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Get to know how these natural landmarks received their popular nicknames.
Photo: outdoorPDK/cc-nc-sa

8 awesome land formations you love in Hawaii, explained

Get to know how these natural landmarks received their popular nicknames.

1. Chinaman’s Hat (Mokolii)

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Photo: Sarah Camp/cc-nd

The proper native legend of this basalt islet translates to “little lizard” in Hawaiian. It was believed by Native Hawaiians that Hiiaka, the goddess of hula, slayed a giant lizard and threw its tail into the ocean—this very small island off Kaneohe Bay.

Because of its similarity to an Asian conical hat, its common name became Chinaman’s Hat, which inspired a popular local children’s book, “The Story of Chinaman’s Hat.”

 

2. Crouching Lion (Kauhiimakaokalani)

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Photo: Joel/cc-nd

On the Windward Side of Oahu, this rock formation sits on the Kahana Bay mountain ridge. Native Hawaiians believed it to be the head of a very large dog because, according to legend, Pele turned a demigod into stone after defying her. (Remember: there are no lions on the Islands, so they would’ve never thought to compare this formation's shape to a lion.)

It wasn’t until Westerners began making contact with Oahu that the name became Crouching Lion.

 

3. Sleeping Giant (Nounou)

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Photo: Larry Loos/cc

You’ll encounter the giant’s form from afar on Kauai’s east side. If you stare at the Nounou Mountain range, you can make out the resemblance of a giant resting on its back. This is one of the few geological formations where its English nickname overlaps with Hawaiian legend.

It’s believed that a giant that lived on Kauai, after hard labor and overeating, lain down to rest and hasn’t woken since. Another story is told that to scare away unwelcome invaders, the inhabitants lit fires on the range to illuminate its grand silhouette.

 

4. Rabbit Island (Manana)

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Photo: David Bingle/cc-nc-nd

Manana means buoyant, and is one of Oahu’s most famous natural attractions. Its common name, "Rabbit Island," is two-fold: Because of its resemblance to a rabbit’s head, and because it was once a breeding ground for introduced rabbits.

Hawaiian businessman John Adams Kuakini Cummins established the rabbit colony in the 1880s, but they had to be annihilated 100 years later because they were destroying the native ecosystem.

 

5. Slain Body of Olomana

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Photo: Sean Munson/cc-nc-nd

Olomana (“divided hill” in Hawaiian) generally refers to three mountain peaks on the Windward Side of Oahu, which make for intense and dangerous trails that only very experienced hikers should attempt. 

According to ancient legend, the most pointed peak is the lower half of slain giant warrior Olomana, who formerly ruled everything from Kualoa to Makapuu. The king of Oahu, Ahuapau, ordered the warrior Palila to fight Olomana. He succeeded, cutting him in half and throwing his upper half into the ocean, leaving his remains on land.

 

6. Lizard's Head (Molokini)

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Photo: Aftab Uzzaman/cc-nc

Many are familiar with the alluring crescent shape of Molokini Crater off Maui, but not many know the Hawaiian legend that explains it. And even those who do most likely have it wrong. Contrary to popular belief, the crater of Molokini is actually the head, not the tail as reported by the majority of online reports.

Native Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui’s seminal resource, “Place Names of Hawaii,” recounts the folk tale as such: The fire goddess Pele and a female lizard fell in love with the same prince, and in a jealous rage Pele split the lizard in half. The submerged head became Molokini.

Updated 10/22/15: In another ancient creation chant titled "Myth of Papa-Hanau-Moku," Molokini is said to be the afterbirth of Papa, a central figure in Hawaiian mythology who is considered to be the mother of the Islands. This does not discredit either oral tradition passed down through generations, but only further illustrates the richness of how the names of Hawaii's land formations came to be.

 

7. Lizard's Tail (Puu Olai)

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Photo: Kris Nelson/cc-nc-nd

Continuing from the same story above, Puu Olai, a dormant volcanic cinder cone at Makena Beach, is also part of the lizard. With a little imagination you can make out the shape of its tail jutting out into the ocean.

 

8. Heart-shaped rock of Nakalele

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Photo: D Smith/cc-nc

Found at the northernmost part of the island, the lava fields left this cavity that is quite … lovely. To the right of Nakalele Blowhole on Maui, there’s a heart-shaped puka (hole) that’s become a destination in its own right.