While many head to Hawaii for its breathtaking beaches, all-inclusive resorts and laidback lifestyle, the idyllic archipelago also has a number of outstanding national parks to check out. While many of these preserve its staggering scenery and nature, others instead encompass age-old historic sites and more-modern memorials.
As it consists of 137 volcanic islands strung out across the Pacific, dramatic cliffs, craters and peaks are never far away. Steamy rainforests and picture-perfect beaches can also be found in the national parks in Hawaii with delightful views over the ocean often appearing on the horizon. As such, all kinds of exciting outdoor activities can be enjoyed with its crumbling archaeological sites and atmospheric temples only adding to the majesty and magic of the Aloha State.
8. Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
A wonderful way to delve deeper into Hawaii’s rich history, culture and heritage is to hike along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. Winding its way along the stunning shores of the Big Island, it passes hundreds of Ancient Hawaiian settlement sites with phenomenal views and scenery on show wherever you go.
Broken up into several shorter segments, the trail impressively stretches more than 175 miles along the attractive Orchid Isle’s southern and western coastline. It follows the exact same route as ancient fishermen’s paths with parts of the journey previously having also been completed by canoe. Dotted alongside the trail you can see the ruins of millennia-old temples and shrines, houses, fishponds and petroglyphs.
While some scenic sections and sites are relatively well-preserved, others are overgrown, untended and take you under crumbling cliffs or over rough lava rocks. Aside from seeing the old settlements, you can bask in the fabulous flora and fauna around you and enjoy commanding views of the coast.
7. Pearl Harbor National Memorial
An unmissable and moving site, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial commemorates the infamous attack that catapulted the States into WWII. At its waterfront museum on Oahu, visitors can learn all about the surprise strike, Pacific theater and take a boat trip to the offshore US Arizona Memorial.
Lying alongside the now peaceful harbor are numerous monuments and memorials where you can pay your respects to the fallen service members. In total, over 2,400 Americans sadly lost their lives that day and twelve ships were sunk. Informative plaques illustrate how the deadly air raid unfolded with its museum exhibits covering the aftermath and the nation’s road to war.
Perusing its authentic artifacts, exhibits and historic photos is a sombre affair as is listening to taped oral testimonies of survivors. After having explored its excellently-done displays and galleries, it is well worth stopping by the neighboring USS Bowfin Museum and USS Missouri Memorial. This is because they both provide you with even greater insight into the tragic events of that fateful day.
6. Kalaupapa National Historical Park
While it is now delightfully known as ‘The Friendly Isle’, the beautiful Moloka’i didn’t always use to be so welcoming and accommodating. Kalaupapa National Historical Park now preserves the site of two leper colonies where poor residents were shut off from society for the remainder of their lives.
Initially introduced to the archipelago by foreign workers in 1830, the then-incurable disease went on to infect thousands of people over the next century and a half. In an attempt to control its spread, the Kingdom and later State of Hawaii, forced leprosy patients to the isolated yet idyllic Kalaupapa peninsula. Guests can now explore the quarantine station’s houses, churches and medical facilities.
In use between 1866 and 1969, the secluded site is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark with only a few hardy adventurers making it to the refuge each year. This is in part because you still need a permit and its wild reaches are only accessible by plane or along a long, steep cliffside trail. Those who do visit are rewarded with wonderful white sand beaches and dramatic coastal views.
5. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Another hugely interesting historic site to hit up is that of Puukohola Heiau along the northwestern coast of the Big Island. Besides preserving the remains of the last major temple erected by Ancient Hawaiians, it has several other structures, hiking trails and a museum for you to explore.
After Kamehameha the Great took control of most of northern and western Hawaii in 1782, he built a humongous sacrificial temple to appease the god of war. Thousands of people were involved in its construction as Puukohola Heiau or ‘Temple on the Hill of the Whale’ shot up in under a year. At its zenith, it remarkably reached over 220 feet in length with its hulking great red lava rocks still being visible for miles around.
At the sacred site, you can amble around the amazing old temple and hear all about the bloody civil war that plagued the isle in the late 1700s. Now a symbol of unification and lasting peace, the park, museum and ruins make for a fascinating place to visit.
4. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
Located just half an hour’s drive down the coast is another fantastic spot to head if you want to learn all about Hawaii’s captivating culture and traditions. At the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, you can tour around an ancient seaside settlement, recreated buildings and old fishponds.
Established in 1978 along the Kona coast, it contains hundreds of archaeological features with some religious sites, stone walls and fishtraps still on show. These highlight how Hawaiians used the land and made the most of the abundant sea life offshore. Some lovely petroglyphs and fishermen’s paths can be spied here and there with the once-thriving settlement reckoned to have been founded over a thousand years ago.
In addition to learning about their belief systems and why they chose such a lava-scarred landscape to be their home, you can also enjoy the park’s stupendous scenery and nature. As well as beautiful beaches, gently swaying palms and old lava fields, it protects all kinds of wildlife with seals and sea turtles regularly sighted in its pretty waters.
3. Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Travel just slightly further down the Big Island’s west coast and you’ll come across the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. This too protects a remarkable site – a refuge where Hawaiians who broke one of society’s important laws fled to avoid certain death.
At the expansive park, you can wander around not just coastal village sites and vast fishponds but a royal complex complete with temples and residences. Aside from seeing the ruins and reading about them, you can actually enter recreated homes and snap photos of some intricately carved statues. All its ruined stone structures offer up an interesting insight into the lives and laws of the ancients.
Guests can watch both live basket weaving and canoe carving demonstrations that use traditional techniques with centuries-old games and performances also being put on. You can then poke about its tidepools, hike around the park’s royal grounds or snorkel about its gorgeous coral gardens.
2. Haleakala National Park
Making up more than three-quarters of Maui‘s landmass is the gigantic Haleakala which is thought to be the largest dormant volcano on the planet. Now part of a national park, its lunar landscapes are a treat to explore with scorched cinder cones and lava caves on show wherever you go.
Founded in 1916, the park’s mesmerizing moonscapes cover most of the eastern end of the isle with the wet and wild Kipahulu coastline also lying within it. Its lush rainforests, picturesque pools and shimmering waters contrast strikingly with the desolate lava fields and destroyed landscapes nearby.
While some people come to swim and splash about in the ocean, most hike up the side of the huge volcano and down into its yawning crater. This makes for an unforgettable experience with sunrises and sunsets from its 10,023 feet summit being particularly stunning. From up high, you can actually see five other islands off in the distance with the park also being known for its superb stargazing.
1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The undoubted highlight of any trip to the Aloha State though has to be hiking about or camping in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is because it is home to not just the world’s largest volcano in Mauna Loa but its most active too as Kilauea erupted almost constantly from 1983 to 2018.
These ginormous volcanoes in the southeast of the Big Island make the park a hugely popular place to explore with thousands of tourists visiting each year. Besides passing by giant fissures, large lava tubes and smoking vents, you can see their smoldering craters and lava flows slowly creeping their way across its already tortured terrain.
While the five volcanoes, their soaring summits and lava-scarred slopes are certainly the national park’s defining feature, there are plenty of other pretty parts to explore. Untouched beaches, historic ranches and Ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites are dotted here and there with its brilliant visitor center offering up an overview of the area’s interesting history and extensive outdoor activities.