Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve

Hilton Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve Trail

As much as we love adventuring and exploring while on vacation, we also love to chill at the beach and relax. Our beach days are Carter’s favorite days because we just hangout and relax. We promised him a relax day at the beach while in Hawaii too — and we made it happen, almost.

We all wanted to see the petroglyph fields near our hotel, the Hilton Waikoloa Village, but we had to time our visits just right. You see, if you visit the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve or the Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological District in the middle of the day, you won’t be able to see the ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs very well. We needed to visit the petroglyph fields in the morning when the sun is casting shadows, so that meant we spent the morning one day exploring the petroglyph fields and the afternoon relaxing at the beach and jumping in the waves.

We woke up early, ate a big breakfast, grabbed hats, covered ourselves in sunscreen, and headed over to the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve.

Yes, we could have walked from our hotel, but it was already hot, we’re already doing a ton of walking and hiking on this trip, and we were planning on going to the Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological District directly after. We parked by the gas station in the Kings Shops shopping center and walked across the street toward the golf course and followed the signs to the start of the Mamalahoa Trail through the petroglyph field.

There were easily thousands of petroglyphs — it was amazing to see!

The ancient Hawaiian rock carvings have been well-preserved right in the middle of the Waikoloa Beach Resort. Because it is one of the most accessible, easy to see petroglyph fields, we thought it would be crowded, but we were one of only three families checking out the historic site.

As we followed the trail, signs pointed out rock windbreaks, lava cave shelters, and important historic information about the location of the preserve. We had fun searching for different shapes and symbols and the kids were so excited to find carvings of turtles. The true meaning of many of the carvings are unknown, so the kids had fun imagining what some of the carvings meant and making up their own stories for the symbols as we explored.

The Mamalahoa Trail (King’s Trail)

Built for horse travel in the mid-19th century, the 175 mile Ala Kahakai (trail by the sea) linked communities, temples, fishing areas, and other important locations on the western coast of the Big Island. The trail was also known as the Mamalahoa Trail and King’s Trail.

A portion of the Mamalahoa Trail once ran straight for for 32 miles between the villages of Kailua in Kona and Puako. It was constructed by Hawaiians paying their taxes with labor and by prisoners. The ledges of rock on both sides kept horses and pack animals, like mules and donkeys, on the trail.

The name Mamalahoa was a law passed by Kamehameha the Great, which guaranteed the personal safety of all travelers. It was also the name of one of his elite regiments during his conquest of the other islands.

The Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve

The Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, one of the major concentrations of ancient rock carvings in the Hawaiian Islands, provides visitors examples of petroglyphs, lava caves, and stone windbreaks. The other two petroglyph fields are the Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological District and the Pu`u Loa Petroglyphs in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

There is an estimated 30,000 historically significant petroglyphs in Waikoloa.

Boundaries were not crossed casually in Old Hawaii, and the thousands of surface carvings in this preserve, located just north of the border between the ancient kingdoms of Kohala and Kona, suggest that many may have a religious or commemorative meaning for the event of crossing the border. Groups traveling on the Mamalahoa Trail and waiting for permission to cross the boundary, or armies poised to defend the border or attack it, made simple encampments using lava cave shelters and rock wall windbreaks, some of which can still be seen today.

Most petroglyphs were made with a sharp stone held as a chisel and struck with a hammer stone; the lines further incised with a sharp rock fragment. Others were made by rubbing a blunt stone against a lava surface by pounding, breaking the natural glaze which forms on cooling lava to reveal the granular interior. Erosion of the edges has burred most ancient carvings, and some damage has been caused by people making rubbings.

When following the trail through the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, you’ll see ancient rock carvings, also called ki’i pohaku, of people and families, the sun, circles and lines, canoes, and animals like birds, horses, and turtles. The carvings are best viewed in the mornings and afternoon when the sun cast shadows on the fields.

Two Types Of Lava On The Big Island Of Hawaii

Two Hawaiian words have been adopted as scientific terms for two major types of lava that is seen at the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve and throughout The Big Island of Hawaii:

  • A’a: A’a lava covers the northern portion of ‘Anaeho’omalu in a flow that varies from twenty or forty feet thick. It is composed of layers of brittle fragments termed clinkers or cinders, covering a core of very dense basaltic rock. (‘Anaeho’omalu is the Hawaiian name of the bay and beach neighboring Waikoloa Beach Resort. It’s commonly referred to as A-Bay.)
  • Pahoehoe: Pahoehoe lava is relatively smooth, with rope-like, corrugated surfaces, and cracks caused by contraction during cooling. It is formed by extremely hot, liquid lava flows, glowing rivers of molten rock that cool into billowy mounds. Below the cooling crust, the liquid interior often empties out, leaving cavities and caves. Gases rupturing up through the hardening crust raise dome like blisters. Molten lava, piled up by the force of a flow, hardens into bulbous or columnar stacks and pinnacles.

Waikoloa vs. Puakō

I had read on several websites before our trip that the Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological District is more spectacular than Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, and that it has more petroglyphs, but that’s not what we experienced. We visited both petroglyph locations on the Big Island’s South Kohala Coast and while the viewing area of the Puakō Petroglyph Preserve is nicer, the carvings at the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve were much easier to see, especially for the kids.

I highly recommend visiting both preserves if you have the chance, as each one has it’s own unique features.

Know Before You Go

  • Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve at Waikoloa Beach Resort, Waikoloa Village, Hawaii 96738, is one of two petroglyph fields on the Big Island’s South Kohala Coast. The other petroglyph field is the Puakō Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve located on the grounds of the Fairmont Orchid Resort.
  • If you stay at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve is a one mile walk. Or if it’s hot and you don’t feel like walking, drive down Waikoloa Beach Drive to the Kings Shops, park near the gas station, and walk across the street toward the golf course to find signs pointing you toward the King’s Trail trailhead (also called the Mamalahoa Trail or Kiholo Puako Trail) that’s a little ways down the street.
  • Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, as you’ll be walking/hiking on a trail made from lava rock and it’s uneven and the rocks on many places are loose.
  • Bring plenty of water, a hat, and sunscreen because there is no shade at all. The entire Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve and the King’s Trail is in full fun.
  • The best time of day to view the petroglyphs is in the morning before the sun is overhead. (Plus, it’s cooler in the morning!)
  • Please stay on the trails and all viewing platforms. Do not walk out into the petroglyph fields, do not tough the petroglyphs, walk on them, or make rubbings of them — all of these actions are strictly against the rules and are disrespectful.
  • Complimentary guided tours are provided Thursday through Sunday at 9:30 am with expert Kalei’ula Kaneau for a one-hour walk back through Hawaii’s fascinating history.

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