ocean.
🚗 Getting there: Two Step Beach is a ten-minute drive south of Kealakekua Bay.
💰 Expected cost: Two Step is free and open to the public. However, street parking can be difficult and there’s a parking lot nearby that charges a $5 flat fee.
Stop #2 (Option 2): Kona Brewery Company
After hiking in the sun and snorkeling, grab a beer at Kona Brewery Company.
🤔 Why: Kona Brewery Company is an independent brewery and one of the few that brews local beer on the Big Island.
🚗 Getting there: Kona Brewery Company is a 30-minute drive north of Kealakekua Bay, which may seem far, but you’ll soon realize that you need to drive pretty far to reach most things on the Big Island.
💰 Cost: Expect to pay about $6 for a pint of beer at Kona Brewery Company.
🍀 My take: I usually pack my itinerary with a ton of activities, but it’s nice to have some downtime. A refreshing beer is always nice after a hike in the sun. If this is not your vibe, relax at a beach or pool somewhere in Kona.
Stop #3: Manta Rays Snorkeling
After dinner, wrap up your first day with one of the highlights on the Big Island.
🤔 Why: Snorkeling with manta rays is one of the Big Island’s most memorable activities. Around sunset or during the nighttime, you’ll get to go into the ocean while holding onto a surfboard and watch manta rays swim all around you.
🚗 Getting there: Several tour operators in Kona offer the manta ray experience and as one of my local friends said, “virtually all of them are good.” This very well-rated manta ray guided tour is described as “unreal” and “magnificent.”
Tour operators tend to offer a “sunset” manta ray tour that usually starts around 6 pm and a “night” tour that usually starts around 8:30 pm.
💰 Cost: Expect to pay at least $80 per person for a manta ray night snorkel. Most tours will cost at least $100 per person. Operators will provide all the equipment necessary, including wetsuits.
⏰ Duration: Manta ray tours typically last between two to three hours.
🍀 My take: Snorkeling with manta rays on the Big Island is many people’s highlights because you get to see so many rays at once and up close. Sometimes, they even do a flip right in front of you.
Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
On your second day, try to see some amazing marine life, such as dolphins and sea turtles, and visit some active volcanoes.
Stop #1: Ho’okena Beach
Get an early start on your second day for a chance to see spinner dolphins.
🤔 Why: Ho’okena Beach is a popular grey-sand beach and a great place to catch some spinner dolphins. The best time to catch them is in the early morning.
Hawaii laws prohibit people and boats from being closer than 50 yards to a spinner dolphin, so keep your distance if you’re snorkeling.
💰 Cost: Ho’okena Beach is free and open to the public.
⏰ Duration: You can spend anywhere from one hour to four hours enjoying the beach and snorkeling in the area.
🍀 My take: Ho’okena Beach is a great option to see some dolphins in Hawaii without having to pay for a boat tour.
Stop #2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Spend your second day exploring Hawaii’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
🤔 Why: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boasts two of Hawaii’s most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, complete with unique geological features that have cultural significance to the indigenous Hawaiian people.
🌋 What to do there: You can spend a whole day exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park hiking its many trails, looking at lava flows, exploring the lava tubes and more. Here are some of the park’s attractions:
- Kilauea Iki Trail and Crater Rim Trail is a 3.5-mile, moderate trail that takes you through a solidified lava lake and the crater’s rim. The national park has over 40 easy to challenging hikes to choose from.
- Keanakako’i Overlook is a viewpoint where visitors can see steam coming out of the volcano or if they’re lucky, lava flowing out of it. The national park has several other overlooks and viewpoints.
- Thurston Lava Tube is a cave formed by lava flowing through a volcanic vent that you can walk through.
🚗 Getting there: Kīlausea Visitor Center of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on the southeastern side of the island and it’s about a one to two-hour drive from the Kona side.
💰 Cost: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle.
A National Park Service Pass will cover the entrance fee. I had the annual $80 park pass, so my car didn’t have to pay the entrance fee. All my travel expenses are shared in this Hawaii cost breakdown.
⏰ Duration: You can spend a few hours or a few days exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Once you pay the entrance fee, the pass is valid for seven days.
🍀 My take: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a cool place to visit if you haven’t seen volcanic geology before, but I think being able to see lava flows is the highlight, which you’re not guaranteed to see.
Stop #3: Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
On your way back to Kona after Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, stop by one of the Big Island’s black sand beaches.
🤔 Why: Punalu’u Beach is one of the Big Island’s most famous black sand beaches and is known to be a great stop to see Hawaiian green sea turtles.
🚗 Getting there: Punalu’u Beach is located on the southern tip of the island, making it a great brief stop between the national park and the west side as you need to pass through that area regardless.
💰 Cost: Punalu’u Beach is open to the public and free, with ample parking.
⏰ Duration: You can spend 30 to 60 minutes at this beach to catch the sunset and see if you can spot any sea turtles.
🍀 My take: During my Punalu’u Beach stop after the national park, I was lucky enough to catch a sea turtle resting in the protected area of the beach. It’s also cool to know that the black sand is just tiny fragments of volcanic rock.
Day 3: Green Sand Beach
On your third day, snorkel at a beautiful beach and visit one of the rarest types of beaches in the world.
Stop #1: Hapuna Beach or Kukio Beach
Start your third day with some relaxation if you need some downtime, or visit another one of the Big Island’s beautiful beaches.
🤔 Why: Hapuna Beach is considered to be one of the United States’ best beaches, but it’s popular and crowded. If you want to experience a hidden gem, snorkel at Kukio Bay instead.
🚗 Getting there: Hapuna Beach is further north on the island while Kukio Beach is on the west side of the island. Kukio Beach is surrounded by luxury resorts, but the beach and parking lot are public.
To get to Kukio Beach, you have to ask the security located here to let you pass through the gated community.
💰 Cost: Both beaches are open to the public and have plenty of free parking.
⏰ Duration: You can spend one to two hours snorkeling or relaxing at these beaches.
🍀 My take: Hapuna Beach is worth it only if you want to experience the hype behind this beach, but if you don’t want to go through the hassle, Kukio Beach is a great, quiet beach that’s largely uncrowded. It’s also a great spot to see sea turtles.
Stop #2: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach
Spend most of your third day reaching Hawaii’s only green sand beach.
🤔 Why: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is one of the rarest beaches in the world due to the sand’s natural coloring (it gets its color from a mineral called olivine). Only four beaches in the world have green sand.
Be warned that the waves at Papakōlea can be huge, so you should be comfortable with swimming before getting in.
🚗 Getting there: There are two ways to get to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, which is located on the south point of the Big Island, but only one way is recommended:
- Hiking. You can hike two-and-a-half miles to get to the beach. The terrain is mostly flat, but non-shaded.
- Driving. You can also pay a local at the entrance to drive you to the beach in a 4×4, but even though this is common and many tourists do this, you should know that it’s illegal because off-road driving is eroding the landscape.
💰 Cost: Hiking to Papakōlea Beach is free, but paying a local to drive you will cost about $20 per person.
⏰ Duration: The hike to the beach takes a bit over an hour. You can spend about an hour at the green sand beach.
🍀 My take: Papakōlea Green Sand Beach is one of the most unique experiences you can have on the Big Island since there are only three other beaches in the world like it in Guam, Ecuador and Norway.
After Green Sand Beach
After Papakōlea Green Sand Beach on the south side of the island, you can either head back to Kona (west side) or stay the night in Hilo (east side), which is where the fourth day begins.
Day 4: Hilo and Mauna Kea
On your fourth day, spend the day on the Hilo side of the island and experience one of the best stargazing places in the world.
Stop #1: Hilo Farmer’s Market
Start your last day eating fresh produce at a local farmer’s market.
🤔 Why: Hilo Farmer’s Market is a popular market selling fresh produce and tropical fruits (e.g., rambutan, lychee, mangosteen, star fruit). It also sells souvenirs, shaved ice and poke.
The Hilo Farmer’s Market is the biggest on Wednesday and Saturday when more vendors come out.
🚗 Getting there: Hilo Farmer’s Market is located in the small town of Hilo on the east side of the Big Island.
💰 Cost: The fresh produce prices are higher than what you expect. Just remember that the produce tends to be fresher here due to Hawaii’s strong agriculture.
⏰ Duration: You can spend about an hour at the farmer’s market shopping and eating lunch.
🍀 My take: Hilo Farmer’s Market is a great place to stop by on your last to enjoy fresh produce. The prices are also generally more reasonable than the Kona Farmer’s Market.
Stop #2: Rainbow Falls
Before heading to stop #3, briefly visit a waterfall.
🤔 Why: Rainbow Falls is a nearby waterfall that’s easily accessible. On sunny days, you can catch a rainbow near the waterfall.
🚗 Getting there: Rainbow Falls is a six-minute drive west of the farmer’s market. The parking lot is not very big, but visitors don’t usually stay for very long.
💰 Cost: The waterfall is open to the public and it’s free.
⏰ Duration: You can walk up the stairs and look at the waterfall in about 30 minutes or less.
🍀 My take: Rainbow Falls is a nice, quick and nearby stop after eating at the farmer’s market. If you’re rushing to the next stop, you can skip it.
If you go to the Hilo Farmer’s Market early and have extra time, you can skip the Rainbow Falls and go to Kaumana Caves instead to hike through a lava tube. Make sure to bring nonslip shoes and flashlights.
Stop #3: Akaka Falls State Park
🤔 Why: Akaka Falls State Park is a short hike that takes you through a lush tropical rainforest with several waterfalls. The biggest waterfall is near the end and it’s called ‘Akaka Falls.
🚗 Getting there: Akaka Falls State Park is a 30-minute drive north of Rainbow Falls.
💰 Cost: The park has a $5 per person entrance fee.
⏰ Duration: The walk through the park is less than half a mile, so you can spend one to two hours here.
🍀 My take: Akaka Falls State Park’s lush scenery is a nice contrast to the volcanic landscape in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the waterfall is rewarding for such a short hike.
Stop #4: Mauna Kea
End the last day on the Big Island with a visit to the summit of the tallest mountain in the world, when measured from the ocean’s base.
🤔 Why: Mauna Kea is a world-renowned stargazing location due to its unpolluted, clear sky. The summit is also a popular place to catch the sunset (although the Hawaii bucket list sunset is in Maui).
Several countries have established observatories at Mauna Kea as it’s considered one of the most advanced astronomical areas.
📍 What to do there: There are two key locations on Mauna Kea:
- Mauna Kea’s Visitor Center is where you can do world-class stargazing.
- Mauna Kea Summit is where you can catch the sunset.
If you plan to go up to the summit, drive there first as it’s only open until 30 minutes past sunset. After sunset, go down to the visitor center to see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life.
🚗 Getting there: Mauna Kea can be reached with a 4WD vehicle. You can drive on your own, but you’ll need some preparation as it gets very cold due to the high altitude and some rental companies don’t allow their rentals to go up this rough terrain.
If you’d rather visit Mauna Kea with a guided tour, here’s a highly-rated one that provides gloves, jackets, transportation and a photographer. Note that pickups are from Kona and Hilo and can be as early as 3 pm.
💰 Cost: The Mauna Kea visitor center and summit are free and open to the public.
🍀 My take: Mauna Kea is one of the most memorable things you can experience in Hawaii. You’ll never see as many stars in the sky at another location unless it’s extremely remote.
Accommodations on the Big Island
Here’s what to consider when choosing where to stay on the Big Island.
- Side of the island. Generally, most visitors stay on the west side (Kona) or east side (Hilo) of the island. Kona offers more things to do and allows you to easily access the south and north side. Hilo is mainly close to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea.
- This itinerary. If you want to follow this itinerary and minimize transportation time, stay on the Kona side, except for the last day when you should stay on the Hilo side.
- Price. In general, the Hilo side of the Big Island has more affordable accommodations since it’s smaller and has fewer visitors.
Big Island Trip Planning Template
To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planning template below and use it as a starting point. The template has country-specific travel information as well as an itinerary, packing list and map with recommended places pinned.
The template is built on Notion, which is what I use for all my travel planning (I’m not paid to say this; I just like the tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Hawaii Travel Guides
- 💰 Trip to Hawaii Cost: 2023 Travel Expense Breakdown
- 🏝️ Maui Amazing 5-Day Itinerary + Great Things To Do
- 🌋 Big Island Epic 4-Day Itinerary + Great Things To Do
- ☀️ How To See the Haleakalā Sunrise: Tips + What To Know
- 🚗 Road to Hana Guide: Map, Great Stops + Is it Dangerous?
- 🤿 Captain Cook Hike and Snorkel Guide: Map, Tips and Safety
- 🎒 Complete Maui Packing List: Tips + What To Bring
🧋 This site is run entirely by me, Lukiih. I spend hours writing each article to ensure its accuracy and conciseness. If you find my site helpful, you can say thanks by buying me bubble tea!