Aloha! While all of the islands of Hawaii have waterfalls, none are perhaps as accessible as some of the ones on the Big Island of Hawaii. Most of the waterfalls can be seen along the northeastern coast of the island, along the Hamakua and Hilo Coast. While part of the island is a dark desert of dry volcanic rock, this part of the island is green, wet, and supports amazing lush vegetation, rainforests, and botanical gardens. And of course, some spectacular waterfalls! I love waterfalls and have been lucky to have had the opportunity to spend about 2 weeks on the Big Island and seeing many, but certainly not all, of these wonderful cascading waterfalls.
In addition to the waterfalls listed, there are a number of others that are unnamed or exist in inaccessible areas of the island. Now, all the waterfalls listed below are located between the Waipi’o Valley (located near the small town of Kukuihaele) and Hilo. All fall within the areas are Hamakua, North Hilo, and South Hilo if you have a map of the traditional land divisions. I’ve tried to list them in order starting at the Waipi’o Valley and moving southeast to Hilo. You can skip through all the waterfalls descriptions to the Question & Answer section at the bottom of the article if you are only interested in visiting the most picturesque, most easily accessible, or highest waterfalls on the Big Island as I’ll summarize that information at the bottom of the post.
Waterfalls on the Big Island from the Waipi’o Valley to Hilo
Waipi’o Valley Waterfalls (Hi’ilawe Falls, Kaluahine Falls, Waiulili Falls)
The Waipi’o Valley is one of my favorite places on the Big Island of Hawaii. You can view the beautiful green Waipi’o Valley from a paved lookout area that includes a number of free parking spaces, but to actually really see the waterfalls you need to enter the valley. However, given that none of the waterfalls are guaranteed to be viewable, flowing, or accessible during any certain time point, I would only seek out these waterfalls if you know for sure they are flowing and accessible or if you were planning to visit the Waipi’o valley anyway. To get into the valley you can walk the steep paved road (25% grade!) down into the valley or try to drive there in a 4WD vehicle (do not try this with 2WD and if you do choose to venture down here in a rented 4WD you’ll likely be violating your rental car agreement). There are also shuttles and wagons you can hire to take you in and out of the valley. Once into the valley, you can head right towards the black sand beach or left along the country road that may offer view of Hi’ilawe Falls (it is not always flowing—it’s been 50/50 in our experience). There exists a lot of confusion and misinformation out there on how to get to Hi’ilawe Falls (1,450 feet) and whether visitors have public access. The waterfall is often viewable from the road at a distance if you follow the country road to the left once you get into the valley in the opposite direction of the beach (it may also be viewable from the switchback trails along the Muliwai Trail discussed in the Waimanu Valley Falls section). However, to get close to the waterfall you have to trespass into private property, and unless you have prior permission from those land owner’s properties you plan to hike across, you should not try to get up close to the waterfall as you’d be trespassing and it can be treacherous. However, you can get closer by taking a horseback or guided hiking tour where the guides have permission to take you closer to the waterfall. Now, once you get into the valley, if you turn right, you’ll head to the beach. Kaluahine Falls can usually be seen from the right side of the beach if flowing (it is often not flowing), but to view the larger Waiulili Falls you must follow a boulder-strewn trail along the surf by going right once you near the black sand beach. However, don’t attempt this if the tide is rough as it can be quite dangerous. There are also waterfalls to the far left of the beach but do not attempt to go across the boulders in that direction—I found from personal experience this can be quite dangerous (and I never made it all the way to the waterfall).
Waimanu Valley WaterFalls (Wai’ilikahi Falls, Lahomene Falls, Waihilau Falls)
The Waimanue Valley contains three major waterfalls including Wai’ilikahi Falls (1,080 feet), Lahomene Falls (1,800 feet), and the mighty Waihilau Falls (estimated 2,600 feet!), which is one of the tallest in all of Hawaii and in the world. However, these are the most difficult of the public waterfalls to access as it requires not only descending into Wai’pio Valley but then finding the Muliwai Trail trailhead and hiking another 9 miles along a series of switchback trails to reach this pristine valley. This is a difficult hike and should only be done by those who are physically fit and should not be done during times of heavy rain as you’ll need to cross numerous streams along the hike. You will need a permit acquired either in person or online from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, a good map, and proper provisions. This should not be attempted as a day hike and there are limited number of rustic campsites once you reach Waimanu valley. We regrettably have not had the opportunity to do this hike yet as it requires a bit of planning, but it is near the top of the list for our next visit to the Big Island.
The Nanue Falls are actually a series of waterfalls located on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. While drivers can see the lower part of the waterfalls by pulling over near the Nanue Stream Bridge, there are larger waterfalls further upstream that can be viewed by following the steep trail along the Nanue River. Most people opt only for the view from the bridge as the hike is quite steep and involves getting wet by wading in the stream and coming into contact with mosquitos and spiders. If you do decide to hike, check the weather forecast as flash floods can make this hike very dangerous.
Umauma Falls is an attractive multi-tiered waterfall that is probably the third most photographed on the island (after Akaka and Rainbow Falls). This waterfall is on private land owned by the Umauma Experience company and so you need to pay to view them. You can see them by booking a ziplining or kayaking adventure or you can just stop by the Visitor’s center to do a self-guided walk of the gardens which includes great views of the waterfall. the cost for the self-guided walk is $10/person or free for children under 12 years of age. If you don’t want to pay, there are some less impressive nearby falls of the lower part of the Umauma River viewable from a bridge between the 16 and 17-mile markers along Highway 19.
Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls
Visit the Akaka Falls State Park and take the pleasant 0.4 mile paved foot path loop that takes you to viewing spots of both Akaka Falls (442 feet) and Kahuna Falls (100 feet). It takes about 20-30 minutes to complete the loop. The state park entry fees are $5/car or $1/pedestrian. These two waterfalls are among the most accessible in the state.
These small tiered waterfalls are tucked inside the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden near Hilo. The Onomea Falls are only viewable by paying for entry to the botanical gardens. While the waterfalls are a bit modest in size, the gardens are beautiful for those who love tropical flowers and we really enjoyed our visit here.
Rainbow Falls (a.k.a. Waiānuenue Falls in Hawaiian)
Rainbow Falls (80 feet) often resemble a wishbone and are named because you can often see rainbows here in the mornings. They are very accessible by the road with a parking lot, paved path, and wide lookout area. You can also climb a series of slippery steps to view the waterfalls from the top, but be careful. This site is well touristed, but offers postcard-perfect views and photo opportunities.
Pe’epe’e Falls (pronounced peh-eh peh-eh, not pee-pee) can be viewed from a paved lookout area. Pe’epe’e Falls (60 feet) are fairly impressive up-close, but unfortunately the paved viewing area of the falls doesn’t really provide an optimal view. The viewing area does provide a great view of the Boiling Pots, which are a series of bowl-shaped pools where the water rushes through old lava rocks and lava tubes and appears to bubble up or boil as it makes it way downstream. Now, if you really want to get a closer look of Pe’epe’e Falls you can follow a trail from the side of the lookout point down to the river to swim in the pools and make your way closer to the falls, but only do this if you know the river is low, you are sure-footed and a good swimmer, and the weather is good as the current can be quite strong and dozens of people—locals and tourists alike—have been injured or drowned in the currents. The river was too high and dangerous during our visit, so we actually hiked/climbed in the grassy/wooded area alongside the river to get better views, but this was tough and muddy and I would not recommend this, at least not in the rain like we did.
The two tiered Wai’ale Falls are not very high but the amount of water flow here is quite considerable. This same water flows downstream into the more popular Rainbow Falls. You can view Wai’ale Falls from a bridge on Waianuenue road. We just parked nearby and walked to the bridge for photos. You can also follow a dirt trail to the top of the falls, but the views don’t get too much better.
The Kulaniapia Falls (estimated at 80 feet) are on private property owned by the innkeepers of the aptly named The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. While these falls are not open for public viewing, a stay at this inn above Hilo provides you with access to your very own private waterfall. You can also swim in the pond at the foot of the falls. While we haven’t stayed at the inn yet, we can vouch that the waterfalls are very attractive as we accidentally got lost looking for Rainbow Falls and ended up in their parking lot by following the Kualaniapia Falls signs by accident. The owner, Lenny, graciously allowed us to view the waterfalls from the giant deck of the inn.
Questions and Answers about the Waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii
Q: But I have only Time for One Waterfall! Which one should I see?
A: Well, it’s too bad that you don’t have more time for the waterfalls on the Big Island, but not to worry! If time is short and you only have time to visit one waterfall, our recommendation would be to make time for Akaka State Falls Park as it very accessible and allows for you to see two waterfalls in a pretty lush setting. A close second recommended option would be to drive to Rainbow Falls and if time allows continue on to nearby Pe’epe’e Falls and Wai’ale Falls as these three waterfalls are a short distance from each other and easy to access by car. Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls are often considered the most picturesque on the island.
Q: Which Waterfalls on the Big Island are most accessible?
A: The waterfalls that are most easily accessible, meaning you can simply see them from the road or from a very short walk from the car, are Rainbow Falls, Pe’epe’Falls, and Waiale Falls. Also, the lower parts of Nanue Falls and the falls at the lower part of the Umanuma River are both viewable from bridges. Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls (requires state park fee), Umanuma Falls (requires admission fee), and Onomea Fall (requirse admission fee) are reachable from slightly longer, but easy walks. For those with mobility problems, there is handicap parking located near Umanuma Falls to make them more accessible. If you just want your own waterfall to gaze at as much as you wish, consider booking a room near the Kalaniapia Falls.
The most difficult, or least accessible, waterfalls on the Big Island on this list are the Waimanu Valley waterfalls, Waipi’o Valley waterfalls, and the upper falls of the Nanue Falls.
Q: What are the Highest Waterfalls on the Big Island?
A: Waihilau Falls (estimated 2,600 feet) in the Waimanu Valley is the highest, but several of the waterfalls in the Waipi’o and Waimanu valleys are over 1,000 feet! The highest easily accessible waterfall on the island is Akaka Falls (442 feet).
Q: Other Resources for Exploring the Waterfalls on the Big Island?
A: Any good guidebook to the island should list at least several of the more accessible waterfalls on the island and how to get there. As you read more about each waterfall, you’ll discover that many of these waterfalls have Hawaiian legends and myths tied to them. Another excellent resource is the World of Waterfalls website, as the author appears to have also visited the majority of the waterfalls on this list and has taken some wonderful photographs of many of the waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii as well as waterfalls across the world. You might also check out the World Waterfall Database that lists information about waterfalls that have been documented across the world and currently lists 56 for the state of Hawaii (many more are likely still undocumented).
Have other questions about the waterfalls on the Big Island of Hawaii? Just ask away. Also, if you have added tips or know some information about waterfalls on the Big Island that we missed, just let us know!