Ahh, the Big Island of Hawaii, it will forever remain in my heart as the first real travel experience I had. Living near the Big Island’s most popular eastern city taught me many things, but among the most rewarding was where to find the free attractions.
Hilo is known for its old-world charm, and the occasional surprise rainbow, due to its lush (and sometimes drizzly) microclimate. Fortunately for travelers, the natural beauty on the windward side of the island means there’s plenty of free things to do near Hilo—rain or shine.
For those looking to get away from the usual tourist circuit, this list of free attractions will not only help you save money, but you’ll also be able to witness a slice of authenticity that often gets overlooked on a Hawaiian vacation.
Read on to find fun (and free!) things to do near Hilo.
1. Drive Along the Red Road
Highway 137, also known as the Red Road, is the single-most scenic drive on the southeastern coast of the Big Island. About a 45 minute drive south from Hilo, the Red Road has tons of photo-spectacular sights along the coast, and under Jurassic-looking trees.
This slow going highway has numerous spots to pull the car off the road to sit by the ocean. It’s as free as it gets to take in the natural beauty of the ocean and the sounds of tropical birds chirping in low-hanging tree branches.
Due to the recent 2018 Kilauea eruption, the northern junction for 137 is no longer accessible. Instead, start your journey on the Red Road from the southern-most point of the road, near Kalapana. Continue on northeast up the road and eventually you’ll see Isaac Hale Beach Park, a beach forever changed by the lava flow from Kilauea.
The Red Road is considered to be one of the most spectacular drives on the Big Island, not just for the ocean-side views, but also because of the three “lava fingers” that cut their way across the land. Halfway between Kalapana and Isaac Hale Beach Park, Highway 137 offers some of the best views for miles of recently dried lava rock.
2. Tan Nude at Kehena Black Sand Beach
At mile marker 19 along Highway 137, you can also find Kehena Black Sand Beach. Although this beach technically could have been mentioned in the previous suggestion, it truly deserves a spot of its own.
Kehena Beach is the only beach on the Hilo side of the island with a clothing-optional mentality.
Also known as Dolphin Beach, this is where to locals go to kick back, party, and potentially strip off a few layers of clothing. The beach is well shaded by steep cliffs and tall palm trees. Swimming can be a little dangerous here, due to its strong break and forceful undertow, but many people still go in.
Sunday is the best day of the week to go because of the drum circle that gathers. Anyone with a drum is welcome to join in. They sometimes play for hours, reverberating their rhythms off of the cliff walls and motivating people to get up and dance. This beach is a hippie beach to the truest sense.
3. Hike out to the Secluded Shipman Beach
Otherwise known as Haena Beach, the photogenic black and white sands at this beach are hard to find anywhere else in the world. What makes this beach more stunning, however, is the fact that it provides sanctuary for sea turtles trying to escape the rough ocean current.
There’s a reason that this beach remains secluded though. To get to Shipman Beach, you’ll have to hike 90-minutes through dense rainforest and over old lava flows. Hiking out, in fact, is actually what makes this beach a must-see attraction.
Along the trail, there are a number of neat things to look at. A few old cars left abandoned along the trail continue to rust after people tried (and failed) to make the journey in their vehicles. There is also a World War II bunker and a grove with coconuts ripe for the taking.
The trail out to Shipman Beach is called the Puna Trail. It was actually established by ancient Hawaiians hundreds of years ago. In addition to the abandoned cars, and World War II bunker, expect to also see the much older rock structures designating the ancient village areas.
Although the hike out can be a little strenuous, it is well-worth the journey. Upon arriving at Shipman Beach, there’s a good chance to observe sea turtles sun-bathing themselves on rocks lining the small cove.
4. Swim with Turtles at Carlsmith Beach Park
The third best beach near Hilo (and the last on this list) can be found just outside of the city of Hilo at Carlsmith Beach Park. Though the beach is not nearly as secluded, the sea turtles can actually be seen swimming around here.
The water glitters with a tropical turquoise-green color and the seafloor is shallow with white sand. In order to spot one of the sea turtles, it’s best to either stand on one of the nearby lava boulders, or to hop in with a scuba mask and a snorkel to see them up close.
Just be sure to help protect the sea turtles by giving them adequate space to swim along.
This beach is perfect for those who are looking to stay close to the city, or for those who can’t quite make the hike out to Kehena Beach or Shipman Beach. It is also the only beach with modern amenities, such as public restrooms, or showers to rinse off the salty skin.
5. Roam into the Kaumana Caves
Not for the faint of heart, or those with claustrophobia, visitors of the Kaumana Caves can roam into a humongous lava-tube for hundreds of yards. The lava-tube originally formed in 1881 when the Mauna Loa volcano produced an underground lava flow.
There’s no longer a risk of lava coming through the tube, but it is advisable to bring a strong flashlight and some solid hiking shoes if you plan to hike deeper in past the skylight. It’s nearly impossible to get lost in the tube, but please be advised that the ceiling of the tube can get pretty shallow at times, so watch your head.
The Kaumana Caves are just west of Hilo on Highway 200, between mile marker 4 and 5. It’s advised that visitors do not descend too deeply into the cave because it turns into private property a few hundred yards out. However, I didn’t seem to notice any restrictions while hiking deeper into the cave.
6. Watch Colors Emerge at Rainbow Falls
Hawaii is known for having some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Rainbow Falls is no exception to this designation. For those who simply can’t get enough of a beautiful waterfall, this one is sure not to disappoint.
As another free attraction just west of Hilo, this 80 foot waterfall is best visited in the morning when rainbows can sometimes be seen in the mist. In the traditional Hawaiian language, the waterfall is referred to as “Waiānuenue,” which means “rainbow [seen in] water.”
According to legend, the Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina, lives in the lava-tube that the waterfall cascades over. Depending on how much rainfall the season has brought, Rainbow Falls can either become a roaring cascade or it can be lessened to a stream. In either case, if you’re lucky, there’s always the possibility of seeing a rainbow in the mist.
7. See Exotic Animals at the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens
I’m going to be honest, I’ve been to some pretty lame zoos in my lifetime. They can be dirty, and the animals don’t look happy. This was absolutely not the case with the Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens. Not only is the attraction completely free to enter (unless you want to give a donation) but it is also one of the best tropical zoos out there.
There are all kinds of strange birds here, a couple very playful monkeys, and two Bengal tigers. The alligators are also fed their daily meal between 1:15 and 1:30 p.m. every day.
In addition to all of the wonderful animals they have at the zoo, there is also the very well-maintained aspect of tropical trees and plants adorning the walkways. Every tree and plant has a sign listing its name (both scientific and common), as well as where it came from. Who would have thought there were so many different kinds of palm trees in the world?
My favorite animal at the zoo was probably the Golden Pheasant, which looked very majestic walking around in its enclosure. However, I’ve always had a thing for ring-tailed lemurs, and I was especially pleased to see that they lived in the Pana’ewa Zoo as well.
8. Look out over 2000-Foot Cliffs at Waipio Valley
The overlook of Waipio Valley is not just a great photo opportunity, it’s a chance to witness a place of great spiritual importance to the Native Hawaiian people. Waipio Valley is called “the Valley of the Kings” partly because King Kamehameha I spent his adolescence living in this astonishing tropical environment. There are also a number of grave sites in the cliffs where other previous kings have been buried.
Although the valley used to house thousands of Native Hawaiians, it is now home to only a handful of residents living amongst taro fields and the rivers that spread throughout the valley. In 1946 a devastating tsunami obliterated many of the temples and homes in Waipio Valley, in turn leaving most of the landscape sparsely populated. The rich history alone makes this “Valley of the Kings” a place of true wonder.
Driving north of Hilo up Highway 19 to reach the lookout is one thing, but getting to the valley floor is another thing. The road to get down is extremely steep, sometimes getting up to a 40 degree grade. Only those with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or who are planning on hiking should try to make it to the bottom. It’s best to check rental car agreements as well before deciding to drive a rental vehicle down.
If you do happen to make it to the bottom, there are literally hundreds of waterfalls cascading down from the cliff walls, including one of Hawaii’s biggest waterfalls, Hi’ilawe. The shoreline is also complete with an incredible black sand beach and the occasional wild horse roaming around. Some may even recognize this beach as the one featured at the end of the movie “Waterworld,” starring Kevin Costner.
9. Stroll Through Lava Trees State Park
Just north of Highway 137 on Highway 132, there is another unique, and completely free attraction to witness. For most people, Lava Trees State Park is unlike anything they’ve seen before.
Although strolling along the 0.7 mile trail certainly won’t take an entire day, it’s at least worth stopping by the state park to check out the unique natural structures. The lava trees were formed from a lava flow that took place in the 1700s. Several ohia trees, one of Hawaii’s most renown hardwoods, were coated with lava as they stood up to the high heat.
The result turned out to be one of the strangest sights on the island—numerous pillars of hardened lava, hundreds of years old. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to stop by the park, but if you happen to be in the area, the geological phenomenon alone is enough of a reason to check it out.
10. Dance the Night Away at Uncle Robert's
Live music, Hawaiian history, and free smells? There’s nothing better to do on a Wednesday night. Nestled in Kalapana, and narrowly avoiding the recent lava flow, Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers Market can be found off a short turn going the opposite direction on Highway 137.
Most days of the week, Uncle Robert’s operates as a casual open air compound with a few shops and a bar. However, Wednesday nights are when the magic comes alive. Local residents from all around come to watch the family band create an authentic Hawaiian atmosphere.
There are also tons of local vendors selling handmade jewelry, local crafts, and grilled foods prepared right before your eyes. While technically there is no entrance fee, be prepared to spend some on a tropical drink or local Hawaiian cuisine while taking a rest from dancing in between songs.
It’s also not a bad idea to arrive before sunset, while parking is still easy to find and seats are available. There is also the option of walking out to the waterfront, where hundreds of newly sprouted coconut trees adorn the landscape of the recently laid lava rock. Along the trail, there is also a bit a Hawaiian history that shouldn’t be overlooked.
11. Learn Something New at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center
The Mokupapapa Discovery Center was established in Hilo in 2003. As an entirely free attraction, the center features multiple displays and exhibits, large paintings of local animals, and a huge 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium.
The center can be found right in the heart of downtown Hilo in a recently renovated century-old building. The exhibits are meant to reveal the delicate balance that Hawaii shares with the coral reefs around the northwestern islands. Hawaiian culture has not only been deeply shaped by these aquatic ecosystems, the center also sends a message of how vital these marine creatures are to the rest of the world.
Perfect for the entire family, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center gives a chance to witness aspects of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, one of the largest conservation areas in the world. With 139,797 square miles of the Pacific ocean encompassed by this National Monument, and 7,000 marine species calling it home, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center is the best way to take a unique glimpse into this remote ecosystem.
12. Find Tropical Fruits at Maku'u Farmers Market
Although there is technically a $2 parking fee at Maku’u Farmers Market, walking around at the market is completely free. There is a plethora of tropical fruit here, as well as a numerous food vendors.
The farmers market takes place between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays, and it can be found on Highway 130, south of Hilo. I recommend this farmers market of the Hilo Farmers Market which takes every day, primarily because of the musicians that show up, and the greater amount of vendors.
It’s not difficult to find exotic fruits like starfruit, rambutan, and soursop. The iced coffee from the big white van and the French crepes are absolutely out of this world too! If you weren’t planning to spend much, sitting down to watch the local bands play, or browsing some of the wares around can also make for an exciting time.
13. Cruising Through the Jungle on the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive
Ever hear of the Road to Hana on the island of Maui? The Pepeekeo Scenic Drive is one of the Big Island’s most scenic roads, totally akin to the Road to Hana. Just 10-minutes north of Hilo on Highway 19, between mile markers 7 and 8, there’s a pull-off for this incredibly scenic byway.
As one of our favorite things we came across, this free thing to do near Hilo is definitely a must-see excursion. The road winds through dense tropical rainforest and passes by multiple waterfalls, some of which you can swim in.
One of the coolest sights along the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive is the waterfall flowing out from a lava tube. We actually got up close and personal with this one, parking the car near the bridge and hiking down from there. But this isn’t the only thing to witness.
There are also multiple places to pull of the road to witness (or hike down to) the gorgeous Onomea Bay. Towering jungle trees hang over the road, and long vines stretch down from the tree tops decorating the shoulders of the road. And if all that driving makes you thirsty, at the end of the scenic byway, there is a wonderful little smoothie shack called What’s Shakin’ with raving reviews.
(Bonus) Marvel at Exotic Plants in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a bonus option on this list, primarily because there’s a $20 fee to enter. However, when we decided to pay for the $20 ticket, we could not stop remarking how well we felt the money was spent.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is unlike anything else back in the mainland. It is one of the most lush and curated tropical gardens anywhere on the Hawaiian islands. Nature lovers, gardeners, botanists, and photographers alike will simply be in awe of this 40-acre garden with over 2,000 species of tropical plants.
This garden can be found along the Pepeekeo Scenic Drive, so it is well worth stopping if you’ll be cruising along on the scenic byway north of Hilo. Below, I’ve included a few pictures of some of the plants you can expect to see at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.
To be honest though, these pictures hardly even come close to all of the beautiful things growing in this resplendent outdoor greenhouse.
And with that, the list is just about summed up!
If you enjoyed this article, or you found something that I missed, please let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to hear from readers.
To learn more about my Hawaiian adventure, check out my Hawaii homesteading article.
You can also read about one of the coolest free things to do on the Kona side of the island.