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This 175-Mile Trail Takes You Through the Hidden Treasures of Hawaii

By Karen Berger

Sep 28, 2020

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Like many of the national historic trails, the Ala Kahakai does not currently offer walkers a continuous, connected hiking route.

© Bart Smith

Like many of the national historic trails, the Ala Kahakai does not currently offer walkers a continuous, connected hiking route.

The Ala Kahakai celebrates traditional Hawaiian culture; it has been in continuous use since the Polynesians arrived on the Big Island.

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Imagine for a moment the audacity of voyaging across the entire Pacific Ocean in a wooden canoe powered by winds, sails, and a steering paddle, guided only by the stars and the currents. The ancient Polynesians did exactly that. To call them a seafaring people is an understatement: their mastery in seamanship and navigation initiated an era of voyaging that put settlements on virtually every habitable Pacific island from New Zealand to Hawai‘i.

The story of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail thus begins more than 1,000 years ago, when voyaging canoe migrations departed a region of islands in the central South Pacific and traveled to what is today known as the Hawaiian archipelago. These Polynesian voyagers were the first human settlers on any of the Hawaiian Islands. The Ala Kahakai Trail commemorates traditions that date to the state’s earliest Polynesian settlements and that have changed and evolved over time.

The Ala Kahakai is a 175-mile-long coastal route that celebrates traditional Hawaiian culture; it has been in continuous use since the Polynesians arrived on Moku o Keawe, also known as the Big Island. Following the path of least resistance along natural contours of the land, the trail crosses more than 200 ahupua‘a, the Hawaiian name for mountain-to-sea land divisions that were allocated according to a system of land use dating back to Polynesia.

The Ala Kahakai Trail adds a new perspective to the National Trails System. The national historic trails cover a wide range of terrain and usages: trails through forests, over mountains, and through prairies and deserts; trails along rivers and across snow; trails intended for horsemen, mule trains, wagons, dogsleds, and canoes. The Ala Kahakai adds volcanic rock and sandy beaches to the list of environments. And, like the Iditarod, the Ala Kahakai brings a distinct local flavor to the national historic trails. Unlike most of America’s other national historic trails, these were not trails of European migration or conquest; rather, they were trails of local settlement, made by indigenous people for indigenous people. As such, they led around the island, to places where people lived and worked and fished and prayed. They gave access to the essential inlets, coves, and fishponds, and they connected the mauka-makai trails that led to the various ahupua‘a.

The Ala Kahakai is a dynamic, changing trail. In many areas, the national historic trail includes segments of the ancient Ala Loa, which predate the first contact with westerners in 1778. Archaeological artifacts, fishponds, traditional trail construction, remains of ancient and historic dwellings, and sacred sites all provide a connection between the present and the past. The range of ecosystems and natural features—anchialine ponds, cliffs, ravines, streams, near-shore reefs, estuarine ecosystems, native sea turtle habitats—introduce contemporary visitors to the environments and resources that were the foundation of ancient Hawaiian culture. Managed as a partnership between descendant communities, kama‘aina, land-management agencies, and local stakeholders, the Ala Kahakai demonstrates the idea that trails are a network that connect Hawaiians with places that are important not only in the present, but also in the times of their ancestors.

The Route

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The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail includes portions of historic trails known as the Alanui Aupuni (Hawaiian Kingdom Government Road), King’s Trail, or Ala Loa (Long Path) that once encircled the entire island. These trails run just inland of the coast of the island through Hawai‘i’s famous lava fields. They also connect to the trails that run from the mountains (mauka) to the sea (makai). The trail network connects communities, cultural and historic sites, and diverse ecological environments. Like many of the national historic trails, the Ala Kahakai does not currently offer walkers a continuous, connected hiking route. Sections are opened as they can be managed and protected.

The trail corridor extends from ‘Upolu Point (the northernmost point of the island of Hawai‘i, near Kohala), and then follows the western coastline of the Big Island to Ka Lae (South Point), passing many of the Big Island’s famous resorts as well as three national historic sites and parks. From Ka Lae, it hooks northeast to finish at Waha‘ula at Puna, near the eastern boundary of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

The entire Ala Kahakai Trail corridor comprises segments of many Big Island trails on both public and private land. Shoreline access points lead to sections of trail that connect to some of the island’s best beaches, particularly along the west coast. Ala Kahakai segments can also be accessed from the four national parks on the island of Hawai‘i: Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

Ala Kahakai State Trail, South Kohala, Hawai‘i

This trail section is a state trail under the Nā Ala Hele Trail and Access Program. A 15-mile section of trail is managed by the state of Hawai‘i with the cooperation of resorts, homeowners’ associations, and the Ala Kahakai Trail Association. It begins at Pelekane Bay and runs from Spencer Beach Park at ‘Ohai‘ula south to ‘Anaeho‘omalu Bay. The three-mile section from Spencer Beach Park to Hāpuna Beach State Recreation Area is extremely popular and marked with trail signs and interpretive information.

The trail mostly follows the ancient route along the coastline through both public and private lands, providing access to numerous beaches. It also provides access via the Malama Trail to the Puakō petroglyph field near Holoholokai, where 1,200 petroglyphs show aspects of ancient Hawaiian life, including paddlers, sailors, marchers, dancers, family groups, animals, and gods. While this section of trail provides access to some of Hawai‘i’s most pristine shoreline ecosystems—including the anchialine fishponds that were so important to ancient Hawaiian fishing—the trail receives limited maintenance and the path can be rough.

Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai‘i

Just north of Spencer Beach Park, Pu‘ukoholā Heiau—the great red-stone temple of Kamehameha the Great—contrasts with the dark waters of Pelekane Bay. Kamehameha built the temple to appease the war god Kūka‘ilimoku, hoping to seal his kingship against an upstart rival. Offshore, a ruined temple underwater receives daily visits from resident sharks. The Ala Kahakai Trail passes through the park. No swimming or sunbathing is allowed on this beach.

Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Hawai‘i

The laws of traditional Hawaiian culture were based on a system of kapu, which governed everything from breaking social taboos to gathering the wrong food in the wrong season. The penalty could be death. But those convicted had one chance at life—the pu‘uhonua. A sacred place with carved images and a temple that might contain the bones of chiefs, the pu‘uhonua was a “place of refuge.” If a prisoner could escape and find their way to one of these sacred places, the penalty would be lifted. The Ala Kahakai Trail follows the coast past today’s Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, which was once such a place of forgiveness and sanctuary. Visitors are asked to respect that this is a sacred site, not a recreational one. Beach chairs, towels, mats, beach umbrellas, coolers, picnicking, and beach and ball games are all prohibited, as are commercial filming, nudity, pets, weddings and wedding photography, and smoking.

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, Hawai‘i

Just north of Kailua-Kona, the 1,160-acre Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park preserves and interprets many nearly intact sites associated with traditional Native Hawaiian culture. More than 200 archaeological sites in the park include ancient house platforms, religious temples and stone mounds, fishponds, petroglyphs, lava tube shelters, and parts of the Ala Kahakai Trail. A 12-mile section of the Hawaiian Kingdom Government Road, the Mamālahoa Trail, runs north toward Kekaha Kai State Park. This rugged stretch of trail crosses lava fields, breathtaking beaches, a combination of sharp and jagged lava and fossilized coral rock, and Kua Bay before reaching Kukio Beach in front of the Hualalai Four Seasons Resort.

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai‘i

The trail ends at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, where visitors can sometimes—if Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, is in the right mood—stand on some of the island’s most ancient trails and watch the newest landscapes of Hawai‘i being formed by volcanic activity. Eruptions from the park’s two active volcanoes—Kīlauea (one of the most active volcanoes  in the world) and Mauna Loa (at 13,679 feet, the world’s most massive shield volcano)—sometimes close visitor centers, roads, and trails, and ensure that at every visit the land will look a bit different. Designated an international biosphere reserve, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park contains diverse environments from beaches at sea level to tropical-alpine forests and rain forests to the stark and otherworldly Ka‘ū Desert, comprising dried lava, volcanic ash, gravel, and sand. Sections of the Ala Kahakai Trail can be accessed from the park, which includes more than 130,000 acres of wilderness that allow visitors to experience the land as the ancient Hawaiians might have seen it.

Reprinted with permission from America’s National Historic Trails: In the Footsteps of History by Karen Berger. America’s National Historic Trails is published by Rizzoli USA and is on sale October 13, 2020.

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