Trail Types

A waterworn stepping stone trail through a'a lava and next to the seaHawaiʻi’s prehistoric ala loa (long trail) generally follow the path of least resistance along natural contours of the land. The ala loa connected a network of shorter coastal trails, sometimes referred to as ala hele (general trail term), and intersected mauka-makai (mountain to ocean) trails. Although these names are presented here, native and historic terminology used to identify trail types is highly unique to a given location.

Most ahupua‘a (land divisions) have one or more mauka-makai trails. Trails often followed streams or cliff edges, and some became the delineating boundary between neighboring ahupuaʻa.

The trails themselves exhibit a variety of construction methods and materials, morphing based on the geology, terrain, and societal need.

Curb-lined Trail through A'a lava flow
Curb-lined trail through ʻaʻā lava

I. Hanohano/NPS

Trails Through ʻAʻā Lava

Trails allowed travel across incredibly harsh terrian, such as this ʻaʻā lava flow. The surface of this particular trail is filled with small, smooth stones to make travel more comfortable, and features curb lined edges.
Trail across pahoehoe
Trail across a pahoehoe lava flow


Trails Across Pahoehoe Lava

The smooth, rolling nature of pāhoehoe lava flows makes walking across it relatively easy. Often, due to topography, travelers were naturally guided into using the same path across a flow. The result over hundreds of years of repetitive foot travel is a distinct indentation and sheen due to the wearing down of the surface of the pahoehoe lava flow.

In this photo, the trail is easily identified by its dark groove across the pāhoehoe lava flow, and on both sides of the trail is dense array of petroglyphs, or kiʻi pōhaku. These hand-pecked treasures are incredibly delicate, and provide modern generations an invaluable window into the world of ka poʻe kahiko, the people of old.
Trail at Pelekane Bay
The trail through South Kohala crosses a sandy beach at Pelekane bay.

A. Brown

Trails Across Sandy Shores

Bays, inlets, beaches, and other types of shorelines which provide protection from open ocean swells and currents and/or make ocean access easier were very valuable natural resources. It was common for trails to connect to and across these features.

At the northern end of Pu'ukohola National Historical Park the Ala Kahakai crosses the sandy shoreline of Pelekane bay.
Stepping Stone Trail to Kalaemano
Stepping stone trail across an ʻaʻā lava flow

R. Gmirkin/NPS

Stepping Stone Trails

A neat trail adaptation is the addition of smooth waterworn stones (ʻalā or paʻalā) along the center of a trail over rough terrain (such as ʻaʻā lava). The stones made foot travel over long distancess faster and more comfortable.

In the late 1700ʻs, horses, donkeys, and cattle arrived in Hawaiʻi and naturally were guided across the land on trails. The smooth stepping stones found on some trails, caused the animals to slip so they were often moved aside or removed. In this picture, the stepping stones disappear as soon as the ʻaʻā lava flow ends, and a wondering coastal trail resumes.
Jeep Trail
Jeep trail along the coast.


Jeep Trails and Modern Roads

Trails modernized along with technology and societal needs. Motorized vehicles began utilizing older pathways, modifying them to accommodate their needs. Sometimes, these modifications were done directly over the alignments of ancient trails, and in other instances these roads were completely new. Trails were also relocated due to natural events such as lava flows, tsunami, and other occurrences. The Hawaiian trail system was and will always remain dynamic.

Last updated: August 5, 2022

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
73-4786 Kanalani Street, #14

Kailua-Kona, HI 96740


(808) 217-0307

Contact Us