Hawaii National Parks: Active Volcanoes, Peaceful Bays, and History

Hawaii coastline
Coastline of Honolulu Hawaii shot from an altitude of about 1000 feet during a helicopter photo flight over the Pacific Ocean with Diamond Head in the foreground.

Art Wager / Getty Images

Hawaii national parks feature active volcanoes and peaceful coves, ancient historical sites and the battle memorial site of Pearl Harbor. 

Hawaii National Parks Map
Map of the Hawaii National Parks. National Park Service

There are eight national parks in the Hawaiian islands, and, according to the National Park Service, over 6 million people visit the parks annually.

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
Beach trail segment of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, the Big Island (Hawai'i nui), Hawaii. National Park Service

The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175-mile long corridor that follows along the western coast of Hawaii's "Big Island" ("Hawai`i nui o Keawe" or "Moku o Keawe" in the Hawaiian language). The trail connects hundreds of ancient settlements and was built and maintained over several centuries by the ancient Hawaiians—Hawai'i was first colonized by Polynesians between about 1000–1200 CE. The National Historical trail was established to protect this ancient resource by the U.S. federal government in 2000. 

The main corridor of the Ala Kahakai ("beach road") is known as the ala loa (or "long trail") and its pathways follow the natural contours of the land from the northern tip of the island, along the Kona coast of its western edge, and up around the southern end into Puna south of Kilauea volcano. Many shorter trails lead from the coast up into the mountains, through rocky and smooth lava flows. In addition to connecting the ancient villages, the trails visit petroglyph preserves, fishing grounds, beach parks, and the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great (1758–1819), arguably Hawaii's greatest king. 

The construction of the trails varies greatly: through the rocky a'a lava flows, the trail bed is made up of smooth stones and curbs mark its pathway; through the smooth, rolling pahoehoe lava, the path has been carved by centuries of footwear into a smooth indentation. The Ala Kahakai has changed and continues to change as a result of volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, but also to suit donkey, cattle, and jeep traffic in places.

Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park
Mature silversword at the crater rim in Haleakala National Park on Maui in Hawaii. Frank J Wicker / Moment / Getty Images

Haleakala National Park, located on the south-central part of the island of Maui, is named for the mountain Haleakala ("House of the Sun") which towers to 10,023 feet above sea level. Ecozones in the park include everything from alpine and subalpine, to lush coastal rainforests and cool freshwater streams. 

The park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1980 due to the biological diversity in the species that are endemic to Hawai—some are only found in the Hawaiian islands. It is home to over 50 federal threatened and endangered species (TES), as well as several TES candidates. Birds in the park include the nene (Hawaiian goose), the kiwikiu (Maui Parrotbill), the pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl), and the 'ua'u (Hawaiian petrel). There are 850 species of plants, 400 of which are native to Hawaii and 300 species are endemic and only found here.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Tourists standing on a lava field at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii. Westend61 / Getty Images

The largest national park in the islands is located on the southern third of Hawaii's Big Island. The Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park includes two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. 

Active and ancient volcanic landscapes such as craters, lava flows, black sand beaches, and steam vents are the primary features of Volcanoes National Park. However, the park also includes cultural remains of the pre-European Native Hawaiian communities ("ohana"), villages where the people lived and fished, used volcanic glass and basalt for stone tools, caught seabirds and foraged for plants, and harvested wood for canoes and houses. 

Archaeological sites in the park include the Pu'u Loa ("Hill of Long Life') petroglyph site, where over 23,000 petroglyphic images were pecked into the hardened lava, in the form of small indentations known as cupules, geometric designs, and anthropomorphic figures wearing capes or in canoes. Footprints in the lava attest to the human struggle with eruption.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park

Kalaupapa National Historic Park
An aerial view of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, Kalaupapa National Historic Park. YinYang / iStock / Getty Images

Kalaupapa National Historic Park, located on Moloka'i, is a memorial to Hawaii's leper colony, an isolation settlement for residents who suffered from Hansen's disease between 1866 and 1969. 

Hansen's disease is caused by a specific bacteria, and it is chronic and infectious but rare and curable since the 1950s. Its characteristic erosion of the fingers and faces of its sufferers absolutely terrified people in the mid-19th century wherever it occurred. In Hawai'i, the government passed segregation laws setting aside land to isolate the victims. The place chosen was on a narrow peninsula on Molokai cut off from the main island by a sheer cliff and otherwise surrounded by ocean. In 1866, the first victims were dropped off at the peninsula, 140 men and women who would never see their families again. By the 1940s, the disease was no longer contagious and in 1969, the quarantine laws were abolished. 

About 8,000 people were sent to Kalaupapa while the laws requiring isolation were in effect, including many children. Former patients living in Kalaupapa today have chosen to remain, most for the rest of their lives.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park
Historic fish ponds at the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park on the big island of Hawai'i. Philip Rosenberg / Design Pics / Perspectives / Getty Images

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, on the Kona coast of Hawaii's big island, preserves several historic and prehistoric fishing facilities—Kaloko is the Hawaiian word for "pond." The people who live in this region developed an aquacultural system modifying the wetlands to produce fish and freshwater, goods that they could trade with family living in the uplands such as taro, breadfruit, and paper mulberry. 

The built system includes fish ponds for raising fish, developed such that water is trapped behind dunes and protected from the ocean current by a sluice gate. Fish traps were also built to capture fish swimming through the seaward opening or over the submerged walls during high tide, which were then trapped by low tides and easily netted. 

Other water features exploited by the Hawaiians in the park are tide pools and coral reefs. Anchialine pools, freshwater/brackish pools found near the shoreline that are partly fed from groundwater, provide a unique environment for species like the 'opae'ula, a small endemic species of red shrimp.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Reflection of a memorial in water, USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. Panoramic Images / Getty Images Plus

Pearl Harbor National Memorial, on the southern shore of Oahu island in the capital city of Honolulu, is dedicated to the memory of the events of December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese air force, marking the entry of the U.S. into World War II. 

Over 3,500 U.S. service members were killed or wounded in the attack, as well as 129 Japanese combatants and 85 civilians. The main brunt of the attack was suffered by the USS Arizona, where over 1,100 crewmen lost their lives in an enormous explosion. 

Before the Naval Base was built on Pearl Harbor in 1911, the ancient Hawaiians called this area Wai Momi, or "Waters of Pearl," for the wealth of pearl-producing oysters that once rested on the bed of this peaceful bay. 

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park
Traditional Hawaiian site at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Big Island, Hawaii. CampPhoto / iStock / Getty Images

On the Big Island is also Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, or "the place of refuge at Honaunau," a historically significant site for Native Hawaiians. The park includes the Hale o Keawe temple, which serves as an ossuary for the great chiefs, and a massive 965-foot long masonry wall. The site was a sanctuary in ancient times for defeated warriors, noncombatants, and those who had violated sacred laws: if they reached the temple, and performed certain rituals required by the religious leaders, they would be pardoned. 

The park's boundaries include several other important sites which reflect four hundred years of Hawaiian history: the abandoned village of Ki'ilae; a chief's house that may have been one of the homes of King Kamehameha's chief rival, Kiwala'o; and three holua slides. 

Holua was a sport played by the ruling class of Hawaii, in which participants raced down steeply sloped courses in a narrow toboggan-like sled called a papaholua. 

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Girls performing hula at Ohai'ula beach, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, South Kohola, Big Island. Alvis Upitis / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images Plus

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historical Site on the northwest coast of the Big Island preserves the "Temple on the Hill of the Whale," one of the last major temples built by Kamehameha the Great between 1790 and 1791. In the Hawaiian language, the word for temple (heiau) is used for many different types of sacred sites, from simple stone markers for fishing shrines, to massive stone platforms associated with human sacrifices. 

The Pu'ukohola heiau was built by Kamehameha to fulfill a prophecy, which he was told would resolve a royal succession issue that created a period of civil unrest. The final resolution led to the unification of the Hawaiian islands.