Wrapping around the Big Island’s western and southern coastlines, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail offers natural scenery, outdoor recreation, and cultural appreciation.
Established in 2000 and under the oversight of the National Park Service, this national historic trail follows some hallowed ground. The “Trail by the Sea” (Ala Kahakai’s translation) partly traces the Ala Loa, or “Long Trail.” This route connected coastal villages and other important sites in ancient times, well predating Hawaii’s first contact with the Western world.
Post-contact trails and tracks that overlapped the Ala Loa are also part of the Ala Kahakai traces. So are more modern coastal corridors sprung up along these time-honored thoroughfares.
The purpose of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is not only to preserve physical structures and pathways, but also place names, stories, traditions, and other cultural associations. It’s a journey through Native Hawaiian history and heritage. Its 175-mile route crosses more than 200 of the traditional Hawaiian land divisions known as ahupuaa. The trail also accesses popular beaches, scenic overlooks, and other tourist attractions.
The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail Corridor runs from Upulu Point, the Big Island’s northwesternmost extremity, to Wahaula Heiau on the Puna Coast. Incredible cultural landmarks lie within it.
They include the Kohala Historic Sites State Monument, which includes the Mookini Heiau and the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great. Explore the centuries-old fishponds of Kahoko-Honokohau and the “Place of Refuge” for those who’d broken traditional Hawaiian law (kapu) at Puuhonua o Honaunau.
There’s Kamehameha I’s 1791-built Puukohola Heiau and the 1819 battlefield and burial ground of Leleluke/Kuamoo and 1791. And there’s incredible rock art at stops such as the Puako Petroglyph Preserve and the Puu Loa Petroglyphs in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’re only scratching the surface of destinations along the way.
There are also many natural wonders within the corridor, including coastal brackish pools and some astonishing caves.
The actual footpaths encompassed within the National Historic Trail range from stepping-stone and gravel walkways through raw lava fields to sandy beachfront and old jeep tracks. The sense of many, many footfalls preceding yours can be profound.
Not all sections of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail are open to the public, but many are, including those in national historical parks and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This isn’t a long-distance thru-hiking trail, but rather a collection of significant sites and many fine individual hikes.
From lava-rock wilderness and paradise-worthy beaches to ancient temples and aquaculture, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail encompasses some remarkable Big Island geography. Visiting some of its sites, and walking some of the old paths it follows, you’ll come away with a deep sense of Hawaii’s native identity and spaces. That’s a valuable experience to have on any visit to the Island of Hawaii, needless to say.
The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail can be a great family experience. Take advantage of the Hawaii Island National Parks Junior Ranger program for kid-friendly explorations and activities at the corridor’s National Park Service units.