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.
UPDATE: since we originally wrote this article, we’ve created a fantastic Big Island vacation itinerary. It incorporates all the activities and attractions on this page and more!
We indicate where these activities align better whether on the Hilo side or Kona side. If you end up staying on the Kona side, but want to see the sights on the other side of the island, check out our popular Kona to Hilo sightseeing drive guide. 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.)
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 $25 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.)
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. For advice on how and were to see lava, check the resources on our where to find lava page.
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.*** UPDATE *** In May 2018, the lava lake at Halemaumau drained. The lava is no longer present there.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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. Greenwell Farm offers free tours and tastings. (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.)
- Visit, tour and taste Big Island honey at a beekeeping farm.
- Watch a beautiful sunset on the Kona side.
- Visit Puukohola Heiau National Park on the Kona side.
Note that pricing, hours and lava activity is all subject to change without notice. Check directly with the venues for current hours and pricing.
If you’ll be visiting other Hawaiian Islands, then don’t miss these picks for the best budget activities: