Hawaii is home to a handful of national parks and 50 state parks protecting the islands’ unique ecology, history and heritage. From the soaring peaks of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to secluded powder white sandy stretches, Hawaii packs a powerful punch when it comes to biodiversity too. If you’re looking to get closer to Hawaii’s wild side, here are seven of the best national parks in Hawaii.
7 Best National Parks in Hawaii
1. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (Hawaiʻi Island)
The largest national park in the whole of Hawaii, the Volcanoes National Park is the state’s showstopper. It boasts both the world’s largest volcano (Mauna Loa) and the world’s most active volcano (Kilauea) across some 323,431 acres stretching from the sea to the summit of Maunaloa. Located on the Big Island, it closed for over half a year due to Kilauea’s latest eruption but visitors can now set foot here safely. There are over 150 miles of hiking trails through craters, deserts and rainforests. Kilauea is also widely known as ‘the world’s only drive-in volcano’. The best way to explore it is along the Chain of Craters Road. Make sure you stop to peek at steam vents, ancient lava flows and tubes.
You can sleep here too, with two campsites and the Volcano House Hotel, which offers 33 upscale bedrooms at the edge of the volcano.
2. Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Hawai‘i Island)
Also located on the Big Island, this time along the western Kona coast, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau is one of the best places to deep dive into Hawaii culture. It protects one of the most sacred archaeological sites on any of the islands, complete with temples, royal fish ponds and reconstructed hale (traditional Hawaiian houses). Pu’uhonua o Honaunau means ‘sanctuary’ or ‘place of refuge’. Once upon a time, the islands were governed by strict laws or kapu and violating them meant punishment by death. But if you managed to make it to the sanctuary, where a priest could absolve you of your crimes, you were free. The 295-metre long site has also been a haven for women, injured warriors and children during wars.
As well as strolling around the ancient ruins, you can also try your hand at Konane –a traditional Hawaiin board game – or pick up some tips at daily artisanal demonstrations on ancient crafts, carving and weaving.
3. Makena State Park (Maui)
To experience the best of Hawaii’s famed white-sand beaches, hotfoot to one of Maui’s biggest beaches. Located on the southern tip of the island, the Makena State Park boasts sweeping views of the Haleakala and Kaho’olawe mountains, as well Molokini and Kahoolawe on clearer days. The sandy stretch actually comprises two beaches – the family-friendly Big Beach and a nudist-friendly Little Beach. Head to the Little Beach on Sunday evenings for celebratory fire dancing, drumming and music. During the daytime, you can swim, sunbathe, bodysurf and fish to your heart’s content.
4. Na’Pali State Park (Kalalau)
Na’Pali State Park is home to one of the most recognisable coastal paths in the world – the Kalalau Trail. The 16-mile clifftop trail clings to the northwest coast of Kaua’i from the remote Polihale Beach in the west to Kee Beach on the northern coast. The route winds across beaches, soaring cliffs and deep hanging valleys squeezed between sea and tropical rainforest. As well as being one of the most beautiful trails in the world, it’s also one of the most dangerous. But despite its slippery conditions and sheer drops, it’s a popular hike. It’s easy enough to get a day or overnight permit, but if you’re considering stretching the trip over two days make sure you book your campsite in advance.
5. Haleakalā National Park (Maui)
A trip to Haleakalā National Park will whisk you high into the clouds to heights of over 10,023 ft (3055 metres). The park protects the Haleakala crater, a huge fissure stretching seven miles across, two miles wide and more than 760 metres deep. It’s the third-largest volcano in Hawaii, with a mass that makes up approximately three-quarters of Maui. It became a national park in 1961 to preserve preservation efforts for future generations. It’s a scenic drive up to the summit but it’s worth sticking until sunset. It also offers some of the world’s best stargazing. Temperatures can reach a comparatively frosty 10 C (50 F) so you’ll need to pack a few layers.
6. Kalaupapa National Historical Park (Molokaʻi)
The serene and secluded Kalaupapa National Historical Park is only accessible by mule, hiking tour or aeroplane from the small commuter Kalaupapa Airport – but it’s well worth the effort. Throughout the 19th century, it served as an isolation settlement for individuals with leprosy (Hansen’s disease). By the 1880s, there were as many as 1,100 living with the disease on the island. The Belgian missionary Saint Damien made it his home in the 1870s to care for residents and died 16 years later of the disease. He was canonized in 2009. Mother Marianne Cope and her Franciscan sisters volunteered to live with the exiled community a few months before Father Damien’s death too. She was canonized Saint Marianne Cope in 2012 and there’s now a bronze statue overlooking the sea in her honour.
7. Waimea Canyon State Park (Kaua’i)
The Waimea Canyon State Park is in Kaua’i, the oldest of Hawaii’s eight islands. At the centre of the island, Mount Wai’ale’ale is the rainiest place on the planet with more than 11,000 mm. Its canyon is nicknamed the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’, carved 900-metres deep by the Waimea River. At 14 miles long and 1 mile wide, it might not be as big or old as its sister in Arizona, but its myriad of colours is unlike anything else. There are numerous hiking trails suitable for all hiking levels, as well as an excellent campsite called Wiliwili Camp. For the best views, head to Waimea Canyon and Pu’uokila lookouts, just off Route 550.