The island of Hawaii is home to five national parks.
More specifically, it claims one full-fledged national park – which was also one of the first dozen park sites in the National Park Service upon the agency’s establishment in 1916 – two national historical parks, one national historic site and one national historic trail. The largest of these encompasses 520 square miles of the 4,028-square-mile island of Hawaii and is still growing in acreage. The smallest preserves three temples – one of them and engineering marvel of its time – commissioned by Kamehameha the Great, the founding ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
All five are connected to the history of the indigenous Hawaiian culture. Each is unique in its scenic beauty, history, location and natural and manmade treasures. And if you have a few days you can dedicate to exploring them all on your next visit to the island of Hawaii, your life will be that much more awesome for having done so.
With that build up, here they all are. Happy discovering!
For the latest updates on visitation to Hawaii’s national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges, please check their respective websites.
Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkEst. 1916
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the largest park in the state. It’s the one with the most acreage: 333,086. The one with the most miles of hiking trails: 150. The only one that climbs from sea level to more than 13,000-feet, encompassing two volcanoes along the way. It’s also the only national park in Hawaii still occasionally adding new land: thanks to still active Kilauea and Maunaloa volcanoes. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unique in all the world. A place of contrasting environments and landscapes that will satisfy the exploratory notions of single-day guests, but immensely reward multiday and return visitors seeking deeper self-guided or ranger-led exploration of its rugged lava fields, rainforest flora and fauna, lava tubes and craters, coastline meetings of lava and ocean, Hawaiian cultural sites, ash-covered deserts, and even alpine tundra. Bonus: You’ll be visiting one of the National Park Service’s first 12 parks. From 1916 to 1961, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Maui’s Haleakala National Park were collectively called Hawaii National Park.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical ParkEst. 1961
The Hawaiian language place name Puuhonua o Honaunau translates as “place of refuge of Honaunau” in English. Prior to the 1819 abolishment of the kapu system of Hawaiian sacred laws, fugitives breaking kapu, or persons fleeing death or harm, could find full protection at this serene oceanfront sanctuary at Honaunau Bay on the south Kona Coast. After being absolved by priests, all were free to leave, protected by the mana (spiritual power) of alii (royalty) buried at the puuhonua who were deified as protection gods. For modern-day visitors, the park preserves the scenic 420-acre site’s sanctuary area, fishponds and palm grove of its royal grounds, and remnants of Kiilae village. The park’s annual two-day cultural festival, held each June, brings in Hawaiian cultural practitioners and artisans for interactive skill and craft lessons, demonstrations and more.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic SiteEst. 1972
One of the last major pre-contact sacred structures built in Hawaii, construction of the stone heiau (temple) at Puukohola commenced in 1790 by order of King Kamehameha the Great to honor his family war god Kukailimoku. It is believed laborers forming a 20-mile human chain, from seaside Pololu Valley over 5,480-foot Kohala volcano to Puukohola, transported the heiau’s red water-worn stones hand to hand. Built without mortar, the massive temple, with its 16- to 20-foot stone walls, was completed in a year. A half-mile trail through the 77-acre site loops past Puukohola Heiau (in English, “temple on the hill”), the ruins of Mailekeini Heiau (constructed in the 1500s), royal courtyard Pelekane, and scenic shoreline overlooking Hale o Kapuni, a submerged heiau dedicated to the shark gods.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical ParkEst. 1978
As much ocean-based as it is land-based, this 1,161-acre sanctuary of native plant, animal and marine life, and early Hawaiian aquaculture development restores and preserves the coastal sections of four ahupuaa (ocean-to-mountain land divisions) once populated by hundreds. Today, its three-mile coastal trail winds past centuries-old ponds and loko kuapa (lava rock seawalls) built for fish trapping, protected wetlands for native birds, and honu (green sea turtles) lounging on the sand. Walk the full trail (which is also a section of the Ala Kahakai Trail, see below) to check out petroglyphs, Aimakapa Fishpond, the restored Aiopio Fishtrap and massive Kaloko Fishpond, an early Hawaiian engineering achievement.
Ala Kahakai National Historic TrailEst. 2000
One of the most well-marked remaining Hawaii ala loa – foot trails used by early Hawaiians to move between settlements – the Ala Kahakai tracks a coastal system of trails and routes from the northernmost tip of Hawaii Island, south along the Kohala and Kona Coasts and around southernmost point Ka Lae to the easternmost boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. More than 175 miles in its entirety, the trail passes through all four Hawai‘i Island NPS-managed sites, and alongside many Hawaiian cultural and historic sites and privately owned properties. You can’t walk all of it yet – public access to the full trail is a long-term NPS mission – but you’re always invited to return to the island of Hawaii to explore the sections you miss.
SEE “PARK LIFE”: Watch Hawaii Volcanoes National Park interpretive ranger Keoni Kaholoaa discuss his connection in name, culture and heart to the Hawaiian fire and volcano goddess Pele, and how he sees and feels comfort in her presence every day at Kilauea volcano. He also shares his view of the goddess as less the destructive force some believe her to be than she is a creator of life. Click here to watch the video.
One of Hawaii’s premier cultural events is turning 25. The Honolulu Festival annually celebrates the deep ties between Hawaii and its Pacific Rim neighbors each March, with each sharing their rich, vibrant cultures with Oahu residents and visitors. Attend all three days of the fest and you’ll be treated to multicultural art, performances, food events, cultural education programs and activities, craft fairs and entertainment you’d be hard pressed to find in one place anywhere else. Much of it is free and open to the public, including a grand evening parade through Waikiki and huge, colorful, dramatic and festival-culminating Nagaoka Fireworks Show offshore of the resort area’s beaches. And there’s a bonus this year for fireworks fanatics! In celebration of this year’s 25th anniversary of Honolulu Festival, 10 more minutes of aerial oohs and ahhs will be added to the Nagaoka Fireworks Show for a grand running time of 25 – get it? – minutes.
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