Aloha! Welcome to Hawaii; the picture-perfect, postcard-making, exotic archipelago that sits neatly in the South Pacific more than 2,000 miles from the coast of California. This is a land often mentioned in bucket lists of beautiful places, where hula dancers are said to undulate on pearly white beaches and monstrous volcanic cliffs soar overhead.
But, there’s no smoke without fire so to speak, and it’s definitely fair to say that Hawaii’s reputation as one of the world’s paradisal retreats it’s more than earned. Amidst a patchwork of palm forests, pali cliffs, rainbow-hued highlands and Robinson Crusoe beaches, it’s little surprise that the natural wonders of these islands are venerated from afar!
Here are five of the top national parks in Hawaii, where visitors can spy out some of the state’s chart-topping natural gems, or get to know its curious history just a little better.
Looming over all the nooks and crannies of Maui, the dominating volcanic rise of Mount Haleakala marks the central point of the National Park that is its namesake. Hikers and horse riders usually opt to take either the Sliding Sands or Halemau'u trails right to the summit, where it’s possible to descend down into the very crater of Haleakala and wander around an alien landscape of cinder cones and moon dust. Others head straight for the more chilled-out coastal sections of Kipahulu, where gushing waterfalls and forested volcanic cliffs converge on sea.
This enthralling relic of Hawaii’s past was once one of the most venerated spots in the whole archipelago. Not only was it the place where those accused of transgressing the folkloric taboos of Hawaiian Kuna went to claim sanctuary from both gods and men, but it was also one of the last great mausoleums of the old tribal Island chieftains. Today visitors can see the reconstructed totems and timber walls of the sanctuary, while many modern Hawaiians still apotheosize the sacred grounds.
This one is without question the most popular excursion on Molokai Island, and perhaps the only reason so many visitors come to this formidably remote section of the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Established as a leprosy colony in the middle of the 19th century, the park is best known for its dark and emotional history, and today guests are asked to be respectful to the remaining residents who’ve fought for their right to stay. What’s more, visitors should be warned about the over-16 age restriction and prepare themselves for a truly arduous trek to the entrance.
This plethora of ancient religious sites and native Hawaiian heritage buildings is considered to be one of the best all-round introductions to the culture and character of the archipelago’s indigenous tribes. Visitors are invited to explore a vast coastline section of Big Island, where the rugged volcanic cliffs are studded with ahupuaa divisions and inscribed with ancient kii pohaku petroglyphs. But it’s not all about the human history at Kaloko-Honokohau either - the park is also famous for its array of marine wildlife and picture-perfect beaches.
This 330,000-acre patchwork of breathing, belching volcanic calderas, steaming cinder cones and metamorphic lava flows represents Hawaii’s only UNESCO site, and, with such dramatic happenings occurring here on a daily basis, it’s a distinction that’s wholly deserved. Visitors should be sure not to miss the Puʻu ʻOʻo point of Kilauea peak that periodically spews out steaming lava in all directions; it’s famed as the record holder for the world’s longest continuous eruption, having brought the heat for 30 years. Elsewhere in the park, hikers can discover 100 miles of marked walking trails, along with some of the best panoramic viewpoints on all of Big Island.