The Best of Big Island by District
Hawai‘i Island is nothing if not versatile.
Want to truly experience and appreciate the boundless natural wonder and diversity Hawai‘i Island’s landscape and its centuries-spanning relationship with Hawaiian culture? A multi-day road trip winding through each of the island’s moku can offer just that.
“Moku” is Hawaiian for “district” and each of the eight main islands of Hawai‘i have them. The Big Island’s 4,028 square miles are comprised of six moku—Hilo, Puna, Ka‘ū, Kona, Kohala and Hāmākua—originally divided from the whole of the mokupuni (island) as districts of rule by Hawaiian chiefs long before European contact.
Within each moku were further land divisions called ahupua‘a, which, like most moku, encompassed land areas stretching from mountain summits to nearshore reefs and everything in between. They contained and replenished nearly all natural resources their residents required for survival.
Today, many Hawai‘i residents still informally recognize ancient moku as geographic markers.
The Hawai‘i Island’s six moku are stark in their diversity, individually home to everything from towering waterfalls, rugged coastlines and places of recent volcanic activity to emerald valleys, white sand beaches, dense rainforests and places of historical significance to Hawaiian culture.
Here’s a list so you can check out any and all moku that capture your attention.
Waiānuenue Falls/Wailuku River State Park
Waiānuenue is Hawaiian for “rainbow (seen in) water,” which are often found surfacing the 80-foot cascade and its expansive, foliage-covered gorge on sunny mornings.
The park’s two locations, Waiānuenue Falls and nearby Pe‘epe‘e Falls and Boiling Pots, are open for visits. The latter is a series of river pools and waterfalls connected by underground caves whose waters roil turbulently, as if boiling. Swimming and water activities are prohibited at both locations due to unsafe conditions.
‘Akaka Falls State Park
Plunging 442 feet from its crest into a deep, emerald gorge, ‘Akaka Falls is a site to behold.
The waterfall cinematically enters your view on a short loop-trail through its luxurious surrounding rainforest.
Along the way, further downstream, a viewing platform offers a vista of 300-foot Kahūnā Falls.
Lili‘uokalani Park and Gardens
A century-old Edo-style Japanese public garden graced with ponds, walking bridges, pagoda, torii gates, a teahouse and lots of space for picknicking, on land given to its creation by Hawai‘i queen Lili‘uokalani.
There is also a commanding view of Hilo town’s crescent bayfront and the 13,803-foot Maunakea volcano from sea level to summit.
Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens
The only naturally occurring tropical rainforest zoo in the U.S. is home to more than 80 animal species from the world’s tropics and several endemic Hawai‘i fauna, including the ‘io (Hawaiian hawk), nēnē (Hawaiian goose and state bird) and pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl).
Anyone still at the 12-acre zoo at 3:30 p.m. is welcome to watch as staffers feed resident tigers Tzatziki, a white Bengal, and Sriracha, an orange Bengal, their daily dinner of whole raw chickens. Entry is free, but donations are welcome.
Pohoiki Black Sand Beach and Isaac Hale Beach Park
The island’s newest black sand beach at Pohoiki is a creation of nature born of nature’s destruction. Specifically, the lava flows spawned by Kīlauea volcano’s three-month summer 2018 lower Puna eruption, which buried a large swath of the Puna shoreline.
Though the flow eventually stopped several hundred feet short of entering Pohoiki Bay, the violent force of molten lava meeting raging sea created a superabundance of lava rock granules that eventually filled the bay, leaving behind a large black sand beach. Though ideal for walking and sinking toes in its indigo sand, Pohoiki Beach is unsafe for swimming.
Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
It’s not every day one gets to thoroughly explore a 333,000-plus acre showcase of six global climate zones, contrasting environments and landscapes, the geological forces that continually shape and grow our planet and the deep connection between Hawaiian culture and the natural environment. But each of the above is what this park offers visitors every single day, whether main attraction Kīlauea volcano is showing off with an eruption or temporarily slumbering.
The park’s Kahuku Unit offers ranger-led and self-guided exploration of massive Maunaloa volcano’s 1868 lava flow, post- and pre-lava flow native forests, historic pasturelands and the history of people on its landscapes.
Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach
South of the national park, explore this picturesque coconut palm-bordered beach, whose indigo sands—much-loved by Hawaiian green sea turtles for beaching and sunning, and Hawaiian hawksbill sea turtles for egg laying. The sands are, like Pohoiki Beach in Puna, actually fine, sea-worn granules of hardened Kīlauea volcano lava.
Punalu‘u isn’t safe for swimming, but is a great spot for picknicking or sinking your toes in black sand.
Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Its name means “place of refuge at Hōnaunau,” which was its purpose prior to the 1819 abolishment of the kapu system of Hawaiian sacred laws. Persons fleeing death or harm were given full protection at this oceanfront sanctuary and free to leave after being absolved by its priests.
Today, the park preserves the sanctuary, fishponds, royal palm grove and other cultural sites.
Its structure built with lava rock in 1838, Hulihe‘e sits on oceanfront acreage once resided by Kamehameha the Great. Through the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1893, the palace was home to more royalty than any Hawai‘i residence.
Managed and preserved by the nonprofit Daughters of Hawai‘i since 1927, it is now a museum displaying royal artifacts from the era of King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi‘olani, including koa wood furniture, feather works, portraits and Hawaiian quilts.
Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site
Kamehameha the Great commenced the 1790 construction of this massive stone heiau, or temple, one of the last major pre-contact sacred structures built in Hawai‘i.
It’s believed laborers formed a 20-mile human chain across neighboring 5,480-foot Kohala volcano to transport the heiau’s water-worn stones to the site where, without mortar, its foundation and 16- to 20-foot walls were completed in just a year.
Pololū Valley Lookout and Trail
This is a gem of a valley for hikers. The northernmost valley on the island cutting into the soaring northeast sea cliffs of extinct Kohala volcano, Pololū is explorable via a half-mile foot trail descending from the valley overlook to its rock-strewn black sand beach and views its lush interior. The waters here are not safe for swimming.
Pololū’s end-of-road overlook offers stunning views of the coast for those who don’t want to make the jaunt into the valley.
Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve
A hike on the trails cutting through this sun-pelted, 223-acre lava rock field are said to reveal just a third of the preserve’s more than 3,000 ki‘i pōhaku, Hawaiian for “images in stone.”
The true meaning of the rock carvings—some dating as far back as 1200 A.D.—are largely unknown, but thought to be records of early Hawaiian spiritual and everyday life, and big life events, such as births.
Hāpuna Beach State Recreation Area
A half-mile stretch of some of the finest, most golden sand on the island, the right amount and heights of wave action to get bodyboarders and body surfers excited, and lots of sandy acreage to cop a nap, soak up sun, finish a book or build a massive sand fort.
Hāpuna Beach is big. The snorkeling and swimming here is aces, too. Side note, though, be sure to put on reef-safe sunscreen before hitting the beach. Reason one, the Kohala Coast is extremely sunny. Reason two, reef-safe sunscreen isn’t toxic to our precious coral reefs and will be the only type of sunscreen sold in Hawai‘i come 2021.
Waipi‘o Valley Lookout
You won’t see the entirety of the of Hawai‘i’s Island’s largest valley—six-miles deep, with a mile-long black sand beach, towering north and south walls, and taro farm and wetland floor—from this lookout.
But the view from more than 2,000 feet up is still as breathtaking as Hawai‘i vistas get. Interiors of Waipi‘o—boyhood home of Kamehameha the Great—can be seen on guided tours.
Kalōpā Native Forest State Park and Recreation Area
The reward to the senses here is 100 acres of dense, green and damp Hāmākua Coast upland native rainforest accessible by an easygoing, 0.75-mile nature trail or a picnic area the forest surrounds on all sides.
More on that nature trail: Typically cool and chilly—you’re at the 2,000-foot elevation of Maunakea volcano, after all—it negotiates old-growth ‘ōhi‘a trees, ferns, flowering flora, diversely fragrant forest air and a forest bird soundtrack. One quick request before you trek any Hawai‘i native forest—thoroughly clean your shoes and gear of all outside soil and debris before entering so as not to contaminate the forest with non-native plant material that can quickly spread and kill native flora.