If your summer travel plans call for a visit to Hawaii, be sure to see at least one of the better-known national parks: Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, or Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Also know that there are several other tucked-away and less-visited park sites that highlight a remarkable Hawaiian historical and cultural legacy. During my 6 years as a park ranger in Hawaii, I explored these parks and developed a greater appreciation and understanding of this significant legacy.
1. Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau is a National Historical Park located along the Kona Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii. This site is one of the most revered places in Hawaiian history and, for generations, offered refuge to those who broke the kapu (religious) laws or were fleeing from civil strife. Warriors and civilians caught up in these dangerous situations could be guaranteed safety and forgiveness. The concept of seeking asylum and finding a place of refuge is strongly rooted in Polynesian tradition and was brought by early voyagers who established a distinctive Hawaiian culture on the islands.
You can explore the park via several options. A half-mile, self-guided walking tour takes you through the Royal Grounds — an area formerly reserved for the aliʻi (chiefs). In addition, an audio tour is available that covers the same area as the walking tour and provides an audio interpretation. Access this version by downloading the National Park Service app from either the App Store or Google Play.
On this walk, be sure to see the small bay known as Keone’ele Cove. The cove’s coral sand beach is where the aliʻi would arrive by canoe and spend their days tending to the religious and civic matters of the islands.
For those interested in a longer hike, the 2-mile round-trip along the 1871 Trail to Kiʻilae Village is a great option. The trail follows the coast with dramatic views of pali (cliffs) and cultural features from both ancient and modern eras. Begin your trek by stopping at the visitor center for a map and directions to the trailhead.
Another striking feature of the park is the Pā Puʻuhonua (Great Wall). The immense wall structure — 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide, and over 950 feet long — was built over 400 years ago using lava rocks fitted together so precisely that no mortar was used in its construction.
Of all the parks I worked at and visited, this is by far my favorite. Once I left the visitor center area, I felt an immediate sense of peace and serenity while walking along the trails.
Pro Tips: When visiting this and other parks, be sure to take water, snacks, sunscreen, and sturdy footwear. Most trail surfaces are either coarse, coral sand, rough lava rock, or a combination of both.
2. Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park
Also located on the Big Island (Hawaii), 2 miles from Kailua-Kona International Airport, is Kaloko-Honokōhau. The park preserved a typical Hawaiian kauhale (village) from the pre-European contact (before 1778). Life in the village was one of hardship, balance, and harmony with the environment. The people followed an ancient tradition of ahupua’a (land allocation) that extended from the mountains to the sea and included all the necessary ingredients to sustain life. A system of trade existed between each ahupua’a that exchanged items from the sea (fish, shellfish, and coral) for items from the mountains (taro, breadfruit, and mulberry shrub) for making cloth. Extended families depended on each other and this system functioned for centuries to the benefit of all.
The National Park Service now protects many of the features that sustained the ancients’ existence. One of these features is the use of aquaculture to harvest fish. The system consisted of enclosing a small bay with a rock wall and a gate to allow fish to enter and become trapped for use by the people of the kauhale.
The park has undertaken a long-term project to rebuild this wall and restore it to its original state. Studies have shown the wall was once 30–40 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and over 700 feet long. Hawaiians also raised fish in carefully constructed fish ponds. These ponds represent some of the finer points in Hawaiian culture. Nowhere else in Polynesia are fish ponds more numerous or developed. They bear witness to the remarkable engineering skills and management in the art of aquaculture.
When you visit the park, take time to see this great engineering feat. Consider how many rocks were transported and carefully stacked to produce this immense wall and the coordinated effort to maintain it so that the kauhale could produce fish for the entire ahupua’a.
The creation of this park is a collaboration between the Native Hawaiian community and the National Park Service to restore the spirit of cultural identity through its preservation and management. The Hawaiian culture has struggled through many periods of adversity and its spirit remains strong because of this partnership. Contact the Hale Hoʻokipa — the park’s visitor center — for additional information.
3. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historical Site
Just minutes away from some of the most lavish resorts in Hawaii, this historical site — along the Big Island’s Kailua-Kona Coast — was the serene home of Hawaiian royalty.
For centuries, rival warriors fought to gain control and rule all of the islands. On Hawaii island, following the death of an exalted chief, his son and nephew waged a familial struggle over who was to rule. This led to open warfare and plunged the island into a bitter civil war not only for control of this island but for the other islands as well. Finally, Kamehameha I, perhaps the greatest Hawaiian leader, was told of a prophecy by a kahuna (priest) that if he built a heiau (temple) on top of a hill called Pu’ukohola, he would triumph over his cousin and unite the islands into one kingdom. Several years later, after having finished construction of the heiau, Kamehameha fulfilled the prophecy and became king of all of the islands.
Today, this sacred temple is part of the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historical Site which preserves the legacy of this crucial portion of Hawaiian history. Below the heiau is the Pelekane — the Royal Courtyard. Stroll among the trees and walk the grounds of this beautiful portion of the park.
There is a great, half-mile loop trail that begins near the visitor center. The trail leads you the Pu’ukohola Heiau and several other cultural sites before returning to the visitor center.
Another option is hiking a portion of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail to the Pelekane. There you can walk in the footsteps of Hawaiian royalty. The Royal Courtyard is the location of cultural festivals and an excellent place to watch sharks cruising just offshore.
Pro Tip: In winter, this is an excellent spot to see humpback whales. Starting in November, these large mammals travel some 3,000 miles from feeding grounds in Alaska waters to Hawaii where they breed and give birth. In May, they return north to begin the cycle again. I have fond memories of watching these giants just a few hundred yards offshore, breaching high out of the water and returning with a gigantic splash.
Be sure to check out the park calendar as well as the website for special programs, whale watching, cultural activities, and other experiences.
This historic site gives you the opportunity amid warm breezes and the soft sound of breaking surf to slow down and ponder how life must have been for these early Hawaiians. Sit for a moment and breathe in the spirit of their culture.
Visiting these three park sites gives you a sense of how ancient Hawaiians valued a system of refuge and asylum, and a feeling for their royalty, and how they used aquaculture and other means to survive for centuries.