Family Vacations to Big Island, Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (courtesy, NPS)

The Big Island Family Travel Tips

  • Take a helicopter ride over a volcano and Hawaii's lava-seared landscape.
  • Walk through a lava tube and see steaming sulphur banks at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Rides horses on the grassy slopes of Parker Ranch.
  • Walk behind a cascading waterfall as it tumbles hundreds of feet.
  • Gaze at the stars through telescopes at one of the world's best places for astronomy.

The Big Island of Hawaii, the largest in the Hawaiian chain, is one hot destination. After all, it's here you'll find the moon-like calderas and fuming sulfur vents of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the oozing red-hot lava of active Kilauea spewing across roadsides.

The most exciting way to view an active volcano is to swoop high above its fiery slopes and look into its steaming mouth. Several companies offer 45-minute helicopter tours from Hilo on the island's east as well as a two-hour tour de force from Waikoloa on the northwest that, along with hovering above Kilauea, includes a bird's-eye view of the Parker Ranch's grassy hills, Mauna Kea's jagged ridges, and the rainforest's billowing waterfalls.

In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, situated 30 miles from Hilo, the Thurston Lava Tube wows kids as they stroll through the ten- to 20-foot-tall tunnel created when an outer layer of lava cooled around a hot central core. The museum here displays working seismographs and scientific explanations along with exhibits depicting the myths of Madame Pele, Hawaii's volcano goddess.

Learn more island history at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona. Established as a sanctuary for women, defeated warriors, and taboo breakers in the 15th century, the 180-acre park features replicas of carved idols, koa wood canoes, and a restored temple that holds the bones of ancient Hawaiian chiefs.

Horseback riding gives you a taste of life as a paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy. At the 175,000-acre Parker Ranch, real-life wranglers have been working the herds and rounding up cattle since 1847. Guided rides, recommended for children seven and older, take you through green pastures on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

It wouldn't be Hawaii without spectacular flowers and waterfalls. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is a 40-acre oasis replete with 1,800 species of plants. Trails lead through groves of palms, past waterfalls, orchids, and heliconia blooms, and alongside a stream shaded by tall banyan trees.

The Big Island is one of the best places in the world for astronomy, so much so that 13 governments have set up 11 high-powered telescopes atop Mauna Kea's 13,796-foot summit. Since the drive to the summit combines paved and dirt paths with twisty mountain roads, it's better to book a guided trip. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures gets you to the top for sunset, provides parkas to fight dropping temperatures, sets up high-powered telescopes, and explains the dazzling array of stars. The minimum age for participants is 13.

Picture walking behind a streaming curtain of water as it tumbles 500 feet down a mountain. Now make it real with Hawaii Forest & Trails' Valley Waterfall Adventure, tracing the three-mile Kohala Ditch path notched into a cliff that leads behind Kapoloa Falls (recommended for ages eight and older). Non-hikers and young kids, meanwhile, can enjoy Akaka Falls, a 442-foot waterfall nestled in the state park bearing its name. The hike is less than a mile from the parking lot. Bamboo, ginger plants, orchids, and ferns line the path of this easy-to-reach Hawaiian gusher.

Tip: Fair Wind Cruises offers scuba, snuba, snorkeling, and in season, whale-watching cruises along the Kona coast.

Recommended Side Trips: Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Lanai, and Molokai's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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