When the ancient Hawaiian historical site of Pu’ukohola Heiau comes into view for the first time, it looks like a massive fortress of stacked reddish-black lava stones built atop a gently sloping hill. It slightly brings to mind the castles of Europe, with their high walls and stacked ramparts.
But it’s not a castle; it’s a temple. This is the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, a hillside of towering stone ruins located north of Kona along the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. It was completed centuries ago under the rule of legendary warrior-king Kamehameha, whose importance to ancient Hawaiian history and culture is inestimable as he was the ruler who finally united all the islands into one kingdom. Many historians deem him to be the “most important Hawaiian to have ever lived”, and some will even say that the site houses arguably the most important ancient ruins in all of the island chain.
A “heiau” (pronounced “hey-yao”) is a traditional Hawaiian temple, ranging in form from simple earth terraces to sprawling, intricately stacked stone platforms. They are usually built with an underlying purpose – make offerings, heal sickness, ensure a safe voyage, change the weather or achieve victory in war. Pu’ukohola Heiau was built for this last reason, as Kamehameha was preparing to embark on a bloody, years-long but ultimately successful inter-island campaign of conquest which would result in a united Hawai’i. He commissioned its construction as a sacrificial site to make offerings to and gain the favor of the Hawaiian war god Ku, short for Kukailimoku. Hawaii had seen many years of civil war prior to Kamehameha’s ascension, and so the building of the temple and its aid in achieving total victory meant that in the centuries since, the temple has become a symbol of unification and lasting peace in the islands.
Visitors to the site will marvel at the fact that it took a 14-mile-long human chain to move the hundreds of thousands of lava rocks from Pololu Valley near the island’s northern tip down to the temple complex. Thousands of workers toiled away for almost a year before the giant 224-foot-long structure making up the main temple, with its thick terraced walls that follow the contours of the hill and a wide circular platform at its center, was completed in the summer of 1791. However, it’s likely that the site dates back to even earlier than that, with some historians claiming Kamehameha had built the stone structures on the site of a much-older temple dating as far back as the mid-1500s.
This means that temples have been there in some form or another along that gently sloping stretch of arid West Hawaii coastline for a half-millennium. When the ancestors of modern Hawaiians were first starting to build their rocky structures on the site, Christopher Columbus had just a few years ago made his initial crossing of the Atlantic and “discovered” the New World. It’s not everyday that visitors can tour a cultural site within the United States that can boast of predating the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
A Chance To See An Authentic Part of Ancient Hawaii
Today, the golden hillside of parched field grasses below the temple is scattered with visitors, who walk along the curving concrete footpath from the Historic Site’s visitor center and open-air interpretive museum to the base of the temple. There are signs everywhere warning against entering the temple or walking on or touching any of the ruins, which seems like a no-brainer considering this is without a doubt the most important cultural site on the island. But thankfully visitors can access a web of walking trails that span out around the main temple and its smaller supporting sites, offering good vantage points from multiple angles.
Along the concrete paths are a scattering of benches situated in the shade of spindly, parched-looking trees. This is Big-Island’s dry side, with its rolling hills of old lava rock covered in a patchwork of sprigs of yellow grass, which rarely sees rain and can sometimes seem like the surface of an oven on oppressively hot mid-summer days. But this is thankfully tempered by the onshore breeze rolling off of the electric blue ocean which spreads out in all directions at the base of the temple’s hill. A short ways away in the distance, visitors can spot the breakwater of piled boulders marking the border of Kawaihae Harbor, a crucial shipping port which serves essentially the entire western half of Big Island.
The U.S. National Park Service runs the visitor center located at the beginning of the footpath, which is across a handsomely fashioned stone courtyard from the restroom facility. In fact, all the buildings at the Historical Site seems to mimic the motif of the temple; they feature the familiar walls of black lava rock – in this case made with mortar – that also seem to follow the slope of the hillside. In place of windows, an entire wall of the interpretive center is open, letting in ample daylight to illuminate the many different exhibits and display cases overflowing with cultural artifacts.
There are replicas of ocean-going canoes, hand-carved wooden bowls, spears, drums, tools – even the heavily weathered cannon from a sailing ship. There’s an intricately detailed 3-D tabletop model of the Historic Site campus, with many of the smaller supporting structures around the main temple included. In one corner of the museum is a small theater; a few rows of rough wooden benches facing a flatscreen TV playing a short informational film about the history of the heiau and Kamehameha on an endless loop.
The gift shop is staffed by friendly and knowledgable park rangers who seem ready to go out of their way to teach visitors about the importance of the site. The shop sells the usual National Park fare; books, trinkets, souvenirs, t-shirts and various artworks and handicrafts by local Big Island makers. It’s a great place to get more information about hiking trails, learn the best spots to see the temple in its entirety, and even download to your phone a free guided audio tour by scanning the QR code displayed everywhere in the center.
Although Big Island is ripe with many once-in-a-lifetime sights – from towering waterfalls to smoking volcanic craters to open-air markets of strange tropical fruit to postcard-level secluded white sand beaches – a place like Pu’ukohola Heiau will make it onto the travel itineraries of visitors who truly want to see an important piece of Hawaii’s ancient past and learn more about a colorful and deeply spiritual Polynesian civilization. In a place with the usual tourist fare of plastic grass skirts, resort luaus, fire spinners and gift shop ukuleles, it’s sometimes hard to find a piece of authentic Hawaii; this is why Big Island visitors are lucky to have a place like this Historic Site.
How To Get There:
Visitors can get to Pu’ukohola Heiau via Kawaihae Road, north of its intersection with Highway 19 (otherwise known as Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway). Roughly half a mile north of this intersection there will be a left-hand turn lane for Spencer Beach Park Road. The ocean will be easily visible from this point, and just a few hundred feet down Spencer Beach Park Road you’ll see a brown and tan sign for the Historic Site leading to a small parking lot. The roof of the museum and interpretive center will be visible in the distance with a flagpole with its U.S. flag fluttering in the breeze.
For those coming from the opposite direction – south along the coastal Highway 270 coming from the small town of Hawi – you’ll pass through the town of Kawaihae and its extensive port until less than a mile outside of town the right-hand turn for Spencer Beach Park Road will appear.
Admission to Pu’ukohola Heia National Historical Site is free, and the site is open daily to visitors from 7:30am to 4:45pm, although these hours are subject to change. So, it’s best to check the most up-to-date information about the site’s hours beforehand or ask around in Kawaihae town at places like the locally renown Blue Dragon Tavern, seafood market Hale I’a Da Fish House, or at the factory and showroom of Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co. found right up the hill in Kawaihae’s old industrial area (free samples!).
Well-outfitted restrooms and drinking water stations are found in the visitor center, so hikers don’t need to worry about stocking up on water in town. There is no supermarket in Kawaihae, though, so pick up trail snacks in either Waimea or Kona, or just opt for the essentials from one of the port town’s small shops. After a hot afternoon of hiking, it’s smart to take advantage of the many swimming spots around the Historic Site to cool off, including Spencer Beach Park, Mauna Kea Beach, and Puako/Beach 69 – all located less than five miles away.