3 Days on Hawaii’s Big Island: Volcanoes, Lava & Stars, Oh My!
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Note: As of early December 2022, Mauna Loa – one of the Big Island’s two large mountains – erupted; this didn’t last long, but you should still check for any alerts from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in case conditions change between now and when you plan your trip.
If you ask most people, Hawaii is paradise on earth. Each of the islands is truly unique, from the Garden Island of Kauai to popular Oahu to the otherworldly volcanic landscape of the Big Island. And while I’ve been fortunate to visit all of the main Hawaiian islands at least a little, Hawaii holds a special place in my heart because it is so very different than the others – it’s home to epic stargazing, wild waterfalls, and beautiful beaches alongside lava flows.
It might seem like a wild idea, but I think three days is enough time to explore anywhere – including the Big Island of Hawaii. Whether you’re stringing together an island-hopping trip or extending from a Hawaiian cruise (like I did), spending three days on Hawaii’s Big Island is very do-able – and adventurous!
If you’re ready for just a few days on the volcanic island of Hawaii, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve pulled together all my top Big Island travel tips based on my trip in April 2019, and have a suggested three-day itinerary at the end to inspire you for your own trip. (If you want to add an extra day or have longer, here’s a handy guide for spending seven days on Hawaii.)
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in June 2019, and was updated most recently in December 2022.
Travel Tips for the Big Island
Before you book your tickets, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Each of Hawaii’s main islands has a wildly different character – and the Big Island is no exception.
Best Time to Visit the Big Island
The best times to visit the Big Island are the same as the best times to visit other Hawaiian islands: April, May, September, and October. These months are warm without the precipitation and/or humidity you’ll experience in other months.
The Big Island isn’t Big on Beaches
If you’re craving a beach vacation, the Big Island is not the right Hawaiian island for you. As the youngest of the islands, you’re much more likely to find lava floes than sandy beaches. Instead, Hawaii is great for amateur geologists and light adventure seekers.
This isn’t to say there are no beautiful beaches on Hawaii – just that you’ll pay a premium to stay at one of the hotels near one. Additionally, there is world-class snorkeling and scuba diving in Hawaii, so if you just want to play in the water, the Big Island is a great place to do it!
What to Pack for Hawaii’s Big Island
Hawaii is definitely tropical – but as some of the best experiences happen at night (manta snorkeling, stargazing), it’s important to pack layers for your trip. Think shorts and tees/tanks during the day, then trousers and a sweater once the sun goes down. Flip flops and sneakers, so you’re up for whatever adventure you find. Don’t forget your reef-safe sunscreen!
I wrote a Hawaiian packing list of the essentials I think you need… check it out here.
Kailua or Hilo – Which City to Stay In?
As you plan your trip, you might struggle to choose between basing yourself in Kailua-Kona or Hilo. Kailua is located on Hawaii’s southwestern coast; Hilo is on the northeast coast. It’s a 90-minute drive between them. Why not do both? This is a short trip – make the most of it.
During our trip, Mr. V and I did just that. While we spent more time in the car, this also gave us a chance to explore more of the island than we would have done if we booked a room in just one town and didn’t do anything in between. We stayed one night near Kailua-Kona at this tiki hut Airbnb, and one night at this off-the-grid property on the lava floes east of Hilo. (Our third night we stayed at the Fairmont Orchid up the Kohala Coast of Hawaii.) We definitely sampled a mix of accommodation options! Speaking of…
The Best Things to Do on Hawaii’s Big Island
With only three days, it’s important to pack the most interesting and exciting activities in the short time you have on the Big Island. My list is based on my trip and far from comprehensive, but hopefully, it’ll inspire you for exactly what you want on your own trip.
Visit Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park takes up 505 square miles of the Big Island – that’s over 10% of the island! The National Park boundaries include both Mauna Loa and Kīlauea volcanoes, and several active volcanic sites. As a national park, you’ll need to pay for park access, and be sure to stop in to the Visitor Center to see which parts of the park are open.
Here’s how to spend one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; you can use this post to decide exactly what you want to do while there.
(During my trip in early 2019, several large portions of the park were closed due to volcanic activity in 2018.)
Explore or Stay on the Lava Floes
On Hawaii’s eastern shores, a huge lava flow has solidified from the slopes of Kīlauea to where it meets the Pacific Ocean. You can go hiking across the unusual landscape or book a night to stay at one of the off-the-grid homes that private citizens have built in the area.
No matter how long you spend on the floes, a couple of pointers:
- Wear good, supportive, closed shoes. The solidified lava is razor-sharp and will slice up your feet and ankles.
- Be aware of crevices and escaping gases; the lava looks solid, but it’s technically still part of the volcano!
- Leave no trace, and take care to avoid damaging any plants or other creatures you meet out on the lava. These species work hard to survive on rugged terrain.
I highly recommend booking a night out on the lava if you have the time. We stayed at the Lava Lookout, a property I found via Airbnb and mentioned above. During more active times, you could see Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and creator of the Hawaiian islands, spewing lava on a nearby ridge.
Following the volcanic activity in 2018 and a reduction in the lava, you can now look for her predictable belch of noxious gases each morning around sunrise. The lava flows are also fantastic for stargazing since most houses are fully off-the-grid and have limited lights.
Stargaze on Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa
Speaking of stargazing, Hawaii is known as one of the world’s best places for observing the night sky. In fact both Mauna Kea (the tallest volcano) and Mauna Loa (her sister) both have professional observatories on their slopes and peaks. You can visit these observatories during the day, or book a guided tour at night.
During our visit, Mr. V and I went up the slopes of one of the mountains with James from Epic Tours. (He asked me not to reveal the location with too many specifics, lest people flood the area with crowds and light pollution.) We spent the late evening watching the Milky Way rise and admiring deep space objects James photographed – and posing for a few night sky photos ourselves!
Snorkel with Pacific Manta Rays
Even if you’re not big on water sports or wildlife, Hawaii’s Big Island offers a bucket list opportunity – one I didn’t even know about until I visited. You can book tours to snorkel with gigantic Pacific Manta Rays off the southern coast of Hawaii. Tours are offered each night by a handful of operators in the Kailua-Kona area, including:
I experienced this as part of my UnCruise itinerary in Hawaii, so that’s another way to make this happen.
Go Chasing Waterfalls
As part of our Epic Tours itinerary, we also visited some of the Big Island’s waterfalls, including Rainbow Falls. The Hilo Forest Reserve collects a lot of the precipitation from the slopes of the volcanoes and diverts it into the Wailuku River and flows to the Pacific Ocean. If you want to see waterfalls, the west side of the island near Hilo is a great place to try and do so.
(Here’s a list of other great waterfalls near Hilo if you want to chase a few others!)
Take a Caving Tour in a Lava Tube
The third part of our Epic Tours experience took us into one of the lava tube caves near Hilo. We went to the Kaumana Cave, where we were able to hike down into the lava tube. The Kaumana Caves are part of a 25-mile lava tube cave system – but only small portions are part of a State Park and located on public land.
Other lava tubes that you can hike in include Kazumura Caves and Kula Kai Caverns, though both of these caves are accessible only with a tour guide. Don’t forget to ensure you’ll have enough light and water for the cave hike!
Suggested 3-Day Itinerary for the Big Island
If you’re planning a three-day trip to Hawaii, I’m going to assume you arrive on Day 0 (Day Zero), since most flights will leave continental North America in the morning to afternoon. Once you’ve arrived, maybe grabbed a rental car, and made it to your (first) hotel, you’ll start this itinerary on the next morning.
Day 1: A Bucket-List Vacay Day
You’re on vacation, so for your first day, start it off right: it’s totally cool to relax this morning and soak up some sun at your hotel or Airbnb if they have a good place for it. If you are staying at an Airbnb away from the beach, consider asking your host where they go for a swim – most folks are happy to share their secret spots.
For lunch, there’s only one place: Da Poke Shack. The island’s best and most beloved poke shop is popular with locals and visitors alike; order a combo plate so you can try more kinds of poke.
If you have it in your budget, consider booking a helicopter tour for the afternoon. These are popular – but expensive – ways to see Hawaii from above. Most tours include some combination of volcano viewing, peering down at waterfalls, and learning about Hawaii’s rugged coastline while you gaze at it from the comfort of the chopper. Here are some other cool things to do in Kona, to fill the rest of your day.
Tonight is an ideal night for snorkeling with the Pacific Manta Rays. Book your tour in advance – ideally before you even start your trip. This tour can go pretty late, since it doesn’t even start until after dark.
I recommend staying in Kailua-Kona or the Kohala Coast this night.
Day 2: Volcano Day
Today is officially Volcano Day! Bet you never thought that would be a thing, right? Only on Hawaii!
For your first stop, start with breakfast in Kailua-Kona – I recommend Island Lava Java for their passionfruit french toast. Today is a full day so you want to start it out right with a good breakfast! Then head southeast out of town along Highway 11 toward Volcanoes National Park. It’s easy to spend hours here, so give yourself time to visit a few of the craters, or drive down to Chain of Craters Road to see how the landscape changes where the volcanoes meet the sea.
This is a great evening to book a caving/waterfall/stargazing tour since you’re full of energy and ready to experience everything the island has to offer! Before that tour starts, drive out to your accommodation on the lava floes or your hotel in Hilo – you’ll want to know how to get there before the sun goes down.
Epic Tours start their tour from the visitor center at Mauna Kea, and James provides transportation for the whole tour. It can run long – our tour was supposed to end around 10pm but we didn’t set out until after 11pm, so be prepared for a long night of exploring the natural wonders on, under, and above Hawaii.
I recommend staying in Hilo or out on the lava floes this night.
Day 3: Get Outdoors – Even More!
You’re out on the northeast side of Hawaii, so rise and shine to explore the lava floes on foot – even if you didn’t stay in the area, there are hiking paths where you can get up close and personal with the newest parts of the island.
For your last day, another option is to try your hand at surfing in the morning; Hilo is a great spot for surfing and there are some good schools where you can book a lesson or rent a board. Check out Hulakai to arrange this if you’re keen.
Assuming you’ll fly out at some point this day (probably in the afternoon), you’ll need to make your way back from Hawaii’s northern shore to the airport near Kailua-Kona. This can be time-consuming since many of Hawaii’s highways are two-lane roads. Be sure to give yourself extra time!
Where to Stay on Hawaii
As you just read, there’s a huge range of options for hotels or vacation rentals available depending on your budget and how much you want to rough it.
If you really want to splurge, the Fairmont Orchid is the place to do it. I was drawn to stay one night here as they’re far out of town, and actually offer a stargazing program on certain nights. The property is beautiful, and honu ofter pull up for a rest on the rocky shore where the property meets the sea. The Fairmont Orchid is also within walking distance of the Puako petroglyphs, where you can see the marks left by ancient Hawaiians.
There are plenty of other hotel options to fit any budget; browse Booking.com to find one that’s perfect for you. (This link opens to a list of hotels across the Big Island.)
Have other questions about visiting the Big Island? Let me know in the comments!
This post was sponsored in part by UnCruise and Epic Tours. This post was published as part of that sponsorship, but all activities and recommendations are included at my own discretion.
Beautiful! Can’t wait to go and explore everything.
I hope you can make it soon! It’s definitely worth it!
Randomly found this after traveling down a rabbit hole looking for other things.
The place you stayed in Hawaii was the one I built – and I think youll be interested in the 8 inch telescope I just put up, along with a local stargazing program. Website soon to go up. Many crazy coincidences, my mind is a bit blown right now.
Id love to pick your brain – Ill be in touch.
Thanks for visiting, and for saying nice things, and congrats on your book and life!
Matthew, great to hear from you! Feel free to reach out at any time.