Off the beaten track: Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site

Puukohola Heiau Tclf org
Photo credit: tclf.org

Located beside the small port town of Kawaihae, the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site is an impressive structure. Built in the late 18th century by Kamehameha I, this site is inextricably linked to the founding of the Hawaiian kingdom. Hiking trails and birdwatching make this well-worth a visit.

History

Pu’ukohola Heiau played a critical role in uniting the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha I built the temple due to a prophecy from a priest named Kapoukahi. The priest, told Kamehameha that if he constructed a heiau (temple) on the hill called Pu’ukohoā, and dedicated it to the war god, he would then be able to conquer the islands. The temple was originally built by Kamehameha I in 1790-91. Thousands of men worked for almost a year to build the temple. Upon completion of the temple a chief rival was sacrificed to the war god. Kamehameha I then gained control over the Hawaiian Islands. The monarchy he started lasted from 1810 until 1893.

Where is it?

Photo credit: hawaiitribune-herald.com

The Park is located at 62-3601 Kawaihae Road, Kawaihae. The town of Kawaihae is small with only a few shops and places to eat. This area is the driest part of the entire state of Hawai’i – there is less than 10 inches of rain a year here. 

Directions from Kona International Airport:

Take Highway 19 North for 27 miles. Turn left (north) onto Highway 270 (Kawaihae Road) and go 1/2 mile to the Park entrance (on the left side of highway). Turn left off the highway onto the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Directions from Hilo:

Take Highway 19 North 67 miles. Continue on Highway 270 (Kawaihae Road) to the Park entrance (on the left side of highway). Turn left off the highway on to the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Directions from North Kohala (Hawi/Kapa’au):

Take Highway 270 South 20 miles to the Park entrance (on the right side of highway). Turn right off the highway on to the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Arrival of Keoua Below Puʻukoholā by Herb Kane

What to do

Pu'ukohola and Mailekini heiaus
Photo credit: JustyCinMD / flickr.com

Entry to the historic site is free and the visitors center is open 7:30am – 5pm daily. The visitor center contains a museum with some great exhibits, including an amazing traditional koa wood spear display, and a popular rock-lifting display. There are also some original paintings by artist and historian Herb Kane (the museum is due to reopen to the public November 15). There is also a great view of Puʻukoholā Heiau from the visitor center itself.

There are also a number of hiking trails.

  • The Parkʻs loop trail (1/2 mile)
  • From the Park to Mau’umae Beach (about 3/4 mile) along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
  • From the Park to Hāpuna Beach (about 3 miles)

Depending on the time of year the Park is a great place to watch the sea life near the shoreline. In the winter it’s a great place to spot humpback whales, while sometimes black-tipped reef shakes and spinner dolphins can also be seen. Or get to the Park early and enjoy the wide variety of bird life.

Pu'ukohola Heiau 2021
Photo credit: nps.gov
Photo credit: nps.gov

Fun fact: Puʻukohola Heiau is best viewed from Kawaihae Harbor Road in the late afternoon. This aspect, with Mauna Kea in the background, makes for a great photo.

Other sites

Also in the Park are some other historical sites of interest.

  • Mailekini Heiau – this was a temple converted into a fort with mounted guns to protect the port.
  • Hale o Kapuni Heiau (Shark Temple) – submerged just off the shoreline of the Park, this temple was for worshipping the shark god that protected the local area.
  • John Young Homestead – the remains of the home of a British sailor who became stranded on the island and then became an advisor to the King.
  • Pelekane (The Royal Courtyard) – just below the temples is the courtyard where foreign dignitaries were received.

If you’re interested in Hawaiian history a visit to the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site should be near the top of your list. The majestic structure is a fascinating legacy of Kamehameha I’s reign. While its close proximity to nearby Hāpuna Beach makes it the perfect place to visit before a day at the beach. 

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