Hawai'i Island: Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Volcanic eruptions add new land to Big Island
Volcanic eruptions add new land to Big Island

Courtesy of National Park Service

Located in one of the most unique and naturally diverse places on earth, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park preserves and interprets the region’s exceptional volcanic features, its early human history, and its native plants and animals. The park is so significant that it has also earned designations as an International Biosphere Reserve (1980) and a World Heritage Site (1987). By protecting Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the world’s most active volcanoes and their natural setting, the park provides visitors with a front row seat to view the new land that volcanic eruptions create for Hawai'i Island. The park also is a place to ponder and respect Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess, and to glimpse views of ancient Hawaiian structures, culture, life, and landscape. The park displays the results of hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic activity, migration, and evolution in a place where complex and unique ecosystems developed and a distinct ancient Hawaiian culture evolved.

Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on earth, occupying an area of 19,000 cubic feet and extending from about 20,000 feet below sea level to 13,677 feet above. Unlike explosive eruptions of continental volcanoes, the more fluid and less gaseous eruptions of Kilauea and Mauna Loa produce fiery fountains and rivers of molten lava. As layer upon layer of lava erupted, flowed, and cooled over millions of years, a new island was born laying the foundation for life. Seeds and other organisms found their way across the great Pacific Ocean to the shores of the Hawaiian Islands via air currents, through the water, and on the wings of birds. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean during 70 million years of isolation, plants and animals survived, adapted, and evolved new forms better suited to life on the Hawaiian Islands. Eventually humans would come to join this diverse habitat.

Over 1,600 years ago, Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands migrated 2,400 miles to Hawai'i in double-hulled canoes using the Sun and stars for navigational guides. They brought various survival items including pua'a (pigs), moa (chickens), roots of kalo (taro), uala (sweet potatoes), and ko (sugar cane) in the canoes. Then, about 800 years ago, Polynesians from the Society Islands arrived in Hawai'i. These Polynesians claimed descent from the highest gods and became the new rulers of Hawai'i. For a time, the Polynesians traveled back and forth between the Society Islands and Hawai'i until contact with southern Polynesia ceased. Just as the millions of years of isolation the land of Hawai'i experienced permitted development of its unique flora and fauna, the next 400 years of isolation for the Polynesians resulted in a unique Hawaiian culture. 

During this period, a highly stratified society developed that used a kapu (taboo) system to maintain law and order throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Under the kapu system, the sovereignali'i (chiefs) imposed religious and practical beliefs on all of the population. The ali'i ruled the land, while the kahunas (professionals) directed religious and spiritual guidance and themaka’ainana (commoners) farmed, fished, built structures and fishponds, and paid taxes. Considered outcasts or slaves, the kauwa were the lowest class in society. Throughout their island villages, Native Hawaiians fished; collected shellfish, seaweed, and salt; raised pigs, dogs, and chicken; and harvested sweet potatoes and taro. The people worshipped akua (gods) and`aumakua (guardian spirits) and passed their cultural traditions on to future generations througholi (chant), mele (song), and hula (dance).

The many archeological sites and historic districts within the park pay tribute and attest to the unique Hawaiian culture that developed during this time. Sites include petroglyphs, historic trails, fossilized footprints, shelter caves, scattered remains of heiau ruins (temple), house platforms, and stone walls of canoe sheds, pens, and corrals. Many of these sites are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pu'uloa Petroglyph Field, which is located in the Puna-Ka’u Historic District on the Puna-Ka’u (Puna Coast) ancient trail, is the largest concentration of rock carvings in the park. The area contains over 23,000 petroglyphs. A boardwalk provides visitors an easily accessible way to view them. Many of the petroglyph carvings are ancient with forms that are mainly dots with rings, human figures, sails, and circles with attached lines. One interpretation suggests that travelers made the petroglyphs to document their travels and inform their successors that they had been there. Another interpretation is that the holes found near many of these images were the depositories for new born infants’ umbilical cords at birth and the subsequent disappearance of the cord indicated a long and healthy life for a child.

The Footprints Area in the park preserves intact fossilized footprints of Native Hawaiians associated with the eventual rise of Kamehameha as the ruler of Hawai'i. As Kamehameha was working toward controlling the Hawaiian Islands, he met resistance on his home island of Hawai'i from some of his distant family members, including a man named Keoua. In 1790, while en route through the Kau Desert to battle the forces of Kamehameha, part of Keoua’s warrior party died from an explosive eruption of Kilauea. The crater ejected a huge, dense cloud of ash, sand, and rocks, which rained down killing many things in its path—including some of the Native Hawaiians in Keoua’s army. As the ash settled to the ground, it provided an excellent medium for fossilizing footprints. Visitors can access the Footprints viewing area by either following the Kau Desert Trailhead adjacent to Highway 11 or the Kau Desert Trail from Crater Rim Drive.

Like the Pu'uloa Petroglyph Field and the Footprints Area, other archeological sites in the park are evidence of the thriving ohana (family) communities and Hawaiian culture that developed on this lava landscape. Visitors will find remnants of house platforms, caves, livestock enclosures, temporary shelter sites, and the intricate trail systems that Native Hawaiians used to navigate this unique and sometimes unforgiving landscape. The intricate trail system, including trails like the Puna-Ka’u Coastal Trail and the Keauhou Trail, connected the families living and fishing along the coast with farmers who resided and worked further inland. The trails also provided people with access to materials such as volcanic glass and basalt and with well used paths for specific spiritual pursuits. The Ainopio Trail (aka Menzies Trail), which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is the first well known trail to go up to the summit of Mauna Loa. Native Hawaiians originally used this trail to bring offerings to Pele. People can still use portions of the trail to hike to the summit of Mauna Loa.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is sure to leave visitors in awe and provide them with a unique experience unlike any other place on earth. For those exploring the park, it is easy to imagine the Native Hawaiians living there – building villages and temples and making offerings to Pele - traversing a landscape that is continually scarred, transformed, and reborn by lava.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located off of Highway 11 throughout Hawai'i Island in HI. The park is open 24 hours a day year-round. The Kilauea Visitor Center is located on Crater Rim Drive off of Highway 11 between the 28 and 29 mile marker south of Hilo and is open daily from 7:45 am until 5:00 pm. The Jaggar Museum is open daily from 8:30 am. until 8:00 pm. For more information, visit the National Park Service Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park website or call 808-985-6000.


Last updated: April 23, 2020