Unique Things to Do on The Big Island of Hawaii with Kids

The Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most unique places in the United States. Even though it only takes an hour and a half to drive across the island between the two major cities, Hilo and Kona, there couldn’t be more of a difference between them. Hilo is where you will find majestic waterfalls, the volcano and a ton of other outdoor activities but also lots of rain. Kona is filled with more sunny days, beaches and water activities. We started our journey by flying into Kona International Airport and picked up our rental car at Alamo.

After our flight, we dropped off our bags at the Airbnb we were staying at just two minutes from downtown Kona and had dinner at a local favorite spot, Hugo’s on the Rocks. It’s a casual waterfront restaurant that has live entertainment each night. They offer traditional Hawaiian cuisine like Poké Bowls as well as fish, burgers, tacos, salads and more.

Waipi’o Valley and Submarine Tour

If you are suffering from jet lag on your first full day in Kona and wake up at the crack of dawn like we did, you will be happy to know Island Lava Java opens at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast.

Pancakes at Island Lava Java Pancakes at Island Lava Java

After filling our bellies with pancakes, eggs and the best oven-fresh pastries we’ve ever tasted, we made the one-and-a-half-hour scenic drive to Waipi’o Valley. Waipi’o Valley is also known as “Valley of the Kings.” It’s home to some gorgeous waterfalls and the longest black sand beach on the island. One way to get to the floor of the valley to access the beach is a 6.5-mile hike. If you’re not up for that type of exercise, you can get to the beach by horseback riding or going on a 4x4 tour. We unfortunately visited on a Sunday without realizing that no tours operate Sundays, so we admired the valley from the lookout point.

Waipi’o Valley - “Valley of the Kings.” Waipi’o Valley - “Valley of the Kings.”

When we returned to Kona, we took the Atlantis Submarine tour. It’s a great activity for kids who are too young to snorkel, but beware that the little ones must be 36 inches to participate. The submarine tour allows you to see the ocean floor with the beautiful coral reef, a shipwreck and a plethora of fish without having to get wet.

Atlantis Submarine tour Atlantis Submarine tour

We had dinner a short, 5-minute drive away from the submarine tour at Kamana Indian Cuisine. They offer outdoor seating, which overlooks the ocean, and you can often see dolphins jumping out of the water!

Papalokea Beach & Manta Ray Night Snorkel

Hawaii is known for its black sand beaches, but did you know it also has a green sand beach? It’s called Papalokea Beach, but most people simply refer to it as the green sand beach. The parking lot of Papalokea Beach is an hour and a half drive from Kona. Once you arrive, you have a 2.8-mile round trip hike, or you can opt to take a 4x4 vehicle, which costs $20 per adult for round trip service. After arriving at the beach, a set of rocky stairs takes you to the beach clove below. I did this with my youngest daughter in a carrier; it’s very doable, and there were other families with children enjoying the beach.

Papalokea Beach Green sand at Papalokea Beach

Once we returned to Kona, we quickly learned that pretty much every restaurant closes from roughly 2 to 5 p.m., so if you want a late lunch, you may be out of luck. Thankfully, Island Lava Java was open and serving a limited snack menu.

In the evening, we set out for our Manta Ray night snorkel with Hang Loose Boat Tours. We did the 5:30 p.m. tour and had the best sunset view. The experience was indescribable! Once in the water you hold onto a floating board while looking down into the ocean. This board has LED lights attached and that side is placed face down in the water and the lights attract plankton. Plankton is what manta rays feed on, so they swim up to the board to eat. Holding onto the board allows you to get a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these majestic animals up close. If you get sea sick you will want to take something before boarding the boat, as it was rocky while waiting for the sun to go down before getting in the water to snorkel. 

Manta Ray night snorkel with Hang Loose Boat Tours Manta Ray night snorkel with Hang Loose Boat Tours

Kids can participate starting at 4 years old. Instead of having to hold on to the floating board, they put my daughter on top of it. This allowed her to just dip her head in the water to see the manta rays feeding below.

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

After our great time in Kona, we made our way toward the other side of the Island, to Hilo. On the way we stopped at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, about a 1.5-hour drive from Kona. There are green sea turtles that lay on the sand, which the kids were very excited to watch. These sea turtles are endangered so visitors are asked to keep a distance.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

After spending some time on the beach, we continued our drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which was about 20 minutes away. The entrance fee is $25 per car and valid for seven days with unlimited re-entry.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

When we arrived at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park it was time for lunch. With not many options, we decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, Volcano House, and were blown away by the delicious food.

Volcano House Volcano House

Your kids will love walking through Thurston Lava Tube, a cave formed by an old lava path. It can be wet inside so be sure to bring a rain jacket to cover your head.

Afterward, consider driving through the park over to Jagger Museum. Here your family can learn about Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes, as well as the history of the volcanoes on the Big Island. Jagger Museum is also the best place to take a look at the active volcano. While we were able to see lava spewing from the crater with our naked eye, it is useful to bring binoculars for the best view. Once the sun sets, you can really see the red glow of the lava — it is a magical sight.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is massive, so I highly recommend staying the night and spending two days in the park. You can spend the night inside the park at Volcano House or at one of the many options for vacation rentals or hotels in Volcano Village right outside of the park.

If you’re able to spend a second day, you can go on one of the many hikes within the park. An easy one with kids of all ages is the Lua Manu hike. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can opt for the Crater Rim Drive or the Chain of Craters Road. Both drives offer plenty of turnouts to stop along the way to take in the stunning views.

Lua Manu hike Lua Manu hike

When you’re ready to fly back home, rather than driving back to Kona, you can depart from Hilo International Airport. Hilo Airport is 45 minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as opposed to the two hours to Kona Airport. If your flight is in the morning (like ours was) I recommend having breakfast at Hawaiian Style Cafe, just 5-minutes from the airport.

Our family had an amazing time exploring the Big Island of Hawaii. With eight islands making up the state of Hawaii, we are looking forward to returning to explore the others. We are so excited we’ve already started our research on things to do in Oahu with kids.

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About the Author

Monet Hambrick

Monet Hambrick is the mom behind "The Traveling Child," a family travel blog with the motto "if kids live there, kids can visit" that provides tips on how to make family travel easy and affordable. While Monet is an advocate for family travel, she also focuses on couple’s trips, solo travel, and girl’s getaways reminding moms everywhere that it's okay continue to enjoy the things they did pre-kids and to not feel guilty about doing so!