When most people think Hawaii, they think beach naps and sunset mai tais in the sand. But the remarkably diverse landscape of Hawaii’s Big Island makes it one of the country’s (ok, the world's) most exciting adventure destinations. Colleen Clark says aloha to the island’s sporty side, from night-diving with manta rays to sea-kayaking, surfing to volcano hiking
Photo by NPS Photo/Stephen Geiger
Summit Mauna Kea
From 90 degrees Farenheit to 30 degrees, from sea level to 13,803 feet, from tank tops to parkas, summiting Mauna Kea embodies the extremes of the Big Island. Much of the dormant volcano is underwater, but measured from its oceanic base, it’s the tallest on earth, more than twice the base-to-peak height of Mount Everest. Let a professional take the wheel for your jeep summit. You’ll creep for miles through jet black fields of volcanic rock, the clouds rolling like a haunting fog across the lunar landscape. You swiftly climb, suddenly breaking through the cloudline, the crimson peaks of dormant cinder cones dotting the horizon. It’s here that you watch the setting sun, the intense hues reflected in the otherworldly star observatories on the peaks around you. As it dips below the cloud line, rainbow bands of color compress along the sky and the temperature plummets. You don parkas to gaze upon the night’s finale: the glittering Milky Way and the magical arc of falling stars.
Sea-Kayak and Snorkel Kealakekua Bay
Legendary explorer Captain James Cook must have thought he found paradise when he rowed through the crystalline waters of Kealakekua Bay to become the first Westerner to land on Hawaii Island. That is, until he was killed in this spot just a year later after deceiving the native Hawaiians. The lively guides at Kona Boys “talk story” (Hawaiian for spinning tales) as you sea kayak amid sea turtles and dolphins across the bay to the shore of Ka’awaloa. Here you pull up amid ancient gnarled ficus and breadfruit trees and trade paddles for flippers to dive beneath the surface to one of the world’s most pristine reefs. Under the sea you’ll get up close and personal with reef sharks, muscly spotted eels and a Technicolor army of fish.
Night Diving With Manta Rays
After dark, Kona Diving Company sets up a light on the ocean floor to attract the plankton that are the food of choice for manta rays, one of the biggest fish in the ocean. The gentle giants swoop in hypnotic circles, their twenty foot wingspans undulating through the water. They arc, nearly skimming your scuba mask, and circle again in a mesmerizing loop. Unlike stingrays or eagle rays, the mantas lack stingers, so you can be lulled without fear into the dancelike swirls of the rays as they swoop through the water, their massive mouths agape as they scoop up their microscopic meals of plankton.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
Stand up paddleboarding has become all the rage across the country, but it has its origins largely in Hawaii. Captain James Cook in the 1700s wrote about he’e nalu, surfing that used to be done on massive boards up to 15 feet in length. In order to power the large boards out into the swells, they often used paddles. Still, stand up paddleboarding in its modern incarnation didn’t come into being until much later. Famous surfer Duke Kahanamoku in the 1940s used it as a vantage point from which to assist surf students. And Laird Hamilton and some other pro-surfers in the early augths started using SUP as a way to train when the waves weren't great. But we love it for the vantage point that it gives you, a perch above the water, ideal of truly appreciating the crystalline waters, emerald cliffs and sugary beaches.
Hike a Volcano
Volcanoes created Hawaii, so there is no more exciting an adventure than seeing one in action. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park encompasses two of the world's most active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Arrive either before dawn or after dusk to see smoke plumes billowing from the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu crater and the sky glowing orange against a backdrop of stars. During the day, drive the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, which winds through a dizzying array of landscapes, from desert to rainforest to lava rock fields. As the forest grows more dense after the Kīlauea Iki Overlook, you’ll arrive at the Thurston Lava Tube, a 500-year old cave through which molten lava once flowed. Bring a flashlight to hike past the lighted section where most tourists are and venture deeper to explore the wavelike patterns and the swirling colors of the minerals that have leeched from the rock. Take the three-mile Pu‘u Huluhulu for 360-degree views of the park from the top of a 150-foot cinder cone or tackle the more hardcore 14-mile trek to Puʻu ʻŌʻō which takes you through fern forests, past the charred remnants of lava flows to views of three volcanoes. Conditions are constantly changing so be sure to follow the daily updates online to optimize your visit. Seeing active lava movement can be challenging depending on flows. Your best bet is to book a helicopter tour to see the show from above.
Go Horseback Riding in Cowboy Country
Before cowboy culture even came to the Wild West, Hawaiians were riding and roping in their own big sky country thanks to Mexican-Spanish vaquero imported by Kamehameha III to develop ranching on the Big Island. The cowboys became known as paniolo. Saddle up for your own ride through cowboy country at Ponoholo cattle ranch on the historic Kohala Mountain. The 11,000 acre ranch spans three climate zones from rainforest to ocean and is home to nearly 8,000 head of cattle. You’ll gallop across rolling green pastures with views of the sapphire sea, the peaks of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai Volcanoes and, on a clear day, across to Maui.