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Hawaii’s Big Island is aptly named so. Compared to Oahu Maui, it is gigantic—the largest among the islands of Hawaii. Visitors have a lot to see and do on the Big Island, from hiking through lush rainforests to gazing at volcanic landscapes. You can find some of the most famous waterfalls of Hawaii on the Big Island.
When you travel to the Big Island, you’ll find many waterfalls on the north and east sides of the island. The island experiences a lot of rainfall throughout the year, adding to the spectacular waterfall attractions.
Located in Akaka Falls State Park, ‘Akaka Falls is perhaps one of Hawaii’s most famous falls. It tumbles from a height of 442 feet into a stream-eroded gorge and is easily accessible through a short (0.4 miles) hike through a lush forest filled with bamboo groves, draping ferns, and even wild orchids.
If you are traveling with children, this hike is pleasant and will take about half an hour. The trailhead is also easy to find since it is near the parking lot. The trail leads to an overlook that lets you gaze at the falls from a distance. Despite how tantalizing the water looks, you cannot swim in ‘Akaka Falls.
Tourists entering the park by car only need to pay an admission fee of $5.00 per car or $1.00 per person if they are pedestrians.
If you continue on the trail to ‘Akaka Falls, you will come across another waterfall some 800 feet from the ‘Akaka Falls overlook. This is the Kahūnā Falls, plunging at 400 feet and almost as tall as the ‘Akaka Falls. Kahūnā also has a small overlook point where you can stand and see the falls. They are most visible after a lot of rain because Kahūnā stands against a cliff with tall trees and thick vegetation. You can only see the falls at an angle—unlike the ‘Akaka Falls, which you can see directly and upfront.
Rainbow Falls (Waiānuenue Falls)
Out of all the waterfalls on the Big Island, the easiest one to see is the Rainbow Falls, as it is in the Wailuku River, located within Hilo Town. Another name for Rainbow Fall is Waiānuenue Falls, and it is probably Hilo’s most famous waterfall. Visitors from all over the world often visit the town of Hilo to see it.
Rainbow Falls plunges from a mere 80 feet, which could be considered low as compared to the other waterfalls that plunge from dizzying heights. Rainbow Falls, however, has different magic of its own. The best time to see the falls is in the early morning, when sunlight hits the mist from the falls, forming a beautiful rainbow. While the falls aren’t safe for swimming, you may access the pools in the river above the falls when the weather is dry and the river is calm.
From Rainbow Falls, you can follow a trail that leads you through a banyan tree grove to the back of the river. There, you will find a smaller waterfall and many pools where you can swim and boulders where you can sit and sunbathe. As always, remember to exercise caution and stay away from the edge of the Rainbow Falls.
Located 1.5 miles upstream of Rainbow Falls and at the end of Wailuku drive is Pe’epe’e Falls. It is smaller than the Rainbow Falls but often less crowded as tourists usually prefer the more spectacular rainbows such as ‘Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls.
Nevertheless, the Pe’epe’e Falls have a charm of their own. They form access to a popular spot, often known as the “boiling pots.” This is due to the water rushing downstream through a series of pools and lava formations, giving the water the appearance of boiling. While you might see some people attempting to swim, it’s best not to take the risk as the current is strong and has proven to be dangerous in the past.
Onomea Falls are small-tiered waterfalls situated inside the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden near Hilo. You can only see them upon paying for entrance into the botanical gardens. It is a spectacular place for taking some photos, especially with the waterfalls cascading into several small tiers.
The botanical gardens are picturesque too, and you can explore their collection of tropical flora and fauna from different parts of the world. They even have some exotic birds.
Umauma Falls lies on private land near the Umauma river, some 16 miles from Hilo. You will need to pay the Umauma Experience $12 per person to see the waterfalls, but the entrance fee also gives you access to their garden.
Before you think of skipping Umauma, it is a unique waterfall and is the only trip-tier waterfall on the island. You can also go see it in different ways, as provided by the Umauma Experience. These include ziplining over it, going on horseback riding or ATV tour, waterfall rappelling into it, and more.
Kama’e’e Falls is a private waterfall that only opened to the public in 2009 and is one of Hawaii’s most beautiful waterfalls. When you arrive at the Kama’e’e Falls overlook, you will see the stream as it tumbles down small tiers, eventually winding its way through a series of sunlit pools before plunging nearly a hundred feet down a sheer rock cliff into a crystal clear pool below.
If you follow the trail to the stream at the top of the waterfall, you can see it just before it plunges over the cliff. Downstream, you can see the water rushing past giant boulders and winding through a rainforest valley. Beyond the valley lies the Pacific Ocean.
While most waterfalls on the Big Island are fed by heavy rainfall in several of the areas, Kama’e’e Falls is different. It is fed by a stream that descends from a lava tube that drains water from the volcanic soils of the dormant Mauna Kea. Because of that, Kama’e’e Falls continues to have a steady stream of water—even in the dry months. The water also remains among the cleanest in the area.
Kulaniapia Falls is a 120-foot waterfall on the Waiau Stream not that far from Hilo. It is situated on the lower slopes of the dormant volcano Mauna Kea within the grounds of the Inn at Kulaniapia. Before, only the inn’s overnight guests had access to the falls. These days, however, it is open to a limited number of daily visitors. The entrance fee is $49 and gives you access to the inn’s nature trails, the spectacular views of four waterfalls, and their bamboo gardens.
If the weather is beautiful and the river safety conditions permit, you can go swimming, paddle boarding, or kayaking under the Kulaniapia Falls. They have on-site equipment that you can rent. You can also inquire about the inn’s rappelling tours, organized by a team of expert canyoneering guides.
The Hi’ilawe Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Hawaii. They have a total height of about 1,450 feet with the highest direct drop of over 1,200 feet. You cannot hike directly to the basin as the trail crosses private property.
Nevertheless, you can see the Hi’ilawe Falls from different places within Waipi’o Valley—accessible by horseback riding, driving, or hiking down the valley. You can also opt to go on a helicopter ride and see the breathtaking, cascading falls from a bird’s eye view.
Waiulili Falls and Kaluahine Falls
Another waterfall accessible via Waipi’o Valley is the Waiulili Falls. It is the second waterfall in Waipi’o that empties into the ocean. The first is the Kaluahine Falls, but there needs to be a lot of rain for the waterfall to exist.
You can access Waipi’o Falls by hiking down the Waipi’o Valley and then heading to the beach. You’ll need to follow a boulder-strewn trail near a black sand beach. During high tide, however, it can be dangerous. You may opt to view the falls via helicopter instead.
Wai’ilikahi Falls, Lahomene Falls, and Waihilau Falls
Wai’ilikahi Falls plunges from over a thousand feet into a basin located in Waimanu Valley. It is one of the hardest waterfalls to access, along with Lahomene Falls (with a drop of 1,800 feet) and Waihilau Falls, one of the tallest falls in Hawaii (with a drop of about 2,600 feet).
Aside from descending into Waipi’o Valley, you need to find the Muliwai Trail and then hike along another nine miles to reach Waimanu Valley. You will also need to secure a permit and be physically fit.
This series of waterfalls is located on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. Most people, however, only see the waterfall at the lower end. Seeing the larger waterfalls requires hiking along Nanue Stream—a trail that can be rather steep and slippery in some places. There are also plenty of mosquitoes and insects in the area.
The best way to view Nanue Falls if you don’t want to hike is from the Nanue Stream bridge on Old Mamalahoa Highway. If you do make it to the top, you can see Nanue Falls and the plunge pool where it drops. Before you hike, check the weather forecast as bad weather and flash floods can make the hike very dangerous.
Kolekole Falls comes where the Ka’ahakini Stream meets the Kolekole Stream at Kolekole State Park near the ocean’s rocky beach. When the weather is warm and beautiful, you can take a dip in the basin, but you need to watch out because of its proximity to the ocean’s rocky shores.
Explore the Big Island’s Best Falls
There’s a lot to discover on Hawaii’s largest island—especially when you search for the best waterfalls to swim in or just admire from a distance.