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The Big Island On Foot

May 2024
13min read

The Hawaii of centuries long past emerges from the landscapes crossed by its ancient trails

The past presses close to the surface on the island of Hawaii, the southernmost in the archipelago, the one they call the Big Island. In 1985, during the first of what would be many trips to this massive volcanic isle, I toured its wild northern coast in a tiny bubble of a helicopter. On what seemed a whim, but probably had to do with the calm clarity of the day, the pilot decided to swing out to sea and fly alongside the pali, a stretch of vertical cliffs that rise 2,000 feet above the surf. Pointing to a hole in the face of the sheer wall, he shouted, “I can’t hang here long, so look sharp.” Inside, stark white against the tropical red earth, I saw a pile of skulls and rib bones, a burial cave untouched by the centuries. That kind of abrupt historical jolt, I have since learned, is to be expected on the geologically youngest, but very likely the historically oldest, of the Hawaiian chain.

The first East Polynesians, possibly from the Marquesas Islands, traveling in canoes and navigating by the stars, reached the Hawaiian Islands between A.D. 400 and 600. A second wave, this time from Tahiti, arrived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in canoes big enough to carry 50 people and all their supplies across 2,000 miles of open ocean. The population had stabilized by the mid-fifteenth century; for 300 years after that, the people of the islands lived in splendid isolation, evolving into what the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology calls “the largest and perhaps most complex and politically sophisticated societies in the Pacific.” They built great stone temples where they worshiped the gods that governed their lives. Their chiefs divided the land into pie-shaped wedges called ahupuaa , each of which provided all the necessities of life: inland valleys for farming taro and sweet potatoes and beaches for fishing. Usually an ahupuaa was peopled by an ohana , or very loose family group.


These early Hawaiians raised fish in oceanside ponds, dug underground ovens to cook dogs and pigs, created the hula, and recorded their genealogies in chants memorized by members of each generation. They played checkerslike games on boards carved into large, smooth rocks, rode wooden boards on the surf, and spoke in a language so lyrical it seemed a song.

Hawaii’s first people pounded out trails on the great lava-encrusted island that would endure for centuries in the hot, dry climate. One path followed the shoreline, weaving in and out of coves; another provided a more direct route across the middle. Still others, called mauka-makai (for “mountain-sea"), climbed up and down the mountainsides. Farmers on the upland slopes would walk down to the sea to make gifts of sweet potatoes and taro to their fishermen relatives and receive in return some of the ocean’s bounty.

Hawaiians have always liked to “talk story,” as they put it. One story they still tell today on the dry, western side of the Big Island is about the night walkers, a column of ghostly figures led by warriors wearing gourds as helmets and carrying torches. The night walkers are said to march along the ancient trail that parallels the ocean, just behind a string of luxury resorts along the beaches of the leeward coast.

Remnants of the old footpath combine with other paths to form a newly created National Historic Trail named Ala Kahakai, which translates to “Trail by the Sea.” It winds 200 miles from Upolu Point on the far northern coast, south along the leeward shore, and all the way around the southern tip to Volcanoes National Park, on the windward side of the island. Sections of the trail are marked and easy to follow for several miles; elsewhere it fades into the glowing green of golf courses or meanders through somebody’s front yard or a parking lot.

The Big Island is laced with old trails, many of them dating from what Hawaiians refer to as “pre-contact,” before 1778, when the British explorer Capt. James Cook first came upon the islands, named them the Sandwich Islands in honor of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and opened them to Western influences. He was followed, in close order, by American missionaries and then an influx of immigrants from Asia, brought in to work the sugar cane fields. Before long the newcomers had usurped native lands and ravaged the culture. The old language was all but lost, and the hula and other arts were forbidden, along with the old gods and the old ways. After World War II, when tourists began arriving on the islands, Hawaii’s ancient culture was revived in parody form by hipswinging hulas, plastic grass skirts, and Arthur Godfrey songs about little grass shacks on the beach at Kealakekua.


In the 1970s, realizing that their world was in danger of being lost forever, a group of Hawaiians sought out and interviewed surviving elders, who were known as kapuna . This began a cultural renaissance, and by the end of the century the Hawaiian language and many original native place-names had been revived. Interest grew in the authentic hula, including fierce, athletic dances performed by men, along with studies of traditional medicine, celestial navigation, and other ancient arts. Groups had also formed to research, map, and walk the old trails.

Hannah Springer is an ardent advocate of reviving not just the Big Island’s seaside trails but those that wind into the interior as well. She is part Hawaiian, a descendant of John Palmer Parker, a New Englander who arrived in 1815, and his wife, Kipikane, the daughter of a Hawaiian chief. Parker amassed what remains one of the largest privately owned cattle ranches in the United States, spreading over 225,000 acres of the Big Island. He was a friend of Kamehameha I, the legendary chief who united all the islands in 1778. Hannah Springer’s family ranch is in North Kona, not far from the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. Inland trails tend to cross ranchlands, and many of them are closed to the public because walkers forgot to shut fences behind them or because poaching had become a problem. Hannah understands those worries, but still she persists in opening the trails. “I’ve spent the better part of my life walking the trails that came to us from ancient times,” she says. “They have rekindled interest in those of us who are Hawaiian. They are a historic resource that has a purpose.”

“Trails represent history,” agrees Rodney Oshiro, a trails and access specialist for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. His job is to identify them and claim a right-of-way for the National Historic Trail. Negotiating public access is no easy job, he admits. “There is resistance from developers, which is not surprising when you consider that oceanfront lots in the new Kamalani Estates are selling for four million dollars. Also, some native Hawaiians worry about opening to the public paths that go by ancient burial sites or other sacred places.” Still, “a road can be used to understand how people lived.”

The pathways already open reveal tantalizing glimpses of a remarkably sophisticated ancient culture. They run by great stone temples called heiaus , alongside ancient anchialine fish-breeding ponds, and through fields of petroglyphs, drawings of symbols and figures, carved into smooth lava. The now mostly indecipherable messages come from an age when there was no written language, which in the case of the Hawaiians was the entire era before New England missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century. The Hawaiian islanders were the most prolific petroglyph artists in the Pacific, and the Big Island has more surviving artifacts than any other island.

OVER THE CENTURIES MOLTEN lava covered the island’s five mountains like black icing slathered onto a cake, and today much of the dry western slopes, as well as great sweeps of Volcanoes National Park, wear a hardened layer of it. Mardi Lane, a ranger at Volcanoes, says, “There’s no better way to experience the magic of this place than to hike it.” On some trails, she says, you can find “snowballs,” rocks that gathered speed and bulk after rolling down the mountain during volcanic paroxysms. Other trails lead to footprints preserved in layers of ash spewed out by some long-ago eruption. “You see those prints that date back hundreds of years and know that people were walking around, going about their lives downwind of the volcano with acid rain spewing down on them.” She laughs, gently. “I mean, it was just another day in paradise to them. They carried on. And seeing those prints now, you are touching those lives.”

In 1823, William Ellis, a missionary, spent long months tracing the island’s paths and kept a richly detailed journal about a culture fast being supplanted. At the top of one pass he came upon “two rude and shapeless” idols, one on either side of the path. The natives called them “gods of the precipice.”

“They are usually covered with pieces of white tapa, native cloth,” Ellis wrote, “and every native who passes by to the precipice, if he intends to descend, lays a green bough before these idols, encircles them with a garland of flowers, or wraps a piece of tapa around them, to render them propitious to his descent.” Almost 200 years later I decided to follow Ellis’s example and trace some of these pathways myself.


OVER A WEEK’S TIME I TOOK A series of walks, none very strenuous, on this great child of an island, scarcely half a billion years old. In spite of the tourists who pour into Keahole and Hilo airports, it is remarkably easy to spend the better part of a day on empty trails; often I walked for an hour or more without encountering another soul.

At seven o’clock one morning I started out on the island’s northwestern shore, at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where a temple looms large and forbidding on a hill shaped like a whale. King Kamehameha built the temple in 1790 and 1791 to honor the war god Ku and offered as a sacrifice the body of his cousin Ke#8217;f6ua K#8217;fcahuua, who happened also to be his main rival. With Ke#8217;f6ua out of the way, Kamehameha went on to conquer the other islands.

I wanted to view Puukohola Heiau as the warriors coming from their outrigger canoes would have, so I turned down the spur road to Spencer Beach, filled with the brightly colored tents of campers, parked my car, pulled on a daypack, and started the climb up the empty path to the heiau. The air was warm, the earlymorning light a quiet lavender, and the only sounds came from water sloshing in the bottle in my pack and the wind riffling dry grasses. With the sun rising behind it, the immense structure loomed large and fearsome. I paused by a tall wooden altar called a lele , where several offerings had been placed: a nest of coarse sea salt and several rocks wrapped in green leaves, a garland or lei of almost fresh flowers, modern tribute to the old gods. I thought of William Ellis and the floral offerings he came upon on his rambles.

At the base of the stone rampart that formed the seaward wall of the temple a large sign said KAPU , meaning “sacred” and “forbidden.” The sign also states that the huge walls are not stable. Below the heiau lies Pelekane, a former royal residence for Hawaii’s kings that is one of the most significant archeological sites in Hawaii. Like so many other important native places on the island, it appeared to me as if I had just happened upon it, so minimal was any official presence. I paused at an overlook to try to make out the contours of a sunken heiau in the cove below, built as an offering to a shark god. A sign said that blacktipped reef sharks frequent the bay, but the only thing I could see was a lone sailboat, bright against an empty sea. In the space of a few breaths, I had the distinct feeling that if I turned around, I would see the compound come alive, men wearing the loincloth called a malo and women in the pau , a skirt from the waist to the knees, their bodies decorated with tattoos. It gave me what Hawaiians call “chicken skin.”

Driving south along Route 19, I took the Mauna Lani exit to the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Field, excavated in 1955.

I walked through a thicket of feathery kiawe trees, hopping over large roots and lava rocks, until the path opened onto a broad field of 3,000 figures carved in the cooled lava. I had tagged along with Gary Kala Medina, who is in charge of beach activities next door at the Orchid resort and also leads a group that returns to Puako once a week. Noticing a young woman standing on one of the ancient carved figures, Medina quietly remarked, “If I were you, I’d worry about a lightning bolt.”

He pointed to several small indentations in the rock and explained that they were piko puka , holes where a baby’s umbilical stump has been buried. J. Halley Cox and Edward Stasack, authors of the book Hawaiian Petroglyphs , note at Puako “a predominance of simple lineal figures depicting family groups and birth scenes,” and they believe the site was consecrated to birth.

Kaniela “Danny” Akaka, Jr., Mauna Lani Resort’s director of cultural affairs and a kahu , or native pastor, explained: “When the umbilical cord was cut, the child was no longer attached to the mother; the stump was planted in the earth to connect the child to the land.” Akaka’s office is on the resort grounds, in a little green and white house left over from the 1920s, when the area was part of the vast Parker Ranch. “At one time the cottage sat directly on the trail,” he says, “but there were so many disturbing stories about the night walkers that it was moved.” The Mauna Lani has its own historical park too, called Kalahuipuaa, with a paved path that loops through a lava field, where you want to keep watch for flying golf balls whanged from the adjacent greens, and past ancient caves that early Hawaiians used for shelter, for rest, and as burial places.


HAVING HEARD THAT KONA VIL- lage, a resort that puts a premium on privacy for its guests, had a large petroglyph field on its property, I had called ahead for permission to visit there. Leina’ala Lightner, a Kona Village employee, who was instrumental in getting a boardwalk built over the site, walked me through, or rather, above, its petroglyphs. The swelling lava rocks were alive with intricate drawings of canoe sails and fish and paddle men. A printed self-guided tour suggests interpretations of many of the petroglyphs but adds, “Since we no longer think the way a petroglyph maker did 100 or 900 years ago, who can say with certainty what any of these are all about?”

A fat red sun was fast falling into the sea by the time I arrived at the Kaupulena Cultural Resource office at Hualalai Four Seasons Resort, where I was late for a meeting with the manager, Cynthia Torres. She had offered to walk with me over a section of the ancient trail on the property, but now she said, amiably, “Too late. I don’t go there at sunset, too many spirits out then.”

I arrived early the next morning at Kaloko-Honokohau, a brand-new National Historical Park located a couple of miles south of the airport and north of the town of Kailua-Kona, on a corridor, one of the busiest on the island today, that was popular with Hawaii’s early kings and chiefs and is virtually littered with ancient artifacts, many of them within the 1,160-acre park. Park Ranger Dominic Cardea bumped his jeep down the slope toward the ocean, stopping along the way to show me a recently restored one-mile section of the Old Government Road built in the 1800s. After that we drove past some ancient stone platforms on which thatched huts once stood and at the shore came upon stone fish traps, shrines, canoe landings, petroglyphs, and the remains of two temples. More than 200 remnants of antiquity have already been recorded in the park, and still others are being added, some dating from the island’s earliest habitation. Eventually the park will provide an example of an ahupuaa, that sensible land division that reached from sea to mountains. Tourists have yet to discover this park, but it has become a favorite spot for local families, its calm, protected beach perfect for children.

On the road south again, I stopped at another national historical park called Puuhonua o Honaunau and took what turned out to be one of the most pleasurable walks of the trip, pleasurable perhaps because of the cool morning temperatures, or because the trail was wide and nicely marked, or maybe because I had with me a copy of Roughing It , which Mark Twain published after an 1866 trip. About this trail he wrote, “We walked a mile over a raised macadamized road of uniform width; a road paved with flat stones and exhibiting in its every detail a considerable degree of engineering skill. Some say that that wise old pagan, Kamehameha I, planned and built it, but others say it was built so long before his time that the knowledge of who constructed it has passed out of the traditions. In either case, however, as the handiwork of an untaught and degraded race it is a thing of pleasing interest. The stones are worn and smooth, and pushed apart in places, so that the road has the exact appearance of those ancient paved highways leading out of Rome which one sees in pictures.” At the sweaty end of my walk, I put on a bathing suit and snorkel gear and slipped into the quiet cove to check out the fishes in all their glorious color.

Before the park service took notice of the cultural revival and began to use Hawaiian place-names, they called this compound at the edge of the sea the City of Refuge. For all the savagery of the native ethos, with death penalties handed down for breaking a kapu as minor as looking at a chief, violators could be absolved if they made it to the nearest puuhonua , the Hawaiian word for “sanctuary.”


CONTINUING SOUTH ON THE belt road that circles the island, I passed lava flows that my map labeled as from the 1920s and the 1950s and then turned north on the western coast toward Kilauea and more recent flows. For all the recorded history of the island, this volcano has been its number one sightseeing attraction. In 1825 Lord George Byron, captain of the British ship Blonde and cousin of the famous poet, journeyed to Kilauea with his crew. Queen Kaahumanu sent along a chief and 100 natives to carry the travelers’ luggage and provisions and to set up camp for them as they walked the 30 miles from Hilo. When they reached the edge of the crater of the active volcano, they looked down into its “horrid gulf, not less than eight miles in circumference,” as one of the party reported, and felt cowed by the “hideous immensity” of the “various unnatural and fearful noises, the muttering and sighing, the groaning and blowing, the every agonized struggling of the mighty action within—as a whole, it is too horrible!” At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park headquarters, not far from the crater’s edge, a trail named “Byron’s Ledge” serves as a memento of that visit.

Mark Twain and his party landed at Kau, on the southern tip of the island, and then rode on horseback for two days over trails that climbed high into the mountains, picking their “careful way through billowy wastes of lava.” On encountering Kilauea, he wrote, “I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup-kettle, compared to this.”

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the caldera, the huge depression caused by the collapse of the volcano’s center, was filled with hot flowing lava. Today the action has moved to the east rift zone, and the caldera is calm.

There are 150 miles of trails in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. The 10mile Crater Rim Trail passes through rain forests where wild orchids grow in the trees and crosses a desert moonscape, meeting up now and then with plant and animal species that live nowhere else on the globe, including the nene, or Hawaiian goose, and the lava cricket. I headed for the Puu Loa petroglyphs, in part because to get there required a 20-mile drive down one of the world’s most spectacular ribbons of blacktop, the Chain of Craters Road. It was all sky, sweeping lava fields, vistas of the sea. and nothing else as I sailed down the slope, dropping 3,700 feet with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” full blast on the CD player.


The Puu Loa trail marker stands about a mile from where the road meets the sea. The trek is an easy mile and a third that ends in one of the island’s best petroglyph fields, alive with hundreds of dots, circles, and other mysterious symbols. Puu Loa means “long hill,” but it is little more than a small lava rise. Hawaiians translate it as “Hill of Long Life,” and the many holes indicate where umbilical stumps were buried to ensure longevity. I tried to imagine young parents coming here, carrying a memento of their baby’s birth, wanting to safeguard their newborn in the only way they knew.

It is a loving human emotion, one shared by parents from the beginning of time, and it is the kind of connection that makes walking these trails something more than a lesson in native Hawaiian history. On every trail I walked on the Big Island, I felt as if I were walking not just in their footsteps but in their time as well as in mine.


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