Hawaii is a place that can't help but capture the hearts of travelers from all over the world. From lush mountainous cliffs to water in every shade of blue imaginable, the island chain’s natural beauty can only be rivaled by its abundance of important cultural sites.
The state’s national park system includes several different designations: national historic trails, historic parks, historic sites, parks, and monuments. National historic trails can only be named by an act of Congress, national parks and national monuments protect culturally significant areas and wildlife, national historic parks typically include a specific important cultural site, and national historic sites usually contain a single historical feature.
Nothing encapsulates the island of Maui more than iconic Haleakalā National Park. Centered by a majestic 10,000-foot volcano, the national park encompasses over 33,000 acres of rough volcanic terrain, humid and verdant rainforests, and impressive summits. A number of endangered species thrive throughout the space of the park, some of which don’t exist anywhere else on earth. The area is also referenced in several Hawaiian songs and legends as native Hawaiians lived on and tended to its land for over 1,000 years.
Perhaps the most famous of Hawaii’s parks, and certainly one of the most unique, Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Island is home to intense volcanic activity that many travelers visit the islands to experience. Containing the summits of two of earth’s most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, this park extends from sea level all the way up to 13,000 feet. Although the area is continuing to recover from a series of eruptions in 2018 that damaged the park, there are still plenty of highlights and hikes available to enjoy including the famed Nāhuku Thurston Lava Tube and the Kīlauea Iki hiking trail.
Pu'uhonua, also known as the “place of refuge,” gets its nickname from an interesting and important form of ancient Hawaiian law. Per tradition in the times of old Hawaii, no physical harm could come to Hawaiians within the boundaries of the refuge on the west side of Hawaii Island. The sacred site offered protection from punishment, as those who had broken a law (kapu) could escape penalty and even the death sentence by eluding their pursuers and reaching the Pu'uhonua. The state has worked to keep the spirit of forgiveness and Hawaiian culture here, maintaining the ki'i (carved wooden structures) and the Hale o Keawe temple, which houses the bones of the chiefs.
Located in Kailua-Kona on the west side of the Big Island, Kaloko-Honokōhau features a national historic landmarked archaeological site called the Honokōhau Settlement, the 'Ai'opio Fishtrap, and lively tidepools. The national historical park is known for its peaceful coastal trails that give visitors a true feeling of ancient Hawaii. While you learn about how the original settlers lived, keep an eye out for the Hawaiian green sea turtles, or honu, who frequent the sandy beaches here.
A piece of land that is as historic as it is tragic, the Kalaupapa peninsula on the north side of Molokai represents an extremely harrowing moment of Hawaii’s history. In the late 1800s when leprosy was first introduced to the islands, there were so many Hawaiians affected by the disease that King Kamehameha V decided to banish the afflicted to the isolated Kalaupapa. From the year 1866, there were more than 8,000 deaths there. The national historic park is now a haven for historical resources, museums, buildings, and libraries that tell the bleak yet important story of one of Hawaii’s most difficult times.
On the northwestern part of Hawaii Island in the Kohala Coast district, one of the state’s largest and last heiaus sits in dedication to Hawaii’s most important leader. In the early 1790s, the personal kahuna (priest) to Kamehameha the Great advised him to build the temple in dedication to the war god Kukailimoku. The idea was to aid the warrior in his plan to unite the Hawaiian Islands, which he ultimately fulfilled in the year 1810. Legend has it that the lava rocks used to build the heiau were passed in a human chain hand-by-hand from Pololu Valley nearly 25 miles away. Tour the area to experience more ancient Hawaiian structures within the site. The lookout over the water is one of the island’s best places to spot humpbacked whales in season.
Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail was established in the year 2000 to help preserve 175 miles of western coastline on the Big Island of Hawaii from Kohala to Puna. The trail, which is not continuous but made up of sections, is one of only 19 national historic trails in the United States. The land was specifically chosen for its important geological and cultural treasures, including over 200 ahupua'a land divisions and sites of Hawaiian settlements.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
A historical site that needs no introduction, Pearl Harbor is truly one of the most visited attractions in the entire state. Explore the site of Hawaii’s famous bombing that incited the United State’s participation in World War II and pay respects at the USS Arizona memorial. Tickets can also be purchased for entry inside the historic USS Bowfin Submarine and the fully-functional battleship USS Missouri.