Though the Aloha State is relatively small in comparison to most mainland states, the Hawaiian Islands are incredibly dense in terms of landscapes to witness and places just waiting to be explored. Unfortunately, however, our time and funds are often limited and it’s unlikely you’ll ever see everything Hawaii has to offer. We have, however, compiled a list of Hawaii’s absolutely must see places, from cascading waterfalls and flowing lava to lush landscapes and historic landmarks. If you can only possibly see 21 places throughout the magnificent Hawaiian Islands, make them these.
1. Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island
Mauna Kea measures in at 13,796 feet above sea level, the highest point in the state of Hawaii. In fact, when measured from its oceanic base deep in the vast Pacific, the mountain measures in at more than 33,000 feet tall — that’s higher than Mount Everest. The summit is also home to state-of-the-art observatories, with more than a dozen telescopes funded by 11 countries.
2. Hanauma Bay, Oahu
Dr. Beach, a professor from Florida who releases an annual list of the country’s best beaches, named Oahu’s Hanauma Bay the greatest beach in America for 2016. Located on Oahu’s southeastern shore, this marine life conservation district was formed from a tuff ring and is perhaps the island’s most popular snorkeling destination for tourists and locals alike.
3. Na Pali Coast, Kauai
This piece of rugged Kauai coastline is said to be one of the most unspoiled natural beauties in all of Hawaii: thousand foot cliffs are eroded to create vaulted valleys and hidden beaches. The erosion is the culprit behind one of the coastline’s other main features. You see, the only way to gain access is by a long, arduous hike, by boat, or via helicopter tour. And that’s not for lack of trying – roads were once attempted, but as one of the most rapidly changing shorelines in the world, it was a futile attempt.
4. Hana Highway, Maui
Maui’s Road to Hana is perhaps the most popular scenic drive on the island — and possibly all of Hawaii. This infamous 64.4-mile highway that stretches from Kahului to Hana is popular not for the destination — Hana Town — but for the incredible journey it takes to get there.
5. Sea Cliffs, Molokai
The island of Molokai was formed from two distinct shield volcanoes: the east and west Molokai volcanoes. The East Molokai Volcano suffered from a catastrophic collapse approximately 1.5 million years ago, forming the impressive sea cliffs you’ll find today. Towering at more than 3,500 feet on Molokai's northern shore are these impressive sea cliffs inaccessible via land, making this one of the most remote natural wonders in the world.
6. Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Hawaii Island
The southernmost point in the United States is memorable not just for its location, but for the natural wonders you will find there. On the southernmost tip of Hawaii Island is Papakolea, a green sand beach so unique that you will only find one other spot with this iconic sand on the planet. The stunning beach is only accessible via four-wheel drive, or a 3-mile hike, but trust us, the experience is entirely worth it.
7. Iolani Palace, Oahu
We don't often think of Hawaii when we think of castles, but it’s hard to find a man-made wonder as enchanting as Hawaii’s Iolani Palace, the royal residence for the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1845 to 1893. After the monarchy was overthrown, the building served as the capitol building until 1969, and then in 1978, restored and opened as a museum. The palace features a unique style of architecture known as American Florentine and is the only official state royal residence on United States soil.
8. Waimea Canyon, Kauai
Often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," Waimea Canyon is certainly a thing of immense beauty. At ten miles long, a mile wide and approximately 3,600 feet deep, and is home to plants and trees of all shapes and sizes – giving it a more dynamic landscape than its more famous canyon cousin. For anyone planning to visit this natural wonder, we urge you to consider exploring the neighboring Koke’e State Park for some less interrupted views of the canyon.
9. Mount Haleakala, Maui
Just 27 square miles short of equaling the entire size of Oahu, Mount Haleakala is a gentle giant — a dormant volcano that has inspired those who make the journey to its summit for centuries. Translating to "House of the Sun," Haleakala rises more than 10,000 feet above sea level, comprises 75 percent of Maui Island, and is home to desert-like conditions, rainforests, and everything in between.
10. Garden of the Gods, Lanai
Also known as Garden of the Gods, this otherworldly rock garden at the end of Polihua Road is located 45 minutes from Lanai City on a dirt path only advised for vehicles with four-wheel drive. Garden of the Gods can only be described as barren: the land is vacant of trees, shrubs, flowers, or grass, and perhaps reminiscent of something you’d find on another planet.
11. Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii Island
Within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is Kilauea Caldera, the fiery home of one of Hawaii’s most revered gods: Pele. Kilauea is both Hawaii’s youngest shield volcano on land, as well as the most active. The volcano is also experiencing one of the most long-lived eruptions known to man — the eruption began in 1983 on the eastern rift zone, and continues to this day.
12. Diamond Head, Oahu
Perhaps one of the most iconic images associated with Hawaii is the towering silhouette of Diamond Head on the southernmost tip of Oahu. Dubbed Diamond Head by sailors who were entranced by the volcano’s glittering peak, the mountain’s summit is littered with calcite crystals — but the name stuck. Once used for military training, the government-owned property has since been opened to the public, and is now the most iconic hike on the island for tourists.
13. Glass Beach, Kauai
Tucked away in a Hanapepe industrial area, near Port Allen Harbor is Kauai’s Glass Beach, a brilliant beach covered with millions of sea glass pebbles in brilliant hues of aqua, blue and brown. The glass found at this beach was mainly created from broken bottles and auto glass that was dumped years ago, and subsequently smoothed by time and ocean tides.
14. Molokini Crater, Maui
Located just 2.5 miles off the shores of Maui's Makena State Park is Molokini, all that remains of an ancient cinder cone that last erupted more than 230,000 years ago. Divers and snorkelers from around the world flock to this beautiful islet to experience its crystal clear waters and plethora of vibrant sea life. Because Molokini is rock and not soil, there is nothing to wash into the water and inhibit visibility. In fact, you can often see more than 150 feet into the ocean.
15. Kaihalulu Red Sand Beach, Maui
Located almost in the heart of Hana town, on the eastern coast of Maui, is one of the few red sand beaches in the world. The breathtaking Kaihalulu Red Sand Beach is one of the most incredible wonders you’ll see in your lifetime, and an absolute must-visit, as long as you are accustomed to navigating cliff edges with less-than-perfect footing.
16. Kalapana Lava Entry, Hawaii Island
There are very few places on this planet where you can watch flowing lava in person, and even fewer where you can walk right up to it. Kalapana is the safest and easiest to access. There are two paths you can take: one from the east at Kalapana and one from the west, near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Not only might you see flowing lava, but you’ll be walking along the youngest land you’ve ever set foot on — which is pretty unbelievable if you ask me.
17. Iao Valley, Maui
Located just south of the West Maui Forest Reserve and near Wailuku is Iao Valley State Park, a lush, 4,000-acre valley with miles of hiking trails, stunning vistas, and the famous Iao Needle. The fern covered lava formation rising 1,200 feet from the valley’s floor was formed from millennia of erosion of the softer rock surrounding the peak and is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture.
18. Hanalei, Kauai
Located on Kauai’s north shore is the magnificent Hanalei, made famous for its appearance in the award-winning musical, South Pacific. Overflowing with local history and charm, Hanalei is home to stellar views of Kauai’s taro fields, various art galleries, and historic sites, as well as fresh air and the beautiful Hanalei Bay.
19. Pearl Harbor, Oahu
The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the United State’s entry into World War II. You may not have known that Hawaii was put under martial law until the end of the war. Today, Pearl Harbor houses a variety of historical sites and is home to more than 160 commands. If you only see one thing while visiting Pearl Harbor, it has to be the famous USS Arizona Memorial.
20. Akaka Falls, Hawaii Island
Cascading 442-feet into a lush, tropical jungle is perhaps Hawaii’s greatest waterfall. Located on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast is Akaka Falls, a place of pure paradise flowing from the Kolekole Stream. To view the falls, visitors take a half-hour paved trail leading through a jungle of banana plants, towering bamboo groves, and lush orchids.