Think of Hawaii, and you probably imagine beaches and palm trees. The Big Island of Hawaii doesn't disappoint when it comes to tropical splendor, but the island's unique history and geography make it far more interesting than a typical beach resort. Here are five things that many people don't know about Hawaii's Big Island.
1. The island has a wide variety of climate zones.
Due to its varied terrain, the Big Island is like a tiny continent, with many of the planet's different climate zones. You can sunbathe on a balmy beach or shiver in sub-arctic conditions high on a mountain. A drive across the island, from west to east, takes you from an arid, sun-baked landscape to a lush tropical rain forest.
2. You can go skiing on the Big Island.
Most people don't associate Hawaii with winter sports. However, Mauna Kea, Hawaii's highest volcano, is so tall that its summit is often dusted with snow in the winter. While it's possible to ski or snowboard on the summit, the extreme cold and elevation -- at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level - rule out this option for most visitors.
3. The Big Island is as far south as you can go while remaining in the United States.
Not only does the Big Island boast some extreme climates, but it also holds a geographic record. The southernmost point in all fifty states can be found at the appropriately named South Point, on the far southern tip of the Big Island. Some scholars believe that South Point may have been the first landing point for Hawaii's earliest settlers, who came from what is now French Polynesia.
4. The island has cowboys and ranches.
The Big Island is home to the Parker Ranch, which is one of the largest ranches in the United States, and the island also has a unique "paniolo" culture. Paniolos are Hawaiian cowboys. In the town of Waimea, you can take in a rodeo near the Parker Ranch headquarters, or you can just soak up the town's paniolo-influenced atmosphere.
5. The island had a special sanctuary for outlaws.
Traditionally, Hawaii was governed by a strict system of kapu, or laws. These laws regulated every area of life, and anyone who broke a law could be executed. However, criminals who made it to the sanctuary without being caught would be forgiven. The Big Island's sanctuary for outlaws, known as the "Place of Refuge," or Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, is now a national historical park.
From snow-capped mountains to paniolos, there are many things that make the Big Island a fascinating place to visit.