Between its active volcanoes, rugged coastline, and stunning beaches, it’s no surprise that the Big Island has several incredible hiking trails to explore. But if you’ve only got a short time on the island, you may find it difficult to choose which one is worth it. Here’s the 7 best hikes on the Big Island to enjoy while you’re in paradise.
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If you’re wondering which Hawaiian island has the very best hiking, the Big Island should definitely be at the top of the list. The trails listed in this article will take you to jaw-dropping green and black sand beaches, along a steaming volcanic crater floor, and to the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet (kinda sorta… more on that later).
Better yet, the best hikes on the Big Island are spread out around this massive island, but the good news is that they’re, at most, about an hour and a half drive from either Kona or Hilo. So no matter where you’re staying on the Big Island, you’ll have plenty of hiking adventures to choose from nearby!
Let’s get into it!
Best Hikes on the Big Island
1. Captain Cook Monument Trail
The trailhead is located here, 22 minutes south of Kona (or an hour and 50 minutes west of Hilo).
It’s not surprising why the Captain Cook Monument Trail is considered one of the best hikes on the Big Island, given that it offers sweeping ocean views, lots of adorable goat friends, and some of the most incredible snorkeling in the entire state of Hawaii!
From the trailhead, you’ll hike down through lush grasslands and trees dripping with tropical flowers overhead. About one mile into the trail, the forest will clear, giving way to a craggy volcanic landscape, with nothing but lava rock and jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see.
Here, you’ll walk down this steep hill until you reach sea level and walk through some tree coverage until you eventually reach the area with the Captain Cook Monument, a white stone obelisk. The monument was erected here in memory of the famous British explorer, who was the first documented Westerner to navigate to Hawaii in 1778 and was killed near this spot while trying to kidnap a Hawaiian high chief in 1779.
While the history of Captain Cook’s arrival on the Hawaiian Islands is interesting and all, what truly makes this hike so cool is what lies beyond its shores—Kealakekua Bay, home to a pristine coral reef, hundreds of different kinds of tropical fish, and the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
And in fact, the only ways to reach Kealakekua Bay is to hike along the Captain Cook Monument Trail or take a boat in, like on one of the Captain Cook snorkeling tours you can choose from. The latter option is much more pricey than the totally freeeeee option of hiking in along the Captain Cook Monument Trail. Just don’t forget to bring along your snorkeling gear!
Once you’re done snorkeling at the Captain Cook monument, you’ll need to make your way back up to the trailhead. Which, notably, is 100% uphill.
Bring lots and lots of water (my husband, Justin, and I use these comically enormous Nalgene bottles) and start the hike as early as you can. Between the hot Hawaiian sun and the steep and unrelenting incline, this trail kicked my butt WAY more than I’d like to admit!
2. Mauna Kea trail
4,986 feet (and, if you’re anything like me, you will feel every single foot of it!)
Hard. Like, really hard. Not only is this trail long and SUPER steep, but it also starts at over 9,000 feet elevation and you’ll climb almost an additional vertical mile to the summit!
The trailhead is located here at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, 45 minutes west of Hilo (or an hour and 10 minutes east of Kona).
Pssst… it’s recommended that you acclimate at the parking lot’s elevation for at least half an hour before starting the hike. Use some of this time to snag a (free!) permit from the Visitor Information Station.
The Mauna Kea hike is pretty special.
For one, Mauna Kea is technically the tallest mountain on the planet, when measured from the seafloor to its summit (take that, Mount Everest!). For another, because it’s the tallest peak in the state of Hawaii, Mauna Kea’s summit was considered by the ancient Hawaiians to be incredibly sacred and to be the realm of the gods.
As mentioned above, getting to the summit of the realm of the gods isn’t without its challenges, though. From the trailhead, you’ll start hiking up the trail of rocky volcanic scree and gain over 2,000 feet of elevation in the first two miles. As you climb higher and higher, you’ll be afforded stunning views of Mauna Loa (the largest active volcano ON THE PLANET!) to the south.
Eventually, the landscape will shift, with lots of colorful volcanic cinder cones towering above. In the distance, you can see the glint of the futuristic telescopes that are perched on top of Mauna Kea.
A little over five miles into the trail, you’ll reach the road that, ahem, less ambitious folks will drive along to reach the summit. You’ll walk the last two miles along this road, as you climb higher and higher above the clouds. With one last push, you’ll finally reach the peak of the tallest mountain in the state of Hawaii (and, kinda sorta, the world!).
Note that, at the end of the trail, there’s a large sign requesting that you not hike to the “true” summit, which stands about 10 feet above where you’ll end. This is out of respect of the Native Hawaiians’ tradition of only allowing ali’i (or high chiefs) to stand at Mauna Kea’s summit. Please be respectful of this request!
Given Mauna Kea’s high elevation, you’ll be at risk of developing altitude sickness along the trail (unfortunately, Justin did when we did this hike). Be sure to bring along LOTS and LOTS of water; be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness, like headache and nausea; and be willing to turn around if you start feeling its effects. Altitude sickness can be fatal and, while I very much enjoyed the Mauna Kea trail, it’s definitely not worth dying over.
I’d also recommend bringing along some warm layers- Mauna Kea is one of the few spots that receives snow in Hawaii (it’s actually the snowiest place on the islands!).
3. Pololū Trail
The trailhead is located here at the Pololū Valley Lookout, an hour and 20 minutes northeast of Kona (or two hours north of Hilo).
The Pololū Valley Lookout provides some of the most postcard-worthy views on the Big Island, with a black sand beach and the dramatic Pacific Ocean, crashing against the lush sea cliffs. The Pololū Valley Trail will actually take you down from this lookout to the shores of the black sand beach below.
The trail is pretty straightforward, with several steep switchbacks cut into the cliffside that you’ll hike down to reach the beach.
Be careful- the path is full of slippery and crumbly rocks. When Justin and I hiked here, a volunteer told us that It’s not unheard of for hikers to fall and injure themselves along the trail and literally have to be helicoptered out!
I’d strongly recommend wearing shoes with some traction here—Justin wore his Tevas hiking sandals all over the Big Island (including on the Pololū Valley Trail) and I have a cult-like love for my women’s Tevas hiking sandals as well.
After about 0.4 miles of steeply descending down, you’ll reach the valley floor, with the Pololū Stream and the impossibly green valley to your right hand side—it seriously looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park.
Once you’re done taking in the epic views, continue straight ahead a few hundred yards and you’ll reach the rocky black shores of Pololū Beach. The current here is too strong to swim safely, but thankfully, you’ll be too busy taking in the surrounding jaw-dropping views!
Just remember that, like on several of these Big Island hikes, what comes down must come up- so you’ll have to make the climb back up to the steep, crumbly path to the lookout.
4. Green Sand Beach Hike
The trailhead is located here, about an hour and a half south of Kona (or two hours and 10 minutes south of Hilo).
The Green Sand Beach is one of the best hikes on the Big Island, due, in part, to the fact that it uniquely leads you to one of only FOUR green sand beaches on the planet! The green sand here is caused by the remnants of olivine-rich lava that was spewed into the surrounding bay by Mauna Loa almost 50,000 years ago.
To get to this incredible beach, you’ll hike across a mostly flat trail, through rolling sand dunes and arid grasslands. For the vast majority of the hike, the trail skirts along the rocky, volcanic shoreline and beyond, the sparkling turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean.
There’s several roads and pathways that have been carved into the dunes over the course of years, so I found the route a bit confusing at times. But just keep hugging the coastline and walking west and you can’t miss the beach!
In fact, about 2.6 miles into the trail, you’ll see your first glimpses of the beach, which is tucked into a deep bowl at the base of the cliff you’re hiking on. You’ll continue along and scramble down steps and pathways carved into a steep hill that leads down to the sandy shore.
The beach is STUNNING, with big waves that are best suited for boogie boarding or body surfing. There isn’t a bathroom or facility to change here, so don’t forget to wear your swimsuit under your hiking clothes!
5. ‘Akaka Falls Trail
The trailhead is located here, 25 minutes north of Hilo (or one hour and 50 minutes east of Kona). Note that it costs $10 per vehicle to park at the trailhead.
If you’re looking for an easy trail that still packs a lot of punch, this may just be the perfect hike to add to your Big Island itinerary.
On this easy loop, you’ll walk along a paved path through a lush rainforest, passing bamboo groves, tropical flowers, and impossibly green ferns, to a viewpoint of ‘Akaka Falls, a stunning 442-foot waterfall cascading into the lush valley below.
The trail initially descends into a jungle-like ravine, passing over a small stream. Once you’re 0.2 miles into the trail, you’ll see a lookout, on your right hand side, to Kahuna Falls, off in the distance. While this 300-foot waterfall is certainly impressive, the view is partially obscured by trees so let’s continue on to the main show, ‘Akaka Falls!
You’ll continue on through the dense jungle and climb up and down a series of steps. As you descend down the stairs, you’ll get your first glimpse of ‘Akaka, careening down the lush cliffside. As you climb further down the stairs, the views of the waterfall will just keep getting better and better.
When you’re done taking in the views, complete the loop by climbing back up to the trailhead.
6. Kilauea Iki Trail
The trailhead is located here, 45 minutes southwest of Hilo (or two hours and 10 minutes southeast of Kona).
Because this trail is in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll need either a 7-day private vehicle pass for $30 or you can purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass, which includes unlimited access to all of the U.S. National Parks and over 2,000 other federally managed sites.
The Kilauea Iki Trail is one of the best hikes on the Big Island to appreciate the volcanic origins of the Hawaiian Islands, offering you the opportunity to hike across a solidified lava lake (with active steam vents!) from an eruption of Kilauea in 1959.
To start this loop trail, head right from the trailhead along the Crater Rim trail, where you’ll hike through lush greenery, with giant ferns hanging overhead.
After about a mile of hiking deeper into the jungle, the trail will veer to the south and head down a series of rocky stairs, which will lead you to the cracked lava bed.
From here, the path crosses straight across the floor of the crater, but be sure to explore the cracks and vents along the way. While Justin and I didn’t see this when we hiked here, you can allegedly see actual steam rising from the vents after it rains here, as the cool water is vaporized by the geothermally-heated volcanic rock!
After you make your way across the crater, you’ll climb up a series of switchbacks, back through the jungle.
When you’re 2.8 miles into the trail, you’ll have an opportunity to veer off to the Thurston Lava Tube, a 600-foot long lava tube formed 500 years ago during a volcanic eruption, which you can actually hike through. This is a super popular portion of the park and can be a pretty challenging spot to score parking, so, while you’re at it, I’d suggest tacking on the Thurston Lava Tube as well!
Whether you feel like exploring the lava tube or not, you’ll make the last 0.4 mile hike back through the jungle to the trailhead.
7. Mauna Loa trail
Note: At the time of this article’s writing, the Mauna Loa Trail is temporarily closed, due to the recent eruption.
Hard. Really, really, really hard.
The trailhead is located here, one hour and 15 minutes southwest Hilo (or one hour and 35 minutes southeast of Kona).
Like the Kilauea Iki Trail, the trailhead is located inside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, so you’ll need either a 7-day private vehicle pass for $30 or you can purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass. To reach the trailhead, you’ll need to drive down a very sketchy one-lane road (with traffic going in both directions), so leave early and give yourself plenty of time to make it to the trailhead!
Additionally, similar to Mauna Kea, you’ll be starting off this hike at 11,135 feet above sea level. It’s advised that you hang out for about an hour before starting your ascent.
Hiking to the summit of Mauna Loa is a rather otherworldly experience. No, really- Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo 11 crew literally hiked across its volcanic terrain to train for the moon landing.
This hike basically consists of a MONSTER of a climb over sharp volcanic rocks up to the summit of the largest active volcano on the planet. Be sure to wear actual hiking boots here, with plenty of traction and a thick sole to protect your soles (Justin has this pair and I have this pair)- I’ve even heard that some hikers bring along duct tape, in case the stabby rocks puncture their boots!
The first few miles of the trail has some native vegetation and wildlife along the way, like the beautiful ʻohai tree, but as you climb higher and higher, the plantlife will dwindle to nothing. It can actually be pretty hard to keep track of where the trail is (because it turns out that volcanic rock just kind of looks like all other volcanic rock) and it’s super easy to get lost along the way.
Accordingly, I’d strongly recommend downloading an offline trail map on AllTrails before you hit the trail.
You’ll need AllTrails+ to download an offline map for hiking, but luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your AllTrails account to the paid version (I know it took me, like, five years to make the jump), we wrote a whole post about whether an AllTrails+ account is worth it).
As you get higher, the volcanic rock along the trail will become more and more vibrant shades of red and orange (and sometimes, even green!) and there’s enough unique features, like lava tubes and cinder cones, to be a geology nerd’s dream come true. Once you reach the summit, you’ll have jaw-dropping views over the clouds to Mauna Kea or, on a clear day, across the entire island, and, even cooler, inside of Mauna Loa’s massive caldera.
As with Mauna Kea, this hike is at extreme elevations, so altitude sickness is a risk. Bring tons and tons of water and stay attuned to your body, if you need to turn around.
I hope you have a better idea of which of the best hikes on the Big Island is right for you. Do you have any questions about these Big Island hikes? Let me know in the comments below!