Last updated on March 4th, 2022
The Hawaiian Islands are among the most remote island chains in the world. Though you might only think of them as tropical beach getaways, the islands are extremely diverse and reward its active visitors. I spent four months exploring the islands, hopping from one to another in a quest to find the top spots. Though it was a tough task, here are the top things to do in Hawaii!
Visiting Hawaii? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
Watch this video countdown of the top 5 islands in Hawaii (you might need to disable your ad blocker).
Overlooking Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head is the most recognized landmark in Hawaii. Known as Le’ahi to Hawaiians, Diamond Head got its name when early Western explorers mistook its calcite crystals for diamonds. Later on, U.S. forces erected artillery firing stations on the crater’s slopes and on its summit as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system. Hiking to the summit of Diamond Head is an absolute must, though you’ll hardly be alone. The unobstructed views of Waikiki Beach from the summit are the hallmark of any visit to the island and from up here, you can’t help but wonder how pristine Hawaii must have looked like before modern development. On sunny days, it’s best to hike in the morning hours or in late afternoons as the hike is exposed to the elements.
At a height of 13,800 feet (4,207m), Mauna Kea is the highest peak in Hawaii and, if the height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world! A sacred place to native Hawaiians, the air at the summit of Mauna Kea is so clean and free from light pollution, that it is the perfect location for the largest array of high-powered telescopes in the world. If you’re visiting the Big Island, drive up to the friendly visitors center or all the way to the summit if you have a 4WD, and experience the sunset of a lifetime as the massive ball of fire slowly dips beneath the cloudline. Later on, when the stars come out, grab a telescope and admire the millions of planets and stars, both near and far, that can be seen from Mauna Kea almost every night!
From starting your morning with the tropical fish of the Molokini Crater in Maui to a nighttime encounter with giant manta rays on the Big Island, there’s no shortage of opportunities for snorkeling and diving off the shores and reefs of Hawaii’s islands. In the absence of a protective coral reef (with Molokai the exception), the snorkeling in Hawaii is not as exceptional as it is on some South Pacific Islands, but visitors should nonetheless always have their mask and snorkel at hand when exploring Hawaii’s coastline. And where exactly is the best snorkeling spot in Hawaii? Though a topic up for debate, I claim it’s off the Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island!
One of the most famous scenic drives in the U.S, the Hana Highway snakes its way along East Maui’s north shore cliffs and connects the island’s most remote settlements with “civilization”. The scenic highway is part of a 16th-century trail that encircled Maui, but when the road was paved for cars, tourists began exploring this otherwise inaccessible part of “The Valley Isle”. And why? The 44-mile (70 km) journey is beautifully slow going, crossing 54 one-lane bridges and nearly as many waterfalls. En route, you can hike through a forest of giant bamboo trees to Waimoku Falls, visit the Red Sand Beach in Hana or the Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach, get a close view of roadside waterfalls, and go for a dip in secluded natural pools nestled inside the lush interior.
Let’s face it, one of the first images that come to mind when you think of Hawaii is that of a tropical beach. I can’t blame you. Though Hawaii is way more than just beautiful beaches, it sure has a lot of those as well, despite unfortunate overdevelopment in some of the prettier spots. From beaches with sand in almost all colors of the rainbow, the world’s best surf spots, sea turtle hang-out spot, and secluded coves where you’ll likely be the only ones around – the islands reward those travelers willing to drive or hike the “extra mile”. As stunning as some of Hawaii’s beaches are, visitors must exercise caution when swimming, especially during the winter months when the ocean can be surprising and unforgiving.
From just about every angle, the eroded peaks of northwest Kauai are remarkable. Meaning “many cliffs” in Hawaiian, Kauai’s impenetrable Na Pali coast is the signature feature of an island that’s already blessed with immense beauty. Sure, you can take a scenic helicopter ride over the cliffs or even hop on a boat tour zipping up and down the coast, but there’s no better way to experience the magic of the cliffs other than by taking it slow and hiking. The most famous hike is the Kalalau Trail, a challenging 22-mile round trip that offers sweeping ocean views as well as short day trip options (access permits now required to enter Haena State Park and the starting point for the Kalalau Trail). However, for the “best seat in the house”, hike the Awa’awapuhi Trail and enjoy amphitheater views above the famous cliffs from the comforts of a lone stone ledge at the very end of the trail!
Squeezed by the tallest sea cliffs in the world and the Pacific Ocean, the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai is not only a place of dramatic natural beauty, but it’s also the site of a tragic episode in modern Hawaiian history. In an effort to curb the spread of the leprosy virus, the peninsula became a (forced) quarantine zone for victims of the disease between 1866 to 1969. When a cure was discovered, patients were free to leave but some stayed in the only home they’ve ever known. These days, only a dozen or so residents live in Kalaupapa National Historical Park but this is no ordinary park! Visitors making the trip down via a sensational hike, mule ride or small-prop plane, are required to receive a special permit to enter the former leper colony. What’s on the menu? Uncover the remarkable story of Kalaupapa as you visit key sites in the village and head to Kalawao on the rugged windward side of the peninsula for spectacular views of Molokai’s Pali Coast.
Words cannot describe the grandeur of Waimea Canyon on the island of Kauai. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, it’s hard to believe such a place exists on Earth, let alone on a small tropical island. Formed in ancient times by the collapse of the island’s shield volcano and subsequent millennia of rainfall and erosion, the red canyon follows the bending contours of the Waimea River for over 10 miles and, in certain sections, at a depth of over 3,500 feet (over 1,000m). With dozens of incredible panoramic overlooks on the scenic Waimea Canyon Drive and hiking trails galore (the Canyon Trail is my favorite), Waimea Canyon has the making of an unforgettable day in your Hawaiian vacation.
Just as we’ve just seen with Kauai’s Waimea Canyon, the Haleakala Crater in Maui is something that you have to see with your own eyes as it is completely out of place in what is otherwise a tropical setting. The crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, so immense is the volcano that created East Maui, that it is roughly the size of Manhattan! Known as “the world’s largest dormant volcano”, Haleakala reaches a height of 10,023 ft (3,055m) and is responsible for much of the bizarre weather patterns on the island. Its accessible summit is a magnet for early risers, space scientists, and ferocious winds, while its crater is a heaven for hikers. The best way to experience Haleakala is by hiking all or part of the Sliding Sands Trail. The challenging hike leads you down to the crater floor and offers a unique look at Haleakala’s magnificent red shades, unique flora, and bizarre cinder cones.
Proudly erupting without any signs of fatigue since 1983, to truly witness the awesome force of the Kilauea Volcano, you must venture to one of the most remote corners of the Big Island. At present time, a river of lava is slowly descending from the hills atop Kalapana, eventually splashing into the Pacific Ocean in a never-ending ‘battle of the elements’. Not accessible from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the best way to experience the lava flow was by hiking or cycling to the Kalapana Viewing Area. UPDATE: due to recent eruptions, the lava viewing area is closed indefinitely and some parts of the national park are off-limits. It’s best to check what’s open on the park’s official website.
Without a doubt, there are dozens of additional gems throughout the islands of Hawaii. But since a “top 10 list” only has enough room for so many highlights, these are the absolute top things to do in Hawaii! Want to see more of paradise or planning a visit to the islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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