Rugged volcanic coastline, warm tropical temperatures, rare wildlife, staggering sea cliffs, breathtaking beaches: There simply is no end to the picturesque places that the Hawaiian Islands have to offer. Explore the magic of Hawaii with this guide to some of the most beautiful places in the state.
Waimea Canyon State Park, Kauai
While much smaller than the Grand Canyon on the mainland, Waimea Canyon is still one of the most impressive sights on the Hawaiian islands. A far cry from the beachy ambiance that Kauai is usually known for, Waimea has earned its reputation as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” with a gorge of 10 miles across and depth of 3,600 feet. Waimea is Hawaiian for "reddish water,” an homage to the canyon's iconic red soil. The state park itself is full of hiking trails and a number of lookouts that showcase the beauty of the canyon.
Hanauma Bay, Oahu
With its sparkling blue waters and abundance of tropical ocean life, there’s a reason why Hanauma Bay is hands-down the most popular snorkeling spot in the entire state of Hawaii. Visitors will have to arrive early in order to get a parking spot, as the lot is known to fill up fast, and all newcomers are required to watch an informational film about reef safety before even entering the water. For those who don’t want to get wet, pull over to the lookout to catch an incredible view and some great photo opportunities overlooking the pristine bay.
Nā Pali Coast, Kauai
Find Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park on the northwestern side of Kauai spanning just over 6,000 acres of trails, valleys, and towering coastal cliffs. The rugged Kalalau Trail kicks off near Ke’e Beach (great for snorkeling) and ventures 11 steep miles past isolated beaches and hidden valley waterfalls. Some say that the Nā Pali Coast is best viewed from a helicopter, but a boat tour from the ocean side will also give visitors access to sea caves and the ability to get up close and personal with the massive sea cliffs that epitomize the Na Pali Coast.
Papakōlea Beach, Hawaii Island
Carved by nature into a 49,000 years old cinder cone at the base of Mauna Loa volcano in the Kaʻū district of Hawaii Island, Papakōlea Beach is believed to be only one of four green sand beaches on earth. Access to the beach requires a bit of a hike, but that only means you’ll most likely have the area to yourself or share it with a smaller crowd than the more accessible Hawaiian beaches.
Lanikai Beach, Oahu
Lanikai Beach boasts exactly the kind of soft sand and clear water that Hawaii is famous for. The Nā Mokulua islets, just under a mile by kayak, are visible in the distance from the shore and the water is usually perfectly conditioned for ocean sports such as bodyboarding, kitesurfing, and stand up paddleboarding. Just a short walk from the beach, find the popular Lanikai Pillbox Hike with sweeping views of the beautiful beach below.
Pipiwai Trail, Maui
Located on the south side of the Kipahulu region of Haleakalā National Park, the 4-mile Pipiwai Trail is a great way to cap off the Road to Hana on Maui. The well-maintained trail takes hikers past an Instagram-worthy bamboo forest and banyan trees, ending with picturesque views of 400-foot Waimoku Falls. If you don’t have the time for the entire hike, stop at the 185-foot-tall Makahiku Falls after about half a mile for a taste of the trail.
Molokini Crater, Maui
You’d be hard-pressed to find a list of best snorkeling spots on Maui that didn’t include the iconic Molokini Crater. Hundreds of different fish species can be found surrounding this crescent-shaped crater and the positioning of the partially-submerged crater helps shield the area from rough waves and currents. Considering this is one of the world’s most famous snorkeling locations, there are plenty of tour companies that offer day tours to the crater including snorkel equipment, lunch, and drinks.
Punalu'u Beach, Hawaii Island
Located just 20 minutes from Volcanoes National Park, black sand Punalu'u Beach was created from small fragments of black lava rocks feeding into the sea. This is one of the most popular black sand beaches in Hawaii, and the combination of coconut trees lining the shore with the jet-black sand provides amazing photo opportunities. Another thing that makes Punalu'u so special is the Hawaiian green sea turtles who love to sunbathe on the warm sand and feed near the shore. A trip to Volcanoes National Park paired with a visit to Punalu'u Beach is a fantastic way to spend a day on Hawaii Island.
Akaka Falls, Hawaii Island
Akaka Falls State Park is about 11 miles north of Hilo and one of the top sites to visit on a Hawaii Island vacation. The park itself is 65 acres of rainforest with a paved footpath that leads past Kahuna Falls, wild orchids, bamboo, and Hawaiian ferns. Completing the hike will take about 30 minutes, including time for photos, and the trailhead is super easy to find from the parking lot. The biggest highlight from the short loop trail, however, comes from the 442-foot Akaka Falls. Because this site is located close to Hilo, it is a great addition to a road trip along the Hamakua coast.
Wai'anapanapa State Park, Maui
A popular stop along the majestic Road to Hana on Maui, Wai'anapanapa State Park is home to a striking black sand beach, exotic tidepools, campsites, and hiking trails. While the entire Road to Hana is nothing short of spectacular, this 122-acre state park is one of the drive’s most exciting highlights thanks to the backdrop of lush green jungle with rugged volcanic rock coastline.
Visible from virtually every part of the island of Maui, towering Haleakalā Crater (which translates to “house of the sun” in Hawaiian) rises over 10,000 feet above sea level. The dormant volcano is the highlight of Haleakalā National Park, which covers more than 33,000 acres of the island. While most visitors come to the summit of Haleakalā to enjoy the sunrise over the crater, there are many other activities to enjoy such as hiking, camping, and bike riding down the steep road from the park entrance. Keep in mind that the temperatures on the summit area are about 32 degrees F cooler than at the beach.
Cliffs of Molokai, Molokai
Few sights are as awe-inspiring as the first few glimpses of Molokai’s sea cliffs, some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Towering above the ocean—as high as 3,900 feet in some spots—a view of the sea cliffs as your plane makes its final descent into Molokai is the perfect introduction to the natural and historic island. A visit to infamous Kalaupapa National Historical Park will provide one of the best views of the cliffs, or if a trip to the park isn’t doable (access is only permitted through invitation or tour), take a drive and explore the area around the Kalaupapa Lookout and nearby Kaule o Nanahoa or “Phallic Rock.”
Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island
Arguably one of the most unique highlights of Hawaii Island, a drive up Mauna Kea offers visitors the chance to go from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours. The mountain is actually a dormant volcano and is home to some of the most impressive views in Hawaii, as well as native flora and fauna. The high elevation makes for incredible stargazing (which is probably why the summit houses a famous observatory), and the visitors center sets up telescopes open to the public on select nights.
Puu Pehe, Lanai
This unique rock formation rises about 80 feet out of the sea off the southern coastline between Manele and Hulopoe Bay on the island of Lanai, and has become one of the most iconic landmarks on the island. The rock’s nickname, “Sweetheart Rock,” comes from a story from Hawaiian folklore about two lovers and is located just a short hike away from Hulopoe Beach near the Four Seasons Resort Lanai. The hike only takes about 15 to 20 minutes and will take you past coastal tide pools and scenic lookouts over the bay.
Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Island
In a nutshell, Volcanoes National Park is one of the undeniable treasures of Hawaii’s national park program, not to mention the most visited place on Hawaii Island. Two of the most active volcanoes on earth—Kīlauea and Mauna Loa—reside inside of this park. One can easily spend several days wandering around this special place full of historic sites that highlight ancient Hawaii and the island’s volcanic landscape.
Mokuleia Beach, Oahu
Fans of the TV show "Lost" will definitely recognize this massive, isolated beach on the north shore of Oahu that is also the trailhead to Kaena Point. Due to its distance from town (about one hour drive from Honolulu) and large size, Mokuleia Beach is often uncrowded. While swimming here isn’t always possible because of the unpredictable currents, this beach is an amazing location to take photos, lounge, and sunbathe.
Waipiʻo Valley, Hawaii Island
There’s a reason why the Waipiʻo Valley became the permanent residence of early Hawaiian royalty, including King Kamehameha when he was a child. Located on the Hamakua Coast. The majestic valley is as dramatic as it is beautiful, one mile across and 5 miles deep with surrounding cliffs that rise over 2,000 feet high. The famous Hiilawe Falls, the tallest waterfall in Hawaii at over 1,200 feet, is located in the back of Waipiʻo. The valley was once home to thousands of native Hawaiians but is now home to less than 100 residents who continue to reside and thrive within the valley. Travelers can experience the valley via guided tour, hike, or from the Waipiʻo Overlook at the end of the Hamakua Heritage Corridor drive.