5 Things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island with Kids

The first question you need to ask when planning a trip to Hawaii is, what islands do I want to visit? The Hawaiian Islands are made up of eight major islands — Hawai’i, Maui, Oahu, Kuau’i, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Ni’ihau, and Kaho’alowe.  However, when most people talk about going to Hawaii, they are often thinking of the island of Oahu, the most populated island of the Hawaiian archipelago.

To answer the question of which islands to visit, you first need to figure out three things: 1) how long do you have to visit; and 2) what do you really want to see or do; and 3) your budget (find out how much a trip to Hawaii costs.)

For us, we knew we only had 12 days including travel from the East Coast, which took a whole day with a short hop from Boston to Newark and then a 10 hour flight from Newark to Honolulu and another short flight to our first destination.  That meant we really could only see two islands on this trip. If you have a lot of time, you can use this Big Island 7 day Hawaii itinerary.

If you have more time, or are flying from the West Coast or a city that offers direct flights to Maui, you might have more options.  Next came our list of activities and first on the list was see a live volcano.  And there is only one place in the Hawaiian Islands to see a live volcano and that is on the island of Hawai’i, or The Big Island, as it is otherwise called.

Looking around, you could see that there were plenty of things to do on the Big Island with kids, including things like water parks and dolphin encounters at some of the big hotels.  But we were staying at the Kona Village Resort and wanted an authentic Hawaiian experience, so we focused on activities that could only be experienced in Hawai’i.

Here are our 5 Best Things to do on the Big Island with Kids:

1.  Visit Volcanoes National Park — this is the only place in Hawai’i where you are going to see a live volcano (or at least the steam from one.) But remember, this isn’t a man-made attraction so there are no guarantees.  Be sure to check the U.S. Geological Survey website before you go to see what the recent activity is like.  The park is large, and unless you like rain, probably on the opposite side of the island from where you are staying so be prepared for a road trip.  Also keep in mind that it is much cooler here than on the other side of the island so you will need to bring a sweatshirt/raincoat and sturdy shoes.  There is so much to explore within the park so stop at the visitor’s center and pick up a guide.  Depending on the age of your kids and their willingness to hike in the dark, you might even consider taking an evening hike out to where the lava streams into the ocean.

Best Things to do on the Big Island with Kids - Volcanoes National Park
Steam from the Crater in Volcanoes National Park

2.  Go for a helicopter ride –Probably the best (or at least the easiest) way to see the volcano, and the amazing Waipio waterfalls is from the air.  A helicopter ride is a bit of  a splurge, but let’s face it, so is a trip to Hawai’i so getting a better peek at the volcano you came to see is probably worth it.  We took the Volcanoes and Waterfalls tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. I did get a bit of vertigo, especially sitting up front (they distribute you according to weight), especially zooming around the waterfalls, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I would not have wanted to miss.

Best Things to do on the Big Island with Kids - helicopter tour
The Big Island from the Helicopter
Best Things to do on the Big Island with Kids - see a live volcano
Flowing lava river from the helicopter

3. Take a hike to see some waterfalls — If you want to get a little more up close to waterfalls and the fauna of Hawai’i, you might want to take a hike.  Just north of Hilo you will find the beautiful Akaka Falls. With just a short hike into the park, you will see bamboo forests and all types of vegetation, as well as get a close up view of the falls.  The excursion will only take about an hour, so it is a nice way to top off a visit to Volcanoes National Park or a day trip to Hilo.

Best Things to do on The Big Island with Kids - visit Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

4.  Star gaze — Mauna Kea, the highest peak in Hawai’i, is actually twice the size of Mt. Everest if measured from the ocean floor.  As you can imagine, a peak of that height offers some amazing star gazing but getting there is a big commitment.  First off, the observatories are at 13,000 feet so it is not advised for children under 16.  Our at-the-time, would-be astronomer was disappointed by this news.  However, even young astronomers can go to the Visitor Information Center for the nightly star-gazing program or visit the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.  If you are traveling to the top, be prepared by learning what you need to do to visit the summit and bring warm clothes!  Just driving by this massive volcano is inspiring.  I can still remember the chant our daughter made after viewing Mauna Kea out the car window as it haunted us throughout the trip, “Mauna Kea, Mauna Kea, Mauna Kea boom boom.”

Best Things to do on the Big Island with Kids - visit Mauna Kea
The observatories on top of Mauna Kea

5. Go horseback riding with Hawaiian cowboys — That’s right, cowboys, in Hawai’i.  To see them, travel up to the Waimea area and learn the paniolo traditions or maybe take a horseback ride.  Our visit to Waimea was in the dark traveling back from Akaka Falls and capped off by a great meal at Merriman’s (most of which was raised or grown on the ranches nearby). However, if we went back now, my daughter would have insisted on doing some horseback riding at Dahana Ranch or Parker Ranch where we may gotten to see some of those waterfalls we spied in the Waipi’o Valley by helicopter up close.

Best Things to do on the Big Island - Island Breeze Luau
Island Breeze Luau

Bonus: If the Big Island is the only Hawaiian island you are visiting, you will want to make sure you squeeze in a luau.  We had a great time at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel’s Island Breeze Luau.  Just keep in mind that each luau only runs on certain nights so be sure to plan your trip itinerary to accommodate at least one luau during your stay in Hawai’i.

Other Recommended Places to Eat:

  • Huggo’s on the Rocks in Kailua-Kona
  • Merriman’s Market Cafe in Waikoloa
  • Merriman’s in Waimea
  • One to avoid: Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel — it was gorgeous, right on the water, but it was also over priced and there was a roach in our food

Flying in and out of Oahu? Be sure to check out these must dos in Oahu on your way. Need more ideas, my friend Karilyn has 13 must-try things to do on the Big Island.



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Publish Date: July 10, 2013

5 thoughts on “5 Things to do on Hawaii’s Big Island with Kids”

  1. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family

    Oh great timing! I just came across this post on Twitter and we literally booked flights to Kona last night. I can’t wait! We’ve been to Oahu, Kauai and Maui but this is our first time on the Big Island. It sounds like there is so much to do!

  2. Bookmarking that for our trip to Oahu for a family wedding in October 2014. Thanks for the great info (and narrowing it down).

    1. Excellent Rebecca! Will you be going to any other islands besides Oahu? We went to both Hawaii (The Big Island) and Maui and I’ll be doing more posts on both. Next trip I hope to spend time on Oahu (my husband really wants to do Pearl Harbor but the little one was too young at the time) and get to Kauai.

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