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6 Top Big Island’s Waterfalls in Hawaii: More than Just Beaches

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Imagine yourself surrounded by lush greenery, the soothing sound of water crashing against rocks filling the air. You’re not in some far-off fantasyland; you’re in Hawaii, the Big Island to be exact, experiencing the splendor of its mesmerizing waterfalls.

Nestled mostly on the north and east sides, thanks to abundant rainfall and dramatic elevation changes courtesy of the island’s volcanoes, these waterfalls offer a slice of paradise that captures hearts and Instagram feeds alike.

But here’s the kicker: the Big Island boasts so many waterfalls that you could easily get overwhelmed deciding which to visit. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this guide, we’re focusing on the tallest, most popular, and easily accessible waterfalls, ensuring you make the most of your time in this tropical wonderland.

The Unique Geography of the Big Island

When it comes to understanding why the Big Island is a veritable playground of waterfalls, you have to delve into its unique geography. We’re talking about volcanoes like Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, which contribute to the island’s dramatic landscapes and, consequently, to the formation of some breathtaking waterfalls.

It’s not just the height that makes these natural wonders possible; it’s also the island’s unique climatic zones. And guess where you’ll find most of the waterfalls? In the rain-soaked regions of the north and east. These areas receive an incredible amount of rainfall, creating a lush, verdant backdrop for waterfalls that have to be seen to be believed.

The gradient in elevation plays a significant role too. Water from higher elevations rushes down towards the sea, carving out ravines and valleys in its path. This leads to waterfalls of varying heights and styles, from gentle cascades to dramatic plunges.

Best Waterfalls in Big Island

Akaka Falls

What’s the quintessential Hawaiian waterfall experience? I’d bet my last Hawaiian dollar it’s a visit to Akaka Falls. Towering at a jaw-dropping 422 feet, this is the sort of place that makes you whisper ‘wow’ under your breath the moment you lay eyes on it. And the best part? It’s incredibly accessible and perfect for a family outing.

Situated in the Akaka Falls State Park, just a stone’s throw north of Hilo, this waterfall is one of the island’s prime natural attractions. Getting in will set you back just $5 per car or $1 per person if you’re walking in.

Now, you might be thinking that getting to such an awe-inspiring waterfall would involve some strenuous trekking, right? Wrong! A mere 0.4-mile hike takes you right to this natural spectacle. And it’s not just about the destination; the journey itself is a treat.

Picture yourself walking through a lush rainforest, populated with wild orchids, towering bamboo groves, and sprawling ferns. It’s like stepping into a scene from a movie, only better because you’re actually there, smelling the earth, hearing the rustle of leaves, and feeling the mist from the falls on your face.

The trail is family-friendly and could take as little as half an hour if you’re leisurely strolling. Even grandma can handle this one. The trailhead is conveniently located just off the parking lot, so you won’t have to worry about getting lost.

Rainbow Falls

Want a waterfall experience that’s as easy as it is magical? Look no further than Rainbow Falls. Conveniently situated in the heart of Hilo town, this wide cascade is literally just a short drive from almost anywhere in the area. But its ease of accessibility isn’t the only thing that makes it special.

You’re standing in front of a roaring waterfall, and as the mist rises, a rainbow forms in the spray. The best chance to see this phenomenon in action is in the early morning, so you might want to set that alarm clock.

Umauma Falls

If one waterfall impresses you, how about three for the price of one? Yep, you read that right. Umauma Falls is a unique series of three waterfalls situated on the Umauma River, just 16 miles north of Hilo on the beautiful Hamakua Coast.

Unlike other waterfalls, Umauma is located on private land managed by the Umauma Experience. The admission fee is $12 per person, and walk-ins are welcome without any need for pre-booking. Before you balk at the price, know that the fee also includes access to their stunning garden.

These falls offer more than just a quick photo op. The surrounding area is full of activities, from zip-lining adventures to kayaking opportunities.

The views at Umauma are especially breathtaking, offering a panoramic look at all three cascades from a designated viewing platform. It’s an ideal spot to feel the mist on your face, hear the roar of the water, and appreciate the lush scenery that makes the Big Island so unforgettable.

Kulaniapia Falls

Kulaniapia Falls is a hidden gem nestled in the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, close to Hilo. Now, before we dive into the beauty of this 120-foot cascade, let’s get something straight: this experience is a bit on the premium side, but boy, is it worth it!

Situated within the grounds of the Inn at Kulaniapia, this waterfall used to be an exclusive perk for overnight guests. But guess what? The Inn has recently decided to share this slice of paradise with daily visitors as well.

Here’s the nitty-gritty: A $49 day pass gives you a ticket to this exclusive waterfall wonderland. And it’s not just the waterfall you get; the pass grants you access to a sprawling 42-acre property featuring miles of hiking trails, stunning vistas of not one but four waterfalls, and serene bamboo gardens.

What really seals the deal are the added perks. Depending on river safety conditions, that day pass also lets you go swimming, kayaking, or paddleboarding right under the Kulaniapia Falls, using their on-site equipment.

Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots

Looking for a waterfall experience that’s a little less crowded but equally captivating? Then Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots should be on your radar.

Situated just 1.5 miles upstream from the popular Rainbow Falls, these lesser-known cascades offer a more tranquil experience.

While Pe’epe’e Falls is near a popular but perilous local swimming spot known as the ‘boiling pots,’ it’s crucial to heed safety warnings. Several fatalities have occurred here, so it’s best to appreciate the beauty from a safe distance.

Hi’ilawe Waterfall

Last but certainly not least, meet Hi’ilawe Waterfall in the Waipi’o Valley, one of the tallest waterfalls in Hawaii. This behemoth has a total height of about 1,450 feet, with a jaw-dropping direct drop of 1,201 feet!

Although you can’t hike directly to the waterfall due to private property restrictions, there are plenty of vantage points within the valley to catch a glimpse of this majestic waterfall.

You can get down to the valley floor either by a 4WD vehicle or opt for a horseback riding tour, which is a uniquely Hawaiian way to experience the falls.

The river feeding Hi’ilawe is used for irrigation, meaning the waterfall might not be in full flow, especially during the wet season. So, manage your expectations accordingly.

How to Fit Visiting These Waterfalls in Your Itinerary

So, you’re stoked about visiting these waterfalls, but maybe you’re scratching your head about how to fit them into your jam-packed Hawaiian itinerary?

The Drive-By Strategy: The simplest way to get a glimpse of these natural wonders is by doing a drive-by waterfall visit. As you’re navigating the scenic roads of the Big Island, just pull over when you’re close to a waterfall. A quick stop for each falls, let’s say about an hour, will give you plenty of time for some snapshots and a dash of awe. This is a super convenient approach for most travelers.

The Half-Day Waterfall Marathon: For the waterfall aficionados among you, how about a half-day waterfall marathon? Especially if you’re staying around Hilo, you can easily hit up most of our top picks in just half a day. This is the go-to option for those who consider waterfalls not just a sight, but a sight to behold.

When to Visit the Big Island for Waterfall Chasing

You might be wondering, is there a best time to chase waterfalls on the Big Island? Well, let me spill the beans.

  • The Wet Season: If you want to see these waterfalls at their most glorious, aim for the wet season. This period is usually between November and March. However, remember that some falls like Hi’ilawe might not be as robust due to irrigation practices.
  • The Dry Season: Visiting during the dry season from April to October? You’ll still catch some amazing views, although the falls may be less dramatic. But hey, fewer crowds could mean a more peaceful experience.
  • Special Events and Holidays: And let’s not forget, special events and holidays might crowd these natural attractions. So if you’re planning to visit during Christmas or New Year’s, you might want to head there early in the morning to avoid the rush.

FAQs

Can You Swim in Any Waterfalls on the Big Island?

The age-old question: Can you actually swim in these awe-inspiring waterfalls? The answer is: it depends.

Kulaniapia Falls: At Kulaniapia Falls, if you’ve got that day pass, you’re in luck. You can swim, kayak, and even paddleboard, all under the guidance of the Inn’s safety measures. However, remember, conditions must be right, so always double-check before diving in!

Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots: As much as Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots are tempting, swimming here is risky business and not recommended due to dangerous currents and the risk of flash floods.

Are There Waterfalls Near Kona?

When you think of Kona, you probably imagine coffee plantations and beautiful beaches. But yes, there are also waterfalls, though not as many as you’ll find near Hilo. One such spot is Pololu Valley, which has a small waterfall that can be reached after a hike. It’s a bit of a trek, but if you’re staying in Kona, it’s worth the journey.

Which Big Island Waterfall is Easiest to See/Visit?

If you’re on a tight schedule or just not up for a trek, Rainbow Falls is your go-to. Located in Hilo, this waterfall is virtually a drive-up attraction. No long hikes, and you can enjoy a rainbow in the mist if you get there early enough.

Which Big Island Waterfalls Are Free to Visit? No Cost, All Wow

Budget travelers, rejoice! Not all waterfall experiences come with a price tag.

  • Rainbow Falls: Once again, Rainbow Falls wins the day. No admission fee, easy access, and a spectacular view to boot.
  • Pe’epe’e Falls:Pe’epe’e Falls also falls under the free-to-visit category. However, remember it’s more of a look-but-don’t-touch kind of place due to safety concerns.
  • Waipio Valley: For a sneak peek at Hi’ilawe Waterfall from a distance, head to Waipio Valley. The viewpoints are free, but remember you won’t get up close without a guided tour, which will have a cost.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a drive-by sightseer, a dedicated waterfall marathoner, or a potential mermaid looking to swim in ethereal pools, the Big Island has something for everyone.

And let’s be real, there’s something almost magical about witnessing the sheer power and beauty of a waterfall. So don’t just stick to the Big Island beaches; add some of these spectacular falls to your itinerary and experience the Big Island in a whole new way.