Categorized | Environment

One island, five national parks


The Big Island is home not only to that famous national park with its erupting volcano, but also two national historical parks, a national historic site and a national historic trail, all featuring dazzling natural and cultural riches that share Hawaii’s story like nothing else.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This amazing park – a 333,086-acre UNESCO World Heritage and World Biosphere Site – is a wonderland just 30 miles from Hilo with an active volcano, lava tubes, lush rainforests, deserts of volcanic cinder, rare native flora and fauna, and Hawaiian culture.
Kilauea volcano’s lava continues to flow from the remote cindercone Puu Oo toward the sea through a network of lava tubes, sometimes reaching the surface, much to the delight of visitors, residents and scientists.

Meanwhile, the steaming, glowing summit crater continues to hold observers in awe. Halemaum’u crater is the traditional home of Pele, the volcano goddess, who seems so present in the voluptuous plumes of steam arising like a potent hula.

Rare native flora and fauna fill the sprawling wilderness. Some endemic tree ferns, mosses, insects and birds are found only in Hawaii and others, like hau kuahiwi, a flowering tree, are found only in the park, and nowhere else on Earth.

Thomas A. Jaggar Museum at Halemaumau crater honors the scientist who developed the early principles and techniques of volcanology. His work lives here where you can see real-time seismograph readings of our living planet that is still giving birth. And right outside the museum, the overlook gives visitors an incredible view of the steaming crater. If you visit after dark, bring a flashlight.

Hiking hounds can spend an hour, a day or a month exploring the park’s 150-plus miles of trails that curve through lush forests, rocky deserts, remote seashores and even up to the icy 13,677-foot summit of Maunaloa. Trails range from short, easy strolls to demanding back-country treks.

Recommended: At Nahuku (Thurston) lava tube, bring a good flashlight (and a little courage) to explore the unlit segment.

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Located on the coast of Honaunau Bay in south Kona, this 413-acre national historic park with its fierce guardian kii, (wooden images of gods) was once the home of royalty and a place of refuge for ancient Hawaiian lawbreakers.

The system of kapu (sacred laws), was of utmost importance in Hawaiian culture. Breaking kapu could mean death – unless the wrong-doer could evade pursuers and make it to a puuhonua, (sacred place of refuge).

Once there, a ceremony of absolution would take place, and the law-breaker would be able to return to society. Honaunau is the only surviving refuge since the kapu system was abolished in 1819.

The Royal Grounds were the sacred site of visiting alii (chiefs) by Keoneele Cove, the royal canoe landing, the halau (thatched work houses) and royal fishponds. This sacred place gives visitors a powerful glimpse of early Hawaiian culture.

Recommended: Hike the two-mile round-trip 1871 Trail to Kiilae Village, where inhabitants lived traditionally from the sea until the 1930s.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

This 1,160-acre coastal park, with its white sand a stark contrast to the surrounding black lava rock landscape, reveals how an early Hawaiian settlement survived on the rugged Kona coast.

The Visitor Center is the place to start with info about special programs, guided tours and the history of this ancient place, including the sophisticated aquaculture and environmentally sound harvesting methods the ancients used.

Heiau (sacred temple) ruins give silent testament to the rich spiritual life that was so closely aligned with natural forces.

Petroglyphs carved into the lava rock give hard evidence of life long ago with images of canoes, turtles, family, and symbols of birth.

Fishponds and Fishtraps show how the people here corralled and
farmed the sea without taking more than they needed – and how Hawaiians today still do.

Wildlife that visitors often see includes honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles), native shore birds and sometimes a Hawaiian monk seal sunning on the shore.

Recommended: Walk the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail from Kaloko fishpond to Aiopio fishtrap, about two miles of coastal and cultural splendor.

Puukohola National Historic Site

This imposing, beautifully restored heiau – one of the largest in Hawaii – was built on the North Kohala Coast in 1790 and 1791 to fulfill a royal prophecy.

Kamehameha the Great was advised by his kahuna (priest) to build and dedicate Puukohola Heiau to the war god Kukailimoku to help in his efforts to unite the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha ultimately fulfilled the kahuna’s prophecy when he united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810.

Lava rocks used to build the massive structure are said to have been passed hand-by-hand in a human chain all the way from Pololu Valley, some 25 miles away.

A new Visitor Center features a non-profit bookstore, videos, fascinating exhibits and a small museum.

Puukohola (“hill of the whale”), is also a scenic spot to look for humpback whales during winter and spring.

A walking tour of the 86-acre park reveals more historic spots: the ruins of Mailekini Heiau (built in the 1500s), Hale o Kapuni (a submerged heiau dedicated to the shark gods) and the homestead of John Young, a British sailor who became a valuable aid to King Kamehameha the Great.

Recommended: From the shoreline at Pelekane, see if you can spy the blacktip reef sharks that are often sighted first thing in the morning.

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail

This historic 175-mile trail, which runs through each of Hawaii Island’s four national parks and through part of the state Na Ala Hele Trail System, is a “living trail” that remains in use and is cared for today by its descendants.

Connecting, reconnecting and enhancing connections of families and communities with ancient and historic ties to the trail is necessary for successful community stewardship and authentic visitor experiences of the trail.

Ancient Hawaiian settlement sites, fishpond remnants and stone fishing shrines are visible along segments of the trail.

Petroglyphs of iconic canoes, turtles, people and symbols of birth are carved into the smooth pahoehoe lava rock.

Natural wonders include anchialine (brackish water) ponds, near-shore reefs teeming with sealife, dramatic pali (cliffs), native sea turtles, migratory birds and endangered endemic species of plants and animals.

Recommended: Find the trail at each of the four national parks on
the island. It runs through them all.

Getting Here

It’s now easier than ever to explore all five of Hawaii Island’s national park units. For Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, fly into the island’s east side for utmost ease and less driving time.

United Airlines offers daily nonstop service from Los Angeles to Hilo International Airport and weekly flights from San Francisco to Hilo on Saturdays.

Other nonstop flights on major carriers serve the Kona International Airport on the island’s west side, which is closer to Puuhonua o Honaunau, Kaloko-Honokohau, Puukohola and entry points for the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail.

All major carriers and interisland aircraft provide connecting flights from Honolulu and the neighbor islands.

Where to Stay

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has a beautiful drive-in campground with bathrooms and another with only primitive facilities, as well as remote back-country campgrounds. There’s no camping at the island’s other national parks, but there are excellent inns, B&Bs, vacation homes, and hotels and resorts around the island. You can also rent an RV.


Four of Hawaii Island’s national park units made the Top 25 “Most Visited Attractions,” list compiled by the editors at Pacific Business News in its June 24, 2011 issue: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (No. 2); Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (No. 11); Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park (No. 23); and Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site (No. 24).

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