The Island of Hawai’i’s eastern side is anchored by Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island. Verdant and lush, Hilo lies in the shadow of both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and is home to some of the island’s most recognisable and postcard-perfect waterfalls.
Many of these falls are imbued with mythical qualities and garner deep reverence from the locals. Additionally, the ecosystems supported by the waterfalls are often delicate and prone to destruction. It is important for visitors to acknowledge and abide by posted signage at these sites, not only out of respect but due to safety concerns. (River drownings account for a sizeable percentage of the island’s annual drowning rate.) While they may look like the perfect place for a swim, many are off limits from recreation.
To call the areas surrounding Hilo a tropical paradise is hardly an exaggeration, with its jungle and rolling hills of macadamia nut orchards tumbling down to the Pacific coast. The beautiful but dangerous Wailuku River cascades between lava flows, providing the fuel for some of the Island of Hawai’i’s most iconic waterfalls. Here are the must-see waterfalls on the western side of the Big Island, in no particular order.
1. Waiānuenue Falls
Also known as Rainbow Falls, Waiānuenue Falls is part of Wailuku River State Park. There is free parking and no entrance fee, and visitors are treated to a spectacular view of the river tumbling in front of a natural lava cave, considered to be the home of the goddess Hina, mother to the mythic Hawai’ian hero, Māui. Its nickname comes from the arcing rainbow visible in the waterfall mist on a sunny morning- get there early to catch the prismatic colours in all their beauty.
2. Peʻepeʻe Falls and the Boiling Pots
Another stretch of the Wailuku River forms Pe’epe’e Falls and the Boiling Pots, said to be the site of a struggle between Māui and the lizard Mo’o Kuna, who was intent on drowning Māui’s mother. During periods of high water, the pools of water downstream fill up and overflow, giving the impression, and the name, of Boiling Pots.
3. ‘Akaka Falls
‘Akaka Falls are the crown jewel of Hilo’s waterfalls. There is a parking fee to visit ‘Akaka Falls State Park, but it is worth it for the hike and eventual view of the breathtaking cascade. A trail of moderate difficulty leads down into the jungle, over the stream, before looping back up toward the viewing point for ‘Akaka Falls. While the vegetation along the route is gorgeous, it’s worth noting that much of it is comprised of non-native or invasive species, brought to the area many years ago to provide the typical “tropical garden” look that was in vogue at the time. (Luckily, we know better now!)
‘Akaka Falls itself is a marvel; the water plunges straight down into a deep gorge from a height of 135 metres (442 feet). Once you see ‘Akaka Falls, you will understand what an amazing feat of nature it is that there is a fish capable of scaling the cliffs from the pool at the bottom to reach the stream at the top!
4. Bonus: the waterfalls at Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden
A short drive from ‘Akaka Falls State Park, the Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden is a privately-managed sanctuary along the coastline featuring areas of both native and non-native flora. A number of smaller cascades throughout provide the perfect, tranquil soundtrack to your slow amble through the jungle. HTBG is surprisingly large; plan to spend a couple hours meandering through it and taking breaks on one of the many provided benches. These beautiful gardens showcase the beauty of the natural world, with well laid-out trails and plenty of signage and descriptions to help you identify the multitudes of plants. A small entrance fee provides HTBG’s non-profit with funds to maintain this beautiful corner of the Big Island.
Have you been to the Big Island and seen her waterfalls? Which ones are your favourite? Let me know!