If you’ve heard of Ni’ihau, it’s likely that you haven’t heard very much. After all, this Hawaiian island is the least visited and is actually closed to the public – you can only visit with special permission, which has earned the island the nickname of Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island.” To learn more and inspire your next trip as a responsible traveler, it helps to know a few facts about Ni’ihau, this tiny island.
I first learned about Ni’ihau on a recent trip to Hawaii and was fascinated to discover there’s an entire island with its own history, culture, and landscape that’s equally diverse to the other Hawaiian islands. Based on my research, I’ve pulled together a list of the most interesting facts about Ni’ihau to share with fellow travelers who are inspired to visit here someday. These will give you an overview of what makes Ni’ihau special, insights into the history of the island, and inspiration to try and visit Ni’ihau someday.
While this is still a bucket list trip for me, hopefully, it will now be one for you too! Read on to discover a variety of fascinating facts about Ni’ihau – including how it earned that “Forbidden Island” nickname.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Geography Facts about Ni’ihau
- Ni’ihau is located 17.5 miles southwest of Kauai.
- It is roughly 18.6 miles long and 6.2 miles wide.
- The square mileage of Ni’ihau is roughly 70 square miles.
- The highest elevation on Ni’ihau is 1,280 feet above sea level.
- Ni’ihau is estimated to be 4.9-6 million years old. This means it is likely the oldest Hawaiian island after Kauai, which is 5-5.8 million years old.
- Ni’ihau is comprised of one major extinct volcano; it last erupted roughly 350,000 years ago according to vulcanologists.
- The present island of Ni’ihau is all that remains of the southwestern slope of that giant volcano, which collapsed into the ocean in a huge landslide.
- The island is in the rain shadow of Kauai – this means that it receives relatively little rain and is an arid climate.
- Despite this, Ni’ihau is home to Hawaii’s largest lake, the 840-acre Lake Halalii. (Lake Halalii is a “playa” or “intermittent lake” that appears after rainfall.)
- Nearby, the tiny uninhabited island of Lehua sits 0.7 miles north of Ni’ihau.
- Ni’ihau is not the westernmost Hawaiian island; there are a number of smaller, uninhabited islands that stretch hundreds of miles further west. (Click here to learn more about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.)
History Facts about Ni’ihau
- Ni’ihau was first inhabited by Hawaiian people.
- Prior to the unification of the Kingdom of Hawaii under King Kamehameha I in 1795, Niʻihau was ruled by the aliʻi (the traditional nobility in Hawaiian society).
- In 1864, Ni’ihau was sold to Elizabeth Sinclair by King Kamehameha V.
- Elizabeth Sinclair paid $10,000 in gold to purchase Ni’ihau – that’s almost $325,000 in today’s dollars.
- In 1875, the population of Ni’ihau was roughly 350 people and 20,000 sheep.
- In 1915, Elizabeth Sinclair’s grandson Aubrey Robinson closed the island to most visitors. Since then, only visitors with special permission are allowed to set foot on Ni’ihau.
- Due to its strategic location and isolation, Ni’ihau is home to a naval installation and has had a military presence on the island since 1924.
- Ni’ihau played a small role in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In what’s known as the Ni’ihau Incident, a Japanese pilot crashed on Ni’ihau, escaped, and was later capture and killed.
- Ni’ihau earned its nickname as “the Forbidden Island” in the 1950s when the Polio epidemic was raging. To visit Ni’ihau then, you had to have a doctor’s note and quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease to the small population.
- In 1987, the Robinsons allowed tourist operations to begin; you can learn more about the official ways to visit Ni’ihau (and other ways too).
- Since 2002, Ni’ihau has been owned and managed by Bruce Robinson and Keith Robinson, Elizabeth Sinclair’s great-great-grandsons.
Cultural Facts about Ni’ihau
- Ni’ihau has no paved roads, no telephone service, no plumbing or running water, and no electrical grid. Residents use solar power to power their homes and lives.
- Ni’ihau residents aren’t to drink or own guns, and everyone attends church on Sundays.
- These restrictions exist because as part of the 19th century purchase agreement, the Sinclair/Robison family promised to protect Hawaiian culture in perpetuity.
- The 2010 census states that there were 170 people living on the island. (2020 numbers have not yet been released.)
- This number is disputed, as some witnesses (few though they may be!) report seeing only 30-70 people on visits to Ni’ihau.
- Most people who live on Ni’ihau make a living through subsistence farming, working on the Robinson family farm, or by living on welfare support.
- The majority of people living on Ni’ihau speak Hawaiian as their first language, and English as a second language; Ni’ihau is the only island where Hawaiian is the primary language.
- Ni’ihau residents speak a specific dialect of Hawaiian that differs from the dialect spoken on the other islands. Linguists believe it is the most close example available of what Hawaiian sounded like when the islands were settled.
- Ni’ihau was – and still is – home to several distinctive Hawaiian arts and crafts. Historically, Ni’ihau locals were renowned for their mat-weaving, and Ni’ihau-made mats were prized throughout the Pacific Islands. Today, there is a unique form of ipu art on Ni’ihau, and Ni’ihau shell leis are still highly prized today.
- There are no hotels or touristic services on Ni’ihau.
- You can visit Ni’ihau today, but only as part of an officially permitted helicopter tour or hunting safari; other tours allow you to visit the waters around Ni’ihau only (no landfall permitted). (Learn more about ways to visit Ni’ihau.)
Have any questions about these facts about Ni’ihau? Let me know in the comments!