Hawaii's National Parks
America’s Best National Parks aren’t necessarily in the Wild West—they’re in the Pacific
By Janis Turk
Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Glacier—these names first come to mind when we think of America’s National Parks.
But not all of America the Beautiful’s national treasures are found in out west where buffalo roam: the Hawaiian Islands of the Pacific are home to some of the most stunning National Parks in the U.S.
In 2016, as the United States National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, visit parks where rangers still wear Smokey-the-Bear hats and there are miles of nature trails.
There, see volcanic eruptions and moving lava flows, stay in log-cabin lodges, and sing songs around campfires under the stars.
But this time, enjoy it all on a tropical island. Lie on a beach, snorkel and surf, see giant sea turtles, and majestic volcanoes, waterfalls, cloud-crowned craters, rainforests and bamboo-covered mountains, all encircled by azure waters.
Not sure where to start, I enlisted the help of my friend Frankie, who lives on the island of Maui, and with a map and a rental car, we embarked on a National Parks road trip across Maui and the island of Hawai'i. .
Along the way we saw the Hawaii I’ve always dreamed of and explored a side of the islands I never knew existed.
Haleakalā National Park
Haleakalā (is a volcano which forms more than 75-percent of the island of Maui. Like the US National Park Service, the 33,223-acre Haleakalā National Park.
An old Hawaiian legend claims that on the volcano of Haleakalā, (meaning “House of the Sun”) the sky once hung so low that people bumped their heads on the clouds, so a demi-god named Maui leaned his shoulder and pushed the sky up higher than the mountain. Standing at its 10,000-foot summit, visitors can still nearly bump their heads on the clouds while awaiting the sunrise on its tallest peak, Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula (“Red Hill”)—a bucket-list adventure locals and tourists adore.
At its edge, or from within a window-filed shelter blocking cold winds, visitors stand at the brim of its giant caldera, a crater-like depression two miles wide and 2,600-feet deep that’s blanketed in a downy-white batting of clouds, which dissolves as the sun rises, exposing a rainbow of colors.
Haleakalā National Park covers a wide range of diverse areas from the volcano’s summit to the ocean, so to see its coastal area, we had to leave our serene lodgings at Lumeria Maui Wellness Retreat near the town of Makawao and drive the crooked road to Hāna.
Hāna Highway and Kīpahulu
Called the Hāna Millennium Legacy Trail, the Hāna highway is a 52-mile road that takes about 2.5 hours to drive because it must be driven slowly.
A winding, narrow two-lane passage crossing 59 bridges (46 of those being only one lane wide) it vaunts 620 sharp, stomach-turning curves and arresting scenery.
However harrowing, the white-knuckle drive is worth it because of the waterfalls, dense bamboo forest-covered mountains and green, lush, tropical rainforests along the road.
Stop at roadside huts where locals sell homemade banana bread, ice cream and coconuts. Read more about the Road to Hana.
Travaasa Hana Resort
Soon we arrived at Travaasa Hāna, a sprawling family-friendly resort near the Hāna Cultural Center and Museum and Hāna Beach Park: the perfect spot to swim and rest after our queasy car trip.
After settling into a bungalow overlooking Häna Bay and dining at the Preserve Kitchen + Bar, we explored the Kīpahulu coastline of Haleakalā National Park, where giant waterfalls fed by high rainforests cascade into deep pools.
Pools of Ohe'o
Our favorite stop was the Pools of ‘Ohe‘o (pronounced Oh-Hey-Oh) at ‘Ohe'o Gulch (often called the “Seven Sacred Pools”) a popular place for swimmers, where black lava cliffs overlook aquamarine waters, palm trees and stands of bamboo.
It’s a spectacular place to hike, especially along the Pīpīwai Trail, leading past enormous ancient banyan trees and high waterfalls.
The next day, we braved the crooked road back to the Kahului Airport, stopping to watch pro surfers ride monster waves at Ho‘okipa “Jaws” beach.
From Maui we flew to the islands some locals call the “Big Island,” Hawai‘i, landing in Kona near a desolate, moon-scape-like shoreline strewn with volcanic rock.
The island of Hawai‘i covers an area of 4,028 square miles; making it larger than all the Hawaiian Islands combined. With five US National Parks and a National Historic Trail, it is also a favorite of those who enjoy fishing and tasting its world-famous Kona coffee.
Not far from the town of Kona, both Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park and the Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park stand connected by the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, 175-mile network of hiking and walk trails following the coastline and passing through hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and more than 200 ahupua‘a (traditional sea to mountain land divisions).
At first glance, these shoreline parks look like a lava-leveled wasteland of volcanic rocks. However, seeing it through the eyes of our Hawai‘i Forest and Trail guide, Rob Pacheco, the landscape came alive. Once the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village set amid fishponds, enormous lava fields and rocky coastline, the area boasts ancient petroglyphs and sea turtles. A few miles away stands another spot with a fascinating volcanic geology, Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historic Park.
Frankie and I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a high-rise resort sprawling over 62 tropical acres along the Kohala Coast, with a tram and a boat taxi shuttling guests between its towers. The next day, we visited the coffee farms of Kona and shopped markets of the historic Kailua Village.
Heading for the other side of the island past the town of Hilo the next day, we stopped to see 'Akaka Falls State Park, the Hāmākua Coast park’s 442-foot namesake rainforest waterfall and its 100-foot sister-cascade, Kahūnā Falls.
About 30 miles past Hilo, we reached another National Park that reminded me of the ones I’d visited as a child.
Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Home to Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world's most active volcanoes, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park also celebrates its centennial birthday this year. There stands Mauna Loa, the most massive mountain and volcano on earth, its summit standing 56,000 feet above the depressed sea floor, more than 27,000 feet higher than Mount Everest.
Enter the park gate and visit the Kīlauea Visitor Center and the Volcano House Hotel at the summit of Kīlauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, perched on the rim of the Kīlauea caldera with a view toward Halema‘uma‘u crater. The hotel, dating back to 1846, has 33 guest rooms, a dining room, snack bar, lounge and gift shop.
There are also cabins and campsites in the park. A few miles down the road, the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum stands next to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, where outside each afternoon, park rangers host educational talks.
At the Volcano House restaurant, lights are dimmed each evening so guests can observe the fiery lava spurts of the live volcano.
Seeing the Islands by Helicopter
On our last day in Hawai'i, Frankie and I took a Paradise Helicopter ride above the coastline and volcanoes. As I saw the fiery-red lava and blue waters below, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land, this Land is my Land,” looped in my brain. My heart swelled with pride; there it was, America the beautiful at its best.
To learn more about Hawai‘i’s US National Parks, visit www.nps.gov/state/hi
Where to stay along the way…
- Lumeria Maui Wellness Retreat & Spa, Makawao, Maui, 808/579-8877
- Travaasa Hāna, Maui. www.travaasa.com/hana, 808/359-2401 888-820-1043
- Hilton Waikoloa Village, Waikoloa Beach, Hawai‘i, 808/886-1234
- Volcano Village Lodge, Hawai‘i, 808/985-9500, www.volcanovillagelodge.com
Janis Turk is a travel writer, photographer, and author who has appeared in travel segments for CNN’s airport network. Her work appears in magazines and newspapers and popular travel websites. Her most recent book Frommer’s TEXAS (2017) is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.