The Hawaiian islands are absolutely beautiful no matter which way you cut it. The islands are ringed with protective, colorful reefs that hide an abundant underwater world teeming with life. On land, you can hike to towering waterfalls, misty mountaintops, and secluded white-sand beaches. But Hawaii maybe most beautiful from the air where you get a breathtaking perspective on its tropical grandeur.
Only a lucky few get to take to the skies to witness parts of the islands that are otherwise inaccessible. You can choose to fly to Kauai’s Weeping Wall inside the Blue Hole, hover over bubbling lava on The Big Island or witness the true majesty of Haleakala on Maui. When you jump into a helicopter tour, the sky is literally the limit.
This unforgettable experience isn’t cheap. You only have room in your budget for one Hawaiian helicopter tour. So, which one should you take? Well, that’s a matter of personal opinion. If you like lava, then you should head to The Big Island. If you’re a fan of dramatic coastlines, then Kauai is the island for you.
But this article will attempt to rank Hawaii’s grandeur from the sky. First, we’ll start out west where you can drink in the beauty of diverse landscapes in a single flight.
Kauai is nicknamed “The Garden Isle” due to its mixture of tropical heat and humidity. This is a recipe for life, and life is abundant on Hawaii’s westernmost visited island (Niihau, one island west, is privately owned and inaccessible). Kauai absolutely glows green with lush landscapes of verdant valleys, is home of the state’s only navigable rivers and features towering waterfall-covered mountains.
The northwest coast of Kauai is perhaps the most beautiful stretch of land in the state. Known as theNa Pali Coast, this mountainous area features cathedral cliffs that reach into the ocean like the talons of an island-sized dragon. In between each finger, is a stunning valley cut by a waterfall and stream. And each valley has its own beautiful and dangerous little beach.
Hikers from all over the world flock to Kauai to challenge its Na Pali Coast hike called the Kalalau Trail. The trail, which is 11 miles one-way, starts at the end of Kauai’s main road on the northern side of the island at Ke’e Beach, and it brings hikers to the Na Pali Coast’s prize valley -- Kalalau. The trail is only for the intrepid as hikers must challenge “the Crawler’s Ledge,” which is a narrow ledge cut into an ocean cliff. Many get dizzy as the waves crash below and resort to crawling.
But there’s something hiding behind the Na Pali Coast that’s arguably even more breathtaking -- The Waimea Canyon. Legend has it that Mark Twain dubbed this colorful crack in the earth “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and it certainly is grand. The deep, tropical canyon’s soil is oxidized to glow orange, red and purple, and it’s all accented by the brilliant green of Kauai’s abundant plant life. Waterfalls seem to pour in slow motion inside this time-stopping sight.
Travel inland just a little further, and you’ll have to trudge through the highest elevated swamp in the world before getting to Kauai’s central dormant volcano. Mount Waialeale and its crater are the rainiest places on earth, and all that rainwater carves the state’s only navigable rivers back the Pacific Ocean below.
Inside the crater, you’ll find The Weeping Wall where hundreds of waterfalls, fed by the ever-present rainfall, converge into a deep canyon called The Blue Hole. This part of the island experiences a dry season that lasts only a few weeks a year, and hikers love to challenge the Blue Hole hike all the way to the back of the crater to stand under the stinging falls of the Weeping Wall. Along the way, they must pull themselves up and over Guardian Falls and traverse the slippery red-dirt slopes of a dangerous slot canyon.
Kauai’s incredible landscapes are extremely difficult to experience on foot, and they are impossible to see by car. But you can take in all of the island’s grandeur in a helicopter tour. You can choose to spend your entire flight buzzing along the remote Na Pali Coast looking for sharks and whales in the impossibly blue water below. You can bundle the Na Pali Coast with a dip into the Waimea Canyon. You can brave the rain into the Blue Hole to witness the Weeping Wall, or you can choose to buzz over it all. It’ll make you feel small in a spiritual way. It’s beautiful.
The Big Island shares a name with the state -- Hawaii -- but its nickname is rather fitting. The Big Island is big, and it continues to grow by 40 acres per year. That’s because Kilauea, the Big Island’s most active volcano, has been constantly erupting since the 1980s. The volcano has been so reliable that they built Volcanoes National Park around it.
Unfortunately, a May 2018 eruption changed the landscape inside Volcanoes National Park, and lava no longer flows within park boundaries. The park features what was a constant cauldron of lava with a convenient viewing platform, but the crater has drained. There is good news, however. Park rangers are confident that the lava will return to the park at any moment as the crater has drained in the past only to refill. They think it will refill once again.
But the current lack of lava inside Volcanoes National Park doesn’t mean that lava has stopped flowing altogether. Kilauea continues to erupt, but it’s lava simply comes to the surface outside of the park, and the magma continues to flow into the ocean in an area known as the Lower East Rift Zone.
Kilauea is not the only active volcano on the big island. Hawaii features five of the state’s six still-active volcanoes. In fact, the Big Island’s two massive peaks -- Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa -- are active volcanoes. They erupt about every six years, and you can see the devastation these volcanoes have wrought in the lava rock fields of the dry west coast.
And the Big Island isn’t just big in land area. It’s also big vertically. Mauna Kea stands an impressive 13,000 feet above sea level, and 20,000 more feet hide below the waves. This makes Mauna Kea a staggering 33,000 feet when measured from the ocean floor, which dwarfs Mount Everest standing at a paltry 28,000 feet. It’s the largest volcano on earth, and it’s perhaps the largest mountain on earth.
Billions of dollars worth of scientific equipment sit atop Mauna Kea because the Big Island features one of the darkest skies in the world. Devoid of light pollution, the volcano’s observatories peer deep into the cosmos, and you can see thousands of stars blanketing the night sky when you sit atop the mountain.
This massive island is unique as it’s home to 10 of the world’s 14 different climate zones. You’ll find everything from snowcapped peaked atop Mauna Kea in winter, to dry glassy deserts on the west coast near Kona. An experienced helicopter guide will be able to teach you about each climate zone, and how the disparate climates make the Big Island perfect for growing different crops, like Kona coffee.
A helicopter tour is a great way to see lava flow activity on the island. The pilot will take you to fresh volcanic activity, and you’ll be able to peer right into the molten rock from a safe distance. And a bird’s eye view is a wonderful way to take in the majesty of Mauna Kea while learning about Hawaii’s fiery history and disparate climate zones. And, if you happen to ascend as high as Mauna Kea herself, you may be able to peak deep into the starry sky, even during daylight hours.
Before you step foot into a helicopter on Maui, it’s important to take a peek at a map of the island. Zoom out if you’re looking on your smartphone, and you’ll notice that the island is actually two islands fused together. Each of these “islands” has its own unique personality.
The smaller western island is where you’ll find former whaling stations that have turned themselves into cute little resort towns. This is the side of the island for lovers, and it’s this west coast that has made Maui popular for weddings, newlyweds, coupled and honeymooners. It’s a beautiful place to watch the ocean in winter as the humpback whales begin to arrive for the breeding season in January. They seem to breach in celebrating until the end of the breeding season in March.
The west coast is romantic, and it’s dotted with beautiful secluded beaches, but it’s not where you’ll want to tack a helicopter. The most dramatic beauty waits for you on the larger eastern island.
This larger eastern island has quite an impressive centerpiece -- Haleakala. This is the volcano that gave rise to Maui herself. It stands more than 10,000 feet above sea level, and its long, slow slopes take up the entire horizon. It’s as if the earth simply bends upwards towards the heavens.
Atop Haleakala is a volcanic crater that glows with such brilliant colors that it has been named a national park. The exposed volcanic soil has oxidized to reveal deep reds and purples, striking oranges and opaque blacks. You won’t find any greenery up here. It’s a barren moonscape that can feel like an island in the sky when the mountain is draped in clouds.
At the base of Haleakala, wrapping around the massive mountain on the east coast, you’ll find the Road to Hana. This scenic drive is what put Maui on the map for adventurous vacationers. The coastal road takes drivers to Hana past hidden waterfalls, black sand beaches, and misty rainforests. There’s something new to discover every mile, but the road can get crowded with tourists.
And that’s why a helicopter tour of Maui can be so efficient. You can explore the wonders of the Road to Hana from high above to avoid the crowds below. The helicopter can take you to the top of Haleakala, and, along the way, you’ll get a unique perspective on the massive volcano’s might. And then you’ll break through the clouds to peer down into the crater while avoiding the national park’s fee.
The ancient Hawaiians called Oahu “The Gathering Place,” and it’s a fitting nickname. Hawaii sees nearly 10 million annual visitors, and the vast majority of those travelers will walk through Honolulu International Airport; the largest airport in Hawaii.
Honolulu is also the state’s largest city. You’ll be amazed at the height of the skyscrapers as you fly into Honolulu. And, if you’re on the proper side of the plane, you’ll be able to see Waikiki Beach with its white sand, crowning tower resorts, and impossibly blue water.
Behind Waikiki sits Diamond Head. This 300,000-year-old dormant volcano was home to America’s first military bunker at the beginning of the 20th century. Now you’ll find a network of trails crisscrossing the famous mountain to the delight of active tourists. The trail to the top is well-marked, but it is incredibly crowded as Diamond Head is Hawaii’s most-hiked trail.
You’ll find Pearl Harbor just to the west of the city. It was here, in 1941, that the American Pacific fleet was surprise-attacked by the Japanese Air Force. More than 3,000 people died that fateful December day, and it was the attack that poked the bear. The tragedy launched America into World War II, which had been raging across Europe since the early ’30s. And it marked the beginning of the end for both the German and Japanese forces which surrendered four years later in 1945.
You can visit the still-sunken USS Arizona at the Pearl Harbor Memorial. The ship sits at the bottom of the harbor, and oil from its engines still bubbles to the surface. You can also visit the decommissioned USS Missouri on those hallowed grounds. It makes for a somber rainy day visit.
Most of the helicopter tours on Oahu are going to center around Hawaii’s big city. You can take a short tour of the city itself, or you can buzz around the city, Waikiki and Diamond Head. Other tours will take you up the coast to visit Pearl Harbor where you can see the still-sunken ship its clear waters. And you can even board a helicopter at night for a short tour of the city which is capped by a fireworks show.
But Oahu is much more than just a city. The center of the island is home to the Dole Pineapple Plantation where you can learn about Hawaii’s sweet agricultural history. And the north shore of the island is home to some of the most epic surf in the world. The waves only come around in winter, but, when they do come around, the world’s best surfers flock to the island for the world surfing championships.
That means you can bundle a city tour with a tour of the north shore. Along the way, you’ll pass over the expansive Dole Plantation, and an experienced guide can teach you all about its history from high above.