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The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most iconic and popular tourist destinations in the world. Their tropical climate, rugged volcanic landscapes, and stunning beaches draw millions of visitors every year. But what exactly are the Hawaiian Islands called?

Read on to learn the names of the major Hawaiian islands that make up this beautiful Pacific archipelago.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The 8 main islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago are called Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Kauaʻi and Niʻihau.

The 8 Main Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiʻi (The Big Island)

The largest of the Hawaiian islands, Hawaiʻi Island has an area of 4,028 square miles, making up 62.7% of the total land mass of the entire Hawaiian archipelago (Hawaiʻi Tourism). Nicknamed “The Big Island,” its tallest mountain is Mauna Kea at 13,796 feet above sea level.

There are 11 different climate zones on Hawaiʻi Island due to its size, topography, and elevation extremes – from tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountaintops.


The second largest of the islands, Maui has 727 square miles of land and miles of beautiful beaches with golden sand. Popular spots include the upcountry village of Kula, the old whaling port of Lahaina, the resort town of Kaʻanapali, and the lush “Valley Isle” of ‘Iao Valley State Park with views of the iconic ‘Iao Needle rock formation.


Oʻahu is the most populous island in the state, with the capital and largest city Honolulu located here. Approximately 75% of Hawaiʻi’s residents live on Oʻahu. The island has 597 square miles of land and is home to iconic landmarks like Waikīkī Beach, Diamond Head State Monument, Pearl Harbor, and the North Shore’s famed surf breaks.


Once used by U.S. Armed Forces for bombing practice from 1941-1990, Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of Hawaii’s 8 main islands at just 45 square miles. Now considered a sacred place to Native Hawaiians, public access is limited as the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission works toward environmental restoration and clearance of unexploded ordnance.


Lāna’i was once the world’s largest pineapple plantation under James Dole. Now about 98% of the 141 square mile island is owned by Larry Ellison. With only one small town, Lāna’i City, it is the least populated Hawaiian island.

Visitors enjoy its secluded resorts, beaches, and the experience of renting a 4×4 and exploring the rugged landscape.


Called the “Friendly Isle,” rural Molokaʻi has lots of empty beaches to explore with a population under 8,000. The 260 square mile island is peaceful and laid back, making it feel untouched by mainstream tourism.

Along with its beautiful seascapes and nature areas like the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Molokaʻi is considered the birthplace of hula dancing and has many ancient Hawaiian religious sites.


With 550 square miles, Kauaʻi is the fourth largest of the main islands and the oldest geologically. It is nicknamed the “Garden Isle” thanks to the tropical rainforest covering much of its interior and the stunning natural sights found here like Waimea Canyon, the Nā Pali Coast, and Wailua Falls.

Kauaʻi is also where many Hollywood films set in the tropics have been produced.


Nicknamed “The Forbidden Isle,” Niʻihau is Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island at only 72 square miles. It is privately owned by one family, the Robinsons, who restrict public access to preserve the island culture and prevent outside influence.

Currently home to about 170 Native Hawaiians, Niʻihau is off-the-grid with no mains electricity, running water, or paved roads.

The Geology Behind the Islands’ Formation

Hotspot Volcanoes

The Hawaiian islands were formed by a geological hotspot located under the Pacific Ocean plate. This hotspot allows magma to push up through the plate, creating underwater volcanoes that eventually break the ocean surface as islands.

As the Pacific plate moves northwestward over the relatively stationary hotspot at around 32-34 miles per million years, new volcanoes are formed and existing islands move off the hotspot and stop receiving new lava, allowing them to erode and eventually sink beneath the waves again over millions of years.

This conveyor belt of island building and destruction has created the northwest to southeast age gradient seen across the Hawaiian island chain today.

Shield Volcanoes

The volcanoes created by the Hawaiian hotspot are known as shield volcanoes, named after their broad, gently-sloping shape resembling a warrior’s shield. Shield volcanoes occur where magma is relatively fluid and non-explosive, allowing it to flow easily out of long fissures instead of building up pressure inside a volcano vent.

This makes them very different from the steep, explosive, cone-shaped volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens formed at subduction zones. As layer upon layer of fluid lava flows pile up over the hotspot, it creates the classic shield profile like those seen on the Big Island of Hawaii today.

In fact, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are the largest shield volcanoes by volume globally!

Atoll Formation

As the Pacific plate continues to carry the Hawaiian islands northwest, they slowly sink below sea level due to their own weight and move off the hotspot that built them. While most traces of the volcanoes disappear over millions of years, coral reefs surrounding the islands continue to grow upwards around the eroding volcano core.

This creates circular or oval-shaped coral reef structures called atolls, with shallow lagoons in their center where the volcanic peaks used to be. Atolls like Kure Atoll and Midway Atoll near the northwest end of the Hawaiian island chain are the only remaining visible traces of the ancient volcanoes that have all but disappeared beneath the ocean’s surface after moving off the hotspot that created them so long ago.

Unique Features of Each Island

Hawaiʻi: Volcanoes and Black Sand Beaches

The island of Hawaiʻi, also known as the Big Island, is the largest and southernmost of the Hawaiian islands. It is home to two active volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Hawaiʻi has miles of rugged black sand beaches, created by the island’s volcanic eruptions and lava flows.

Popular black sand beaches include Punaluʻu Beach and Kaimū Beach. The Big Island also features Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home of the active Kilauea volcano and Kilauea Iki crater.

Maui: Lush Valleys and World-Famous Beaches

The island of Maui is known for its lush green valleys, waterfalls, and breathtaking beaches. The Road to Hana is a winding coastal drive with views of rainforests and waterfalls like Twin Falls. Popular beaches include Kaanapali, Kapalua, Wailea, and Makena Beach.

Haleakala National Park features a dormant volcano with amazing views. The island also has an old whaling town called Lahaina that offers shopping, art galleries, and dining.

Oʻahu: Cosmopolitan Honolulu and Famous North Shore

Oʻahu is home to Hawaii’s capital and largest city, Honolulu. Iconic landmarks here include Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head crater, Pearl Harbor, and the USS Arizona Memorial. The island’s North Shore is known for big wave surfing spots like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay.

The Polynesian Cultural Center highlights different Pacific island cultures. Hiking trails leading to scenic overlooks can be found throughout Oʻahu.

Kahoʻolawe: Uninhabited Due to Unexploded Ordinance

Kahoʻolawe island is currently uninhabited due to the presence of unexploded ordnance left over from military training in the 20th century. Vegetation is recovering through restoration efforts. Honokanaiʻa, also known as Kahoolawe’s southern basal ridge, is an important spiritual and cultural site for Native Hawaiians.

Access is tightly controlled, requiring special permission and undergoing clearance procedures.

Lānaʻi: Pineapple Plantations and Secluded Resorts

Lānaʻi island was once home to extensive pineapple plantations and is still spotted with pineapple fields. Today it is mostly owned by billionaire Larry Ellison. High-end and secluded resorts dot the landscape, like the Four Seasons Resort Lānaʻi.

Many parts of the rural island can only be accessed by guided tours booked through the resorts. Key attractions include Garden of the Gods and ancient rock carvings at Shipwreck Beach.

Molokaʻi: Rural Farming Communities and Dramatic Cliffs

Molokaʻi island has a very slow pace of life with rural farming and fishing communities. The northern shore features the world’s tallest sea cliffs rising over 3,900 feet high. Key attractions include Kalaupapa National Historical Park, the historic Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) colony, and Kamakou Preserve’s rain forests, waterfalls and hiking trails.

Molokaʻi is also considered the birthplace of hula dancing and has many sacred cultural sites.

Kauaʻi: Tropical Rainforests and Breathtaking Canyons

Kauaʻi island is sometimes called the “Garden Island” due to its lush green rainforests and stunning landscapes like Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Popular sights include Wailua Falls, Fern Grotto, Poʻipū Beach, and Waimea town.

It is also home to the wettest place on Earth, Mount Waiʻaleʻale, which averages about 450 inches of rain per year. Key activities on Kauaʻi include boat tours along the dramatic Nā Pali Coast.

Niʻihau: Private Hawaiian Island Restricted to Visitors

Niʻihau is a private Hawaiian island located just west of Kauaʻi and restricted to outsiders. Owned by the Robinson family since 1864, access is limited to relatives of Niʻihau residents, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials, and invited guests.

Niʻihau’s population lives mostly rent-free, supporting themselves by fishing, hunting, and farming. Residents speak Hawaiian as their first language. The island has unique endangered plant and insect species found nowhere else on Earth.

Native Hawaiian Culture and History

Ancient Hawaiian Society and Religion

The first Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian islands around 300-500 AD, sailing from other Pacific islands like Tahiti and the Marquesas on large double-hulled canoes. Ancient Hawaiian society was based around extended family groups called ohana, who lived in settlements across the islands.

Spirituality and religion were extremely important, with Hawaiians worshipping many gods associated with nature, such as the volcano goddess Pele. Temples called heiau were built as places to worship the gods through ceremonies, rituals and sacrifices.

The Unification of the Islands Under King Kamehameha

In the late 1700s, the Hawaiian islands were divided into several kingdoms ruled by chiefs. A great warrior named Kamehameha, who was said to have the strength of a thousand men, launched a campaign to conquer and unite the islands into a single kingdom.

After years of fierce battles, Kamehameha succeeded in uniting all the main Hawaiian islands under his rule by 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaii with him as monarch. He instituted the kapu system of laws and governance that reinforced a system of social classes.

Contact with Europeans and Cultural Decline

When British explorer Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778, it marked the beginning of major changes for Hawaiian society. Europeans and Americans soon began flocking to Hawaii for the sandalwood trade, establishing sizeable business interests and settling on the islands over time.

This influx of Westerners brought both benefits like literacy and technology, and devastating drawbacks like unfamiliar diseases that decimated the native Hawaiian population. Christian missionaries sought to convert Hawaiians to a different belief system and worldview, essentially dismantling traditional Hawaiian religion and culture within a few decades.

The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy

As Western settlers established valuable sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, they pushed for political changes that challenged the Hawaiian monarchy’s authority. With help from the US military, American businessmen overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 in an illegal coup d’etat, essentially ending the sovereign Hawaiian nation.

Hawaii was then annexed by the United States in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Many native Hawaiians protested what they viewed as the theft of their land and subjugation of the rightful Hawaiian rulers.

Statehood and the Hawaiian Renaissance

Hawaii was an official US territory for over 60 years before becoming the 50th state in 1959 after a referendum. In recent decades, Hawaiians have been greatly concerned about preserving Hawaiian culture against ongoing Westernization.

Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of Hawaiian culture, language, arts and traditions in an effort known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Annual events like the Merrie Monarch Festival celebrate long-dormant Hawaiian cultural practices.

However the native language teeters on the edge of extinction, highlighting the existential crisis still facing Hawaiian identity.


The Hawaiian Islands offer incredible diversity across their landscapes, climates, and cultures. Learning the names of the 8 major islands—Hawaiʻi, Maui, Oʻahu, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Kauaʻi and Niʻihau—is an important first step to understanding what makes Hawaii so special.

Each island has its own unique story shaped by volcanic forces, human history, and rich Hawaiian traditions. Whether you’re planning a trip to Hawaii or just want to learn more about its origins, knowing the names of its islands will deepen your knowledge and appreciation of these precious Pacific gems.

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