What should I do on the Big Island of Hawaii?

My family is going to the Big Island of Hawaii. Do you have any advice on day hikes or some amazing must-see spots on the Island? We want to get off the beaten path. –Scott, Nogales Arizona

Greg Melville

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No matter if you’re on the Big Island of Hawaii or in Big Bend National Park in Texas, each half-mile you venture into the backcountry reduces the amount of people you’ll see exponentially. Go a few miles from the nearest road, and you’re almost assured to be alone. So instead of telling you to visit crowd-infested gems like the majestic, 420-foot Akaka Falls, I’ll focus on three spots that require longer walks and boast dramatically less foot traffic.

In case you don’t know about the Big Island, it really is big—about twice the size of Delaware, or 4,000 square miles. It’s the largest island in Hawaii, and comprises more than 60 percent of the state’s land mass. The natural centerpiece is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which contains the fuming and constantly lava-gurgling 4,100-foot Kilauea, and the planet’s largest volcano, 13,670-foot Mauna Loa.

Two of my recommended hikes can be found in the national park. The first is the Kilauea Iki Trail. This four-mile loop switchbacks down 400 feet in elevation through the fern-draped rainforest to the solid but steaming floor of Kilauea Iki, a pit crater beside the mountain’s summit and the site of the 1959 eruption that shot lava 1,900 feet skyward. The second is the Observatory Trail, which ascends 2,000 feet in four miles from the weather observatory. On it, you follow cairns (ahus) up the open, rocky expanse to the North Pit Caldera, at 13,000 feet on the edge of Mauna Loa’s broad dome. Given the rigors of elevation and potential for altitude sickness, plan to make this a full-day trip.

The third hike takes you to sea level, down into the curved, remote Waipio Valley, which stretches a mile across the island’s northeastern ebony-colored shore, and five miles inland, and is buffered from civilization by 2,000-foot cliffs. This was once the homeland of famed King Kamehameha, but now only a smattering of people live among its massive waterfalls, verdant forests, rivers, and beaches. The easiest (which is a relative term here) way to reach the valley floor is to descend 1,000 feet over the course of a mile by walking the paved, but implausibly steep, four-wheel-drive-only road from the Waipio Valley Lookout.

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