6 Things to Know About the Smaller Islands of Hawaii - NerdWallet (2024)


Most travelers know about Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii (the Big Island) especially since they’re so popular with tourists. But many probably don't know that the state of Hawaii is a chain of islands spread out across the Pacific Ocean.

Here's a look at some key facts about small Hawaii islands, including those that are privately owned and others that are part of some of the largest protected marine areas in the world.

6 things to know about Hawaii’s small islands

1. There are 137 islands in total

Although there are just eight islands that make up the majority of Hawaii, the chain is actually much larger. The total land area of the state is about 6,423 square miles and includes 137 islands.

The size of these islands varies. The biggest, the island of Hawaii (colloquially known as the Big Island) is more than 4,000 square miles. It also includes 63% of the state's landmass.

Of the smaller islands of Hawaii, you’ll find tiny strips of land that barely peek out over the water’s edge, barren rocks jutting out of the ocean and plenty of uninhabited atolls. Among the smallest is Gardner Pinnacles, which is in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and consists of two pinnacles of volcanic rock totaling five acres in size.

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2. Some small Hawaiian islands are privately owned

It’s not often that you hear about someone owning an entire island, but such is the case with Ni’ihau. It’s the seventh smallest of Hawaii’s eight main islands and is owned by a single family.

Don’t worry if this sounds too fantastic to be true. In 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair purchased the island of Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha IV for a sum of $10,000. It has since been passed down through the family and remains in their possession today.

Larry Ellison, the co-founder of software company Oracle, also owns most of Lanai. He purchased 98% of the island for an estimated $300 million in 2012 and has lived there full-time since 2020.

3. Not all islands are open to the public

While most of Hawaii’s larger islands are open to tourism, there are quite a few where visitors aren’t welcome.

Ni’ihau doesn’t allow tourists, and although it has a population of about 160, they are all — with the exception of the Sinclair/Robinson family — native Hawaiians.

Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of the main Hawaiian islands and is similarly unavailable for visits. Despite its proximity to the island of Maui (it's just six miles away), Kahoʻolawe isn't home to residents or resorts. This is because of its history: it first served as a penal colony and later became a bombing range for the Navy. Although control has since reverted to the state of Hawaii, it remains unsafe and completely uninhabited.

The smaller islands of Hawaii that are open to visitors are Lanai and Molokai. Lanai has three hotels (two of which are luxurious Four Seasons Resorts) for overnight visits, but it's also a popular day trip option from Maui by ferry or plane. Molokai is the least-visited Hawaiian island. It has more hotel options than Lanai, but it doesn't have a lot of tourism infrastructure like tour companies and adventure excursions.

» Learn more: The best island to visit in Hawaii for the first time

4. Most small islands are uninhabited

Although it may seem obvious, many of Hawaii’s 137 islands are uninhabited. Most of the state’s population resides on seven of its eight main islands:

Kahoʻolawe, as noted previously, remains uninhabited.

This can also be seen in Hawaii’s vast marine reserves. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, as is the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Within the refuge are atolls and islands filled with endemic wildlife. While in the past it was possible to visit some of these islands, these days the only people who live in the area are specially permitted researchers.

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5. The smallest islands only appear at low tide

As if Hawaii wasn’t already interesting enough, did you know that its landscape is always changing? Because its terrain is so close to sea level, it’s highly susceptible to the effects of the tide.

Maro Reef, which is located in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, contains the smallest island within Hawaii’s borders. At just one acre of land among 478,000 acres of underwater coral reef habitat, this island disappears and reappears with the tide.

» Learn more: How to island hop in Hawaii

6. New islands are still forming

All of Hawaii’s islands were formed by volcanoes that began from the ocean floor. Some of these are still active and can be visited in national parks, while others are in the process of developing new islands.

Loihi is Hawaii’s newest island and as of yet is still quite small. It’s currently 3,000 feet underwater but is growing taller as its volcano continues to erupt. Scientists expect it to break out of the water in about 50,000 years.

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If you want to know about the small islands of Hawaii

The Hawaii that most people are familiar with is where most of the landmass, population and tourist activities are located. After all, these islands have numerous direct flights from the continental U.S. and provide plenty of accommodations for visitors.

But with 137 islands, islets and atolls, there’s literally much more to Hawaii than its biggest islands.

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6 Things to Know About the Smaller Islands of Hawaii - NerdWallet (2024)


What is unique about Hawaii's smallest island? ›

Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian islands. There is no permanent population of this island. The only way to visit this island is by participating in volunteer work opportunities, otherwise, it is completely off-limits to the general public.

Why is no one allowed on Kahoolawe? ›

Access to the Reserve (the island and the 2 miles of ocean surrounding Kaho'olawe) is restricted because of the continued danger of unexploded ordnance. Access to the Reserve is permitted only with authorization of KIRC for specific purposes, such as restoration, education, and culture.

Does anyone live on the small Hawaiian Islands? ›

Most small islands are uninhabited

Although it may seem obvious, many of Hawaii's 137 islands are uninhabited. Most of the state's population resides on seven of its eight main islands: Hawaii. Kauai.

Who owns the smallest Hawaiian island? ›

In June 2012, Larry Ellison, then CEO of Oracle Corporation, purchased Castle & Cooke's 98 percent share of the island for $300 million. The state and individual homeowners own the remaining 2 percent, which includes the harbor and the private homes where the 3,000 inhabitants live.

What is the least touristy island in Hawaii? ›

In fact, in some cases, it might be the best-kept secret. This is the case of Molokai - the least visited island in the state of Hawaii.

What island is forbidden to go to Hawaii? ›

Once owned by Royalty, Niihau was purchased from King Kamehameha in 1864 and up to 1987, visits to the island were typically restricted to the owners and their guests, or government officials, which is how it gained its moniker; “The Forbidden Island”.

Has anyone ever lived on Kahoʻolawe? ›

Ancient History of Kaho'olawe

While the exact date of settlement isn't entirely certain, researchers believed that Ancient Hawaiians established communities on Kaho'olawe as early as 1000 A.D. Due to the scarcity of water, however, it isn't believed that the population every numbered over a few hundred people.

Why did they bomb Kahoʻolawe? ›

Kahoʻolawe became known as “the most shot island in the world” after the relentless attacks on the islands of Hawaiʻi during and after World War II. These attacks came from the United States Armed Forces, claiming that they needed an area for target practice.

What are Hawaii 3 interesting facts? ›

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity. Kauaʻi is the oldest of the eight islands, formed about 5 million years ago. The Big Island is the youngest island, formed over 600,000 years ago. Born in Hawai'i, Barack Obama is the only president from outside the continental United States.

What is unusual about Hawaii's islands? ›

Hawaii is the most isolated population center on Earth: It's about 2,400 miles from the Mainland U.S., the closest landmass. Because of that, it has its own time zone, Hawaii Standard Time, and does not observe daylight saving time.

Who is a famous person from Hawaii? ›

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

The renowned actor, former professional wrestler, producer, businessman, and once footballer is from Hawaii. Hawaiians call the islands “The Rock”. That's why Dwayne Johnson chose his nickname or alias or whatever you like to call it, THE ROCK.

What is the safest island in Hawaii? ›

If you're just looking at the sheer number of incidents on each island, Kauai is the safest island to live on.

Why does no one go to Molokai? ›

Molokai's trouble is that it has fewer of these attractive things than its larger neighbors—and many more unprofitable features. Much of the island is inhospitable. The entire north coast is girded by plunging cliffs and pounded by giant ocean swells.

Does Niihau have electricity? ›

The Robinson's grandfather, Aubrey Robinson planted 10,000 trees per year during much of his ownership of the island; Robinson's afforestation efforts increased rainfall in the dry climate. The dry climate is ideal for the solar power that is used on Niihau, as they do not have electricity or running water.

What makes the island of Hawaii unique? ›

Hawaiʻi's remoteness can explain much of the uniqueness of its flora and fauna. The islands were, and continue to be, formed on a tectonic plate slowly moving over a hotspot of volcanic activity with each island formed in chronological sequence, thus of different age.

What is the Speciality of Hawaii island? ›

Maunakea, the world's tallest sea mountain, and Maunaloa, the world's most massive mountain, sprawling over the island. Five volcanoes and vast lava fields in a variety of textures and colors. Black and white sand beaches. A variety of flora, insects and birds found no place else on earth.

What are some interesting facts about Kahoolawe? ›

Kaho'olawe is part of Maui Nui—the original “mega-island” that comprises Maui as well as Moloka'i and Lana'i. Formed approximately 1.2 million years ago, the island was a collection of seven volcanoes that collectively covered a total land area of 5,600 square miles.

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