According to Mark Twain, Hawaii is “The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” I couldn’t agree more. But there is more to the Hawaiian islands than most of us realise. For example, did you know there are actually 137 Hawaiian islands? I didn’t, either, until I spent 4 months exploring Hawaii. In this article I’ll share everything you want to know about the islands of Hawaii including island names, a map of Hawaii, which islands you can visit and a few facts about them.
Overview of the Hawaiian Islands
Located in the North Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian islands are far bigger than most people realise. In fact, there are 137 Hawaiian islands stretching across 1,500 miles (around 2,400 km) of ocean. However, that number includes minor islands that sit off the coast of the main islands, islets which are even smaller than minor islands, reefs, ring-shaped islands called atolls, and partial islands. Archipelago is the name for such a chain of islands. While there might be 137 Hawaiian islands, practically there are only eight main Hawaiian islands, which I’ll cover in this guide.
Hawaii is a volcanic mountain chain
Why does Hawaii have so many islands? It’s actually a mountain range – The Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain – that is buried beneath the ocean. The islands that sit above sea level are the peaks of that mountain.
Around 28 million years ago, one of the earth’s land masses, the Pacific Plate, moved over a volcanic hotspot in the earth’s mantle (the hot bit between the crust and the core). This caused a volcanic eruption, forming the seamount chain. Kure was the first of Hawaii’s islands that rose from the ocean. Over the course of millions of years, the Pacific Plate slowly continued to shift in a northwesterly direction. New islands popped up along the way.
The geological history of the Hawaiian archipelago is important for understanding the islands. For example, Big Island, located in the southeast of the archipelago, is the newest of the Hawaiian islands. It’s only 400,000 years old and is the island that currently sits over the volcanic hotspot. That explains why volcanic eruptions are still happening on Big Island, but not on the other islands. Meanwhile, Kauai, one of the most northwestern islands, is much greener as the volcanic cliffs have become covered in plants and trees.
In 1959 Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States of America. It’s the only tropical state and the only state that is an archipelago.
Map of the Hawaiian islands
Since many of Hawaii’s islands are so small, you won’t see them on your average map. And you can’t visit them anyway. So, let’s look at the main eight islands. Above, I’ve created a map of the Hawaiian island. This is the map I wish I’d had before I visited.
Although there are eight main Hawaiian islands, they deserve more categorisation, which I’ve done on my map. This is because out of the eight, you can only visit six of them. And, if you’re planning a vacation, you’re most likely to focus on the four larger islands – Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Big Island.
However, in this guide I’ll give you an introduction to each of the main eight islands. If you are planning a trip to Hawaii, you might also like my guide: Which is the Best Hawaiian Island to Visit?
Is Hawaii part of Polynesia?
Polynesia is a region of over 1,000 islands that includes Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands. Many people associate Polynesia with the South Pacific. Despite being located in the North Pacific, Hawaii is linked to Polynesia’s Central and South Pacific islands. This is because Hawaii sits at the northern tip of the Polynesian Triangle. Polynesia is still very far away from the Hawaiian Islands – they’re roughly 3,000 miles away from the Cook Islands, for example. However, Hawaii is often referred to as a Polynesian island because of the large expanse of the Polynesian triangle; but also because the Polynesians were the first people to colonise Hawaii, stamping the Polynesian culture on the islands.
Names of the 8 main Hawaiian Islands
There are eight Hawaiian Islands in total. I have categorised them even further, based on how they relate to tourism.
The Main Hawaiian Islands: Oahu, Hawaii Island (Big Island), Kauai and Maui – these are the ones you’re most likely to explore.
The Smaller Hawaiian Islands: Molokai and Lanai – you’re most likely to visit these islands if you’re looking for adventure away from the tourists.
The Islands Off-Limits to Tourists: Ni’iHau and Kaho’olawe are the remaining two islands and, for the reasons explained below, you’re highly unlikely to visit them.
Here’s an introduction to each of the 8 main Hawaiian islands. I’ve listed them by size.
Hawaii Island – Big Island
Big Island is the largest island in Hawaii, stretching 93 miles (150 km) across and covering 4,028 square miles (10,430 square km). It’s also the second most populated Hawaiian island, after Oahu, with around 200,000 people living on it.
The land mass of Big Island makes up over 60% of the Hawaiian islands, and the island is still growing. Being the most southern Hawaiian Island, Big Island currently sits on top of the mantle hot spot. As an active volcano, Big Island gets new land every time there is an eruption that flows into the sea. In 2018, the 2018 Puna Loa eruption added 845 acres to the land mass of Big Island.
Big Island is actually five volcanoes: Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Of these, Kohala is extinct and Mauna Kea is dormant. The other three – Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea are active which means you can often see lava on Big Island as well as lava tubes and steam vents, all within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Dormant Mauna Kea is located on Big Island. It’s the largest mountain on earth, even bigger than Mount Everest if you measure from its base on the sea floor. The clarity is so good for star gazing at the top of Mauna Kea that scientists have placed the world’s largest telescopes up there.
The volcanic eruptions on the island have created many black sand beaches as well as a rare green sand beach (Papakolea), formed from olivine, a sand that comes from an eroded volcanic tuff cone.
Big island’s official name is Hawaii, which is confusing. The island was nicknamed Big Island to deal with the confusion. However, some native Hawaiians are not happy with the casual name and want to return to an amended version of the traditional name. Therefore, you might hear the island referred to as Hawaii Island, Island of Hawaii, Big Island or Hawaii.
Here’s my full guide to 15 Things To In Hawaii Big Island For First Time Visitors.
Maui is is the second largest of the Hawaiian islands but only has the third largest population. It has the nickname the Valley Isle.
Maui’s history includes whalers and sugar plantations, traces of which are evident in historic old whaling town of Lahaina. Each winter, between November and March, humpback whales make the journey from Alaska down to Hawaii. They migrate to the warmer waters so they can mate, give birth and raise their calves. It’s a staggering 3,000 mile (4830 km) trip and is one of the longest migrations any animal takes on land or sea. In Lahaina, you’ll also find the largest Banyan tree in the USA. And Maui is also home to many green sea turtles.
Haleakala volcano is located on Maui. In fact, the mountain covers around 75% of the island. The highest point is 10,023 feet (3,055 m) above sea level. The last volcanic eruption on Maui was from the Haleakala crater in 1790. Molokini crater sits off the coast of Maui. The partially submerged crater is a fertile spot for ocean life that brings snorkelers and divers from around the world.
The Road to Hana is the name of Maui’s famous Hana Highway. The I-360 skirts along the east coast of the island, passing the natural beauty of waterfalls, rainforest and the ocean. The road includes 620 bends with 59 bridges and is a popular activity on Maui.
Maui County includes the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoʻolawe.
Here’s my full guide to 21 Best Things To Do in Maui – Hawaii
Oahu is known as the Gathering Place. The island suits its nickname since Oahu has the highest population of the islands with around 70% of the State living on Oahu – around 1 million people. Oahu is also the most visited by tourists, which is partly because Honolulu International Airport is Hawaii’s main airport hub.
In terms of size, Oahu is the third biggest Hawaiian island, running 44 miles (71 km) long and 30 miles (48 km) across the island, with 227 miles (365 km) of coastline to explore.
The state capitol of Hawaii is Honolulu, which is both a city and county located on the southeast coast of Oahu.
There are many ‘must-see’ things to do in Oahu. Some of the most popular attractions include famous Waikiki beach, and the Pearl Harbor Memorial (Tip: book Pearl Harbor tickets ahead!). North shore is famous for big wave surfing, skydiving and shrimp trucks, while the cone of Diamond Head volcano has impressive panoramic views. The Dole Plantation, famous for pineapples – the national fruit of Hawaii – is also on Oahu.
Kauai is the smallest of the 4 main tourist islands covering only 562.3 square miles (1,456.4 square km). The island is a 5 million year old dormant volcano and is the oldest of the main islands. Many plants and trees have started to thrive on the island. Together with natural erosion, Kauai has developed a fascinating geography that features green cliffs, canyons and rivers. Kauai is called the Garden Isle.
The Napali Coast runs 16-mile (26 km) along the northwest coast of Kauai. The area features green spine ridges and sheer cliffs drops. Meanwhile, on the west of the island, Waimea Canyon is a canyon that has been termed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It stretches approximately 10 miles (16 km) across and runs 3,000 feet (910 metres) deep. Passing alongside part of Waimea Canyon is the Wailua River. This 22.2 mile (35.7 km) river is one of the few stretches of navigable inland water in Hawaii.
Kauai also features Manawaiopuna Falls, a privately owned waterfall that tumbles around 400 feet (122 m) into Hanapepe valley. The falls were shown in the Jurassic Park movie and are now often referred to as Jurassic Falls.
Kauai is the first Hawaiian island that the British explorer Captain Cook visited. Cook is thought to have been the first European to arrive in Hawaii and named the islands the “Sandwich Islands” after the Earl of Sandwich. Captain Cook was killed on Big Island by Hawaiian natives after a dispute between his crew and the islanders.
Here’s my full guide to 16 Best Things To Do In Kauai For First Time Visitors
Molokai is a tiny 38 miles (61 km) wide by 10 miles (16 km) long and neighbours Oahu. It is the fifth largest of the Hawaiian islands. Molokai is made up of two shield volcanoes (a low lying volcano that is shaped like a warrior’s shield). Part of one of the volcanoes collapsed around 1.5 million years ago leaving Molokai with the highest sea cliffs in the world. Rising 3,300 feet (1,010 m), they have made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mostly populated by native Hawaiians, Molokai is one of the most traditional and well-preserved islands. Although you can visit, there is little tourism infrastructure. Molokai Ranch made steps to build hotels and other facilities in the 1990s and 2000s but there were protests by locals who wanted to preserve the island’s culture. Consequently, on Molokai you will find no traffic lights and no high-rise buildings.
Between 1866 to 1969, Molokai was used as Hawaii’s leper colony with two sites set up on the island. Leprosy is no longer active on Molkai and you can visit a leper colony as part of a guided tour. Today, Kalaupapa National Historic Park protects the area.
The island’s recent history has seen sugar plantations, pineapple farms and cattle ranches take over the land but this has reduced in recent years. Halawa valley, on the east of Molokai, is a dense, green valley that has beautiful waterfalls and is one of the earliest settlements in Hawaii.
Fun fact: hula dance is thought to have originated in Molokai.
Lanai is the sixth largest out of the eight Hawaiian islands, but it’s the smallest of the Hawaiian islands that can be visited by the public. It’s a tiny 18 miles (29 km) at its widest point and is another of the least touristy islands.
Lanai has gained the nickname the Pineapple island because it was once mostly made up of pineapple plantation land. However, the land was sold and, today, most of Lanai (98%) is owned by Larry Ellison, the rich co-founder of tech-giant Oracle. Ellison built two Four Seasons Resorts on the island (not exactly budget accommodation in Hawaii).
Of the remaining 2%, which is part of the State of Hawaii, there is one main city, Lanai City. The Munro trail is a popular 12.8 mile (20 km) hike from north of Lanai City to Palawai Basin. The trail travels past Cook pines and reaches a 1,600 foot elevation (488 m). There are three golf courses on the island of Lanai.
There is a daily ferry from Maui to Lanai departing from Lahaina.
Ni’ihau is the seventh largest of the eight main Hawaiian islands. However, it has fewer than 100 inhabitants (according to the 2020 census), making it one of the least populated islands. Ni’ihau is known as the “Forbidden Island”.
I’m afraid you’re unlikely to visit Ni’ihau because it is a private island accessible only by native Hawaiians, the island owners, the United States Navy and guests. This is the place where the sacred Hawaiian culture exists untouched.
Who owns Ni’ihau? In 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island, paying the equivalent of $170,000. Today, the Robinson family owns the island after inheriting it from descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair.
Ni’ihau has many lakes and wetlands which have made it a great spot for the endemic Hawaiian bird population including the Hawaiian coot, stilt and duck.
Life on the island is reported to be pre-industrial with many inhabitants living off the land; there are no roads, plumbing or phones, and the native Hawaiian language is spoken. There is a small naval site on one of the mountains. This provides most of the island’s outside income and allows purchase of some groceries from Kauai, which is the nearest main island.
The smallest of the eight Hawaiian islands, Kaho’olawe is a mere 11 miles (18 km) long by 6 miles (9.7 km) across. After World War II, the island was used as a training site for the US Army and Navy, which has left the risk of unexploded ordnance. In 1990, the land passed back to the State of Hawaii. Kaho’olawe is uninhabited and the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve was set up to preserve the island. Today, Kahoʻolawe can only be used for Hawaiian cultural or spiritual reasons. In short, Kaho’olawe is most out of bounds for toursists.
So, that’s my guide and map of the Hawaiian islands. Have you been to Hawaii? Any recommendations or fun facts to share? Let me know in the comments below.
- Which Hawaiian Island is the Best To Visit?
- 10 Top Things To Do In Oahu For First Time Visitors
- 15 Things To In Hawaii Big Island For First Time Visitors
- 16 Best Things To Do In Kauai For First Time Visitors
- 22 Best Things To Do in Maui – Hawaii
- How To Hike Diamond Head in Oahu
- How To Go Skydiving in Hawaii
- Guide To Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- How To Visit Pearl Harbor – Tickets, Tours & Tips
- Things To Do In Pearl Harbor – The Main Attractions
- Where to Stay in Hawaii on a Budget
- 18 Hawaiian Fruits For A Taste of The Tropics