The oldest city of the Hawaiian archipelago is located on the east coast of Hawai’i at the foot of two enormous shield volcanoes.
One, Mauna Loa, is active and offers you the rare opportunity to view volcanic activity up close at Hawaii Volcanoes national park.
Mauna Kea is the other and is currently dormant. It has one of the most important land-based astronomical observatories in the world, located on its 4,200-metre summit.
You will find lush forests and farms in Hilo that produce macadamia nuts, papaya sugar cane, coffee, and taro root.
The produce can be purchased at the state’s best farmers’ market, open seven days a semaine. There are plenty of opportunities to explore primal rainforests, waterfalls, and the coast with its black sandy beaches, lava reefs, and beautiful coastline.
1. ‘Akaka Falls State Park
This stunning waterfall is located approximately 11 miles north of Hilo on Hawai’i.
The 135m-high ‘Akaka Falls is found in a stream-eroded canyon lined with ferns. It can be admired from several angles by a walking loop.
You can also see Kahuna Falls from this trail, although they are a bit less clear. They cascade down the side of gorge at a similar height as its famous neighbor.
You will also enjoy the walk, which takes you through bamboo groves, past wild orchids, and lush ferns.
2. Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens
Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917), last sovereign monarch of Hawaii, donated the land east downtown in 1907 to create this beautiful waterfront park.
The original plot was extended and opened in 1919 as a Japanese-style garden in honor of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii who arrived in the 1860s in order to work in the sugarcane fields.
Liliuokalani Park & Gardens, which covers just over 25 acres, is the largest Edo-style garden in Japan.
Many of the park’s monuments such as bridges, Torii gates and stone lanterns were imported from Japan piece by piece. However, species that are common in Japan, like black pine, camellias or azaleas, can be found throughout.
Banyan Drive borders the park, also known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame”, because of its magnificent old banyan trees that were planted by historical figures such as Amelia Earhart and Louis Armstrong, Cecil B. DeMille (FDR), Richard Nixon, and Earl Warren.
3. Hilo Farmers’ Market
Hilo is home to one of Hawaii’s best open-air markets. This market offers a wide variety of local produce as well as authentic Hawaiian dishes.
You’ll find yourself on the east side of Hawai’i, which is fertile and ideal for fruit such as papaya. Most of these fruits are harvested around April or September.
Try to find strawberry papayas, which are prized for their sweet, juicy, pink-orange flesh. Macadamia nuts are more accessible closer to the source, but they can be quite expensive elsewhere.
Butter mochi is a sweet treat that’s rich in coconut milk and glutinous flour. It can be enjoyed with coffee picked within a few miles from Hilo.
The Hilo Farmers Market trades every day, but Wednesday and Saturday are the most popular days with over 200 vendors.
4. Richardson Ocean Park
This beach is five miles east of Hilo and is a favorite spot for swimming and snorkelling. Richardson Ocean Park features black sand lava outcrops that break up the sand.
The unusual feature of the sand is its green flecks. This is due to olivine crystals. There are also patches of coral out in the bay, which are home to tropical fish.
If you’re looking for shade, there will be some trees along the shore. The water is safe and clear thanks to the reefs that are a few hundred yards away.
Monk seals and sea turtles frequent the park. There’s also a ridge near the beach where you can spot a humpback whale.
5. `Imiloa Astronomy Center
The Mauna Kea volcano, a dormant volcano at the summit of Mauna Kea, is visible from Hilo and one of the most beautiful spots on Earth for ground-based astronomical observation.
The summit’s 13 high tech observatories are located at over 4,200 feet above sea level. They are not accessible for day trips. However, if you’re looking to get into the spirit of discovery, there’s a science museum at the University of Hawai’i in Hilo.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center combines cutting-edge astronomy and Hawaiian history and culture.
One overlap is the navigational skills of the Polynesians who would have used stars to sail from Marquesas Islands in order to populate Hawaii.
Find out more about Mauna Kea’s discoveries and what makes it so attractive for observation.
The 120-seat fulldome planetarium is a highlight, showing the spectacular show “Maunakea Between Earth and Sky”.
6. Rainbow Falls
This scenic waterfall, located just a few minutes from ‘Akaka Falls is closer than the one at ‘Akaka Falls. It can be found along Wailuku River, which empties into Hilo Bay.
Rainbow Falls, which drops 24 metres over a lava cavern, is a completely different experience, but it’s no less impressive. Rainbow Falls, which is nearly 30m across, thunders into a large pool, unlike Akaka Falls, which has a narrow, single jet.
It is best to arrive early in the morning, before the sun catches the mist from the waterfall. You can also try to arrive after heavy rains, when the mist is thicker.
It is worth the effort to walk the trail to the top of these falls. You will pass huge banyan trees that are centuries old, and you will almost be encased in fig vines.
7. Carlsmith Beach Park
This spot east of Hilo has a shoreline that is dotted with black lava rocks, but it’s not a beach.
The waves are kept low by a reef off the coast. Small lava outcrops form a chain of crystalline lagoons that have sandy bottoms. This is ideal for snorkelling.
Lifeguards patrol these areas on weekends and holidays. These sea turtles are often spotted and they are used to being surrounded by humans.
Carlsmith Beach Park offers a grassy area for sunbathing under the shade of trees. There are also picnic tables, water fountains and restrooms.
8. Coconut Island
A footbridge connects Liliuokalani Park & Gardens to this small island in Hilo Bay.
Coconut Island is surrounded by almond trees and palms. It has a large, well-kept green lawn with picnic tables, and numerous little beaches.
The stunning view of Hilo from the shore is visible if you look back at the volcanoes Mauna Loa & Mauna Kea.
Children will enjoy exploring the tide pools on the island and paddling at beaches. Bigger children can jump into the bay from the stone tower at the island’s northern side. There are platforms at approximately 10 and 20 feet.
9. Mokupapapa Discovery Center
The Hawaiian archipelago’s remote, northwestern islands are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife. They also have the largest protected conservation area in the United States.
Because most people won’t be able experience this area firsthand, the Mokupapapa Discovery Centre was established in 2003 to raise public awareness and to bring attention to ocean conservation issues.
The historic Koehnen Building, which dates back over a century and features Hawaiian hardwood floors and a stunning koa staircase, is the center.
There are many interpretive panels that provide information about the biodiversity of the region, as well as artwork that is inspired by Hawaiian culture.
A 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium that displays some species of coral reefs on the island chain is the showpiece.
10. Panaewa Rainforest Zoo
Only four miles from Hilo’s centre, this attraction is the only one in America to be surrounded by tropical rainforest.
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is a double-use botanical garden. It has more than 100 varieties of palms, as well as a water and bamboo garden, orchids, and 80 animal species.
The new 2020-21 zoo is compact and can be reached in just a few hours. During this time you will see marmosets and capuchins as well as spider monkeys, lemurs, giant anteaters and skinks.
A petting zoo is open Saturdays. There’s also a playground, and a gift shop that supports local conservation.
11. Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo is in a precarious spot due to the lava flow from Mauna Loa volcano and tsunamis from earthquakes further north in the Pacific.
This phenomenon decimated Hilo’s tin-roofed urbanscape twice in the 20th century. It happened in 1946 and 1960.
The bayfront was never rebuilt after the tsunami, and today you will see a lot of empty grassland.
In 1993, the Pacific Tsunami Museum was established in memory of those events. It explains both the science and terrifying facts and figures that led to tsunamis.
This former bank building is now a museum. You can view a fascinating 25-minute video and browse through a vast library of photos and survivor accounts.
12. Kaumana Caves State Park
You can find a lava tube that was formed in 1881 by an eruption at Mauna Loa just a few miles from town.
The skylight collapses, and the room is surrounded by rainforest plants such as philodendrons or ferns.
You can explore approximately two miles of tunnel by lowering yourself onto the ladder. However, this area is seismically active so there are some hazards.
It runs for about 20 miles but crosses private land and is only partially accessible to the public. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a flashlight.
13. Lyman Museum
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a worthwhile rainy day activity and incorporates the oldest-surviving wood-framed building on the island.
Two separate tickets are available at the Lyman Museum. The first is the modern, immersive museum that provides background information on topics such as Hawaii’s botany and volcanology. You can also learn about its human history, culture, and diversity.
The Mission House, built next door in 1838 by Reverend David Belden Lyman (1803-1884), and made of ohia (and koa) wood, is also nearby.
You can learn about the lives and furnishings of the 19th-century missionaries in Hawaii, as well as view personal effects and household appliances belonging to the Lymans or other missionary families on a guided tour.
14. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
The volcano Mauna Loa has shaped Hilo’s past. It is also included in a national park along with Kilauea (the island’s most active volcano).
You can visit the Hawai’i Volcanoes national park, which is located about 30 miles south of Hilo. It is worth a day trip if you want see the perpetual cycle of destruction and creation in this constantly-changing landscape.
You can smell the sulphur scent as you walk across scorched terrain. On memorable hikes, you can see vents, lava tubes and old roads that have been flooded by lava. Also, look out for ancient petroglyphs, Keanakako’i Crater, and cool lava flows created during eruptions in the 1950s/60s.
There are over 150 miles of hiking trails that can be self-guided, as well as ranger-guided experiences like seeing glowing lava flows after sunset.
Nahuku, a 500-year-old Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tub), is a beautiful day-hike that’s embedded in rainforest and supports remarkable ecosystems thanks to the tree roots hanging from the ceiling.
15. Hamakua Coast Scenic Drive
The north-eastern coast of Hawaii is breathtaking, with lush green canyons and waterfalls, as well as rainforest that receives more than 80 inches of rain each year.
The Hamakua Coast is also very fertile. It was once home to sugarcane in the 19th Century, but now there are many farms that produce tropical fruits and vegetables such as taro root.
You can start from Hilo and travel 40 miles through the stunning scenery. Stop at several natural beauty spots or visitor attractions to enjoy the stop.
A few miles from Hilo is the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden, and Honoka’a is the charming old sugar town.
Waipio Valley is a fitting end to the adventure. It was once Hawaii’s political, spiritual, and economic heart. However, it is also spectacular with its steep walls that rise to more than 2,000 feet.
At the end of the Hamakua Coast Scenic Driving, there is a lookout where you can see down into the valley to the black sandy beach that meets the ocean.