Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
In Hawaii Volcanoes Nartional Park, visitors can get close to Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, and drive to the crater rim of massive Mauna Loa, the island's second tallest point (after Mauna Kea) at 13,647 feet. Kilauea erupted back in 1983 and has been discharging lava ever since. It stinks of sulfur and the earth often shakes, but this show of the volcano's potency is all part of the excitement. Park rangers are always on hand to steer visitors clear of possibly dangerous areas.
While at the park, take a short walk through the Thurston Lava Tube, which was formed when the outer crust of a stream of lava hardened and remained after the rest of it had flowed downhill. At the south end of the park, along Route 130, visitors can view streams of Kilauea's lava as it flows south and hits the ocean.
This 13,796-foot volcano located in the island's northern portion is one of the U.S.'s major centers of astronomical research. During daylight hours, guided walks through the Mauna Kea Observatory let visitors take a tour of its six high-power telescopes. Weather conditions change rapidly as you go up, so bring layers of clothing that you can add on. The peak gets so cold during the winter that there is snow skiing here between January and March.
This is the Big Island's largest city and, after Honolulu, the second largest city in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Located on the humid eastern shore, the city occupies one of the island's wettest spots: Hilo's annual rainfall tops 130 inches a year. In addition to limiting the amount of resort development in the area, the large quantity of precipitation also drapes the city in flowers and greenery year round and coaxes the growth of some of the world's most amazing orchids.
To learn about old Hilo, visit the Lyman House Museum, an old home from the 1830s. Other attractions to visit include nearby Waianuenue Falls, an 80-foot waterfall with colorful rainbows of mist, and Liliuokalani Park, with its 30 acres of immaculately groomed Japanese gardens.
Kona, located on the west side of Hawaii, covers about 60 miles of rolling coastal terrain. This area has earned the nickname "the Gold Coast" because of the near-perfect weather that graces this side of the island. Resorts and hotels are built along the seashore, and just a bit inland, coffee plantations grow world-famous coffee beans. Be sure to try a cup of Kona coffee here.
You'll find some of the Big Island's best beaches on the Kona Coast, including the unique black-sand beach at Hookena Beach Park. With its excellent swimming, bodysurfing, and other water sports, the white-sand Hapuna Beach State Recreation area is another popular local place.
Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park on the southern Kona coast once served as a place of absolution for law breakers. A variety of interesting cultural sights in the area include the ancient Hawaiian temple, Hale O Keawe Heiau, a Great Wall that dates to 1550, caves with petroglyphs scrawled on the walls, and tidepools formed in hardened lava flows. Other places to visit in the area are the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park with its burial caves and exotic fishponds, Kona Coast State Park, and the Puako Petroglyphs.
Known as the birthplace of Hawaii's first ruler, King Kamehameha I, North Kohala on Hawaii's northwest tip is home to numerous historical attractions. Just north of King Kamehameha's birthplace is Mookini Luakini Heiau, a temple dating to the 5th century, where kings and priests once prayed to the great goddess Pele and other important Hawaiian deities.
Heading south down the coast, you'll find Lapakahi State Historical Park, a reconstructed Hawaiian fishing village. A little further south is Puukohola Heiau National Historic Sight, a temple constructed by King Kamehameha. Some of the island's largest resorts and top golf courses can also be found on the South Kohala coast.
Located in Waimea upcountry, this tract of land comprising 225,000 acres is the largest family-owned ranch in the United States. In 1989, Parker Ranch was opened to visitors, who can now tour the elegant Parker residences or take guided horse rides around the grounds.
Visit the lush Waipio Valley where you can walk from the lookout to the valley floor and see flowering plants, jungle, taro patches, and waterfalls. Don't miss the view of Hiilawe Falls, Hawaii's highest free-fall waterfall, whose cascades are more than 1,000 feet tall. Other places to visit include Kalopa State Park, with 100 acres of native rain forest and an ancient ohia tree forest; Akaka Falls State Park, where you can easily reach one of Hawaii's most impressive waterfalls; and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, home to 1,000 different species of tropical plants.
Although the area on the easternmost point of the Big Island is not known for its beaches, it boasts many other interesting attractions: Visit the funky artist community of Pahoa; the Lava Tree State Monument, where you can see the after-effects of lava on ohia trees; the Kapoho tidepools, some of which are deep enough for snorkeling; and Mackenzie State Recreation area, which still maintains an old Hawaiian coastal trail.