The Rainbow Falls Waterfall are one of my favorites on the Big Island

The Top 9 Waterfalls to Visit on the Big Island of Hawaii

You’re planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and you want to visit some of the many beautiful waterfalls on this volcanic island. Well, you are in luck…

There are so many incredible waterfalls, making it hard to know where to start.

Visiting the Big Island of Hawaii is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’ve done all the work for you to help plan your trip. Here is our list of the top 9 waterfalls in Hawaii that won’t disappoint! Akaka, Kahuna, Hi’ilawe, Rainbow, Umauma, Pe’epe’e, Kulaniapia, Onomea and Wai’ilikahi Falls.

Most of the waterfalls are found near Hilo and northeastern, or Hamakua, coast. This is also close to where most of the black sand beaches on the Big Island are located. Be sure to do both if you have the time.

I have included a downloadable map of these waterfalls at the bottom of this post to help with your planning and navigation. I also included a table of contents, so feel free to skip to the sections you are most interested in.

Things to Note

All the waterfalls listed below are spectacular in their own way, and when you visit them they’re sure to impress.

While they’re all worth seeing, we must warn you that most of them do not have a swimming hole or pool available. Regardless, they are still worth the visit if you love nature and gorgeous views.

Please remember that all of these falls have different levels of water throughout the year.

If you decide to swim, please take extra precautions as rivers are prone to flash flooding.

Waterfall Risk: 

There is a chance of injury or death if you decide to go swimming or wading in any waterfall. One of the risks is that rocks occasionally get washed over the falls and can land on unsuspecting swimmers.

Most of these places do not have a lifeguard on duty, making you solely responsible for your safety.

Before we talk about the best waterfalls, let’s discuss some FAQs you might have:

Is swimming allowed at Akaka Falls?

Swimming is NOT allowed at Akaka Falls State Park.

Is swimming allowed at Rainbow Falls?

Unfortunately, swimming is not allowed at Rainbow Falls, and there are signs warning about the danger of swimming.

I have seen people continue to do it anyway, but this is just asking for trouble. You might hear that people go swimming here, but don’t do it! See below for the sign that was there when I went.

The hiking trail at Rainbow Falls waterfall is closed. Rainbow Falls are one of the top waterfalls to visit on the Big Island

Which waterfall can you swim at on the Big Island?

The only waterfall you can swim at on the Big Island is the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls.

What is the largest waterfall in Hawaii?

The largest waterfall in Hawaii is Olo’upena Falls, located in Molokai. Standing at 2,954 feet tall, this waterfall is spectacular.

It is located in the Pelekunu Preserve on the windward side of Molokai. This is part of Hawaii’s state park system.

Swimming Holes on the Big Island of Hawaii

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls is one of the only waterfalls I recommend swimming at while on the Big Island.

I have seen other people recommend Pe’epe’e Falls as another great option. I am not sure how people did this as signs warn against it, and it’s illegal and can be dangerous.

Please keep in mind that the historic area located by the parking lot is not safe for swimming. This place is good for viewing and taking photos.

Which Hawaiian island has the best waterfall hikes?

Compared to Maui, Oahu, and Kauai, The Big Island of Hawaii has some of the most popular waterfalls in all of Hawaii.

That’s not to say that the Big Island has the best waterfalls — I think all the islands have something great to offer when it comes to these fascinating feats of nature. They are all unique in their own ways.

If you’re debating on visiting Oahu or Maui, you can check out my other article on Oahu Vs Maui to learn more.

Also, if you are visiting Oahu and want to know where the best waterfall hikes are on Oahu, I’ve got you covered.

For more information on waterfalls in Maui, You can check out this post on the best 15 stops on the Road to Hana. This has some of the best waterfalls on Maui.

What are the best hikes on the Big Island?

The best hikes on the Big Island of Hawaii are indeed a mixed bag. Each hike has its charm, and all offer beautiful views of different parts of the island.

What you’ll see along the route will depend on what trail you choose, but each one is worth it!

My personal favorites are Polulu Valley, The Puna Trail, and The hike to Makalawena Beach, to name a few.

Below are my picks on the best waterfalls on the Big Island

Each one of these is worth visiting at least once in my opinion.

If you decide to swim, please remember to always swim with caution and be aware of the danger around you no matter where you are.

Top 9 Waterfalls on The Big Island

Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls

Akaka and Kahuna Falls are part of the Akaka Falls State Park, located north of Hilo. Akaka Falls are about 422 feet tall, but are only viewable from the viewing platform. Swimming is not allowed here, so keep that in mind when you visit.

We went to one of the top waterfalls on the Big Island: Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls

By far, Akaka Falls are my favorite waterfall to visit on the Big Island. The view is spectacular and the tame and paved nature hike was enjoyable too.

The waterfalls are located less than half a mile from the parking lot. The hike to the waterfall takes either 5 or 15 minutes, depending on which route you decide to take. 

Akaka Falls Hiking Entrance

You can either go left or right after you go down the stairs from the parking lot.

The left is a shorter route to get to the Akaka waterfall, but if you are up for an adventure I recommend taking a right for a longer but beautiful hike.

Akaka and Kahuna Falls are a favorite waterfall on the Big Island

But don’t worry, this is a very easy hike to do and the trail is paved and well maintained.

While Kahuna Falls are also located in this state park, you can hear them more than you can see them.

They can be difficult to spot, so it may be worthwhile bringing a pair of binoculars if you really want to get a good look.

Entry Fees: For Akaka Falls, entry is free for children under ten years old and $5 per adult. Visit the State Parks website for updated pricing.

Hi’ilawe Falls

Hi’ilawe Falls is a great waterfall to visit and is one of the tallest waterfalls in Hawaii. The waterfall is located inside Waipio Valley and is about 1,450 feet tall.

You can start the hike to this waterfall from the Waipio Valley lookout.

We visited Hi'ilawe Falls, one of the best waterfalls in Hawaii

The Waipio Valley lookout trailhead is a very steep but short half-mile hike. The water can be seen while hiking down the valley, and it should be visible to the left within around 7 minutes into the hike (depending on how fast you walk).

There is no swimming allowed here; you can only view the falls from a safe distance.

The cliffs were formed from the lava flow from Mauna Kea that once flowed down the mountainside.

Rainbow Falls

The Rainbow Falls are located in Hilo and are fed by the Wailuku River — the same river that also feeds the Pe’epe’e Falls.

The Rainbow Falls Waterfall are one of my favorites on the Big Island

This waterfall can only be accessed from the lookout, and swimming here is no longer allowed.

I visited Rainbow Falls in September of 2021 and the trail to get to the top was closed. Please do not be tempted to hike up if there are signs that say hiking is not allowed and it’s blocked off.

While I was there I witnessed two people hike to the top, even though it clearly said not to do so. On the bright side, they did not jump off the falls as they planned to. Thankfully they didn’t, as there appeared to be rocks under the shallow water at the bottom of the falls.

Rainbow Falls are beautiful and can be viewed from a relatively close location, making them that much more enjoyable. Even though swimming is no longer allowed here, it’s worth the drive as the view is amazing and can be seen from the parking lot.

This us the sign you will see when visiting the Rainbow Falls Waterfall
There is parking available at Rainbow Falls Waterfall

Pe’epe’e Falls

Pe’epe’e Falls are another great waterfall that you can visit. It is located about 1.6 miles (5-minute drive) from Rainbow Falls and is also part of the Wailuku River.

We visited the Pe'epe'e Falls after visiting Rain Falls. These falls are some of the best on the Big Island

The Wailuku River flows along the bottom of the gorge and downstream to Rainbow Falls. Lava from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa meet near the base of Pe’epe’e Falls, about 2 miles downstream.

Compared to Rainbow Falls, Pe’epe’e Falls are less crowded and less known. If you prefer places that are not busy, then you will love Pe’epe’e Falls.

When people talk about swimming at Pe’epe’e Falls, they are probably referring to the boiling pots located by the lookout point.

They are a series of small pools fed by the Wailuku River. Wading through these pools is not recommended.

Swimming is not allowed at Pe'epe'e Falls

The pots are called boiling pots because, during heavy rain, the flow of water increases and the pots appear to be “boiling”.

Swimming here is not recommended, even on days where it feels safe. There are no lifeguards here, so please be extremely cautious. There have been instances where people lost their lives here. The water conceals long lava ridges, so it’s easy to be pulled in and trapped.

Umauma Falls

At the writing of this post, the Umauma Falls are now accessible through the botanical gardens. You no longer need to book a tour with the Umauma Experience to get to the falls.

The Umauma Falls are a spectacular 3 tiered waterfall on the Big Island

You can now drive on a concrete road right to the falls and tropical garden. You will need to stop at the visitor center to register before heading to the falls.

The Umauma Falls are a spectacular 3-tiered falls and one of the best waterfalls on the Big Island.

Kulaniapia Falls

The Kulaniapia Falls is a private 90-100 foot waterfall located at the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. The falls are located in the rainforest. Please keep in mind that the falls are not accessible to the general public.

You have to be a guest at the Inn to access the trail leading to the waterfall. You can also book one of their events to have access to their waterfall.

You can visit their website at the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls for additional details.

We stayed at the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls and enjoyed the waterfall

This is one of the best waterfalls to visit while on the Big Island, and I highly recommend staying here. It’s secluded and quiet, and staying here really forces you to slow down and enjoy many of the natural beauties that Hawaii has to offer.

The waterfall is split into two waterfalls that fall into a pool below. This waterfall used to have a high volume of water in the stream, making swimming here dangerous. After some time, the stream’s flow lessened and it is now safe to swim here.

This is a great family-friendly waterfall as there are no strong currents or falling rocks around.

Onomea Falls

One of the most spectacular waterfalls in Hawaii is Onomea Falls.

This waterfall is created from a small stream and is a multiple-tier waterfall located inside the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden. You will need to pay an admission fee to see these falls. Visit the Botanical Gardens website for updated pricing.

Looking at the Onemea Falls. This is one of the best waterfalls on the Big Island

The waterfall flows from a water source called the Onomea Stream.

Wai’ilikahi Falls

Wai’ilikahi Falls are yet another gem on the Big Island, but it takes a lot to hike to the falls. This is a very difficult hike to complete in one day and is not recommended for beginners.

I highly encourage taking a helicopter tour through the Kohala Coast if you want to see these waterfalls, unless you are a very experienced hiker looking for some adventure.

The falls are located in Waimanu Valley. There is only one way to get here, and that’s by hiking along the coastal trail. You can access this trail from the Waipio Valley lookout.

It’s approximately a 19-mile out and back hike that takes around 4 hours each way. I would plan 10 hours out of your day if you are thinking about doing the hike.

Plan to hike on slippery rocks, uphill slogs, tree roots, mud, and unmaintained trails.

One other thing to note is that there are 13 streams you will have to cross before getting to the water. I highly discourage doing this hike during the rainy season.

If you plan to camp here, please make sure you obtain the proper permits, as they are required. You can contact the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 808-974-4221.

What is the best way to visit all these waterfalls?

Scenic Drive:

We decided to take a scenic drive while staying on the Hilo side to see some of these waterfalls.

Most of these waterfalls are located very close to each other, and it makes sense to see them in one day as it only takes a few minutes to get from one to the other.

Helicopter Tour

Another great way to visit all of these falls is through a helicopter tour. They are very safe and you will have amazing views.

Make sure your tour includes all of the waterfalls you want to see. This might cost more, but it’s well worth it.

You don’t want any surprises that could ruin your trip. Confirming what your tour includes will ensure that you won’t miss out on any of the waterfalls.

I highly recommend checking out Viator for some of the best tours in Hawaii.

If you are in the Kona area, I highly recommend Paradise Helicopters. They are one of the best helicopter companies in Hawaii.

Organized Tours

Another great way to see these waterfalls is to take an organized tour. There are plenty of these tours you can take while on the Big Island.

Map of Big Island Waterfalls

Download and/or view the map of all 9 waterfalls here.

Wrapping Up the Best Waterfalls on the Big Island

If you’re looking for a little piece of paradise on the Big Island, just keep your eyes peeled and head to one of these gorgeous waterfalls. Each has its own unique beauty that will leave you in awe from start to finish!

Seeing waterfalls is a great way to save money while on your vacation to Hawaii. As we all know, a trip to Hawaii can be expensive and doing free or cheap activities is how most of us can afford to travel.

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