The Puako Petroglyph Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is a fantastic place to go for those wanting to learn more about Hawaii’s distant past and experience the island a bit as they once did.
You will find Puako Petroglyph Park along the island of Hawaii’s western shoreline. It’s just south of the village of Kawaihae and just north of the popular Kalahuipuaa area. The park itself spans 223 acres, but the most notable thing for visitors is the 1.5 mile Malama Trail that meanders through the large petroglyph fields and offers close-up views of those ancient communications.
The Malama Trial is a round-trip hiking trail that begins at the parking lot for the Puako Petroglyph Park and the Holoholokai Beach Park. Near this trailhead, you will see a small pavilion that provides additional information about the park itself. This well-maintained pavilion also features recreations of a few of the most notable petroglyphs along the trail and some information about them. This is a good stop for those unsure if they want to make the entire hike.
So what exactly are petroglyphs? Petroglyph is a term that comes from the Greek works of “petros” meaning rock and “glyphein” meaning to carve. Thus, the word petroglyph is used to describe rocks that have ancient carvings in them. Older generations of Hawaiians obviously did not know this term and instead called these special rocks they carved for communications and art “kii pohauku” which translates to images in stone.
No one really knows why so many petroglyphs are located at the Puako Petroglyph Park (some speculate that they are birth records and the records of other significant events), but there are certainly a lot. The entire preserve hosts an incredible 3,000 unique images carved within rocks, many of which are within lava rock. However, visitors can expect to see about half of this number, 1,200 petroglyphs, within the publicly available portions of the park (other areas are too sensitive for large and constant crowds to traverse). A few of the images you can expect to see along the 1.5 mile Malama trail include people marching, sailing, and dancing, as well as plenty of animals and deity symbols.
Before you head out to this unique historical park, some words of caution. The Malama trail is certainly short, but don’t confuse that with being easy. A short portion of the park goes through a small grove of kiawe trees (the short trees that shed sharp and painful thorns) and the rest meanders over exposed black lava rock. That lava rock attracts intense heat from the sun, which can range from uncomfortable to unbearable. Make sure to wear sunblock or otherwise protect your body from the harsh rays, bring plenty of water to drink, and wear appropriate shoes. The ground not only is hot but also full of sharp lava rocks and thorns from the aforementioned kiawe grove.
Note that some of these stone carvings date to over 2000 AD and are hence sensitive to things like oily, sunscreen hands. Please be respectful when visiting and do not touch or attempt a rubbing of any of the petroglyphs. Entrance to the park is free, though it is closed between dawn and dusk.
-We recommend combing a trip to the Puako Petroglyph Park with one to the Holoholokai Beach Park. This is a gorgeous beach comprised of black lava rock this is ideal for beachcombing. The beach park also features full picnic facilities including barbecue grills. Swimming here can be hit or miss though with heavy currents and sharks commonly spotted in the area.
-There is a nice .4 mile connector trail close to the start of the Malama trail that leads to the Fairmont Orchid Resort. The beach at this resort is a great place to watch sea turtles come and bask in the sunlight and enjoy the dusk hours as the sun slips beneath the Pacific Ocean.