Five National Park Service Parks, Sites and Trails. One Very Amazing Island of Hawaiʻi

One is more than 100 years old. Two are engineering and architectural marvels.

All five are connected to the history of the Hawaiian culture.

The island of Hawaiʻi has five national parks. All right, more like one national park, two national historical parks, one national historic site and one national historic trail. But that’s still a very cool tally of National Park Service (NPS)-managed sites for one island. Especially when you consider that one of the sites encompasses more than 520 square miles of 4,028 square-mile island of Hawaiʻi. Each is unique in its scenic beauty, history, location and natural and manmade treasures. And if you can swing visiting all of them on your next island stay, your life will be that much more awesome for having done so. Trust us.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
est. 1916

The big park. The one with the most acreage: 335,259 acres, or 523 square miles. The one with the most miles of hiking trails. The only one that climbs from sea level to more than 13,000-feet, encompassing two volcanoes – Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and Maunaloa, the world’s largest active subaerial volcano – and six of Earth’s climate zones along the way. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is a place of contrasting environments and landscapes that satisfies single-day guests, sure, but truly rewards multiday and return visitors seeking deeper exploration of its rugged lava fields, rainforest flora and fauna, lava tubes and craters, coastline meetings of lava rock and ocean, Hawaiian cultural sites, ash-covered deserts, and even alpine tundra.

Everyone does this: See Halemaʻumaʻu crater after it doubled in size following seismic activity at Kīlauea’s summit in 2018 • Hike the once rainforest-covered Devastation Trail • Explore steamy Ha‘akulamanu (Sulphur Banks) for a quick loop hike

Not everyone does this, but should: • Get your hands dirty and restore the ʻāina (land) by participating in Stewardship at the Summit voluntourism projects • Drive scenic Maunaloa Road to its 6,667-foot elevation lookout • See Puʻuloa Petroglyph Field’s Hawaiian lava etchings • Hike in the park’s Kahuku Unit, located about an hour’s drive south of the park’s main entrance

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park
est. 1961

Translated into English, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau means “place of refuge of Hōnaunau.” Prior to the 1819 abolishment of the kapu system of Hawaiian sacred laws, fugitives breaking kapu, or persons fleeing death or harm, could find full protection at this serene oceanfront sanctuary at Hōnaunau Bay on the south Kona Coast. After being absolved by priests, all were free to leave, protected by the mana (spiritual power) of aliʻi (royalty) buried at the puʻuhonua who were deified as protection gods. For modern-day visitors, the park preserves the scenic 420-acre site’s sanctuary area, fishponds and palm grove of its royal grounds, and remnants of Ki‘ilae village.

Everyone does this: Take the self-guided puʻuhonua tour and talk story with cultural staff.

Not everyone does this, but should: Hike the mile-long lava trail to the coastal Ki‘ilae settlement.

Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site
est. 1972

One of the last major pre-contact sacred structures built in Hawaiʻi, construction of the stone heiau at Puʻukoholā commenced in 1790 by order of King Kamehameha the Great to honor his family war god Kūkāʻilimoku. It is believed laborers forming a 20-mile human chain, from seaside Pololū Valley over 5,480-foot Kohala volcano to Puʻukoholā, transported the heiau’s water-worn stones hand to hand. Built without mortar, the massive temple, with its 16- to 20-foot stone walls, was completed in a year. Imagine all of this when you stand near its imposing massiveness.

Everyone does this: Walk the site’s half-mile trail, which loops past (but not into) Puʻukoholā Heiau (in English, “Temple on Whale Hill”), Mailekini Heiau, and along the coastline on a portion of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail (see below).

Not everyone does this, but should: Take the coast trail to royal courtyard Pelekane and the shoreline overlooking Hale o Kapuni Heiau, a submerged temple dedicated to the shark gods.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
est. 1978

About as ocean-based as it is land-based, this 1,100-acre sanctuary of native plant, animal and marine life, and early Hawaiian aquaculture development restores and preserves the coastal sections of four ahupuaʻa (ocean-to-mountain land divisions) once populated by hundreds of Hawaiians. Today, its three-mile coastal trail winds past centuries-old ponds and loko kuapā (lava rock seawalls) built for fish trapping, protected wetlands for native birds, and honu (green sea turtles) sunning on the sand. And nearly all of the trail is infinitely and scenically walkable.

Everyone does this: Hike the coastal trail (which is also a section of the Ala Kahakai Trail, see below) to check out petroglyphs, ‘Aimakapā Fishpond and the restored ‘Ai‘ōpio Fishtrap.

Not everyone does this, but should: Hike the coastal trail’s full distance to see up-close the early Hawaiian engineering achievement that is the massive, restored loko kuapā of Kaloko Fishpond.

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
est. 2000

One of the most well-marked remaining Hawaiʻi ala loa – much-traveled foot trails used by early Hawaiians to move between settlements – the Ala Kahakai tracks a coastal system of trails and routes from the northernmost tip of the island of Hawaiʻi, south along the Kohala and Kona Coasts and around southernmost point Kala‘e to the easternmost boundary of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. More than 175 miles in its entirety, the trail passes through all four NPS-managed sites on the island of Hawaiʻi, and alongside multiple Hawaiian cultural and historic sites and privately owned properties. You can’t walk all of it yet – public access to the full trail, as well as its maintenance and management, is a long-term NPS mission – but that’s what return hikes are for.

Everyone does this: Hike a one-quarter mile section of the Ala Kahakai within the boundary of the Puʻukoholā Heiau site, or a 3.5-mile portion of it within Kaloko-Honokohau park.

Not everyone does this, but (if they have the stamina) should: Hike portions of the Ala Kahakai in the remote backcountry areas of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park with a friend or group. (Note: Talk to rangers first.)

Lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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