28 November 2022
Pearl Harbor: History and Travel Tips

Long before Westerners arrived, Pearl Harbor was an important place in the history of the Hawaiian people who named it Wai Momi, or “Waters of Pearl,” and fished and dove for the oysters that held hidden pearls along the bottom.

When British Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, a coral reef blocked ships from entering, so Honolulu Harbor was preferred to Pearl Harbor.

The US Navy didn’t arrive until 1826 and took another 13 years to realize the potential of the deep water beyond the reef. By 1887, the United States had exclusive control of the area, but didn’t move forward with this advantage until after the turn of the 19th century.

The Spanish-American War and the capture of Manila, Philippines, required a permanent military presence in the Pacific to properly maintain a command. The strategic importance of Oahu and all the Hawaiian Islands was recognized, and annexation duly followed.

USS California   |  CREDIT: National Park Service

In 1902, the entry channel was dredged, deepened, and widened to clear an opening at the entrance of the Harbor. Congress officially created a naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1908 and the first large ship, the armored cruiser USS California, entered the channel and anchored off Naval Station Pearl Harbor in 1911.

Visiting Pearl Harbor Today

The USS Abraham Lincoln departs Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, July 11, 2022, as part of Rim of the Pacific, the world’s largest international maritime exercise.
Pearl Harbor today  |  CREDIT: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom

To learn about the people who were there and the events of December 7, 1941, there is no better way than visiting the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. The Memorial is a National Park, so Park Rangers are there to guide you and answer questions on site.

The first thing to know is that the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, the Visitor Center, grounds, museums, and USS Arizona Memorial program are free, just like AFE events. Entering the park doesn’t require reservations, however, if you plan on paying your respects at the USS Arizona Memorial, reservations should be made far in advance. Demand is high and spaces are limited, so as soon as you have your Pearl Harbor travel dates set, it’s time to book your tour.

Pearl Harbor Memorial  |  CREDIT: Cdavidson602 via Wikimedia Commons

Recreation.gov is the official ticket website with a $1 per ticket, non-refundable fee paid to the website. Reservations to visit the USS Arizona Memorial are required for every member of your party, including babies and children, due to capacity and safety regulations of boat transportation to and from the memorial. It’s also important to note the strict no-bag policy and that strollers are not allowed on the memorial. Storage lockers are available for a fee. Drinks and food are also restricted, and there are no restroom facilities on the memorial.

Serviceman standing guard at Pearl Harbor  |  CREDIT: National Parks Service

While these rules may seem quite intimidating, they are in place to preserve the peace and dignity of the people who rest there. For that reason, visitors are asked to dress appropriately and respect the gravity of the location.

Planning is crucial if you would like to see the USS Arizona Memorial, but if you accidentally miss your reservation, or can’t get one on the day you want to visit, there are many things to see at Pearl Harbor. Visit the museums, watch the 23-minute park film on the open-air lanai, and take in the scenic shoreline views. Listen to the Pacific Historic Parks Audio Tour and check out the Virtual Reality Center. Take the kids to the bookstore to become Junior Rangers. Plus, you can visit the neighboring Pacific Historic Site Partners (not managed by the National Park Service) USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, Battleship Missouri Memorial, and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.