9 beautiful island national parks perfect for a winter holiday

9 beautiful island national parks perfect for a winter holiday

The traditional winter national park vacation involves parks in the desert southwest or the Everglades. These are great choices, but if you are willing to go a little further, you can have a great island adventure exploring national parks that most people will never see and that many have never even heard of.

I’m retired park ranger. I have been fortunate to work in parks across the country and I am extremely fortunate to have many years of friends and colleagues who have lived and worked in these island parks I could call to help me with my choice.

I have chosen a list of national park sites on tropical islands in warmer winter climates. I started with a park in the Caribbean that is quite easy to access and is best known for its natural beauty. I then switched to the Pacific for two choices – one gives a sense of mission to a traditional island vacation, the other goes far into the distant Pacific for the odyssey of a lifetime.

Let’s go.

from above over the harbor in st.  john island of st thomas us virgin islands.
Yingna Cai / Shutterstock.com

1. Virgin Islands National Park

Winter is a perfect time to visit the Virgin Islands National Park. Not only does summer and fall provide potential for tropical storms, they also bring dust from the Sahara. That dust degrades the visibility many days of the season. Not like that in the winter.

No matter when you visit, the park offers beaches, hiking, camping and great wildlife – that is, if you are willing to work a little and know where to head.

Fantastic beaches include Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Francis Bay.

Hawksnest Bay is the easiest to access. Trunk Bay has showers and toilets (visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid stand-by fees). Cinnamon Bay has restrooms and a campground scheduled to open in December. Francis Bay on the north coast is the best place to see sea turtles. It also has a new toilet and parking.

Consider visiting the beaches early in the morning when the water is calm and there are few people.

For hiking, get the trail map at the visitor center. Check out Reef Bay Stone. There are colonial ruins and rock carvings to explore on the way to a small but remote sandy beach.

For a longer hike, take the scenic path from the end of Leinster Beach. It goes uphill to a colony guard house overlooking the water and some plantation house ruins. The trail continues to Brown Bay and ends at Coral Bay. Hiking and exploring this area is an all-day endeavor, so pack food and water.

A great place to combine hiking and snorkeling is Leinster Bay. Park at the Annaberg Sugar Mill parking lot and hike along the shores of the bay all the way to Waterlemon Cay. The best snorkeling is to go into the water closest to the quay and swim across the canal. The area is lined with buoys so there is no sailing, making it safer to snorkel.

Speaking of snorkeling, to really appreciate the wildlife of this park, you must see it by snorkeling. It’s not hard, not expensive, and you miss a lot of the park by not doing it.

A great way to explore snorkeling trips, especially for beginners, is through dive shops in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. Boat access, including guide service, gives you the absolute best opportunity to get the most out of your park visit.

A hidden gem for snorkeling is Hurricane Hole. It has a spectacular sea life, but because there is no sandy beach, it is often overlooked.

Snorkel reef at night for a real once-in-a-lifetime adventure. You can rent underwater lights in the dive shops. Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay are great for night snorkeling.

Pro tip: In winter, swells can limit visibility underwater on the north coast. If so, head to the south coast, which is slightly sheltered, for better views.

Wide view of the Kamokuna Sea entrance to Hawaii's Volcano National Park.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Photo Credit: jo Crebbin / Shutterstock.com)

The seven Hawaiian national parks

Take a trip to Hawaii on a mission – plan a trip centered on visiting all of the islands’ national park locations. By doing so, you will not only experience the natural beauty of the islands, you will have a deeper understanding of their rich history.

Let’s review them one by one.

USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Donald R. Swartz / Shutterstock.com

2. USS Arizona Memorial, Oahu

The monument tells the story of the Pacific War, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the fighting in the Aleutians to the home front and the internment of Japanese Americans. In addition to the memorial to the sunken USS Arizona and the last resting place for 900 of her crew, there is a visitor center with exhibitions and galleries. Not part of the park, but nearby, is the battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

You can easily spend a whole day immersed in the story exactly at the place where the story was made.

The sea cliffs at Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii.
Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii (Photo credit: Reimar / Shutterstock.com)

3. Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Molokai

When Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) came to the islands, King Kamehameha V banished everyone affected to the north coast of Molokai. Since 1866, more than 8,000 people, mostly Hawaiians, have died after experiencing life as excluded from society

Kalaupapa is now a refuge for the few remaining residents, now cured but who were forced to live their lives in isolation in this former prison.

Visits are strictly limited to a maximum of 100 people a day, with a minimum age of 16. Only visitors who are part of a guided tour are allowed. And in the turn of fate, due to the pandemic, tours are not currently offered.

Panoramic views of the colorful Haleakala Volcano in Maui from the summit.
Haleakala Volcano (Photo credit: mdlart / Shutterstock.com)

4. Haleakala National Park, Maui

The park starts at the coastline and rises to its volcanic summit, giving you an incredible array of microclimates, ecosystems and things to see and do. The most popular activity is watching the sunrise from the top, a sacred Hawaiian experience. You will need a reservation and a warm jacket. You can also take a commercial ride with the option to cycle 23 miles downhill from the top.

The park has camping, landscape cabins and hiking. The coastline is not swimmer friendly.

The ruins of the Great Hawaiian Temple at the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Big Island, Hawaii.
Pu’ukohola Heiau (Photo credit: George Burba / Shutterstock.com)

5. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Park, Big Island

The stone temple Pu’ukohola Heiau is an icon of Hawaiian culture. The king was built under the command of King Kamehameha and stood on its walls, fulfilling the vision of uniting the islands under his kingdom in 1810.

The structure itself speaks of the strength and determination of the islanders. Its walls were built by 10,000 people over the course of a year, and they sent stones from one to the other in a chain connected for miles.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical State Park, Hawaii.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical State Park (Photo Credit: Steve Weisberg / Shutterstock.com)

6. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Site, Big Island

The site of an ancient Hawaiian settlement, the park was created to preserve Hawaiian culture, traditional skills and knowledge. The park preserves ancient fish ponds and systems for collecting and handling fresh water, which flows into the many pools throughout the park. The area is revered and respected in Hawaiian culture.

Photographs of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, Big Island, Hawaii.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (Photo Credit: Fominayaphoto / Shutterstock.com)

7. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, Big Island

The park preserves a brick sanctuary and refuge for those who have broken the islands’ sacred law, the royal grounds, a mausoleum that housed the bones of 23 chiefs and more. The park is one of the holiest sites on the islands.

8. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island

The park has an appropriate name and lets you experience two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. It is an international biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers 130,000 hectares of wilderness.

You can hike on a variety of trails from short to long, easy to difficult. You can explore from your vehicle by taking the crater rim drive and the Chain of Craters road. You can even go underground to explore an ancient lava tube.

Volcanic activity can result in restrictions and closures, so check the park’s website for updates when planning your trip and before you travel.

Sandy Bay and Pacific National Historical Park, Guam, US Territory, Central Pacific.
Pacific National Historical Park (Photo credit: Danita Delimont / Shutterstock.com)

9. War in Pacific National Historical Park, Guam

Although World War II is a major event in American history, it takes some work to visit a World War II battlefield in the Pacific on U.S. territory, except for Pearl Harbor.

And while appreciating history may be your primary purpose of visiting, you will be just as impressed with the natural beauty and biodiversity of the islands and people’s sharing culture.

War in the Pacific National Historical Park on Guam is composed of seven individual sites related to WWII.

If you were to visit Gettysburg, you would see a mostly cleansed battlefield. Not like that in war in the Pacific. The battlefield is still very close to its original state. You can see small caves with shell casings, business bottles and a canteen. Sometimes even bones.

Signs warn of what to do if you encounter unexploded ordnance. The battlefield is so real.

There are memorials and exhibits and an extensive visitor center showing a Japanese midget submarine, but the battlefield itself is what sets the experience apart.

There is a long way to Guam, part of the Mariana Islands, so the park is best appreciated as part of a more extensive tour of other islands involved in the Pacific Theater.

On shallow water right by the American Memorial Park on Saipan you can find sunken planes and tanks – some by snorkeling.

Tinian still has the four runways where the B-29s took off to bomb Japan, including the nuclear bombings. Historian Don Farrell is a longtime resident of Tinian and takes visitors on a day trip to the runways and other historic sites on the island.

Rota has been proposed as a national park. It has latte villages (lattes are ancient stone pillars with end stones found everywhere in the Mariana Islands, a latte quarry, a bird sanctuary with rare and endangered species and Japanese fortifications dug down mountain slopes.

To do it right, you will want to contact a commercial tour outfit like Military Historic Tours that will arrange your visit. The island’s battlefields tell a million stories from previous generations, but are preserved in a state that makes them completely real. Just as real as the contrast between the horrors of battle and the natural beauty and serenity of these tropical islands.

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