Hawaii is one of the places that seems to be on everyone’s travel bucket lists. Black sand beaches, dense green jungles, lush mountains, volcanoes, surfing! The list of beautiful things to do and see goes on and on. I haven’t heard of anyone going to Hawaii and coming back with an underwhelming response to the place. It’s a true paradise on earth, as well as a blend of island-life cultures from around the world.
My mom and I flew to the Big Island in August to visit my aunt and uncle who had moved to Hilo a couple of years ago. We were greeted with traditional lei’s as we hugged in the warm humid air. Coming from Utah, I’d forgotten what humidity felt like!
Over the next week, we visited some of Hawaii’s most popular sites.
The first beautiful stop on our tour of the Big Island was Rainbow Falls. This was a stop that was right by the parking lot! You can’t exactly access the falls directly, since people have tried jumping off it and either seriously injured themselves or died, but you can still view it from many sides.
If you take a short side trail, it leads up to what Instagram called “the Big F’ing Banyan Tree”. I am in love with these trees. The banyan tree is a type of fig tree, that eventually grows aerial roots, which can eventually become giant trunks and in turn new trees, belonging to the same original tree. The entire area above Rainbow Falls is one giant banyan, one big organism, with roots hanging from branches, and branches growing in and out of the ground, out of and into itself. The canopy was incredible. Branches grew out of one tree and into another. I don’t know how else to put it, but this place felt like big magic was all around.
This is the beautiful Waipio Valley. Also known as the valley of the kings, this incredibly lush valley is a true paradise on earth. Giant tall waterfalls pour into the landscape from sheer green cliff faces. A black sand beach hugs the entrance to the valley and a river winds it’s way up the terrain.
Dropping down 2000 feet to the valley floor (on the longest steepest road in the US!), you will find an abundance of food and greenery. On our short tour of the valley, we saw bananas, avocados, jackfruit, dragonfruit, star fruit, coconuts, mangoes, ginger, pineapple, noni fruit, coffee plants, macadamia plants, chocolate plants…I imagine it’d be difficult to go hungry down there!
The valley used to be home to thousands of people, until 1946 when a tsunami wiped out the entire area, including school buildings, a post office, restaurants and many homes. Miraculously, no one was killed in Waipio Valley during the tsunami because the elders of the valley told the people to go to high ground. Now, only around 70 people remain in the valley, mostly taro farmers and homesteaders.
I hope to return to this beautiful sacred valley and hike some of the trails down there, and maybe eat some fruit along the way 😋
Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls is probably one of the most famous waterfalls on the Big Island, and it’s super easy to get to! The .4 mile hike is totally paved and meanders through a jungle rainforest with the smell of tropical flowers wafting all around you. The falls plummet 442 feet into the gorge below and, while it’s not exactly off the grid, is one of the most spectacular sights you can see while in Hawaii! There are some stairs, but otherwise, anyone can do! It’s fortunate, because this waterfall is beautiful. Take the time to be surrounded by greenery, mosses and jungle. The entire place is incredible, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you can see beautiful tropical birds and colorful lizards as you walk through the floral paradise.
Volcanoes National Park
Like most national parks, Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park is flooded with tourists. Don’t expect an experience of solitude. With that disclaimer out of the way, I will also say that while the viewpoints are pretty packed with people, the park is big and there are many trails that probably have fewer people on them.
Volcanoes National Park takes up a pretty big chunk of the island, is extremely sacred to the locals, and protects some of the strangest and most unique geological and biological landscapes that I have ever seen. It is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes– Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. A few years ago (2018), Kilauea became extremely active, and within a few days the caldera and surrounding area was completely transformed. Apparently you used to be able to see lava spewing from the volcano from the Kilauea visitors center (which is now closed), but with the volcano’s activity, the caldera collapsed.
I also learned about the O’hia trees. These trees are fantastically beautiful, with spiky red flowers on its branches. They are also often the first trees to grow after a lava flow due to their extreme resilient nature. The natives have folklore about the O’hia trees and the Lehua blossoms–the legend can be found here. These trees are currently experiencing a blight from a fungal disease, so if you see one, don’t harm the trees or pick its flowers.
Places to Return
The Big Island has so much more than I had time to see. In a way, I wished I had more time on my own to go disappear into the wilderness with hiking and backpacking. But even simple drives through backroads reveal paradise-level beauty. You can even hike Mauna Kea! At 13,796 feet, its nearly a 14’er in terms of elevation! But when you consider its base is actually at the Pacific Ocean floor, its total height actual stands at 33,500 feet–nearly a mile higher than Mt. Everest.
I’d like to spend more time immersing myself in this island culture. As a huge fan of backpacking, Kawaii calls my name. As a rock climber, Oahu’s sea cliffs beckon. Any way you spin it, it seems I’ve got the Hawaii-bug. I’ll be back sometime in the future.