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The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic archipelago located in the Pacific Ocean, comprising hundreds of islands, reefs, and shoals. But when it comes to naming the main island of this scenic paradise, there is often some confusion.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the largest and most populous island in Hawaii is called Hawai’i Island, but it’s also frequently referred to as the Island of Hawaii or the Big Island.

In this comprehensive guide, we will provide detailed information on the naming conventions for the main Hawaiian island, its history and geography, major towns and attractions, comparisons to the other islands, and frequently asked questions.

The Formal Name is Hawai’i Island

The largest and southernmost island of the Hawaiian archipelago has the formal name of Hawai’i Island. This name references the island’s status as the largest, most populous, and geologically oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

Also Known as the Island of Hawaii or the Big Island

In addition to the formal name of Hawai’i Island, this island is commonly referred to simply as the “Big Island” or the “Island of Hawaii.” These nicknames highlight the island’s size and status as the largest island in the archipelago.

Spanning over 4,000 square miles, the Big Island accounts for 63% of the total land area across the entire state of Hawaii. This sheer size and scale sets it apart from the other islands. The island’s large size also contributes to diverse landscapes, including volcanoes, black sand beaches, waterfalls, and more.

Origins and Meanings Behind the Name

The name Hawai’i originates from the Proto-Polynesian word Sawaiki, meaning “homeland.” Over time, this developed into the word Hawai’i, reflecting the island’s status as the ancestral homeland of the Native Hawaiian people.

According to one Hawaiian legend, Hawai’iloa, an ancient Hawaiian explorer and chief, named the island after himself during his voyages across the Pacific. His name lives on today through the formal name of his ancestral homeland.

Geography and Regions of Hawai’i Island

Volcanic Origins

The island of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island, was formed by volcanic eruptions from the Hawaii hotspot underneath the Pacific Ocean. This hotspot continues to pump out lava today, gradually expanding the size of the island.

In fact, the Big Island contains 5 out of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, and Kohala. These volcanoes have built up the island over hundreds of thousands of years, creating its unique and diverse landscape.

Climate and Ecosystem Diversity

Situated in the tropical region, Hawai’i Island has mild and sunny weather year-round. However, the climate varies across regions due to the island’s size and extreme elevations. The volcanic peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea have Alpine conditions with freezing temperatures.

In contrast, coastal areas are hot and dry with lush green rainforests on the windward side. This diversity in ecosystems supports a vast array of endemic Hawaiian plants and animals.

Main Geographic Zones

Based on geology and climate, the Big Island has 9 distinct geographic zones:

  • Kohala – The oldest volcano on the island with dramatic sea cliffs, valleys, waterfalls, and short streams.
  • Kona – Known for its sandy beaches, calm waters, coffee farms, resorts, and historic Kailua village.
  • Kaʻū – Sparsely populated district with a rugged coastline, green sand beach, and active volcano Kilauea.
  • Puna – Lush tropical rainforests, picturesque waterfalls, heated pools, and recent lava flows from eruptions.
  • Hilo – The island’s biggest population center with high annual rainfall, farms, parks, and Mauna Kea’s snowy peak vista.
  • Hāmākua – Lush countryside dotted with small towns, sugar plantations, valleys, and waterfalls.
  • Kohala Mountains – Steep landscape with valleys, rivers, rainforest, and the tallest point Mauna Kea standing at 13,803 ft.
  • Saddle Road – Crosses between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes through varied ecosystems.
  • Kaʻū Desert – Highly arid region with volcanic craters and steaming vents.

The diversity in the island’s regions makes Hawai’i a haven for outdoor lovers. There are endless sights to explore – from tropical beaches, rainforests, and waterfalls to active lava flows and even snow-capped peaks. 🏝️🌋🌴 No wonder Hawai’i is fondly called the Paradise of the Pacific!

Major Towns and Attractions


Hilo, located on the east coast of the Big Island, is known for its rainforests and breathtaking waterfalls. The town has a laidback vibe and serves as a gateway for exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Top attractions include the Pacific Tsunami Museum, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, and the lively Hilo Farmers Market.


Kailua-Kona, on the west coast, is a historic town famous for the athletic Ironman World Championship triathlon. The area offers stunning beaches, snorkeling, fishing charters, and whale watching cruises.

Don’t miss the ancient spiritual site Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park and the historic Huliheʻe Palace.

Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park protects the active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. This area has 150 miles of hiking trails through volcanic craters, rainforests, and to the coast to see striking lava flows.

Top sites are the Jaggar Museum, Thurston Lava Tube, the Kīlauea Overlook, and the endlessly changing lava lakes and flows.

Waipiʻo Valley

The stunning Waipiʻo Valley was once a retreat for Hawaiian royalty with its black sand beach, taro fields, and towering waterfalls. Visitors can take scenic overlook tours, hike to waterfalls, or drive down into the valley by obtaining a permit.

This valley truly captures the beauty of untouched Hawaii.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, is the highest peak in Hawaii at 13,796 feet. The top overlook has epic sunset views and excellent stargazing at the Mauna Kea Observatories. Visitors can take 4×4 tours, hike, ski, or road bike this mountain.

Just be sure to respect cultural traditions at the sacred summit.


Beach Highlights
Hapuna Beach Powdery white sand, calm waters, great snorkeling
Kaunaʻoa Beach (Mauna Kea Beach) Crescent-shaped, soft white sand, beachfront resorts and restaurants
Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach Striking black sand with sea turtles basking on shore

The island has an array of spectacular beaches like Hapuna Beach, Kaunaʻoa Beach, and the famous Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach. Beach highlights range from soft white sand to stark black sand, calm waters for new swimmers to great snorkeling reefs, and even lounging endangered sea turtles.

Comparisons to Other Hawaiian Islands

O’ahu and Maui

The island of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island, differs from the islands of O’ahu and Maui in a few key ways. The Big Island is much larger in size, spanning 4,028 square miles compared to O’ahu at 597 square miles and Maui at 727 square miles.

This large size means the Big Island has more variety in landscapes and climates, from tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains.

In addition, the Big Island is less developed than O’ahu and Maui, with smaller cities and more open spaces. According to census data, O’ahu has a population of over 950,000 while Maui has over 150,000 residents. The Big Island’s population is around 190,000.

So while popular tourist sites can get crowded on O’ahu and Maui, the Big Island offers more opportunities to experience nature and Hawaiian culture away from larger resort areas.

The Big Island is also home to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, featuring the world’s most active volcanoes at Kilauea and Mauna Loa. This gives visitors a unique chance to see flowing lava, volcanic craters, steam vents, and other volcanic features not found on the other islands.

From walking on newly hardened lava to watching the glowing Halema’uma’u Crater at night, volcanic sights impress visitors from around the globe.

Kaua’i, Lana’i, and Moloka’i

In comparison to the smaller Hawaiian islands of Kaua’i, Lana’i, and Moloka’i, the Big Island is much more populous and developed while still offering plenty of natural beauty. Kaua’i is known as the “Garden Island” for its lush green landscapes, Lana’i has pineapples and secluded beaches, and rural Moloka’i offers a glimpse at old Hawai’i.

But the Big Island boasts amazing nature as well, from tropical rainforests to barren lava fields dotted with ohelo berries.

The Big Island also attracts over 2 million visitors per year, significantly more than those received by Kaua’i, Lana’i or Moloka’i. This means visitors will find more amenities, restaurants, hotels and activities available.

And getting to the Big Island is easier with both Kona and Hilo International Airports receiving flights from across Hawai’i, the mainland U.S., and even international destinations. So while the other islands have their own charms, the Big Island offers unparalleled volcanic scenery that draws travelers from around the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are there multiple names?

The main island of Hawaii has been known by many names throughout history. The original Hawaiian name is Hawai’i, named after the Polynesian explorer who discovered the islands. Early Spanish explorers called it Isla Grande.

Today, it’s most commonly called the “Big Island” to distinguish it from the state named Hawaii as a whole.

The multiple names stem from the island’s long history of discovery and settlement by various cultures. From the native Hawaiians, to European explorers, to America’s annexation of the islands in the 1800s, different groups have influenced what we now call the main Hawaii island.

So the different names reflect those varied cultural contacts and interactions over time.

What do locals call it?

Most modern-day Hawaii residents simply refer to it as “the Big Island.” This nickname differentiates it from the other populated Hawaiian islands of Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai. The Big Island designation emphasizes that Hawaii is the largest island in the chain, covering over 4,000 square miles.

Long-time locals also frequently call it “Hawaii Island” to distinguish it from the state name. Visitors will mostly hear it called the Big Island or Hawaii Island when talking to knowledgeable locals or reading local publications.

Is it the only Hawaiian island with volcanoes?

No, the Big Island is not the only Hawaiian island formed by volcanoes. In fact, volcanism created the entire Hawaiian archipelago over millions of years. However, the Big Island is home to Kilauea volcano, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, which has been continuously erupting since 1983.

So while volcanic activity occurs elsewhere in Hawaii, the Big Island has the most active, currently erupting volcanoes. Kilauea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii Island produce fresh lava flows more frequently than the potentially active volcanoes on other islands like Maui and Oahu.

This volcanic activity makes the Big Island’s landscape the youngest and still rapidly evolving in the Hawaiian chain.


As you can see, although the largest and most populous Hawaiian island goes by several common names, including the Island of Hawai’i, the Big Island, and simply Hawai’i, its formal name is Hawai’i Island.

This magnificent island has a diverse landscape featuring active volcanoes, black sand beaches, tropical rainforests, and more for visitors to explore. We covered key details on the geography, major towns, comparisons to other islands, and frequently asked questions about the main island of this tropical paradise.

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