For a number of years I had the good fortune to live on the Big Island of Hawaii. The largest in size (but not population) of all the Hawaiian Islands, it also has the most diversity of climate and terrain. Within a few hours you can travel from palm-fringed tropical beaches to lush rainforest to arid desert to a live volcano and to the top of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea.
The Big Island is rich in opportunities for any kind of photography, but it is especially great for nature and landscape photographers. If you are planning or thinking of visiting the island of Hawaii, here are my recommendations for the top ten locations for nature and scenic landscape photography.
1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – A live volcano! The Kilauea volcano system has been active and erupting almost continuously for over 30 years. Viewing the fountaining lava from Pu’u O’o in the early stages of the eruption was one of the most amazing and spectacular things I have ever witnessed, as was viewing molten lava creating new land as it flows to the ocean. If by any chance there is an active flow while you are on the island, drop everything to go see it. In recent years, it is often possible to see the glow of molten lava in Halemaumau Crater. Best time to see and photograph Madame Pele’s magic is at dusk and dawn when the glow of the lava balances nicely with the ambient light. You can check on current volcanic activity on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website. For more detailed information, check the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website.
2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Thurston Lava Tube and Kilauea Iki Trails. Thurston Lava Tube is one of the most popular destinations within the Park, and with good reason. Not only can you walk through a lava tube, but the trail passes through an outstanding forest of native Hawaiian rainforest species. Tall tree ferns will probably grab your attention first, but look also for the bright red blossoms of the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree, and for the bright red apapane and i’iwi, two somewhat rare birds endemic to the Hawaiian rainforest. Kilauea Iki Trail is probably the best day hike in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. From the trailhead at the Thurston Lava Tube parking area, the path wanders through fern-ohia forest to the rim of Kilauea Iki, and then drops down to the crater floor. Look for steam rising from cracks in the barren lava as you cross the crater, and then climb back to the forested rim. I recommend visiting Thurston Lava Tube either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the bus loads of other visitors that arrive every day.
3. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Chain of Craters Road. After visiting the Thurston Lava Tube area, head makai (towards the ocean) on Chain of Craters Road. The landscape soon changes from dense forest to barren, and relatively recent, lava flows. Stop at one of the several pullouts and viewpoints along the way and wander at bit looking for the wonderful textures and designs in the pahoehoe lava. Photos of the stark lava can be even more striking if you include the ferns and other plants that are the first to colonize lava flows. When the road drops down Holei Pali, look for the trail to Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. An easy 1.4-mile round-trip walk leads past ancient inscriptions in an older lava flow. Just before where the road is closed by recent lava flows, look for Holei Sea Arch viewpoint. The light immediately after sunrise is beautiful in this part of the park.
4. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. If you’re a plant lover and like to photograph exotic flowers, you’ll probably want to spend several hours at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Located a few miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast, the garden includes over 2000 species of plants in its beautiful 40-acre setting. The garden is very photographer friendly, and a lovely waterfall on Onomea Stream at the edge of the property is a nice bonus. Other gardens to visit on the Big Island include Nani Mau Gardens in Hilo, World Botanical Gardens further up the Hamakua Coast, and the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden south of Kailua-Kona town.
5. Akaka Falls State Park. Of all the waterfalls in Hawaii, two on the Big Island are the most well-known, Rainbow Falls in Hilo and Akaka Falls on the Hamakua Coast. A short loop trail in Akaka Falls State Park leads to 442′ tall Akaka Falls, where the flow drops straight down over a lava cliff. The surrounding lush, green vegetation makes the view even more attractive. The trail to the falls also passes through a bamboo forest and gives a glimpse of 100′ tall Kahuna Falls. Due to the terrain, good viewing points for photographs of the falls are very limited, and like Thurston Lava Tube this place gets busloads of visitors every day, so try to be there either fairly early or late in the day. It’s more likely to be cloudy or overcast in the afternoon, the best kind of light for waterfall and forest photography.
6. Waimea – Mana Road. The area surrounding the little town of Waimea is largely ranch country, including historic Parker Ranch, at one time the largest privately-owned cattle ranch in the United States. Follow Mana Road south of town for landscapes of rolling green pastures, perhaps paniolos (cowboys) on a round-up, and views from the lower slopes of Mauna Kea up to its summit. The road is good, solid gravel and dirt for the first few miles, beyond which it becomes a 4WD adventure as the road climbs the slopes of Mauna Kea and circles the eastern side of the mountain.
7. Saddle Road. It has never failed to amazed me that the winding and dangerously narrow Hana Highway is touted as one of the highlights of a visit to Maui, while visitors, and until recently, residents, were always warned to stay off Saddle Road on the Big Island. Granted, much of the road is narrow, there are some nasty curves and portions are frequently fog-shrouded, but with a modicum of care it’s not a bad drive and offers some very unique and beautiful scenery. Officially known as State Highway 200, Saddle Road crosses the lava landscape between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Those interested in native Hawaiian habitat and ecology will enjoy the rainforest on the Hilo side of the drive and Pu’u Huluhulu, a kipuka or island of forest surrounded by barren lava. Saddle Road is also the route to the observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea.
8. ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay. The beach at Waikoloa Resort is the place to go for great sunset+palm trees photos. Tall cocopalms line the sandy beach at ‘Anaeho’omalu, the traditional Hawaiian name for this location. The most popular viewpoint is from the trail around the ancient Hawaiian fishpond that is just behind the beach. The fishpond can be part of your composition, and it makes an interesting subject in itself. Some of the best petroglyphs in Hawaii can be found along a trail near the Kings Shops at Waikoloa Resort.
9. Kona Coast Beach Parks. The Big Island may have fewer long stretches of sandy beach than the other main islands in Hawaii, but it does have some really beautiful little coves scattered around the perimeter of the island. Between Kailua-Kona town and the Kohala Coast resorts, most of the shoreline is barren lava, which at first glance may not be too attractive, but can be great for photos of blowholes and long exposure images of the tidal surge swirling around the jagged lava rocks. There are a couple of roads providing access to the coast at Kekaha Kai State Park, where you can walk the ancient Ala Kahakai Trail to visit several little bays. The area immediately south of Kahalu’u Beach Park at Keauhou is another excellent location for shooting the rugged lava coast at sunset.
10. Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. In ancient Hawaii a person who broke sacred law could escape punishment if they could get to a pu’uhonua, a place of refuge. Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau is the largest and best preserved of these refuges in the islands, and the dedicated staff and volunteers at this National Park have done an incredible job of restoring and replicating Hale O Keawe heiau (temple) and the associated structures of this wonderful cultural site. For a number of years I lived not far from Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau and visited often. It has always been one of my most favorite places in all of Hawaii, both for its beauty and its cultural importance. Spend some quiet time here, wandering the pathways or contemplating the carved wooden ki’i figures and you will surely sense the mana, the spirit, of ancient Hawaii. The light is usually best on the ki’i and the heiau very early in the morning, but this is also an excellent location for sunset light.
Do you agree with my list of the best places on the Big Island for nature photographers? What would you add?
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