5 Affordable Things to Do on the Big Island of Hawaii

Photo (cc) by nan palmero

I previously shared what I thought were some best bets for cheap fun on Oahu based on my recent visit with my five kids. Now, it’s time to head to the Big Island.

After spending a few days in Honolulu, the Big Island felt like a whole other world. The international airport in Kona consists of a couple open air huts surrounded by miles of lava rock fields. Stepping off the plane felt a little like stepping off the grid.

While you can get away with taxis and public transportation in Honolulu, you’ll want to rent a car on the Big Island. Once you have that, you can access enough cheap and free activities to easily keep you busy for a week or more.

Here are five of my top picks:

Visit the beach

Green Sand Beach, Mahana Bay, Hawaii.
Green Sand Beach, Mahana Bay, Hawaii.

Just because you’ve been to the beach in Oahu, does not mean you’ve done the beach in Hawaii. The Big Island’s beaches could hardly be more different. While Oahu’s sandy beaches lend themselves to swimming and surfing, the Big Island beaches tend to be rocky and more suitable for snorkeling.

You’re sure to find your own favorite, but here are three beaches worth a special mention.

Green Sand Beach: It’s actually the Papakolea Beach, but to most people, it’s simply the green sand beach. Getting to this beach is, in and of itself, an adventure. Turn off Hawaii Highway 11 toward South Point (the southernmost point in the United States) and drive a narrow road until it dead ends into a parking lot. It’ll take you about 30 minutes to get there from the highway.

Once you get to the parking lot, you have two choices. Hike the three remaining miles to the beach or pay a local $15 per person to drive you in. Don’t try to drive in yourself! To say the road is rutted is an extreme understatement.

Because I had a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, I decided to pay for someone to drive us in. The driver didn’t charge for my two little ones so I spent $60 for myself and my three big kids. It was money well spent in my book. While the olive-green sand is a draw, I thought the view was even better. The beach is small but has big waves, which thrilled my 14-year-old and terrified my 2-year-old.

If you decide to walk in, pack plenty of water. It was blistering hot on the day we visited, and there is no shade. There are also no bathroom facilities at the beach and no trees to duck behind either (just fyi, for those of you with kids or small bladders). It’s a steep climb down to the beach once you get there, so people with mobility issues may not make it down to the water’s edge.

Black Sand Beach: Also off Highway 11 is Punaluu Beach, which has black sand. This beach is larger and much more accessible than the green sand beach. It’s rocky, and while my kids stuck close to the shore, other people were snorkeling farther out.

Richardson Ocean Park: If you want to go swimming, I hear this is one of the best beaches on the island for it. It’s a black sand beach in Hilo with a lifeguard and picnic area. We ran out of steam during our visit to Hilo, so we didn’t make it there, but it gets five stars on Yelp and 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor.

See a volcano

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

There are five volcanoes on the Big Island, and the active one can be viewed at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park off Highway 11. (Yes, all good things are apparently located off Highway 11). Admission to the park costs $15 per vehicle for a one-week pass.

For our visit, we stopped briefly by the visitor center and then headed down Crater Rim Drive to visit the Jagger Museum and view the volcano summit. On the way, we stopped to look at some steam vents and discovered a crater rim trail that was 1.2 miles long and led to the museum and summit. We started down that until it started to look like the crater rim trail actually ran along the crater rim. I envisioned our vacation ending with a small child going over the edge and decided to turn back and drive to the museum instead.

At the time of our visit, the only visible lava flow was in a remote area that could only be viewed by helicopter, much to the disappointment of a couple of my kids. Still, it was a memorable experience. If you have time, you can also visit a lava tube and drive down the Chain of Craters Road for other views of the volcano and previous lava flows.

View a waterfall

Rainbow Falls, Hawaii.
Rainbow Falls, Hawaii.

On our trip to Hilo, we stopped by Rainbow Falls, which was surprisingly accessible. You feel like you’re driving in the middle of the city and then — bam! There’s the waterfall. Parking is free and it’s a great, short stop while in Hilo.

Akaka Falls State Park is another option for waterfall viewing. It’s located north of Hilo off Highway 220 and has a half-mile loop that takes you by two sets of falls. The admission fee to the park is $5 per vehicle.

Head to the observatory

Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.
Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.

The summit of Mauna Kea is home to some of the most powerful telescopes in the world. While you can visit the summit, the high elevation makes it unsuitable for pregnant women, small children, people with heart conditions or respiratory problems, those who will be scuba diving within 24 hours of their visit or anyone driving anything other than a true four-wheel drive vehicle.

That eliminates a lot of people from heading to the summit, but fortunately, a Visitor Information Station is open seven days a week and accessible to all. Stop by for one of the free, nightly stargazing programs from 6-10 p.m. to see the night sky like you’ve never seen it before. Escorted tours to the summit also leave the Visitor Information Station every Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

Stop by a historic site

Sea Turtle at Kaloko-Honokohau, Hawaii.
Sea Turtle at Kaloko, Hawaii.

There are two national historical parks and one national historic site on the Big Island. We visited two of the three and enjoyed every minute.

Kaloko-Honokohau: This was our favorite park, and we visited twice. Stop by the visitors center first for information about how Hawaiians constructed fish ponds and fish traps. You can then walk to the beach from there or get in your car and drive a half mile to the entrance to the Honokohau Harbor. Once on the entrance drive, take the first right (it’ll look like you’re driving into a marina) and follow that to a back entrance to the park. From there, you’re just a five-minute walk to the water. Kaloko-Honokohau has a sandy beach (no facilities though) and plenty of green sea turtles to see (stay 20 feet away, per federal law). Part of the park is ancient sacred ground, so be respectful and stay off the fish traps and fish ponds.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau: While Kaloko-Honokohau is free, there is a $5 per vehicle fee to get into Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. The pass is good for five days. We stopped by on our way back to the airport, so we didn’t explore as much as I would have liked. However, we did have time for my 5-year-old to complete the junior ranger program and visit the historic sites in the park. There is also a beach along with a modern bath house, if you’d like to go swimming.

Pu’ukohola Heiau: We never made it far enough north to visit Pu’ukohola Heiau, but it’s the site of an ancient temple. Stop by to go hiking, learn some Hawaiian history and maybe even see humpback whales in the winter.

That rounds out my list of cheap things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island, but I know it’s far from definitive. Add your favorite activities in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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