Hawaii's National Parks
We asked experts on the four major islands for their tips on what’s new, notable and less well-known, plus their practical advice for both first-time Hawaii national park visitors and longtime fans.
Although lava was not flowing into the ocean, the world’s longest continuing eruption continued to put on a good show at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park at press time, with molten rock surfacing on the coastal plain and in Haleamaumau Crater’s spattering lava lake. The vast park, 96 miles southeast of Kona, is also home to many other fascinating reminders of destruction and rebirth, as well as culturally significant landmarks.
Understandably, nearly all of the 1.8 million annual visitors want to ogle the belching caldera of Kilauea Volcano and to walk gingerly through the eerie tunnel of Nahuku, aka Thurston Lava Tube. Park superintendent Cindy Orlando urges first-time visitors to also make time for other “special places and unique experiences” within the park.
“The drive down Chain of Craters Road to the coastal area is pretty amazing. You drive through lava fields that open up into this incredible lava landscape and as you come down the pali (cliff), you’ve got ocean forever,” she notes.
For when you’re en route to a photo op at Holei Sea Arch, Orlando recommends the “relatively easy” two-mile round-trip hike to the Puu Loa Petroglyph Trail, where ranger-guided tours now take place most afternoons. “It traverses older lava flows and when you get to the boardwalk, you’re viewing Hawaii’s most extensive petroglyph field. It’s just a very special experience.”
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The park entrance fee of $25, valid for seven days, also includes access to the Kahuku Unit, 42 miles west of the main Kilauea Visitor Center. The former ranch in rural Kau became part of the national park in 2004, but it took several years to fund necessary infrastructure and staffing, Orlando says.
The area is open Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with at least one guided hike every weekend on some of its nine miles of trails and dirt roads. “You’re going to drive through open pastures, alongside the most epic eruption in Kau from 1868, with trailheads connecting to trails,” Orlando says. “It will be a loop that just immerses you in that whole southwest rift of the lava flow.”
ADVICE FOR ALL
“Always stop at the visitor center to get the latest information and latest conditions,” Orlando says, adding that the park website also offers lava-viewing updates.
Anyone who hikes to see lava inside the park, including those who start from the county’s viewing area in Kalapana, should “wear sturdy closed-toe shoes — not rubber ‘slippahs’ — and long pants, because lava is glass and it’s sharp,” Orlando says. “They should also wear sunscreen and hats, and bring water, and, if they’re staying after dark, a flashlight with extra batteries.”
The National Park Service can’t claim any sites on the Garden Island — often to the surprise of those who visit majestic Waimea Canyon or hike the breathtakingly strenuous Kalalau Trail. However, the three preserves in the Kauai National Wildlife Refuge Complex, all managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have deservedly found their way onto Instagram as well as more venerable travel media.
If the 199-acre Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge acts like a beacon to visitors, that’s because it has one — a beautifully restored 1913 lighthouse now named after the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, open for a half-dozen free docent-led tours on Wednesday and Saturday.
But the North Shore preserve is also a powerful magnet for endangered feathered beings, which flock to the point and Nihoku, the hill across the cove, newly protected by a predator-proof fence. “We’re known for seabird species and the nene,” says Refuge Ranger Jennifer Waipa proudly, referring to the indigenous Hawaiian goose that’s also the state bird.
The North Shore’s 917-acre Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge is home to endangered native wetland birds such as stilts, moorhens and coots, as well as nene. Waipa recommends viewing the emerald quilt of privately owned taro patches lining the Hanalei River from the overlook off the Kuhio Highway before the road dips down into Hanalei.
On the southeast side, the 241-acre Huleia National Wildlife Refuge is closed to visitors to protect similar endangered species. You can spy its wetlands along the Huleia River from the Alekoko (Menehune Fish Pond) Scenic Overlook, between the airport and Poipu. As with the Hanalei refuge, kayakers can get the closest look at wildlife.
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“A lot of folks tend to overlook the wedgetailed shearwaters, which give that eerie cry that sounds like a baby,” Waipa notes. March through November, they nest in burrows, sometimes a few inches from walkways at Kilauea Point.
“They’re the most readily seen that close of any of the seabirds,” Waipa says. “It’s a great experience, especially for children. When they start hatching around August, you’ve got these adorable little fluff-balls right at the level of kids.”
ADVICE FOR ALL
The refuge is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is $5 (cash) for ages 16 and older. But during any daylight hour, you can enjoy free wildlife watching from the parking lot overlook at the end of Kilauea Road.
“It offers a great vista of the lighthouse in the distance and you can look down into the cove and perhaps see monk seals resting on the flat rocks, or red-footed boobies nesting in some of the ironwoods nearby,” Waipa says.
Haleakala National Park has been on a triple mission of late to protect its delicate ecosystems, Hawaiian heritage and visitors’ health, through crowd reduction and other safety measures.
As of a year ago, visitors who came to see sunrise at the 10,000-foot summit of dormant Haleakala needed reservations to park in one of the 150 available spaces between 3 and 7 a.m. Beginning this year, only four tour companies (down from 16) are authorized to drive in the park: Haleakala EcoTours, Polynesian Adventure Tours, Skyline EcoTours and Valley Isle Excursions. In the park’s Kipahulu District, reached via the renowned winding road to Hana, the tempting Pools of Oheo are closed through April for rockslide repairs.
Be sure to reserve a parking space for sunrise in the Summit District, says Polly Angelakis, the park’s chief of interpretation and education.
“I worked up there the first day of reservations and it was, no pun intended, like night and day from before, when we weren’t educating people,” she recalls. “Now it was sacred, it was respectful and reverent — everything a sunrise at Haleakala should be.”
Permits ($1.50) are available up to 60 days in advance on recreation. gov. The good news for procrastinators, Angelakis notes, is that 40 permits for parking spaces are withheld until 4 p.m. two days before sunrise.
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The park no longer offers guided tours of the pristine Waikamoi Cloud Forest “out of an abundance of caution” to prevent the spread of rapid ohia death, a disease affecting the longtime native flowering ohia lehue tree, but you can see similarly lush, albeit nonnative, vegetation in the Kipahulu District, Angelakis says.
“I highly recommend staying overnight in Hana, where there are gorgeous places to stay, so you can come out to Kipahulu in the morning, when it’s a lot quieter,” she adds. The park admission fee of $25 is good for three days in either (or both) districts.
ADVICE FOR ALL
When visiting the summit, “people need to be prepared by dressing in layers, bringing water, sunscreen, and snacks, and wearing proper footwear,” Angelakis says. “People don’t expect to be cold on Maui, but we’re at least 20 degrees cooler than it is at sea level, and you will get cold.”
Most people refer to the home of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri memorials as simply “Pearl Harbor,” but the official name of the historic compound is World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. It’s a mouthful, but there’s also quite a lot to do here, including free and paid attractions.
No one should miss a visit to the somber Arizona memorial, an experience that includes a 20-minute documentary on land as well as the short boat ride, for which you need free tickets.
“It’s not as hard to get tickets as before,” notes Carlton Kruse, vice president of marketing of Pacific Historic Parks, a private partner of the National Park Service. Two months out, 325 timed tickets become available on recreation.gov, which also offers 525 next-day tickets each day at 7 a.m.; when the park opens at 7 a.m. daily, another 1,300 tickets for that day are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, Kruse says.
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If you haven’t visited Pearl Harbor in the last decade, the massive new visitor center complex that opened in late 2010 will take time to digest. Expanded from 3 to 17 acres, it encompasses numerous new facilities, including two galleries: the Attack Museum, focused on the military and civilian impacts of Dec. 7, 1941, and the Road to War Museum, which provides American and Japanese perspectives.
In January, Pacific Historic Parks debuted the Arizona Memorial Deluxe Tour ($12.50), which allows history buffs to dig even deeper. “You get a smartphone upon check-in, and on it is the Arizona Memorial Narrated Tour,” Kruse says. “At each of the tour stops, you have access to the National Park Service’s World War II Pearl Harbor archives, where you can go into depth and get additional info and videos about the subject matter.”
ADVICE FOR ALL
If high winds or sold-out shuttle tickets keep you from visiting the Arizona memorial, consider virtual reality. The new Pearl Harbor Virtual Reality Center in the visitor center courtyard offers a package of three historian-developed tours for $4.95, including headsets and players. Together the tours take less than 20 minutes and staff are available to assist you, Kruse adds.
“The first allows you to walk the deck of the Arizona before the attack, the second to witnesses the attack on Battleship Row with four different timelines, and the last one lets you experience the Arizona memorial — you can read the names on the wall — and go to places where the public can’t go,” Kruse says. “It’s incredible.”