Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Hawaii

Hawaii Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

It’s funny, our original vacation plans were to go back to Maui and stay at the Grand Wailea again. But it was the middle of February and flights were really expensive. We did a bit of hunting around and discovered that flying to the Big Island was $500 per person cheaper. That’s a $2,000 saving on the airfare alone (which would more than pay for Natalie, Carter, and I to do the Dolphin Quest adventure at our hotel, the Hilton Waikoloa Village).

I am so happy our plans changed! Our time on the Big Island of Hawaii, was absolutely amazing.

Our very first day of vacation was packed with sightseeing adventures:

The next adventure of the day was exploring nearby Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park in the South Kona district, which was established in 1961.

Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Extending along the lava flats of the Kona Coast, the 420 acre Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is home to some of the most significant traditional Hawaiian sites in the Hawaiian archipelago, which reflect over 400 years of Hawaiian history.

Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau is bounded on its southern and eastern sides by an L-shaped wall, known as the Great Wall, and on its northern and western sides by the ocean. In addition to the Great Wall, within the Pu’uhonua are several other important structures and areas, including:

  • Hale o Keawe: The site’s spiritual power came from the bones of 23 Hawaiian chiefs that were protected in the temple, Hale o Keawe. Two wooden statues of Hawaiian gods stand on shore near the temple to alert visitors to the importance, power, and spirituality of the area.
  • The Royal Grounds: This area was a center of power, open only to the chiefs, the priests who consulted with the chiefs, and those who served them. Inside the Royal Grounds, chiefs would hold war or peace negotiations and ceremonies, host gatherings and meetings, and play games or engage in sports. Keone’ele Cove is part of the Royal Grounds and only Hawaiian Chiefs could land canoes there.
  • The Pu’uhonua: Beyond The Great Wall, the Pu’uhonua served as a place of refuge for those who broke Kapu — sacred laws and beliefs followed by the Hawaiians. The punishment for breaking Kapu was death. The only way to survive was to reach the Pu’uhonua and be absolved by a priest before getting caught. In the event that war was declared, families of combatants could seek refuge and safety within the Pu’uhonua and be assured to return home unmolested on cessation of battle regardless of the outcome.
  • The Great Wall: Defining the sacred space of the Pu’uhonua, The Great Wall is up to 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide, and over 950 feet long.

Visiting Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

We arrived at the park in the middle of the afternoon and the sun was blazing down on us. It was extremely hot in the parking area and near the Visitor Center, so we all grabbed water bottles before heading into the park. Thankfully, along the coast of Keone’ele Cove there was a cool breeze blowing. We enjoyed the little bit of shade there was from the palm trees while we watched for sea turtles who often rest on the shore.

We first explored the Royal Grounds, visiting the royal fish ponds, the large canoe house and smaller house beside it, the temple model, and a lava tree mold. We also stopped to check out a stone table and stools that held the Hawaiian strategy game, Kōnane, that is played with black and white pebbles. You can actually play the game and the Visitor Center has copies of the rules.

Next we spent some time at the Hale o Keawe temple, which sits along the coastline inside a fence of tall wooden posts. Carved wood statues grace one side, and two statues of Hawaiian Gods stand outside, as if they are guarding the temple. The views from the coast are gorgeous, and you can even see the popular snorkeling spot known as “two-step” that is located just outside the park’s entrance.

Last, we followed the trail past the platform of ‘Āle’ale’a Heiau, a temple predating Hale o Keawe and remnants of another temple. By then we were hot and sweaty and ready for a break.

We hopped back in the car and followed the Coastal Access Road past the 1871 Trail to check out the picnic area, which is gorgeous. Think sand, palm trees, picnic tables, and most important, think peace and quiet. There were only a few small groups at this picnic area, and even though the parking is close to the picnic tables, it was still very quiet. I don’t think many people know about this picnic area!

1871 Trail to Ki’ilae Village

The 1871 Trail is a 2.5 mile round trip hike that leaves from from behind the visitor center and takes you to historic Ki’ilae Village.

This ancient trail, also called the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, existed long before Europeans arrived in Hawaii and originally connected coastal villages along the South Kona Coast. In the 1800’s the trail was expanded to accommodate those traveling in horse-drawn carriages. The ancient trail, from Nāpō’opo’o to Ho’okena, was the main route for coastal travel, connecting several villages along the South Kona Coast. The trail was widened and rebuilt to accommodate horse traffic in 1871.

In 1918, the government paved the trail north of Hōnaunau, but the southern portion, now known as the The 1871 Trail, was never improved for vehicle traffic. The northern portion of the trail is protected inside the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. This ancient trail has a wealth of archaeological remains including structures, temples, and even an ancient ramp that provides access to the cliffs of Keanae’e.

Ki’ilae Village offers a glimpse into the past, when Hawai’i was changing rapidly but still supported traditional aspects of daily life. With the arrival of Europeans in the Hawaiian Islands, many things changed. New plants and animals were introduced and settlements began moving away from the coastal villages to the more fertile uplands and larger harbor cities. What remains in Ki’ilae today are abandoned house sites, agricultural features, animal pens, and salt vats that can be seen from more recent times.

NOTE: The trail is mostly flat but is a moderately strenuous hike through rough lava. It’s best to do this hike in the morning because there is virtually no shade and the weather is cooler in the mornings. If you’re hiking in the afternoon, be sure to bring lots of water, a hat, and sunscreen. You’ll also want to wear sturdy shoes, because walking on sharp lava rocks in sandals or flips flops is no fun.

Know Before You Go

  • Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is located off Highway 160, Captain Cook, Hawaii 96726. It is in the South Kona district of the island of Hawaii. Take Highway 11 (also called Mamalahoa Highway and Hawaii Belt Road) to Highway 60 (also called Ke Ala o Keawe Road) between mileposts 103 and 104. Follow Highway 160 for about 3.5 miles to the park entrance (on the left).
  • The park opens at 7:00 am and closes 15 minutes after sunset. The Visitor Center and Gift Shop is open daily from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily.
  • You can pick up a park brochure and take a clearly-marked, self-guided walking tour of the park or you can take a “cell phone tour”.
  • Parking at the National Historical Park requires a $5.00 fee and the pass is good for seven days.
  • There is nowhere to get food while in the park and water is only available from drinking fountains near the Visitor Center. You can pack a picnic though and have a picnic lunch or snacks in the picnic area only, and you should always have water. We brought one water bottle for each of us.
  • Wear comfortable or sturdy shoes because the ground is uneven — you’ll be walking through pebbly sand, across a rough trail, and maybe even on rocks, depending on where you go exploring.
  • If you are visiting the Park from Sunday through Thursday, you may have an opportunity to witness Hawaiian cultural demonstrations. Learn about weaving, fishing, carving and other trades and crafts that dominated the lifestyle of the people who lived in the surrounding area.
  • Pets are allowed only on the Coastal and 1871 trails and in the picnic area. They must be retrained and on a leash no longer than six feet.

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