Lava from Kilauea flowing into the Pacific Ocean at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

The 4 National Parks on the Big Island of Hawaii (Complete 2024 Guide + Map!)

If you are planning a trip to Kona or Hilo, you must definitely allow for time to explore the national parks on the Big Island of Hawaii!

From Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with its two super-active volcanoes, to the historic sites of Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, Kaloko-Honokōhau, and Pu’ukohola Heiau, the Big Island’s national park sites offer the chance to explore the island’s rich history and raw natural beauty.

And if your visit to the Big Island happens to coincide with an eruption on Kilauea or Mauna Loa, you may be able to safely watch the lava flow — definitely one for the bucket list!

Lava field on the Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes NP, one of the four national parks on the Big Island of Hawaii
A lava field along the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail in Hawaii Volcanoes NP

Renting a car offers the greatest flexibility when it comes to exploring the national parks of Hawaii Island, although you can visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on guided tours.

In this article, we’ve rounded up the four national parks on Hawaii’s Big Island, with information on why you should visit, and how to get to each park.

Nature and history lovers must also read our guide to the state parks on the Big Island: 14 diverse parks featuring beaches to waterfalls.

And now, let’s get started discovering the four national parks on the Big Island, Hawaii!

Planning a visit to the Big Island? Snorkeling Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay should definitely be on your itinerary: check out our guide to the best Captain Cook snorkel tours!

Kii at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, one of the national parks on the Big Island in Hawaii
Kii at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

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National Parks on the Big Island of Hawaii

1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park should be at the top of your Big Island itinerary, especially if you are visiting the island for the first time, or you are visiting when Kilauea is erupting and there’s a lava flow to see.

One of the two national parks in Hawaii (the other is Haleakala National Park on Maui), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located about a 45-minute drive from Hilo and about a 2-hour drive from Kailua-Kona. It is without a doubt one of the best places to visit in Hawaii!

The park is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa last erupted in 2022, and Kilauea in 2023. If you are planning a visit, you can check their status here.

Glow of the Halemaumau Crater on Kilauea at night, Big Island, Hawaii
Glow at night from lava in the Halemaumau crater within the Kilauea caldera

Most visitors start their time in the park with a stop at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where you can get information on the latest conditions in the park, browse the bookstore, and get your questions answered.

There are two main scenic roads in the park, Crater Rim Drive and the Chain of Craters Road, and you should plan to drive both, stopping at viewpoints and landmarks of interest. Get this audio tour if you enjoy listening to commentary as you sightsee!

Along the Crater Rim Drive, you will get spectacular views over Kīlauea and the Halemaʻumaʻu crater, a pit crater within the Kilauea caldera.

Also along this drive is the Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku), which you can access with a short hike. Walking through this short lava tube is one of the coolest things to do in Hawaii Volacnoes National Park!

Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
Walking through the Thurston Lava Tube

The Chain of Craters Road runs all the way to the coast (about 18.8 miles one way), with a number of scenic overlooks.

Be sure to stop at the Pu’uloa Petroglyphs and hike to view the ancient rock art. The Holei Sea Arch is a magnificent photo subject.

The picturesque Holei Sea Arch along the Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island HI
The photo-worthy Holei Sea Arch

The Kilauea Iki Trail is the most popular day hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s classed as moderate to strenuous, and we found it steep but very worthwhile.

On this hike you’ll descend through rainforest to the floor of the Kilauea Iki crater. Look and listen for birds!

Landscape on the floor of the Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes NP, Big Island, Hawaii
Hardened lava formations on the floor of the Kilauea Iki Crater

The Devastation Trail is an easy paved trail that takes you through the stark (but recovering) landscape created by the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park also offers longer backpacking trails, from the strenuous trail to the top of Mauna Loa to the multi-terrain Napau Trail.

If you have more time on the island, you can also visit the Kahuku Unit, which is located about a one-hour drive from the Kilauea Visitor Center.

The Kahuku Unit, located on the slopes of Mauna Loa, offers many day hikes that run through pastures and meadows. They range from easy to strenuous, so no matter what your hiking level, you should be able to find a trail to suit here.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as well as all holidays. The Kahuku Unit, however, is only open Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is closed on most Federal holidays.

One-time entry to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is $30.00 per standard vehicle, $25.00 for a motorcycle, and $15.00 for a walk-in or bicyclist. The entry is valid for 7 days.

If you have an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, remember to bring it, because it is accepted at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Stay in Volcano House, the only lodging inside the park, or stay in the charming village of Volcano, just a few minutes’ drive from the park entrance. You will find lots of vacation rentals in Volcano, as well as the highly-rated Kilauea Lodge and Restaurant.

Short on time and want to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on a guided tour? This very popular Big Island in a Day Tour from Kona includes a drive through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Thurston Lava Tube hike.

>> Check pricing and availability for the Big Island in a Day tour now!

For a longer time in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, consider this highly-rated tour from Kona that stops at various overlooks and allows you to hike the Thurston Lava Tube.

You can also visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on a guided tour from Hilo. The tour includes 3 hours in the park, and you will get the chance to walk through the Thurston Lava Tube.

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

2. Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

If you have an interest in local history and culture, or nature, or both, you will find a visit to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park very rewarding!

Located on the South Kona Coast, about a 40-minute scenic drive from Kailua-Kona, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park preserves an ancient Hawaiian place of refuge in a picturesque setting.

Lava rock landscape at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
Lava rock coast at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Until it was overthrown in 1819, a little after the death of King Kamehmeha I, the kapu system governed the social order in Hawaii.

Chiefs and priests were superior to other folks, and a plethora of rules governed the day to day lives of commoners. Consumption of resources by fishing or harvesting, for example, was regulated by the kapu system.

The punishment for breaking kapu was death, and the only way to escape was to elude your pursuers and get to a pu’uhonua, a place of refuge, where you could stay until an ali’i (a high priest), absolved you. Then you could return home safely.

While there were several places of refuge in old Hawaii, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau is one of the most renowned and well-preserved.

The Great Wall at the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Big Island, Hawaii
The Great Wall in the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park complex

You can take a self-guided walking tour of the complex to take in the historical sites.

The Royal Grounds contain ponds that used to hold fish for the ali’i (the high priests), and reconstructed A-frame canoe halau.

Marvel at the Great Wall, originally made with lava rock without the use of mortar. Admire the Hale o Keawe, a heiau and royal mausoleum that once held the bones of many chiefs. Snap photos of the ki’i, wooden images that stand guard at the temple.

Ki'i carvings at the hale o Keawe Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park Big Island Hawaii
Ki’i carvings at the Hale o Keawe Temple in the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Beyond the history, the park has a stunning setting by the ocean, with a grove of tall coconut palms and tide pools in the lava rocks on the shore.

Although it is not permitted to access the ocean at the park, or engage in beach sports or sunbathing, you can watch the sunset, look for marine life in the tidepools, or enjoy a meal in the picnic area.

Sunset on the tidepools at the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
Sunset at the tidepools at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is open daily from 8.15 a.m. until sunset.

Standard entry to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is $20.00 for a car, $15.00 for a motorcycle, and $10.00 per person entering on foot or on a bicycle. Entrance is valid for 7 days.

If you have an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, it is accepted at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.

Read our full guide to visiting Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park!

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

3. Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is a tranquil place where you can learn about Hawaiian history and the Hawaiian way of life. The setting is beautiful too!

Located along the coast just north of Kailua-Kona, the park offers oceanside activities like tidepool exploration and hiking.

Honokohau Beach is a beautiful white sand beach dotted with palms. You will find an ancient temple (heiau) at the end of the beach, and in front are the remains of the wall from an ancient Hawaiian fishtrap.

Sunset at Honokohau Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii
Sunset at Honokohau Beach

Fishponds in the park allow insight into the Hawaiian way of life and their ingenuity in harnessing the resources available to them.

Visit the Aimakapa Fishpond, which today is famous as a habitat for native and migratory wetland birds, but used to be a loko pu’uone, a type of shore fishpond with inflow from both seawater and freshwater sources.

The Hawaiians dug a channel from the pond to the ocean to allow for the water in the pond to be refreshed. Fish were raised in the pond for the ali’i, the high priests.

The Aimakapa Fishpond in Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
The Aimakapa Fishpond in the park is a must-visit for birdwatchers!

The Kaloko Fishpond is a loko kuapa, where stones are stacked (without the use of mortar!) to wall off the mouth of a small bay. Water from the ocean could still come into the bay through the rocks to keep the pond fresh.

Stone carvings, ki’i pohaku, can be found throughout the park and show scenes from the past.

The dark lava rocks you see at Honokohau Beach are what remains of the Aiopio Fishtrap, built to capture fish by netting them at low tide. The wall has been recently restored.

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is a great place to look for wildlife and birds, as well as native flora.

The shorelione of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park on the Big island of Hawaii features native Hawaiian flora.
Look for native Hawaiian plants along the shoreline

Some of the native Hawaiian plants you may see are pua maia, with fragrant white flowers, the beach naupaka, or hala.

You will likely see Hawaiian green sea turtles feeding on algae on Honokohau Beach, and maybe even the occasional endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

Hawaiian green sea turtle feeding on algae on Honokohau Beach in Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii
A Hawaiian green sea turtle feeding on algae

‘Aimakapa Fishpond is a must-visit for birdwatchers. Some of the native Hawaiian birds you may see here are not found anywhere else on the planet!

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is open year round. The parking area, by the park’s visitor center, is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

The Kaloko road gate into the park is across the highway from the Kaloko New Industrial Park. This gate is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is free to visit.

>> Book an exciting, 5-star rated, highly popular, Big Island tour now!

4. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Want to learn more about how the Hawaiian Kingdom came into being? Head to the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site!

Located on the Kohala Coast, Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is about a 45-minute drive north from Kailua-Kona.

The park contains several historic sights, including Pu’ukohola Heiau, one of the last temples built in Hawaii. It was built by King Kamehmeha I from 1790 to 1791.

Puukohola Heiau Historic Site on the Big Island of Hawaii
Pu’ukohola Heiau
Pu'ukohola National Historic Site Big island Hawaii
Detail of lava rock placement at the heiau

King Kamehameha the Great was responsible for unifying the Hawaiian islands. He was told that if he built this temple, he would succeed in his quest to conquer all the islands and create the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The story of its construction is fascinating. According to legend, his men formed a human chain of 25 miles, and rocks from the Polulu Valley were passed from hand to hand until they reached the construction site, where they were stacked without mortar.

Mailekini Heiau, just below Pu’ukohola Heiau, was transitioned into a defensive fort, with cannons, and a storehouse for muskets and swords, so that King Kamehameha could keep both his people and the Europeans, in check.

There was another temple here, the Hale o Kapuni, which is now submerged under the ocean and can’t be seen. The temple was dedicated to the shark gods, and today you can still see sharks offshore, if you are here early in the day.

A 0.5-mile loop trail takes you through the various historical sites in the park. Active visitors can also choose to hike a part of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which runs south from the park.

Walking Trail at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site on the Big Island of Hawaii
Walking the trail through the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

The park offers lots of wildlife watching. In addition to the black-tipped reef sharks in Pelekane Bay , you can look for spinner dolphins cavorting in the ocean, and, in the winter, humpback whales as well.

Exploring the shoreline at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Big Island, Hawaii
Exploring the shoreline at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Early or late in the day, you can see many birds in the park, so bring your binoculars!

The park visitor center has many exhibits and displays to browse, as well as two videos to watch in the open-air theater. Cultural demos are also offered.

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is open daily from 7.30 a.m. until 5 p.m., inclusive of holidays.

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is free to visit.

Map of the National Park Sites on the Big Island of Hawaii

Best Big Island Tours

Have you booked these top-rated Big Island tours yet?

Guided snorkeling with manta rays at night, a bucket-list underwater Big Island adventure to watch the amazing manta rays up close. Sightings guaranteed or go again.

Big Island in a Day excursion from Kona or Waikaloa, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, ‘Akaka Falls, and the Waipi’o Valley Lookout!

Snorkeling historic Kealakekua Bay, one of the top snorkel spots on the Big Island. Look for dolphins en route (plus whales in season)! Don’t want to snorkel? Take a dinner cruise instead.

Sunset and stargazing at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in all of Hawaii! Travel up and down in a luxury 4X4 van. Hooded parkas and gloves provided!

Thrilling zipline adventure over KoleKole Falls, a 7-line Hilo ziplining experience that allows you to soar over lush forest vegetation and the 250-foot waterfall!

Renting a Car on the Big Island

Most visitors that travel to the Big Island choose to rent a car because the island is, well, BIG, and the Big Island must-see attractions are scattered around the island.

Depending on where you choose to base — Kona or Hilo are the main places visitors choose — you can pick up a rental car in either location.

We always use Discover Cars to book Kona car rentals or Hilo car rentals. They search across a variety of rental car companies, both budget and brand, to offer you the best deals, AND they offer free cancellations. Plus, there are no hidden fees.

>> Check availability and prices on Kona car rentals now!

>> Check availability and prices on Hilo car rentals now!

Where to Stay on the Big Island

Kailua-Kona, on the sunnier leeward side of the Big Island, ands Hilo, on the lush windward side, are the main bases on Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island. Most visitors to the Big Island split their stay between these two places.

You will find the biggest choice of hotels and resorts in Kailua-Kona and Waikaloa, with both chains and boutiques, while Hilo has fewer hotels and inns.

The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort is an excellent choice if you are looking for a pristine beach out the front door. The Hilton Waikaloa Village is a great choice if you are traveling as a family.

The Mauna Lani on the Kohala Coast, just 40 minutes from Kailua-Kona, is a fabulous resort for a splurge. The SCP Hilo Hotel is the perfect base from which to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

You will find VRBO listings all over the island, especially in Kailua-Kona, Hilo, and Volcano (the base for travelers spending a night or more visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).

We have stayed in VRBO rentals in Volcano as well as in Kailua-Kona and Hilo and we’ve found the choice and quality great.

>> Look for a Big Island vacation rental on VRBO now!

Landscape at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site on the Big Island of Hawaii
Picturesque landscape at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

More Big Island Travel Inspiration

Planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii? Also known as Hawaii Island, the Big Island is home to some spectacular scenery and lots of activities.

Learn about the 4 national parks on the Big Island, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you may be lucky enough to catch flowing lava!

Head to the southeast part of the island to admire Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, possibly the most striking of the Big Island’s black sand beaches, and read our guide to the rare green sand beach on the Big Island!

The state parks of the Big Island protect some of the island’s best treasures. A few miles north of Hilo, you will find Akaka Falls State Park, home to the 442-foot Akaka Falls.

Also on the scenic Hamakua Coast, stop to visit the lush and beautiful Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden, with its numerous varieties of tropical plants.

On the leeward side of the island, you’ll find many beautiful beaches. Must-visit Hapuna Beach is a picture-postcard tropical beach with its long stretch of white sand.

Kauna’oa Beach, also known as Mauna Kea Beach, is another white sand beach north of Kona you have to visit. It routinely makes the top 10 beaches in the USA list!

Part of the Kekahai Kai State Park, Manini’owali Beach is yet another stunning white sand beach on the Kohala Coast just north of Kailua-Kona.

South of Kailua Kona, you’ll find arguably the best snorkeling spot in all of Hawaii at the Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. Our guide to the best Captain Cook snorkeling tours will help you find the perfect tour for you!

Also on the South Kona Coast is Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, one of the Big Island’s national park sites that is historically and culturally significant. And, it’s very scenic!

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Discover the complete guide to the four national park sites on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hawaii Volcanoes NP, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park.

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