Waterfall adventures on the Big Island of Hawai'i

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On Hawai'i Island (aka the Big Island), the beaches aren’t the only spectacular spots for water views. Throughout the island, cascading waterfalls leap off cliffs and tumble down canyon walls. All you have to do is pack the car with sunscreen, water, towels and an island-style lunch to go holoholo (cruising around at leisure) to see them.

Wailele, the Hawaiian word for waterfall, stems from wai, the word for fresh water. Saltwater is kai. Some of Hawaii Island's most breathtaking and accessible waterfalls lie along the northeastern coast, the greenest and most fertile part of the island with lush tropical rainforests and botanical gardens.

To see some of the top spots on the Big Island, start in Hilo at Wailuku River State Park, home to 80-ft Waianuenue, also known as Rainbow Falls. Its Hawaiian name means 'rainbow water,' and if you visit on a sunny morning, you’ll see why. Legend says that the cave beneath the falls was home to Hina, mother of Maui, the demigod credited with creating the Hawaiian Islands.

The Wailuku River also feeds smaller, multi-spouted Pe'epe’e Falls. The runoff from both waterfalls lead to the bubbling pools called Boiling Pots, a succession of pools where the water rolls and bubbles as if boiling. The pools are visible from the parking area, but if you hike down the trail to the water's edge, you can experience their exciting turbulence up close.

Lush waterfall scenery from the Wailuku River behind the Boiling Pots. Photo by Merten Snijders / Getty Images.

From Hilo, head north along the Hamakua Heritage Corridor on the way to the Waipi'o Valley Lookout. Take a break at 'Akaka Falls State Park, and hike along a short (0.04 miles) footpath lined with torch ginger, bird of paradise and ti plants to what is perhaps Hawaii Island’s most famous waterfall. Cascading 'Akaka Falls plummets 442 ft into the emerald-lined gorge. Farther up the trail is 100-foot Kahuna Falls, a smaller waterfall somewhat obscured by the rainforest.

If your goal is to visit 'Akaka Falls State Park before the tour bus crowds, get there in the earlier part of the morning. When the hordes arrive, you can depart and drive north to the World Botanical Gardens. Aside from the more than 5000 species of Hawaiian and tropical flora on display, there’s also an overlook that reveals Kamae'e Falls as it plunges off a cliff to the clear pool below.

'Akaka Falls, Hamakua Coast, Waimea Reagion. Photo by Greg Elms / Getty Images.

Across the road is the Umauma Experience, where you can view the enchanting Umauma Falls, a unique triple-decker waterfall. If you’re feeling adventurous, the park also offers an exhilarating zip line tour, as well as a swim and kayak adventure to mix in with the waterfall vistas.

As you continue to the scenic Waipi'o Valley Lookout, it’s easy to pause frequently to count the waterfalls in the valleys along Hawaii Belt Road. King Kamehameha I was raised in this sacred valley (known as the Valley of Kings), where you’ll find the towering, 1300-ft Hi'ilawe Falls, Hawaii Island’s tallest waterfall. A legend of the creation of Hi'ilawe Falls surrounds a young couple, Hi’ilawe and Kakalaoa. As they spent time together in Waipi'o Valley, they encountered an ‘elepaio bird, a bad luck omen. Vowing never to be separated, Hi’ilawe turned herself into a waterfall and Kakalaoa became the large boulder at its base. Want a closer look? A handful of outfitters offer guided hikes and horseback tours of the Waipi'o Valley.

Only skilled hikers should trek to see Wai'ilikahi Falls in the Waimanu Valley, on the far side of Waipi'o Valley. The challenges include distance, stream crossings (upwards of 12), steep switchbacks and camping permits. If you keep going beyond Wai'ilikahi Falls, in the valley are Kaka'auki Falls, Lahomene Falls and Waihulu Falls.

These are just a few of the waterfalls the Big Island packs into its boundaries. Some are so remote they’re difficult to get to, others are on privately owned land (and can't be accessed without permission), and yet others thunder off the ocean-facing cliffs into the Pacific. The best ways to see these less accessible waterfalls is on a helicopter tour, where you can sometimes get close enough to hear the falls over the pounding rotor blades.

However you choose to see the waterfalls, adopt some island style in your wanderings — slow down and enjoy.

Jill K. Robinson’s articles have been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, World Hum, Journey and more. Even when traveling, she can always be found online at Danger Jill Robinson.