The Puu Loa Petroglyphs in the coastal southeastern portion of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ranks among the greatest concentrations of rock art in Hawaii. Some 23,000 petroglyphs—stone-etched images—compose the site, which can be explored on the fairly easy 1.4-mile round-trip Puu Loa Petryglphs Trail.
The Puu Loa trailhead is reached at mile marker 16.5 on Chain of Craters Road, which here has descended the southern slope of Kilauea Volcano via the escarpment of the Holei Cliffs.
You’ll want plenty of water, a good sun hat, and an outer layer or two for the wind and rain often encountered here. While the hike isn’t particularly difficult, this is an exposed environment where sunstroke or heat stroke are real possibilities depending on conditions. Sturdy footwear is required given the somewhat uneven pahoehoe terrain the initial access trail traverses.
The site lies amid coastal lava flows between five and six centuries-old that incorporates a pressure dome: Puu Loa itself. Puu Loa is often translated as “Long Hill,” but the more precise meaning in Native Hawaiian is “Hill of Long Life.” This association explains a large number of the petroglyphs found carved or drilled into pahoehoe lava. Ancient Hawaiians would seek longevity and good fortune for their children by placing a newborn’s umbilical cord (piko) here in a cuplike hole (puka).
Besides the holes, some petroglyphs here depict geometric designs, some figurative representations of anthropomorphic characters, sails, feathered capes, and other imagery. In the Hawaiian language, such rock art is known as kii pohaku: “images carved in stone.”
All told, it’s a remarkable site summoning the Big Island’s rich, deep indigenous history and a fusion of human artistry and ritual with Kilauea’s black lava-scapes.
From the trailhead (which lacks facilities except for an emergency call box), you’ll proceed 0.7 miles over smooth pahoehoe lava to the Puu Loa boardwalk loop. This raised wooden walkway allows for a survey of the petroglyphs while keeping them safe from footfalls.
Besides the main attraction of decorated lava pavement, the access trail and boardwalk loop show off long views of this southern Kilauea coastal sweep and the rise of the Holei Pali. It’s a bare but very scenic landscape only enhanced by the arresting rock art.
We hope it goes without saying that you should stay on the boardwalk and refrain from touching the petroglyphs. These ancient etchings are vulnerable to foot traffic and even fingers and hands. Furthermore, they’re sacred cultural touchstones demanding respect.
Walk lightly on this land while marveling at the evocative carvings, an unforgettable demonstration of Native Hawaiians’ firmly rooted connection to this dramatic volcanic realm.
-Consider bringing a pair of binoculars for your Puu Loa Petroglyphs hike. They can bring some of the rock art more distant from the boardwalk closer into view. (And they might also come in handy for zooming in on a high-flying tropicbird or petrel!)
-Around mile marker 16.5, there will be a marked parking area for the Puu Loa Petroglyphs.
-The long shadows of early morning or late afternoon can enhance the visibility of the Puu Loa Petroglyphs. These times of day are certainly more ideal for photographing rock art.