Since we’re getting ready to get on an airplane and go on our next big trip soon, I thought it was past time to finally recap our favorite free parts of our trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. The trip was smack dab in the middle of my first ever attempt at at No Spend Month, so I was determined to find as many awesome free and cheap things to do as I could.
My list of possibilities was longer than we possibly could have seen in the week we were there, so I decided to focus on the free or almost free activities to keep the trip as low cost as possible. And to be honest, the trip couldn’t have been any better had we spent more money, which is exactly what I had hoped for.
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Top Ten Free Things To Do On Hawaii
We started our trip on the Kona side of the island, which is the warmer, drier side. It is the area where most of the resorts are clustered, but our interests quickly took us outside downtown Kona:
1. Visit a coffee farm and go on a tour
One of the very first things we did on our first full day on the Big Island of Hawaii was to go on a coffee tour of Greenwell Farms, located about ten miles south of Kona. They have free tours every day, along with lots of free samples of the many varieties of coffee that they roast on site. We got to walk around the farm and learn about the coffee making process from fruit to the final roasted beans. The farm was where we saw our first banana and avocado trees, which our son thought was the absolute coolest thing.
There are a number of other coffee farms that have tours both in Kona and in other parts of the island, but Greenwell Farms was the only one we visited, and definitely worth the stop. We went again the following year because they literally have the best coffee my husband and I have ever tasted.
They also had a variety of fresh fruit for sale that was grown on the property, and we picked up a couple of giant avocados for $1 each that eventually made it into avocado toast later in the week. The coffee beans themselves weren’t exactly cheap, but it’s hard to beat Kona coffee. (Only coffee grown in one small area of Hawaii gets to be labeled “Kona coffee”)
Since we rented Airbnbs with full kitchens, we picked up some coffee for our breakfasts in before heading out to adventure for the rest of the day. This also saved us a ton of money over eating out every meal for the trip – and we got to try a lot more local produce that way.
If you haven’t stayed in an AirBnB before, I would highly recommend it. We love the flexibility it gives us while traveling as a family – full kitchen, laundry, and extra bathrooms, and it’s usually considerably cheaper than a hotel, especially when you travel as a group. If you’re new to AirBnB, here’s a link for $40 off your first stay.
2. Explore The Farmers Markets
The Big Island, just like all of the Hawaiian Islands, has numerous farmers markets throughout the week. Before you go, pay attention to what dates the different markets fall on so you don’t try and visit on the wrong day. While the Hilo Farmers Market is technically open seven days a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays are their big market days with over 200 different vendors to explore. We went on a Wednesday and were not disappointed by the variety available. There were many different fruits and vegetables along with spices, sauces, and other artisan goods that you’d expect from a local market.
We also went to the South Kona Green Market in Captain Cook, near Greenwell Farms. While we were there, they had a free show with local music and dancing. There we picked up some delicious street tacos and the best shave ice we had on the trip. This is a farmers market similar to what we’re used to in the Pacific Northwest, just with a Hawaiian flare in terms of the different fruits and vegetables available for purchase. The only downside was the lack of shaded areas to sit and eat lunch, but we found a spot in the corner under some trees that worked well enough. Go here for a full list of the many farmers markets on the Big Island.
3. Watch The Sunset Over The Ocean
While this might be a really stereotypical thing to do while in Hawaii, it’s a popular one for a reason. The sunsets were absolutely stunning over the expanse of the Pacific and we stopped whatever we were doing to watch the sun sink into the ocean. Of course, this can only be done on the western side of the island near Kona and north to the Kohala coast, but it’s worth your while to do at least one day. And it’s absolutely free to watch the sunset 🙂
4. Go To The Beach
Again, if you’re going to Hawaii, odds are you’re planning to go to the beach at least a few times. There are snorkeling beaches, green sand beaches, black sand beaches, and hang out and relax beaches, but make sure to explore some of the less popular ones as well.
We headed to a small local beach on the north end of the island, following a simple “public beach sign.” That stop was one of the highlights of our whole trip – watching a newborn Hawaiian Monk Seal with its mother. These animals are extremely endangered, and the only other people on the beach at the time were volunteers to make sure they were left alone. If you are lucky enough to see one, please give them a wide berth and watch from afar.
As a former park ranger and someone who has been on sea turtle patrols, I had a fun chat with the volunteer on duty and hope to some day visit the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center that is integral in the survival of the species.
5. Spend An Afternoon At The Free ZOO in hilo hawaii
Amazingly, the Big Island has a free zoo in Hilo, and it is the only tropical rainforest zoo in the United States. While it’s not as large as some of the zoos we’ve visited elsewhere, I’ve never been to a free zoo before. They have tigers, alligators, snakes, Hawaiian Nenes (geese), and many other animals you’d expect to see at a zoo. We were lucky enough to be there at feeding time and got to watch the anteaters get their midday meal.
The Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo has a donation box at the entrance, which we did put some money in, but it has no admittance booth and is absolutely free. I love this idea because zoos are generally only accessible by those with larger incomes. Our local library system has zoo passes, though, so your local zoo may be “free” occasionally as well.
6. Hike Waipi’o Valley
Waipi’o Valley is located about an hour and a half north east of Kona or about an hour and fifteen from Hilo, but it is well worth the drive. The hike distance itself doesn’t seem like much (only three miles round trip), and the hike is on a paved road, but much of it is at a 15-25% grade or more. You hike down into the valley and then have to hike back out to go home.
You can pay for a tour down to the bottom if you aren’t able to make the hike down yourself, but I would not suggest driving down yourself as the road is very steep and twisted. Down at the bottom, you can see a few cars that didn’t quite make the turns, so do take the signs seriously that say 4 wheel drive vehicles only. For as steep as the road is, the hike isn’t that terribly long, and it is worth it to get to the bottom where you end up at one of the island’s black sand beaches. There are longer trails that take you up the other side of the valley, but you would need to block out at least a full day for that.
The Big Island has plenty of other hikes as well, so if Waipi’o is a bit too daunting, I would suggest looking in to a couple other hikes (like the Pololu Valley Lookout). Both also do have some awesome views up top, that don’t require any hiking at all.
7. Drive Up Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on the big island
The Big Island really is by far the largest Hawaiian Island, so be prepared to do quite a bit of driving. Measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on Earth. More impressively, you can drive from sea level to its summit at 14,000 feet in one day. However, we only drove up to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, which is located at 9,200 feet, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason being that we had our soon to be 3 year old with us. It isn’t safe for anyone under 16 years old to make that kind of elevation gain in a single day due to their developing organs. Even adults are recommended to spend a few hours at the Visitor Center first to adjust before continuing on to the top.
The second reason is the same as with Waipi’o Valley; the road grade and curves require a 4WD vehicle. If you’re determined to get all the way to the Observatory, Harper Car And Truck Rental is the only one that explicitly allows you to take their cars up those roads.
Otherwise, there are a number of different companies that will drive you in an off road van (though these options aren’t cheap). Even if you, like us, decide not to go all the way up to the Observatory, it is still well worth driving up to the Visitor Center. The views are spectacular, you can still get a sense of the thinning air up at a high elevation, and there are some reasonable hiking trails directly from the Center.
8. Soak In The Hot Springs ***No longer applicable as lava has overrun this park***
Ahalanui Park and Hot Springs is in Pahoa, about 40 minutes southeast of Hilo, and if you find time to do just one thing outside of hanging out on the beach, this should be it. We have hot springs here in the Pacific Northwest, but this was a wholly different kind of experience. The springs are warm, not hot, absolutely clear, and have no smell of sulphur that is so common to hot springs. The natural pool is right next to the ocean and the perfect spot to spend an afternoon.
The parking lot and park itself are a little run down, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest once you make it in to the water (just be prepared that there are no bathrooms to change in other than porta potties).
9. Walk Past Lava Trees ***no longer applicable as lava has overrun this park***
Before or after visiting the Ahalanui Hot Springs, take the fifteen minute drive to Lava Tree State Monument. The park is free to visit, and the loop itself is flat and less than a mile, with the first lava trees visible just past the parking lot.
“Lava trees” are actually the molds left behind from where lava swept the trees area and the molds of the tree trunks were left behind once the lava cooled and receded. *At the time of writing, this park is closed due to the recent Kilauea eruption, so as is true with all areas of Hawaii, be sure to check the status of the area before you visit.
10. Experience Uncle Robert’s Night Market
We purposefully went to both the Hot Springs and Lava Tree State Monument on Wednesday, because that is the day of Uncle Robert’s Night Market, which is also in he same general area of the Big Island. The Puna District isn’t densely populated, and a bit out of the way, but this night market draws large crowds every Wednesday night.
While it is billed as a Farmers Market, it is more of a festival, with rows and rows of food and craft vendors, live music, and drink. It is an experience, and some of the best food we ate on the island came from that market.
Overall, we had a wonderful trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and we spent just over $400 per person for the entire week. While Hawaii can be an extraordinarily expensive vacation, it doesn’t have to be. There are so many wonderful things to see and do that cost little – or no – money. Though do splurge a little and have a dinner at the Kona Brewing company (and if it’s your anniversary, get a free dessert).
Looking for some more on The Big Island (and not just free stuff)? I highly recommend the guide books Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed and Fodor’s Big Island of Hawaii for a ton of great information with maps and details about the beaches, restaurants, hikes, shopping and more all over the Big Island. Oftentimes, your local library will also have a copy, so you may be able to check out one there instead if you don’t think you’ll want to take it with you.
56 thoughts on “The Top Ten Free Things To Do On The Big Island Of Hawaii”
that’s pretty spectacular. we used to spend time at a carolina beach place, sometimes with friends. it used to kill me to see them spend a day at a swimming pool while, hello, ocean! ocean, right over there! did you have poke?
Crazy enough, we somehow didn’t have any poke! I’m not a big seafood fan, but my husband is. Next time 😉
I’m not sure if I could get past #1 …..
There is coffee involved 🙂
Great roundup and beautiful place.
Seriously the best coffee we’ve ever had. I’m tempted to order some more and have it shipped, but I haven’t given in yet 😉
This is an awesome list! Thanks for taking the time to write.
Will definitely use this as a guide if we go.
Crazy how expensive Hawaiian vacations usually are because there are soooo many awesome free things to do!
Definitely saving this! I can’t believe the coffee tour is free! When we were in Costa Rica, the plantations in our area all charged for tours.
Ouch, how much did they charge? I guess they figure that once you’ve sampled all ~15 varieties you’d just have to buy some to take home with you 😉
I don’t remember exactly but I believe it was around $20-30 USD. I would be much more inclined to buy coffee with a free tour 🙂
Wow that isn’t cheap. Will remember that when we get ourselves to Costa Rica one of these days.
Ooh that photo over the Waipi’o Valley reminds me a lot of the views in the Azores last year (just slightly more tropical)! And now I’m going to spend the rest of the day dreaming about going to Hawaii instead of being at work!
Ahh I so would love to get to the Azores someday! So much farther from the west coast though.
I’ve been wanting to go to Hawaii for years, and still haven’t had the opportunity to. When i think Hawaii, I’m usually thinking beach and sunsets.
I had no idea how many cool things i could actually get into…. Honestly, you had me at FRRE! 😉
Yeah, there are SO many things to do beyond the beach! And while there are tons of places willing to take all your money, there are plenty of other things to do that are cheap or free 😉
It looks like you guys had a ton of fun. We visited a few years ago with families and it was a bit too busy. We stayed in Kona and Volcano. We didn’t have a chance to explore the smaller spots. Next time, we’ll visit the Puna area more.
I think the Volcano National Park is free too, right? Or very cheap.
Volcano National Park is $25 for a full week, so very cheap. Next time I think I’d like to stay in Puna, because we did a bunch of driving back to that area.
I have so many friends and family that gone to Hawaii and yet I’m the only who hasn’t been there. But I also know that it can be an expensive trip. From airfare to where to stay it can add up quite a bit. Hopefully I can make it out there one of these years and with this list you provided, I know that I can cut down expenses by doing some of them. I was aware of the hiking and of course hanging out on the beach but wasn’t aware of the zoo and the coffee farm.
Especially with a kid, the zoo is totally worth doing! And it *can* be an expensive trip. If we’d gone the cc rewards direction with lodging not just airfare, we could have cut yet another $700 off our trip.
Looks a great place and sadly I haven’t been either, so that needs to change! Good that you found so many free (or low-cost) things to do, I like that and I think most places in the world have these if one is prepared to make the effort to search them out. You mentioned driving in several sections, is this via car hire or public transport? If car hire, is that expensive ? Great article, enjoyed reading it!
There is a bus that goes around the island (and only $2!) but it doesn’t run often enough that it worked for our trip. Hoping for a trip in the future where we can slow down and just use the bus. I actually wrote a separate post on the car rental we did, which ended up being very affordable: https://treadlightlyretireearly.com/2017/10/24/where-to-rent-a-car-affordably-in-kona-hawaii/
Wow, what timing on this article! I was waiting to see #1 as “Don’t get caught up in an eruption”
Cool list. You know me, I of course climbed Mauna Kea. It was awesome. I went from sea level to 13,700 feet. I had a hard time finding a jacket in stores since I was really on a work trip and didn’t bring one. They don’t really sell them much. It was cold up top.
I also wen to see the spot were Capt. Cook was killed, it’s right by one of the black sand beaches. And yes, the Waipi’o Valley is jaw-dropping!
Ha yeah, *unfortunately* for us the island was pretty quiet on the eruption front while we were there. We talked about maybe going back some day to do the climb from the visitors center to the summer. Sounds like way more fun than driving up in my opinion.
What an awesome recap! Your trip almost mirrored mine except for all the time in the lava district! I was so close to saying “screw it all” and moving there in 2009. Incredible experience and went back for another two weeks
Yeah, we had to talk ourselves out of going back this month with our upcoming trip. Decided we should explore somewhere new instead, but we will definitely be back!
This is a great list. I think that when you enjoy outdoorsy activities it’s a lot easier to keep vacation spending more moderate. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy sitting at a tiki bar enjoying cocktails, but that’s the kind of stuff that takes a vacation into the “outrageous” category as far as price!
Very true – and the luaus and helicopter tours as well 😉
Great suggestions, I will have to keep some of this in mind next time we go. The wife and I travel hacked our way to Hawaii a year or more ago and loved the Big Island! The hotel we were staying at had a Luau but we didn’t go because it was ridiculously expensive and we couldn’t eat much of the food, being vegetarians. It turned out we had a nice view of the dancing from our room, so we could relax and watch with our own food and drinks! All in all we spent a little under $100 for the trip and had a blast, you can definitely save money by just enjoying the beauty of Hawaii.
Okay being able to see the luau from your room while having your own food and drinks is the best hack I’ve heard yet! We didn’t do a luau but did still get to see some dancing at a farmers market, so that was pretty great 🙂
Looks like an amazing trip and $400 per person per week is cheap! Viewing the sunsets on the beach and seeing a Hawaiian Monk Seal would be the definite highlights for me.
The monk seal pup was definitely on the top of my list (and something I didn’t expect to see). So so cool.
and 18 days ago there was another baby born to the same mama! So there is another monk seal pup to see!
No way!! So cool.
Great suggestions, I will have to keep Uncle Roberts night market in mind when we go back (we love great food). A year or more ago, the wife and I travel hacked our way to Hawaii and it was stunning! We made it to a lot of the places you listed, and on Maui, the best frugal thing we did was the road to Hana. All in all we spent about $100 not earned on credit cards. Travel hacking is hard sometimes, but it was worth it for this trip!
Yeah, I do love using Airbnbs for the kitchen/laundry option, but I’m starting to consider some travel hacking for hotels too. It’s just such a good deal.
What is travel hacking for hotels?
Just like you would for flights, but redeemed for hotels 🙂
Great post! I want to go right now 😊
Me too! We will be back soon I’m certain 🙂
Hawaii? Free stuff to do? I knew I had to read this as soon as I saw the title!
I had no idea there was so many affordable activities in Hawaii. I think the lava trees sound especially neat.
The lava trees were totally cool. And we had the whole place to ourselves, because it’s in one of the more out of the way parts of the island.
We did VRBO and spent a week of our honeymoon on the big island. I loved it and think we’ll be going back in a couple years with the kiddo. We stayed in Hilo, the Kapoho Tide Pools in Pahoa and near South Point. We made it to lava Trees and the Hot Springs since we were in Pahoa. And the Hilo farmers market.
There’s so much great free stuff to do in Hawaii. We somehow missed the free zoo though. But we did spend plenty of time exploring the public parks in Hilo and sack lunching it. I remember visiting an orchid farm. We hiked to one of the black sands beaches in Puna.
When we stayed near south point we were at the golf resort right next to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. We spent a good amount of time there and it was a popular place for sea turtles. Because there are fresh water springs in the water there, I didn’t realize I was swimming with the turtles until I looked at my underwater video when we got home! But there were also turtles on the beach (and the volunteers to protect them to go with).
At South Point (which is cool, just because it is the southernmost point in the US) we hiked over to the green sands beach.
Honestly I think all we spent money on after our VRBO stays was passes to the Volcanoes Park and food! I don’t think we paid for a single activity on the big island.
That’s my favorite kind of travel.
Looks like a fun trip! Got me wanting to go back, but I think I’ll wait until the lava slows down a bit.
Sounds like you had a very similar trip to ours (other than with the kid in tow). Sadly we didn’t make it to green sands beach, but that just means we’ll have to go back 😉
Does that sign say “strawberry papaya” in the photo with all the fruits? I’ve never heard of such thing!
There were so many fruit varieties I’d never heard of there! So cool.
Love this post and the stunning pictures!
Thanks! I’m so ready to go back 😉
This place is like getting shots from a time before the dinosaurs – what place is this again?
LOL, jk. My brother in law is in Hawaii right now I should send him this list. Are you guys much beer drinkers? Anything on the big island for home brews? He’s probably vacation drunk.
We actually went to all three breweries on the island 😉 I’d have to say Kona was the best, but all three were worth visiting for sure.
What I love about your list? Every activity is OUTDOORS! Nice article, Angela! I’m desperate to get to Hawaii, or anywhere Polynesia. For the longest time I wanted to check out Tahiti, especially after reading Mutiny on the Bounty. But I hear that unlike Hawaii, Tahiti is awfully muggy, hot, buggy, and full of French speaking snobs. Might still be a hoot.
Exactly right! Will be what our upcoming trip looks like as well – we are actually just straight up avoiding the big cities 😉 Amazingly Hawaii didn’t seem to have too many bugs, which seemed odd to me.
So you’re leaving soon. Not sure what impact the volcano is going to have on your trip. We were there last Oct. and it was abnormally quite. I have always wanted to hike the park trail to the south shore to wash the lava pour into the ocean – I guessing the trails are closed? Have a great trip.
We were there in November, and it was abnormally quiet while we were there as well. A bit more exciting there now 😉
I love the way u write a blog in beautiful manner . The pictures are very amazing . The content is perfect. thanks for sharing this post.
Really love this adventure, but i wanna Drive Up Mauna Kea sometimes.. Thank you