Best (Hawaii) Big Island Free and Budget Friendly Activities

Waikoloa

Hawaii’s Sunny Kohala Coast

Getting to Hawaii and staying there can be pricey, but once you are there, you can do so many free or low cost activities.  Not only are will you find our suggestions to be budget friendly, but you will also find that these really are the top attractions to plan into your Big Island vacation. You will find that this list includes a nice mix of cultural, historical, and scenic activities.

The Big Island is the largest Hawaiian Island. On the other islands, driving time is not a big issue, however, on the Big Island, you will need to organize your activities based on the island’s geography. Ideally, I recommend staying on the Hilo side for two or three nights and then staying on the Kona side for three or four nights or even longer depending on how much more exploration and/or relaxation you want. See my article on where to stay on Hawaii’s Big Island.

I will attempt to indicate where these activities align better whether on the Hilo side or Kona side. So, let’s dive in the best Big Island low cost sights and activities.

See Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
(It is best to do this from the Hilo side, but is doable with a day trip from Kona side.)

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Kilauea Iki Crater

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is nothing short of fascinating. Within the park, you’ll find extreme contrasts of lush rainforest and barren lava fields.

Ideally, I advise spending a couple of days or more to explore the park and take in some hikes if you can. My favorite hike is Kilauea Iki, which takes you through a rainforest and across a volcano crater floor.

If your travel plans only allow you a day to visit the park, you will still be able to see the highlights. Don’t miss Thurston Lava Tube, Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. The park’s web site has some helpful information for planning your visit based on the amount of time you have available. You will have to pay an entrance fee of $10 per car which will allow you entrance into the park for seven days. Be prepared for your trip here by checking out my tips for visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

See the Active Lava Flow or Glow

(It is best to do this from the Hilo side, but is doable with a day trip from Kona side.)

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Lava flowing into the ocean in 2008

Kilauea has been continuously erupting over 30 years. It’s difficult to predict where the active lava will be as it erupts at different spots in and around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Sometimes it is easy to view the lava flow activity while other times it requires many miles of intense hiking. Depending on where the lava is flowing, access can be dangerous and off limits to the general public.

Since March of 2008, Halemaumau Crater within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been venting from a lava lake that’s hundreds of feet below the crater floor. If you visit at dawn, dusk or night, you’ll most likely be able to see the orange and red glow from the lava lake. Check out my post on seeing Halemaumau lava glowing.

If the lava is flowing where you can see it relatively easy, I highly recommend you see it at dusk and/or dark. I’ve seen the lava flowing into the ocean at night and it was absolutely incredible! You can watch our video of lava flowing into the ocean. See these tips for lava viewing.

See Waipio Valley
(This valley is situated on the North Shore and can be accessed from Hilo side or Kona side.)

Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley

This phenomenal valley along the North shore is breathtakingly beautiful. It may be the most photographed site of the Big Island. It’s a vast lush green valley flanked by lush green cliffs, waterfalls, a black sand beach and the ocean. You can see the valley at no cost by driving to the look out. To get there, take highway 240 to the end of the road. See our advice for visiting Waipio Valley. To see a map of this area, click here. There are some hikes and tours that you can take along and into the valley if you have the time and budget available.

See Puuhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park
(This park is best access from the Kona side.)
Ki'i keeping guard at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park You will learn about ancient Hawaiian life and culture at Puuhonau o Honaunau National Historical Park. This national park is also know as the “Place of Refuge” because in ancient Hawaiian culture, you could find a safe haven here from punishment or enemies. You will need to pay a $5 per car entrance fee which will allow you entrance for seven days. To learn more about visiting this park, see these tips on visiting this place of refuge. There is a great snorkeling spot nearby which makes a great segue into the next activity on the list.

Snorkel the pristine tropical waters.
(The best snorkeling spots are on the Kona side.)
One of the top snorkeling spots on the Big Island is Honaunau Bay which is adjacent to Pu’uhonau o Honaunau Park. This website offers some tips on the best Big Island beaches for snorkeling. If you aren’t bringing your own snorkel gear from home, you can either rent the gear at a kayak or diving shop or buy it at a discount store like Wal-Mart in Kailua-Kona. A somewhat more challenging, but excellent snorkeling spot is at Kealakekua Bay, south of Kona. To get there, you need to either hike or rent a kayak for low cost access. Alternatively, if your budget allows, we recommend a catamaran snorkeling excursion into Kealakekua Bay or along the Kohala Coast.

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Punaluu Black Sand Beach

See a Black Sand Beach
(You can find a black sand beach on either side of Hawaii’s Big Island.)
Black sand beaches are fairly rare, but the Big Island has several gorgeous black sand beaches. If you’ve never seen a black sand beach before, you’re in for a treat. Punaluu Beach is located off Highway 11 on the southern shore in between Kona and Hilo. Kehena Beach can be found off Highway 137 near Puna along the Eastern shore.

Also note that the beach at Waipio Valley (mentioned above) has black sand, as does the beach at Pololu Valley (mentioned below). (For more on black sand beaches, see this link.) It is also worth mentioning that you can see a dark olive green sand beach on the southern most tip of Hawaii and the US. It’s called Mahana Bay and it’s about a 2.5 mile hike from South Point, though this beach requires a pretty significant hike.

rainbow falls

Rainbow Falls

See waterfalls along the Hamakua Coast
(This area is closest to the Hilo side.)
Begin the waterfall gawking in Hilo at Rainbow Falls and Pe’epe’e Falls that are off of Wainuenue Avenue in Hilo. Then drive north along Highway 19 to find the lush Hamakua Coast that’s blessed with rain resulting in a plethora of waterfalls. You’ll find some waterfalls by the road and others are only a short diversion off of the main highway. Akaka Falls is particularly impressive 400-foot water fall that you’ll find by taking Highway 220 off of Highway 19, though a $5 per car entry fee is now charged. Also while you are here, do not miss the 4-Mile Scenic Drive by Onomea Bay.

See the Pololu Valley Lookout
(This point is closest to the Kona side.)
DSC_0783 The Pololu Valley Lookout on the North Kohala coast rivals the beauty of the Na Pali Coast on Kauai. The tall green cliffs dramatically shoot out from the ocean. The deep valley meets the ocean at a black sand beach. The hike to the beach at Pololu is a nice little challenge if you have the time. You will can access this point from Highway 19 by taking Highway 270 or Highway 250 to 270. I recommend you go one way and back the other for a contrast in scenery. See this post for more advice on driving scenic Kohala.

Honorable Mentions
As I’ve written this series of posts on the top sights and budget conscious things to do across the islands, I’ve tried to be mindful that most people have a week or less to explore each island. Since the Big Island is big indeed, I’m adding in these extras for you to see and do if you have time:

  • Catch a free hula show or enjoy cultural activities on Hawaii Island.
  • See Laupahoehoe Point where you will find a beautiful, but sorrowful coastal scene. A tsunami in 1946 tragically killed twenty-four people here. Note that this point is not far from the Waipio Valley overlook in case you would like to combine the two.
  • Stroll the grounds of the Mauna Lani Resort. (This resort is on the Kona side on the Kohala Coast.) The lovely grounds of the Mauna Lani Resort have so many natural treasures. First they have several ancient Hawaiian fishponds. You will also find a path where you’ll find ancient petroglyphs at the Puako Petroglyph Park. Be sure and bring a bottle of water with you as you explore the park as it can be very hot with little shelter from the sun. Another point of interest on the grounds is the the shark ponds. You may end up with a cool photo like this one. If you have time, take the beach path from the Mauna Lani north to the Fairmont Orchid where you will find some beautiful Big Island beach scenery. You can find free self-parking at the resort. It might be nice to buy a lunch or some drinks here as a way to say thank you for use of the grounds.
  • Check out a Kona coffee farm. (Obviously, these farms are on the Kona side.)
  • Go to a macadamia nut factory. Some factories offer tours and free samples. You’ll also find macadamia coating variations that you won’t find on the Mainland. (The Mauna Loa farm in on the Hilo side and the Hamakua Factory is on the Kona side.)
  • Watch a beautiful sunset on the Kona side.

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If you’ll be visiting other Hawaiian Islands, then don’t miss these picks for the best budget activities:


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About Sheila Beal

Sheila Beal is the founder and editor of Go Visit Hawaii. You can connect with Sheila Beal on Twitter, Go Visit Hawaii on Facebook, or Sheila Beal on Google+.

27 comments

  1. Sheila,
    You have once again done an excellent post! I live on the Big Island and I agree with all of your recommendations. Of course there are lots of other activities and things to see on the Big Island, but that will only give people more reason to visit the Big Island again:)

  2. Thank you so much, HawaiiVacationGifts! I bet you know lots of hidden gems like that natural hot tub you wrote about. You are right, the Big Island always gives you reasons to return!

  3. I’ve read that access to the Green Sand Beach requires a 4 wheel drive. Is that just one of those recommendations that travel books have to give to cover themselves or is it really true?

    Helpful site you have here. Andy directed me to it a day or two ago.

    The Google Maps idea was particularly useful. I just got through plotting out my Hawaii visit with a custom map.

    Thanks!

  4. Hi Marios – Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll thank Andy for the recommendation. :)

    Here’s the kicker about driving down to the Green Sand Beach Hike (also known as South Point and Ka Lae) most rental car companies won’t permit you to drive on South Point Road at all – even in a 4WD. This is the part that the guidebooks usually don’t tell you!

    We rented a 4WD on our first visit to the Big Island thinking that we’d have access to the Saddle Road and other “rough” roads. After we picked up the car, we found out that rental cars aren’t permitted on Saddle Road. Now people drive Saddle Road all the time and it’s paved almost the entire way (except where there’s road construction) but it’s a very rough road, it’s remote, and many people tend to drive in the middle of a narrow two-lane road. (The middle is the most maintained part of the the smoothest part. So, it is a risky road to drive on.

    If you take a car off a rental car approved road, you assume all risks of the car – if you break down…if you wreck….etc.

    Now, all that being said, people take rental cars on the South Point Road, probably every day. Here’s a link to what TripAdvisor have said with some good details: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g60582-d146751-r13912025-South_Point_Ka_Lae_and_Green_Sand_Beach-Hawi_Island_of_Hawaii_Hawaii.html
    (For some reason this thread is misplaced in Hawi, which is the exact opposite end of the island.)

    Andy and I still have this on our to do list and it’s not looking like we’re going to get to it this trip. There’s just so much to do and see and the Big Island is quite large. You pretty much need to plan an entire day around this particular hike. We’ve just prioritized other hikes and sites above the Green Sand Beach.

    I hope this helps. Where will you be staying?

  5. Shiela,

    That’s a helpful TripAdvisor thread. From what you’ve written and what is on TripAdvisor, we may opt to bump the Green Sand Beach from my list. Our schedule is already pretty jam-packed so I’m guessing more will fall away once the fun begins.

    We are staying in a few places as we sample different parts of the island. Marriot (Waikola Beach), Hilo Hawaiian, and Luana Inn. Only the Luana Inn is of real interest while the other two are just convenient stops for a night. We’re not beach, spa, or pool types so we’re hoping to be on or under the water for most our trip :-)

  6. Marios – I think you’ll find plenty to do!

    We’re staying in a condo in Waikoloa right now. The best restaurants we’ve found here in Waikoloa are Roys in the Kings Shops and Sensei’s in the Queens Marketplace. The Island Fish and Chip stand in the Kings Shops has pretty good food for lunch. For a quick cheap bite, also check out the food court at the Queens Marketplace. These are all very walkable from the Waikoloa Marriott.

    A-bay right in front of the Marriott is a nice beach. We’ve walked out there for sunset a couple of times.

  7. I just wanna go to hawaii to be : ( “hawaii student exchange program 2009″ )
    because It’s my dream go there when I was child

  8. We are going to Hawaii tomorrow, the 23rd! We are staying here:

    http://www.renthawaiihome.com/banana/index.html

    and a couple of days with my in laws at Kona Coast 2.

  9. Sheila, what an incredible blog! From someone who lives on the Big Island, let me say that you really have it all right!

    We have just started a site that you or your viewers might be interested in. It’s bigislandonthecheapdotcom, and we feature free, discounted and cheap things for visitors or residents to do on the Big Island. We’re about to officially launch the site (also: honoluluonthecheapdotcom) in the next week or so with some discount coupons to some great attractions as part of our big launch.

    You’re really doing a terrific job and congratulations on your Lonely Planet awards. Well deserved! Ho‘omaika‘i!

    Leslie lang

  10. Hi Sheila – My husband and I are planning a trip to Hawaii this September. We plan on spending 6 days on the Big Island and at least two days exploring the Volcanoes National Park. Can you recommend a few nearby places that we can stay at for a couple of nights? We would apprciate any other tips or pointers you have for us.

    Thanks,
    Cassandra

  11. Hi Cassandra – a place that Andy & I stayed at that was really unique is the Volcano Rainforest Retreat. It’s near the town of Volcano very close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We stayed in the Forest House where we were surrounded by rainforest. It was really a unique experience. http://www.volcanoretreat.com/cottages.shtml

    Just one semi-word of caution, it’s a little bit “new age”, so to speak. We’re not new age people but, we didn’t actually find it was a problem. I just wanted to let you know.

  12. Thanks for the info. Back in March this year, my fiance and I got married in Maui and stayed at the Grand Wailea. It was beautiful! and we loved it!…..but our first buffet breakfast for 2 costs us $90.00!!! we were shocked but at least it got us prepared for rest of trip:)

  13. We stayed at Aloha Junction bed and breakfast a few minutes from the entrance to the Volcano National Park. Really nice people run it. And it was such a nice change from the hotel in Waikiki we stayed at. So quiet! You hear the birds and everything! I tried to get something booked for us for this trip, but they were booked. So instead we booked something near the ocean at a place called Kapoho Kaiyo. Really nice, walking distance to the ocean and tide pools. When we get time tomorrow, we plan on going snorkeling!

  14. I plan to get married in Hawaii, I think the big island.We are looking at maybe renting short term approx 2weeks a house so all families can stay and get married on the beach/at the property / or in gardens etc.

    Can you recommend the most beautiful area that is not too expensive? We love nature , the beaches, wildlife etc.

    Thanks
    Bec

  15. Fantastic post! These are the sort of tips that anyone going to the islands should know about. There is so much to see and do than most people ever realize, and often times for very little to no cost.

  16. My wife and I will be returning for the 6th time this year. We have horsebacked into waipio valley, (highly reccomended), jet skied, (not so highly reccomended), rented a harley for a day just to name a few. We have done 2 different luau’s and enjoyed both very much. We have stayed at the Outrigger in Keahou 4 times, not the 4 seasons but nice on a budget and the staff was always very curtious. This will be our second at the Kona Reef condo. We enjoy that even more. Looking for some new things to do this year.

  17. Hi Sheila.
    We have driven down to where you can see the plume from the lava entering the ocean. We have never done the night view just because of the drive back to Kailua that late. However Volcanoe Ntl. Park and the Botanicals in Hilo are a worththy trip. The area we visit on Kealakekua Bay we have come to know as Manini Beach. Small and secluded but a nice view of the Cook monument and excellent snorkelling! We are considering the ATV thing this year, however we are more horsebacker’s than atver’s. Thinking about a more paniolo type ride? Any other ideas?

    • Gary –

      If the lava is flowing where you can see it at night, I’d really encourage you to see it at night. The difference between seeing in the day and at night is amazing and really worth the effort. We have driven back to the Kona side after seeing the lava at night and though it was long, it’s doable.

      If you have any flexibility in your vacation plans, maybe you could plan to spend a night in the village of Volcano. That way, you’d get more time to spend at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and see the lava at night (if it’s flowing) without having to drive as far in the dark.

      Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is well worth a visit. I aim to stop there every time I visit.

      If you liked the Waipio Valley down at valley level, maybe you’d like to hike the Waipio Valley Rim for a different view: http://www.govisithawaii.com/2008/04/11/waipio-valley-rim-hike-with-hawaiian-walkways/

  18. Thanks again Sheila. We will go circle island this year. Taking the daughter with us for the first time. We have been to one of the botaniclals and I’m sure we will again this year. Are the hot pools hard to find? That is one thing we havent done. Hapuna is nice, but windy every time it seems. My daughters biggest wish is to swim with the dolphins. Still looking for an affordable way to pull that off.

  19. Hi Sheila. Thanks for the great info!!

    My wife, 6 month old baby boy and I will be heading to the big island next month and curious about lodging…

    We really would like something VERY close to the water. We LOVE good clear water and relaxing. We use VRBO for finding places usually and have had a good experience but not really finding something we love. Do you recommend any places to stay? we avoid touristy/resort type places and would love a cottage/bungalow/small house… Doesn’t need to be fancy but location is the thing I think we find most important. Can you recommend something ON or very close to the beach under 2oo dollars per night?

    Thanks so much!!

    • Jos — based on your criteria, I’d suggest you look in the Puako area — beautiful clear water and non touristy. Though, finding something for under 200 per night could prove to be a challenge.

  20. I wanted to know if you had any experience with the Kazamura cave tour. Off of a local residents property at the Big Island. I read some good reviews about it on tripadvisor, but since you live there and know quite a bit about the island I thought about asking you. By the way I apologize about posting on the wrong forum.
    The website I was reading about the cave is FortuneCity.com

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