Nicknamed the Big Island, Hawaii Island is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. With an area of 4,028 square miles (10,430 km2), it is larger than all of the other islands in the Hawaiian islands chain combined, and is the largest island in the United States. Additionally, it also contains the southernmost point in the 50 United States, Ka Lae.
In addition to being big on mass, it is big on things to see and do for visitors, starting with its five shield volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualālai, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea. The latter two are part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and are still active, meaning that the Big Island will only continue to get bigger. As a matter of fact, lava flows added 543 acres (220 ha) to the island between January 1983 and September 2002. This is mainly due to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. However, Mauna Loa remains the world’s most massive volcano.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, established in 1916, is a great place for scientists to research these volcanoes and the birth and ongoing growth of the Hawaiian Islands. For visitors, it offers dramatic volcanic landscapes and glimpses of rare flora and fauna. For this reason, in 1980 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, and as a World Heritage Site in 1987. As such, several of Hawaii’s National Register of Historic Places listings are located within the park: 1790 Footprints, the Ainahou Ranch, the Ainapo Trail, the Kilauea Crater, the Puna-Ka’u Historic District, Volcano House, Whitney Seismograph Vault No. 29, the Wilkes Campsite, and the Jaggar Museum, which features exhibits and a close and personal view of Kilauea’s active vent, Halemaʻumaʻu. The nearby Volcano Art Center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well, and houses historical displays and an art gallery.
Hawaii Island is also home to the Hilina Slump, a 4,760 cubic mile (19,800 km3) portion of the south slope of the Kilauea volcano that is slipping away from the island at a rate of displacement of about four inches (10 cm) per year.
Another unique geological attraction is the Great Crack, an eight-mile-long, 60 feet (18 m) wide and 60 feet (18 m) deep fissure, located in the Kau district. In this area, visitors can find trails, rock walls, local flora and fauna, and archaeological sites dating back to the 12th century.
Tourist attractions on the Big Island include the following: Akaka Falls on Kolekole Stream, one of the taller waterfalls on the island; the Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, which houses many endangered endemic plants; the East Hawaii Cultural Center, which regularly hosts art exhibits and holds workshops and classes; the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which contains the active volcanoes Kilauea and Mauna Loa; Huliheʻe Palace, a royal palace in Kailua-Kona; Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii in Hilo, the Laupahoehoe Train Museum, the Lyman House Memorial Museum in Hilo, The Lyman House Memorial Museum, a natural history museum that contains extensive displays on Hawaiian culture and a renowned collection of shells and minerals; Manuka State Wayside Park, a state park of 13.4 acres (5.4 ha) with an arboretum that contains 48 species of native Hawaiian plants and more than 130 species of exotic plants and flowers, all surrounded by the 25,550-acre (10,340 ha) Manuka Forest Reserve; the Mauna Kea Observatory, Nani Mau Gardens, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, which hosts a stargazing program every evening; the Onizuka Space Center, a museum located in Kona’s Keahole Airport and dedicated to the memory of Challenger astronaut Ellison Onizuka; the Pacific Tsunami Museum, which overlooks Hilo Bay and is devoted to the history of the Pacific tsunami on April 1, 1946 and the Chilean tsunami on May 23, 1960; Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo in Hilo, the Pua Mau Place Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which features a maze planted with over 200 varieties of hibiscus, outdoor sculptures, and an aviary housing 150 peafowl and guineafowl; Puʻuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Rainbow Falls State Park, Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens, Umauma Falls, a series of three waterfalls in close proximity that are easily viewed from an overlook located on Umauma Experience, also a botanical garden; the University of Hawaii at Hilo Botanical Gardens, which house one of Hawaii’s top cycad collections of nearly a hundred species from Africa, China, North America, Central America, and Australia, as well as palm trees from around the world; World Botanical Gardens, Waipiʻo Valley, and Wao Kele o Puna.
Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls State Park is a state park containing Akaka Falls, a 422 feet (129 m) tall waterfall, which can be viewed from several points along a trail that loops through the park. Kahuna Falls, another waterfall, can be seen from this point as well.
Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden
The Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is a botanical garden located near Captain Cook, in the Kona district. This 15-acre (6.1 ha) garden is operated by the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, and is open daily, except for Christmas, with a suggested donation instead of an admission fee. To date, it contains over 200 species of pervasive and indigenous plants, as well as flora introduced by the Polynesians, with guided tours available on certain days and times to see the garden’s four ecological zones: coastal, dry forest, agricultural, and upland forest. One can also see island fauna in the garden’s native insect house, including the native Kamehameha butterfly.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Another botanic garden worth seeing is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a 17-acre nonprofit botanical garden and nature preserve located in a scenic valley that features streams, waterfalls and an oceanside boardwalk. A scenic three-layer waterfall, Onomea Falls, provides one of several water views of Boulder Creek and the lava tubes on Onomea Bay, while the garden itself contains over 2,000 plant species, including nearly 200 species of palms, 80 species of heliconias, 80 species of bromeliads, and 100-year-old mango and coconut trees. On Sundays the garden sponsors a farmers’ market known as the South Kona Green Market.
Nani Mau Gardens
Then there are the Nani Mau Gardens, commercial botanical gardens that house more than 2,000 plant varieties, including 225 types of flowering plants, 100 species of fruit trees, and over 2,300 orchids. Major features include an anthurium grove, a Japanese-style bell tower built from 20,000 boards without nails or screws, a butterfly house, a European garden, a fruit orchard, a ginger garden, a hibiscus garden, Japanese gardens, an orchid display, palms and coconut trees, a water garden, and a botanical museum containing exhibits about the island’s tropical plants, threats to their existence, and their role and uses in Hawaiian culture and art.
World Botanical Gardens and Waterfalls
World Botanical Gardens and Waterfalls is another set of commercial botanical gardens with major features that include the Kamaʻeʻe Falls, a 100-foot (30 m) waterfall, the Children’s Maze, which is the second largest maze in Hawaii, many specialized garden areas, and a zip-line tour known as Zip Isle Zip Line Adventure, which descends into the Honopueo stream gulch.
Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens
Last but not least are the Sadie Seymour Botanical Gardens, nonprofit botanical gardens located at the Kona Outdoor Circle Educational Center. They feature the cultivated plants of Hawaii, arranged in 11 levels by geographic origin, starting with the first level which contains native Hawaiian plants. Other levels include the plants of Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Indo-Asia, Africa, and Central America. Tropical gardening classes and events are held in the center as well.
Additionally, the grounds of the garden also contain an archaeological site called Kealakowaʻa Heiau, once used for construction and blessing of canoes. As such, it contains an astrological temple, a ceremonial platform, the foundation of a priest’s house, and the foundation of a meeting house.
Imiloa Astronomy Center
Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii is an astronomy and culture education center located in Hilo, Hawaii. It is part of the University of Hawaii, and features exhibits and shows dealing with Hawaiian culture and history, and astronomy, and includes a 120-seat planetarium. Planetarium presentations include the exclusive Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky. It also features bilingual exhibits in Hawaiian and English. Another planetarium show, Dawn of the Space Age 3D, recalls the early days of space exploration in the only 3D planetarium show in the world.
Furthermore, it has a unique architectural design that includes three large titanium cones that represent the volcanoes Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualālai. It also has a large garden that features native and endemic plants and plants brought over by the Polynesians.
Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo
Animal lovers will love the Panaʻewa Rainforest Zoo, the only zoo in the United States located in a rainforest. It has over 60 species of animals and over 40 different species of plants, flowers, and trees. Its main attraction, however, is a male white Bengal Tiger named Namaste’. He is a truly delightful and rare sight to behold, as Bengal tigers come from India and are highly endangered, almost to the point of extinction, with fewer than 2,000 alive in the wild.
Rainbow Falls is an 80 foot waterfall that is part of the Hawai’i State Parks, and is accessible through Wailuku River State Park. It is formed by the Wailuku River, which rushes into a large pool located below a gorge covered in thick green tropical foliage. The pool itself is bordered by a bounty of beautiful wild ginger. Rainbow Falls gets its name due to the fact that, on sunny midmornings, rainbows can be seen in the mist of the waterfall.
Waipiʻo Valley is located in the Hamakua district of the Big Island, with a name meaning “curved water” in the Hawaiian language. In ancient times, it served as the residence of many Hawaiian kings. The valley floor is located at sea level, nearly 2,000 feet (610 m) below the surrounding terrain. A steep road accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles leads down into the valley from a lookout point. Once there, one will notice a shoreline hugged by a black sand beach that is very popular with surfers. Some taro farms are located in the valley as well.
Another valley of note is the Waimanu Valley, accessible via a steep foot trail called the Waimanu or Muliwai Trail. This valley’s claim to fame is that was used as the site for filming the final scene in the 1995 science fiction movie Waterworld, when the main characters found dry land.
Wao Kele is Hawaii’s largest lowland wet forest, and is home to many common and rare plant species alike, including hāpuʻu ferns, ʻieʻie vines, and kōpiko. The forest is also home to plenty of local fauna, such as the Hawaiian hoary bat, the Hawaiian hawk, the Common Amakihi, and the happy-face spider. There are thought to be many more undocumented species within the forest, a national reserve that is threatened by several invasive plants, such as the strawberry guava, Molucca albizia, Koster’s curse, and glory bush.