Ranked: The Oldest Hawaiian Islands

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: January 3, 2023
© iStock.com/SergiyN
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The oldest Hawaiian Islands tell a story about the power of volcanic activity. When the Pacific Plate moved, the volcanoes created by a hotspot formed a chain of islands. These islands make up the Hawaiian archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The Hawaiian Islands are the tops of mountains in the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. These mountains are formed on the Pacific Plate by a hotspot that allows magma to reach the surface.

The Hawaiian archipelago, made of islets, atolls, and eight main islands, stretches for 1,500 miles in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s part of the USA, but it’s the only state that isn’t attached to North America.

Wondering what are the oldest islands in Hawaii ranked by age? Read on to find out!

The Oldest Hawaiian Islands Ranked by Age

The oldest Hawaiian Islands ranked by age are:

  1. Kure Atoll
  2. Kaua’i
  3. Ni’ihau
  4. O’ahu
  5. Moloka’i
  6. Lana’i
  7. Maui
  8. Kaho’olawe
  9. Hawai’i

9. Hawai’i Island: 400,000 Years Old

Also called The Big Island, the main island of Hawai’i is the largest and youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. It also has active volcanoes, including Mauna Loa, the largest shield volcano on the planet. The active volcanoes contribute to the landmass of this island every day.

Mauna Loa is technically a huge mountain that sits on the seafloor and sticks out of the water. From the seafloor to the top of the volcano, this Big Island mountain is over 30,000 feet tall. This is thousands of feet taller than Mount Everest.

The Big Island of Hawaii is the tallest of the Hawaiian Islands. From sea level to the peak of Mauna Loa, the volcano rises 13,680 feet.

8. Kaho’olawe: 1 Million Years Old

This is the smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands. There are no permanent residents on this island because there isn’t much fresh water. Kaho’olawe was a penal colony from 1832 to 1852.

7. Maui: 800,000 to 1.3 Million Years Old

The Haleakala volcano crater on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

©topseller/Shutterstock.com

Maui has the second-highest human population of any of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s also the second largest.

Around 200,000 years ago, this island was attached to Moloka’i, Kaho’olawe, and Lana’i. Water covered the landmasses between these islands when sea levels rose, creating shallow channels.

Humpback whales draw visitors to the island in the winter as they come to warm waters to mate and have babies. Maui is a great destination if you’re looking for kitesurfing, snorkelling, surfing, or windsurfing.

6. Lāna’i: 1.3 Million Years Old

Some call it The Pineapple Isle because it was home to a chunk of the Dole Food Company’s pineapple endeavors. In 1992, Dole quit growing pineapples on the island.

Ninety-eight percent of the island is owned by the chairman and co-founder of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison. Around 3,400 people live on the island, and there are no traffic lights. The island has a tourist industry, including two Four Seasons resorts.

5. Moloka’i: 1.8 to 1.9 Million Years Old

Two volcanoes formed this island. At Kaluapapa and Kalawao on Moloka’i, leper colonies existed from 1866 to 1969. Unfortunately, most of these tribes died from Leprosy due to contact with Europeans.

Pineapple and sugar cane production are major industries on the island. Two volcanoes formed this island named East and West Moloka’i. Invasive animals like feral pigs have devastated local plant and animal populations.

4. O’ahu: 2.6 to 3.7 Million Years Old

Around two-thirds of the entire population of the Hawaiian Islands are found on O’ahu. Over five million tourists visit the island annually, and about one million permanent residents live there.

People have lived on the island of O’ahu since the third century CE. Pearl Harbor, which was bombed in 1941 by Imperial Japan, is on the island. Over 2,400 people died in this attack, and these bombings caused the USA to enter World War II.

3. Ni’ihau: 4.9 Million Years Old

Ni’ihau is the farthest west of any of the main Hawaiian Islands. It’s home to intermittent wetlands that host Hawaiian stilts, ducks, and coots. Endangered plants also live on this island, including an endemic Hawaiian lobelioid species.

Elizabeth Sinclair bought this island for ten thousand dollars in 1864 from King Kamehameha IV. Her descendants still own it to this day. Access is restricted, and because of this, it is known as The Forbidden Island.

There are 130 native Hawaiians on the island, and no running water or paved roads are available. All electricity is solar energy.

2. Kaua’i: 5.1 Million Years Old

Aerial view of waterfalls in crater of Mount Waialeale on hawaiian island of Kauai from helicopter flight
Aerial view of waterfalls in the crater of Mount Waialeale on the Hawaiian island of Kauai from a helicopter flight.

©Steve Heap/Shutterstock.com

Kaua’i is the lushest of the main islands because the rainforest has been growing for millions of years longer than on the other islands. Because of its age, the Waimea Canyon has had time to form and is 3,600 feet deep. Kaua’i is known for its various shave ice shops, which are a tourist must if visiting the island.

The island has a large feral chicken population. These chickens were once domesticated chickens that have returned to a wild lifestyle. Feral chickens originate from chickens brought by Polynesians and then Europeans as a source of food.

1. Kure Atoll: 30 Million Years Old

This is the oldest island outside the Hawaiian Archipelago’s main islands. It’s also the furthest northwest landmass in the island chain.

Kure Atoll is the northernmost atoll of its type in the world. It’s the last above-surface indication of the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain that continues to the northwest.

The Kure Atoll is an oval ring of coral containing a landmass called Green Island. Green Island is about half a mile wide and one and a half miles long. The coral that makes up the atoll creates a lagoon.

Nobody lives on this island though a small team of scientists is usually on the island for conservation purposes. The Polynesian rat and Hawaiian monk seals are also on the island.

This island’s main purpose is as a bird haven. Seabirds in numbers well over 100,000 make a home out of the atoll. Well over 10,000 of those birds nest here.

It plays home to a few terrestrial bird species, including Chinese sparrowhawks, snow buntings, olive-backed pipits, and black kites. A few seabirds that use the Kure Atoll include white terns, brown boobies, black-footed albatross, and great frigate birds.

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About the Author

I'm a fact-driven creative with a love of history and an eye for detail. I graduated from the University of California, Riverside in 2009 with a BA in Art History after a STEM-focused high school career. Telling a complex story with real information in a manner that's easy to digest is my talent. When I'm not writing for A-Z Animals, I'm doting on my 3 cats while I watch documentaries and listen to music in Romance languages.

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