Many of the country’s most iconic national parks are in the West (we’re looking at you, Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone…).
But even further west, as far west as you can go in the United States, are two filled with adventure and unique natural wonders: the Hawaii national parks.
From volatile active volcanoes and moon-like landscapes to waterfalls and crystal-clear dark skies, diverse Haleakalā and Hawai’i Volcanoes National Parks deserve a spot at the top of your bucket list.
Quick note: While Hawaii has numerous National Park Service sites including national historic sites, national monuments, and more, we’re focusing solely on the national parks here.
The Two Hawaii National Parks
Both of the Hawaii national parks center around massive shield volcanoes. Both also hold far more natural treasures than you’re probably expecting.
Haleakalā National Park, Maui
Maui is renowned for its pristine beaches, waterfalls, annual humpback whale migration, and the iconic Road to Hana. But this special island holds another treasure, too: Haleakalā National Park.
The massive park is divided into two distinct areas: the Summit District and Kīpahulu District.
The Summit District is home to namesake Mount Haleakalā. While Maui is the epitome of a tropical paradise, Haleakalā stands in stark contrast — literally. The summit of the long-dormant shield volcano sits at 10,023 feet in elevation, towering over the entire island.
Fun fact: Haleakalā’s 10,023-foot elevation is just a fraction of the volcano’s total 29,704 feet. A stunning 19,680 feet are below sea level, making Haleakalā technically bigger than K2 and even Mount Everest!
On the island’s far northeast corner, the Kīpahulu District couldn’t be more different from the Summit District. This part of the park, 12 miles past the tiny town of Hana, is defined by lush rainforests, waterfalls, and colored-sand beaches.
Where Kīpahulu is typically hot and humid (and likely rainy!), the Summit District is much cooler — especially at the summit. In the winter months, below- or near-freezing temperatures are not uncommon at the summit of Haleakalā.
Bet you never thought you’d need to pack winter gear for a visit to MAUI, right?
You can visit both districts of Haleakalā National Park in one day, but we recommend devoting at least one full day to each.
Top 3 Activities in Haleakalā National Park:
Watch sunrise or sunset from the summit of Haleakalā. Sunrise requires a permit, which is strictly enforced. Sunset does not, and many locals say the views are just as spectacular.
Hike in a volcano crater. Hiking trails in the Summit District range from 0.4 miles to 11 miles, and the landscape is truly otherworldly.
Hike to a 400-foot waterfall. In the Kīpahulu District, the Pipiwai Trail to Waimoku Falls is not to be missed. The hike is about four miles round-trip and takes you through a bamboo forest and past an enormous banyan tree and numerous waterfalls.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Its name alone tells you something crucial: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is not your “typical” national park. In fact, you could visit 10 times and have 10 very different experiences.
Here, new earth is very literally formed on a daily basis. You may walk or bike across a ledge of igneous rock (cooled magma, for those non-geology geeks out there) that wasn’t there just days prior.
The fact that the park’s centerpiece is an enormous volcano — the largest one on Earth, actually — is just one of many fascinating things about Hawai’i Volcanoes.
Within its 333,308 acres, the park contains rocky coastline, lush rainforest, barren desert that’s more reminiscent of Mars than a tropical island, active lava fields with steam vents, and even high alpine tundra. That makes sense: the summit of Mauna Loa (the enormous volcano we mentioned earlier) sits at an astounding elevation of 13,679 feet.
Most visitors, naturally, want to know whether they’ll actually see lava flowing. The answer is a resounding…maybe.
Kilauea, one of two active volcanoes on the island, flowed continuously from 1983 to 2018, when it erupted in a devastating manner. Over 700 homes were destroyed, along with roads, trails, infrastructure, and even an entire bay.
Following that 35-year active eruption, Kilauea changed dramatically from 2018 to 2021, swaying between incredibly active and, at times, seemingly dormant.
If you’re planning a visit to the park, check the USGS daily Volcano Updates for the most up-to-date information.
Top 3 Activities in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park:
Bike across a lava field. Where else on Earth is that even a possibility?! Rent a bike or book a guided bike tour, most of which ride the Chain of Craters Road to the coastline.
Take a hike. With over 150 miles of trails, there’s one for everyone. One of the most popular is the four-mile Kilauea Iki Trail, which leads to a spectacular overlook.
Stargaze. Because of its remote location on the island, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park enjoys dark, unpolluted skies. Something about staring up at the dazzling night sky from an island in the Pacific, especially if lava is actively flowing, is absolutely magical.
Have you been to either of the Hawaii national parks, or do you have plans to go? If you have, were you able to see the lava actively flowing? Tag us on social media to tell us, because inquiring minds want to know!
Finally, whether you’ve been to Haleakalā or Hawai’i Volcanoes or it’s in the books for the future, don’t forget to commemorate the trip with souvenirs! The Wander Club U.S. National Park Tokens on a Wanderchain are perfect, as they’re portable, customizable, and make great conversation starters.
Safe travels friends, and enjoy the islands! Aloha!