What Do I Do on the Big Island? Visit Hilo’s Lovely Metropolitan Parks

The Parks of Hilo Town

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts. In can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Lilioukalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains on Kaumana Drive, or the rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches leading to lovely small beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly achingly lovely spots on earth. The seat of political power in Hawai’i County, Hilo is experiencing a long, painful slide into economic and physical decline. Having long since lost the war of social vigor, the battle for tourists and the struggle for attracting new residents and industry to Hawai’i’s newer, cleaner, harder-working and much sunnier West Side, Hilo seems content to sit back on her laurels as the once-prosperous center of the sugar industry in an era long gone by, haughtily dictating policy and politics to the rest of the island. But even in her dissipation and decay, Hilo is lovely, interesting and intriguing. Like a courtesan in her declining years, who, having squandered her riches and forced to live off the charity of her wealthier relations, Hilo is still presentable, but far more notable for her raucous, and slightly ribald, tales of past glory. From the peacefulness of Hilo’s Arboretum to the lawn-and-tree respite from bustling downtown provided by Kalakaua City Park, Hilo is blessed with an abundance of lovely, restful parks; most of these parks are served by public transportation. Let’s quickly visit a few of my favorites.

Bayfront Park

At one time, a furious surf raked the long black sand beach that once fronted Hilo. From here, Kamehameha launched his war fleet of 1000 canoes on his conquests of the other Hawai’ian Islands. Here, generations of Hawai’ians strolled the coconut tree-lined beach, watching sunrises, spotting dolphin and whale, waiting for the fishing fleet to return from the day’s toil, doing all those things which all people, everywhere, do strolling along a beautiful beach. No doubt they said to each other the same thing today’s residents of Hawai’i say to themselves every day: “Lucky we live Hawai’i!” Today, tamed by the breakwater that protects Hilo from the ravages of the turbulent ocean, there is still a three thousand foot remnant of now grey-sand beach along the Hilo Bayfront Park. Squozen between the bay and the road, this long, narrow park is phenomenally popular with local surfers and fisherman and is the launching spot of outrigger canoe enthusiasts. It is not much for swimming because the water is cloudy and cold and it makes for dismal snorkeling; still, it is a lovely place to watch the sunrise and to stroll with someone special.

Mooheau Park

The large, gazebo-style bandstand and1930’s era bus station mark the center of activity in Mooheau Park in downtown Hilo. Standing on the remains of that portion of bayside Hilo demolished by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, are the county bus station, a police substation, an information booth and public restrooms. Wide, shady grassy parklands spread between Hilo and the bay here, inviting you to picnic, nap, or just loll in the tropical sun. On this island, public transportation is nowhere near twenty-first-century, developed-world minimum standards, but the island-wide bus service, inconvenient and confusing as its frequently out-of-date posted schedules may be, enjoys one stupendous advantage that should endear it to every traveler weary of Hawai’i’s steep costs: it is absolutely and everywhere free of charge. Just be sure you understand the schedule completely before you board; buses don’t always come back to the city at night, many are parked at the end of their route, so it’s quite possible to get stranded way out in the sticks. If this happens, it will quickly become clear to you why we call such an apparently small place “The Big Island”.

Coconut Island

A small island at the tip of the Waiakea Peninsula, Coconut Island, or Moku Ola–the “island of life” to Hawai’ians, is today the site of a charming park. Accessed by a footbridge from near the entrance to the Queen Lilioukalani Gardens, Coconut Island is a popular fishing and swimming spot with locals. It has a protected swimming hole and children play daring games diving off the remnants of the old wharf, here. When swimming here one should strive to be unconcerned about the fact that Hilo Bay has one of the highest densities of hammerhead sharks in the world. If the sharks aren’t bothering all those scrumptious, bite-sized children splashing about, chances are they’ll give you a break, too. Coconut Island is also home to the Hilo Fourth of July fireworks show as well as various festivities during the Prince Kuhio Day and Merrie Monarch Festival celebrations. Moku Ola was, in times past, a Pu’u Honua, or Place of Refuge, an important place for commoners accused of breaching the law. In pre-contact times, a complex and strict order of law, known as the kapu system, controlled and governed everything in ancient Hawai’i from the order of crop rotation to proper sexual relations, what fish may be caught and in what season, what foods could be eaten by women and proper respect for the royalty. For instance, it was to break kapu for men and women to eat or together or sleep in the same hale, or house. It was kapu for women to eat pork or bananas, or for commoners to look upon the king or to step upon ground he had trod or his shadow. Under the kapu law system, punishment for any transgression was swift and severe: immediate death by stabbing, clubbing, strangulation, drowning or burning. There was no appeal and no recourse; judgment was immediate and final. Unless, that is, the accused could escape to one of the designated Pu’u Honua heiaus, or “places of refuge”. Once there, the accused would undergo a cleansing ceremony by the kahuna and would be absolved of all crimes and allowed to return to his family and previous life, free of onus. Women, children and the infirm also took refuge at the Pu’u Honua in times of war, as did vanquished warriors wishing to submit to the winning chief.

Lilioukalani Gardens

Named for Hawai’i’s last Queen, these 30-acre formal gardens along Hilo Bay have two miles of paths that wind through the streams, over the bridges and along the pagodas and stone lanterns which make a spectacular place to walk and watch the sun come up over the ocean, or the sunset over Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea. These gardens are a very special place and deserve to be thoroughly explored.

Kaumana Cave

A skylight opening to 25-mile long Kaumana Cave is located at the county park near the 4-mile marker on the Hilo side of the Saddle Road. Concrete stairs take you down through the rain forest jungle to the bottom of a collapse pit forming two entrances to the cave. Most people are drawn to the entrance on the right, a large, opening leading to cavernous rooms. In this entrance, graffiti from hundreds of years ago to the present is preserved, scratched into the rocks. The entrance on the left, however, is more interesting, leading through squeezes and low spots to numerous rooms with fascinating speleo-architecture and cave formations. Both caves go to true dark in fewer than 300 feet in either direction. There are more than 2 miles of easily accessible, wild cave to explore here, but if you intend more than just a cursory inspection near the entrances, bring a hard hat, water and at least 3 sources of light. A quick tour of the caves takes fewer than 20 minutes. Parking for the caves is located across the highway from the park; extreme care should be taken when crossing he road. Public restrooms, water and picnic tables are available at the park.

Wailuku River Park/Rainbow Falls

The subject of recent and ancient legend, Rainbow Falls is the lovely emblem of Hilo town. The cave beneath Rainbow Falls is said to have been the home of Hina, mother of the demigod Maui, who brought fire to mankind. It is also said to be the place where Kamehameha buried his father’s bones. The characteristic wishbone shape of Rainbow falls is best seen at moderate river flows…too little water and only a single drizzle remains, too much runoff and the falls merge into a single, roaring flume. At any time, however, it’s a beautiful place and worthwhile to visit. Waianuenue in Hawai’ian means “rainbow in waterfall”, and just about every village in Hawai’i large enough to have paved roads, has a “Waianuenue Street”. This particular waterfall was called “Waianuenue” by the ancient Hawai’ians, and remains the reigning queen of its namesake. A remarkable and lovely waterfall, the rainbows within it, which are the emblem of the state of Hawai’i, are best seen in the mid to late morning. Follow the trail to the left along the river bank to delightful swimming and wandering; please note, however, that swimming in rivers and near falling water is dangerous. Don’t go in if the current is swift or if recent rains have swollen the river.

Reed’s Bay Park/Kuhio Kalaniana’ole Park

Hugging either side of Reed’s Bay, a small, boat-filled estuary of Hilo Bay alongside the Naniloa Country Club, these two parks really form one beach area. The parks are a popular swimming, picnicking, boat launching and general play spot for Hilo residents. A pavilion, port-a-potties, lots of lawn, picnic tables and landscaped shoreline make this a pleasant place to pass the afternoon. Reed’s Bay Park is approached from Banyan Drive and Kuhio Kalaniana’ole Park is approached from Kalaniana’ole Drive.

Leiiwi Beach Park’

A real jewel of a beach park, Leiiwi is a collection of tidepools, tidal ponds, lawns and rocks shaded by great palm trees, African tulips and hala trees. This park is one of the better places to pass a day at the beach in the Hilo area. Picnic tables, pavilions, barbecue pits, water and clean restrooms comprise the infrastructure at this lovely park

Richardson Beach Park

The almost universal experience of visitors to Hawai’i is that, although it is certainly beautiful, delightful and a unique, special place, no matter what pre-conceptions a traveler may bring about Hawai’i, their experience is a bit different to what they expected. Richardson Beach Park, with its towering palms, fresh water pools, delightful surf, secluded and calm tidepools, lawns and general ambiance of tropical paradise, is almost certainly very close to what most visitors expect from Hawai’i-hence it popularity. If you are here on one of the two or three sunny days Hilo will have this year, Richardson Beach Park is perhaps the most lovely, calming and inviting place on the East side of the island. Views of Mauna Kea at sunrise and sunset from this beach are unparalleled. The snorkeling here along the small black sand beach is the best of the Hilo area and the surf is a busy mix of beginner to intermediate level waves. Hawai’i County Division of Aquatics is located at this park; lots of interesting information is available from these friendly, helpful folks. Frequented by dolphins and sea turtles, the near-shore water is a little cold when getting in, due to fresh water springs, but soon warms-up a few dozen yards from shore. The currents and surf can occasionally be tricky here, so heads-up, pay attention to what the lifeguard is advising. Restrooms, showers, water, picnic tables and a lifeguard round-out the amenities of this wonderful place. There is also a Hawai’i County Police Department substation here.

Onekahakaha County Beach Park

Of the long strip of shoreline encompassed by this park, the most popular swimming is on the east side, across Kalanianaole Street from Loko Waka Fishponds. Here, two protected pools beckon swimmers; the one on the right is sandy and perfect for small or uncertain swimmers, the one of the left is rockier and filled with “vana”, or sea urchins. Sea urchins are the spine-covered echinoderms that inhabit the shallower tidepools, bays and lagoons. Snorkeling is fair at Onekahakaha Beach, and locals seem to be able to coax good rides out of the diminutive surf on both boogie and long boards. A word about sea urchins, though: when swimming in any area inhabited by these spiny but beautiful creatures there is no real danger, however, some care must be taken. Stepping on, grabbing, or even handling them can cause painful wounds filled with mild but irritating toxin and the spines may be come embedded, or worse, broken off, in your skin. If you should get stuck by a sea urchin, relief from the burning sensation caused by the toxin can be had by loosely wrapping the wound in a cloth bandage that is soaked occasionally in white vinegar. The vinegar, in addition to neutralizing the toxins, will dissolve the spine. Care should also be taken to disinfect the wound and to keep it clean.

James Kealoha Beach Park

James Kealoha Beach Park is sometimes thought of as the “black sheep of the family jewels” in the Hilo park system. This reputation is somewhat deserved, given the mildly rustic nature of the amenities and its history as a rough and tumble hangout for homeless, drug merchants, prostitutes and other assorted ne’er-do-wells. However, the County recently has put a lot of effort into cleaning out the less desirable elements from this park, and it’s a really, really secluded, empty, wonderful place to come commune with the ocean and the tropical forest. There is no real beach here, just wild coastline and waves, great shore fishing and some decent surfing in the right conditions.

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