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5 Must-See Hawaii National Parks

5 National Parks to Visit in the Hawaiian Islands

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National parks and monuments aren’t necessarily the first places that come to mind when exploring the Hawaiian islands. But, three of the most popular islands host a few of our favorites in the U.S. national park system. The Hawaii national parks are full of history, culture and natural wonder. Don’t miss these places during your next vacation to the islands.

5 Must-See Hawaii National Parks

1. Haleakala National Park, Maui

Maui’s only national park is a dormant volcano. It sits high above the clouds and is the ideal location to watch a sunset or sunrise. Known as the “House of the Sun,” Haleakala is a wonderful day trip from Maui’s beaches. The winding drive through the upcountry area filled with ranches and farms is beautiful.

The park’s summit area contains the volcanic crater and mountaintop. The panorama looks so otherworldly that it almost resembles a painting. Photos can’t fully capture this surreal landscape. There are plenty of overlooks to enjoy this view. Some hiking trails are available, including inside the crater. The park also has a coastal area called Kipahulu with a sub-tropical rain forest. Keep an eye out for the silversword plants only found here.

Tips:

  • Wear layers since temperatures at the summit are usually 20° colder.
  • Visitors in personal or rental cars who want to view the sunrise must make advance reservations at recreation.gov. Cost is $1.50 per car and reservations are available up to 60 days in advance of visitation date.
  • Fill up your gas tank and pack food and water. There are no concessions in the park.
Hawaii National Parks - Haleakala National Park, Maui

You can experience this otherworldly landscape at one of the Hawaii national parks: Haleakala, a dormant volcano.

2. WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Oahu

There are four attractions in the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites which played significant roles in America’s history. These include:

Battleship Missouri Memorial

The USS Missouri, or Mighty Mo, was the last battleship ever built. Various tours are available to explore the ship and learn of its historical importance. If you have kids who are into ships, the Heart of Missouri Tour, for those over age 10, offers insight into how the ship worked and includes a tour of the engine room and gun turret.

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park

This fleet attack submarine sank 44 enemy vessels during WWII. The museum features over 4,000 artifacts. Self-guided tours of the museum ship are available to see what life was like aboard these submarines. A free family-friendly audio tour is available. There is also a Junior Submariner program for kids ages 5 to 16 to earn a patch.

Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor

Located on Ford Island and accessible by a 15-minute shuttle from the visitor center, this museum has hangars that house various aircraft, from those used in WWII to modern jets. Visitors can go inside the interactive flight simulator. This is a wonderful museum for kids and the young at heart who love aviation and aircraft. Free audio tours and an Aviator’s Tour are available.

USS Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial always has a powerful impact. It was built over the USS Arizona battleship wreckage and the final resting place of 1,177 sailors and Marines killed onboard during the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The 75-minute memorial program includes a 23-minute documentary and a round trip boat ride to the memorial.

Tips:

  • Tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free. Tickets are given on a first-come, first-served basis. Arrive early at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, especially during the summer and holidays, to get one of the 1,300 available walk-in tickets handed out.
  • Reservations with a ticket time can be made up to two months or 24 hours in advance of your visit with a non-refundable $1.50 convenience fee per ticket via recreation.gov.
  • The three other attractions charge admission fees. Look into the Passport to Pearl Harbor for savings.
Hawaii National Parks - USS Arizona Memorial Oahu

Visit the USS Arizona, of of the Hawaii national parks, to pay respect to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

3. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island of Hawaii

Home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes, this unique park protects the areas around the volcanoes and its diverse plants and animals. There are two self-drive tours worth doing here to get a great overview of the whole park.

If you’re short on time, do Crater Rim Drive. We passed by steam vents and sulphur banks on the way to the Jagger Museum. There was an overlook and high powered telescope here to see the Kilauea caldera with a lava lake below. My kids’ favorite attraction on this drive was the Thurston Lava Tube.

The 38-mile (61 km) round trip drive on Chain of Craters Road gave us a glimpse of the diverse landscapes of lava fields, pit craters, petroglyphs, rainforest that ended at the coastline. we loved seeing the Holei Sea Arch carved by wave erosion. We did both drives and really enjoyed the diverse landscape and attractions.

Tips:

  • Visit during dusk or dawn to see the crater glowing or glowing lava flow.
  • Consider staying in Hilo to minimize driving and to have more time to explore the park.
  • Look into boat or helicopter tours for a different perspective of the lava flowing into the ocean.
  • There is also an option to bike near the lava flow. Go to the end of Highway 130 south.
Hawaii National Parks - Volcanoes National Park

Possibly the most famous of the Hawaii national parks, Volcano National Park includes several drives and hikes to experience different vistas of two active volcanoes.

4. Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Big Island of Hawaii

Located on picturesque Honaunau Bay, this 180-acre park was once home to the royals and also used as a refuge by lawbreakers escaping punishment. It was a beautiful setting where we learned about ancient Hawaiian culture through exhibits, a village replica and a reconstructed temple. There were several interesting ki’i or carved wooden images scattered throughout the park,

If your timing is right, green sea turtles or honu come ashore here to rest. We saw some during our first visit years ago but weren’t as lucky during our recent visit. We loved the adjacent beach area with many palm trees, lava rocks and tide pools. There were also plenty of picnic spots to enjoy the ocean views.

Tips:

  • “Two Step” outside of the park gates, via a one-way road, offers some great snorkeling on the Big Island.
  • Join the park rangers for one of the informative talks or walks to learn more about the ancient Hawaiians.
  • $5 entrance per car is good for seven days.
Hawaii National Parks - Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Bask in the history of Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park and then walk next door for some great snorkeling at Two Step.

5. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Big Island of Hawaii

This coastal park a few miles from the Kona airport was such a gem. This area was once the site of an ancient Hawaiian seaside settlement. Visitors can learn about how they survived efficiently with the rugged volcanic landscape and harsh environment through several exhibits, house platform remains, fishponds, petroglyphs and worship sites.

We loved visiting the mile-long Honokohau and Ai’opio beaches with their white sand against black lava rocks. The water was calm and warm which also made this a popular beach for families. We saw plenty of green sea turtles in the water and basking in the sun along the shores. Many kids, including mine, enjoyed exploring the many tide pools around the area.

Tips:

  • Entrance to the park is free.
  • Wear closed toe and sturdy shoes. The gravel trails, volcanic rocks and dried up lava beds were challenging to walk on.
  • Please don’t disturb or touch the turtles and try to remain at least 15 feet from them. They are a threatened species and heavily protected by many laws.
Hawaii National Parks - Hawaiian sea turtle honu at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

Kids will love seeing sea turtles in the water and on shore at Kaloko-Honokohau, one of the lesser known Hawaii national parks conveniently located near Kona airport.

General tips for visiting Hawaii National Parks

  • Go to the Visitor’s Center first when entering the parks. Talk to the park rangers to learn about special events and any advisories and get advice on family-friendly activities and trails.
  • Participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Kids complete activities while learning more about the parks and earn collectible badges.
  • Save Money! The National Park Service offers several Fee Free days throughout the year. Buy the $80 annual America the Beautiful pass if you’re visiting several parks in a year. The Every Kid in the Park programs allows every U.S. 4th grader and companions in the same car free admission. Traveling with the grandparents? Seniors, ages 62 and over, get lifetime admission for $80.
  • See 10 Tips for Visiting National Parks with Kids.

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5 Must-See Hawaii National Parks

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Mary lives in San Diego, California with her husband, 13 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son. She was born in the Philippines, grew up in the U.S. territory…

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