Hiking Through History: Ancient Hawaiian Footpaths and Trails on the Big Island of Hawaii

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Ala Kahakai Trail

The Big Island of Hawaii, with its diverse landscapes ranging from lush rainforests to volcanic deserts, is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Amidst its natural beauty lies a rich tapestry of history, with ancient footpaths and trails weaving through the island’s rugged terrain. These trails offer modern-day hikers a unique opportunity to step back in time and explore the cultural and historical heritage of the Hawaiian people. In this extended blog post, we will delve deeper into the fascinating world of hiking through history on the Big Island, uncovering the secrets of ancient Hawaiian footpaths and trails.

The Cultural Significance of Hawaiian Trails

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Hawaiian Islands were inhabited by the Polynesians, who navigated the vast Pacific Ocean to settle in these remote islands. These early settlers relied on footpaths and trails to traverse the rugged terrain of the islands, connecting communities and facilitating trade, communication, and cultural exchange.

The construction of these trails, known as ala loa or ala hele in Hawaiian, was a remarkable feat of engineering, considering the challenging landscapes they traversed. These trails were meticulously crafted, often following the natural contours of the land and incorporating stone paving, steps, and retaining walls to navigate steep slopes and rugged terrain.

The Importance of Footpaths in Hawaiian Culture

Footpaths held profound cultural significance in ancient Hawaiian society. They were not only practical routes for transportation but also played a crucial role in religious ceremonies, rituals, and social gatherings. Many trails were associated with sacred sites, such as heiau (temples), burial grounds, and places of spiritual significance.

Walking these ancient paths was not merely a physical journey but a spiritual and cultural experience, connecting people with their ancestors and the land they inhabited. Today, these trails serve as a link to Hawaii’s past, offering hikers a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the islands.

Exploring Ancient Hawaiian Footpaths on the Big Island

The Big Island boasts a plethora of ancient footpaths and trails, each with its own unique history and significance. One of the most famous trails is the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which stretches for 175 miles along the coastline, connecting ancient Hawaiian settlements, fishing villages, and sacred sites.

The Ala Kahakai Trail is divided into several segments, each offering a different perspective on Hawaiian history and culture. For example, the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve features hundreds of ancient petroglyphs carved into the lava rock by early Hawaiians, providing a glimpse into their daily lives and beliefs. Another segment of the trail passes through the historic town of Kailua-Kona, where hikers can explore centuries-old landmarks such as Hulihee Palace and Mokuaikaua Church.

Ala Kahakai Trail

The precise locations of some parts of the Ala Kahakai Trail remain shrouded in mystery, lost to the passage of time. A great starting point is the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Parkhttps://www.nps.gov/kaho/index.htm, located north of Kona near the Honokohau small boat harbor. This park offers relatively easy hiking and an abundance of fascinating historical and natural features to enjoy.

Several miles further north lies Kekaha Kai State Park. The trail traverses behind Mahai’ula Beach, across a lava stretch to the splendid Makalawena Beach, then continues north along a rugged road to Kua Bay – Manini’owali Beach.

To hike north from Kua Bay, follow the rocky trail along the shoreline, navigating lava rocks and coral to Kikaua Beach. From there, it’s possible to continue along the shoreline to Kukio Beach, Ka’upulehu Beach, and Kahuwai Bay near the Four Seasons Resort. Shoreline access trails lead through the Hualalai Resort to Kikaua Beach, Kukio Beach, and further north at the Four Seasons Resort.

Four miles north of the Hualalai Resort lies stunning Kiholo Bay, offering relatively easy hiking and enjoyable exploration amidst unparalleled scenic beauty.

Moving north to Anaeho’omalu Bay (A-Bay) in the Waikoloa Resort area, another popular stretch of the Ala Kahakai trail extends roughly 15 miles along the coastline to Spencer Beach near Kawaihae. Numerous access points connect the beaches, allowing for shorter hikes along this section.

The hike from Anaeho’omalu Beach to the Hilton is splendid, featuring an easy and mostly smooth trail with breathtaking scenery. Continuing past the lagoons on the north side of the Hilton, the trail ascends alongside the golf course, with a giant Buddha statue marking a notable turnaround point.

Beyond the golf course, the trail becomes more challenging as it climbs through massive piles of sharp a’a lava for the next few miles, showcasing evidence of ancient settlements and fishing trails.

Honoka’ope Bay, the southernmost point of the Mauna Lani Resort area, offers a brief respite from the sharp lava. Continuing north, the trail becomes rugged once more.

The trail improves around the bend on the north side of Honoka’ope Bay as it passes in front of the Francis H. I’i Brown Golf Course at Mauna Lani Point, leading to the beautiful beach at Makaiwa Bay. The trail remains easy all the way north, past the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel to the Fairmont Orchid and beyond, featuring numerous fishponds, anchialine pools, and historical remnants.

Further north, between Hapuna Beach and Spencer Beach, lies another delightful and manageable hike of less than three miles, passing Mauna Kea Beach and Mau’umae Beach along the way. Exploring this pristine shoreline with its stunning views and diverse terrain makes the Ala Kahakai Trail a favorite among Hawaii hikers. So take your time, choose a section of the trail, and start your exploration!

Mauna Loa Trail

Another iconic trail is the Mauna Loa Trail, which ascends the slopes of the world’s largest volcano, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Hawaiians historically used this trail to access the fertile upland regions for farming and gathering resources.

Waipio Valley Trail

For those interested in exploring the lush rainforests of the Big Island, the Waipio Valley Trail offers a glimpse into Hawaii’s ancient past. This trail descends into the remote Waipio Valley, once a thriving center of Hawaiian culture and civilization. Today, hikers can wander through verdant forests, past cascading waterfalls, and along ancient terraced fields, immersing themselves in the island’s natural beauty and history.

Kaumana Trail

The Kaūmana Trail, accessible from Saddle Road, presents an excellent opportunity to explore the region’s volcanic terrain and lush rainforest. On clear days, hikers are treated to expansive views of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. This trail, integrated into the state’s Nā Ala Hele system, traces its origins back to the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Horse trail, which historically facilitated the transport of supplies and cattle between Hilo and the now-defunct Puʻu ʻŌʻō Ranch situated high on Mauna Kea’s slopes. The Kaūmana Trail represents a shorter section of the original ranch trail compared to the nearby Puʻu ʻŌʻō Trail. Traversing through an 1855 lava flow from Mauna Loa, the trail passes through areas containing several kīpuka, patches of ancient forest preserved amidst newer lava flows. These kīpuka serve as unique habitats for endemic bird and plant species. The Kaūmana Trail remains open at all times, although hunting is permitted, necessitating the use of brightly colored attire for safety during the hike.

Preserving Hawaii’s Cultural Heritage

As more people discover the beauty and cultural significance of Hawaii’s ancient footpaths and trails, preserving and protecting these valuable resources becomes increasingly important. Organizations such as the Hawaii Trails and Access Program work tirelessly to maintain and restore historic trails, ensuring that future generations can continue to enjoy and learn from these living links to the past.

Additionally, hikers can play a role in preserving Hawaii’s cultural heritage by practicing responsible outdoor ethics, such as staying on designated trails, respecting sacred sites, and leaving no trace. By treading lightly on the land and honoring the traditions of the past, we can ensure that these ancient footpaths remain a source of inspiration and discovery for generations to come.

Hiking through history on the Big Island of Hawaii offers a unique opportunity to connect with the cultural heritage of the Hawaiian people and explore the island’s natural beauty. From ancient footpaths winding through lush rainforests to trails ascending towering volcanoes, each route tells a story of resilience, ingenuity, and the enduring spirit of aloha.

As we lace up our hiking boots and set out on these ancient trails, let us not only marvel at the breathtaking scenery but also pause to reflect on the rich tapestry of history that surrounds us. By embracing the past and preserving Hawaii’s cultural heritage, we can ensure that these ancient footpaths remain a source of inspiration and wonder for generations to come.


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