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Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
Island of Hawai'i
A segment of the lava rock Ala Loa Trail An unaltered segment of the
Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175 mile long trail on the Island of Hawai'i dedicated to preserving the culture and heritage of the Hawaiian people. Ala kaha kai means "shoreline trail" in the Hawaiian Language and the National Historic Trail contains the oldest and best remaining example of the Ala Loa, the major land route connecting the coastal areas of the island's ahupua'a (traditional land divisions). The trail follows the coastline, passing by hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and through over 200 ahupua'a. The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is managed by the National Park Service and the State of Hawaii and connects various National Parks on the Island of Hawai'i.

The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail combines three kinds of trails: surviving elements of the ancient long trails, historic post European-contact trails that developed on or parallel to the ancient long trails, and more modern pathways and roads that created links between the ancient and historic trails. The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail was established to preserve, protect, reestablish, and maintain the shoreline trails and provide an understanding of the Ancient Hawaiian land management system (ahupua'a).

Over a period of hundreds of years, Ancient Hawaiians developed a sophisticated system of land and resource management known as ahupua'a. These were divisions of narrow wedge-shaped land that ran from the mountains to the sea. The size of an ahupua`a depended on the resources of the area and was controlled by an ali'i (chief) and administered by a konohiki (land manager). The ahupua'a provided cultivated and natural resources to support the people as well as contribute to the support of the royal community in the islands.

The cliffs and lava rock beach at Kealakekua Bay along the Ala Kahakai Trail Kealakekua Bay along the Ala Kahakai Trail
Courtesy of Bamse, Wikimedia, 2007

In ancient Hawaii, access to the resources of the ahupua'a was restricted to the residents living in a particular division. Outsiders or visitors were permitted to use the ahupua’a resources as long as they obtained permission. Residents also had rights to use specific field plots and house lots. In communities with long-term royal residents, divisions of labor developed and were strictly adhered to by people living in the ahupua'a.

From the pre-European contact period to the 1800s, canoes and the trail systems were the primary means of getting around the Island of Hawai'i. The trails linked the 600 ahupua'a in the 6 districts of the Island of Hawai'i. These were narrow single-file footpaths that followed the topography of the land and were often paved with water-worn stones. Although the canoe was the principal means of transportation in the islands, extensive cross-island trail networks allowed for the gathering of food and water, religious observances, and the harvesting of materials for shelter, clothing, and medicine. These trails facilitated trade between upland and coastal communities as well as communication between the residents of an ahupua'a and their extended families. Chiefs used them to send messengers, to summon warriors for battle, and as a way to travel in times of war. Tax collectors also used the trails during the Makahiki, a ritual spanning four months, from October or November to January or February depending on the seasons. During this period, a procession of priests would carry a wooden statue of Lono (God of Agriculture) around the island for a period of 23 days to collect taxes and tribute.

After Captain James Cook became the first European explorer to establish western contact with the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, horses were introduced to the islands. By the 1840s, horses, mules, and bullocks had become the main form of transportation in the islands and many of the ancient trails had their stones removed to keep the animals from slipping. Eventually, wider, straighter trails were built to accommodate horse-drawn carts. These later trails often bypassed the older trails as more remote coastal villages became depopulated due to disease and changing economic and social systems. In some cases the new trails overlapped or realigned the older trails. Trails were also relocated as a result of natural events such as lava flows and tsunamis.

Smoothed stepping stones being used as part of the Ala Kahakai trail Stepping stones on the Ala Kahakai Trail
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Ala Kahakai was very significant to Hawaii’s first king, Kamehameha I, who was born near the trail at Kohala on the northern tip of the island. Seeking to unite the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha began by consolidating his rule of the Island of Hawai'i along the trail in 1791. He eventually united all of the Hawaiian Islands and established the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1810.

In 1819, Kamehameha I was succeeded by his son Kamehameha II who is best remembered for abolishing the kapu system. Kapu was the Hawaiian system of religious, political, and social laws that governed every aspect of daily life and was particularly restrictive. Six months after his father’s death, Kamehameha II sat down at the women’s table during a feast at Kamakahonu and ate with them, an act strictly forbidden under kapu. Messengers were then sent to the other islands announcing that the kapu system was at an end. This event came to be called 'Ai Noa (free eating) and shook Hawaiian culture to its foundations, prompting resistance from other chiefs.

Kamehameha I's nephew Kekuaokalani, himself a chief, was a traditionalist who wanted to keep the kapu system in place. He was asked by several other chiefs to lead their armies in an armed rebellion to restore kapu. In December 1819, they marched from Ka'awaloa at Kealakekua Bay along the Ala Kahakai and met the royal army in an area known as Lekeleke in the ahupua'a of Kuamo'o. The Battle at Kuamo'o was decisive, with over 300 warriors killed including Kekuaokalani and his wife Manono, who were buried under lava rock cairns on the battlefield. Today the site, known as the Kuamo'o Burials, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A human-like figure carved into lava rock at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve Petroglyph at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological
Preserve on the Ala Kahakai trail
Courtesy of the National Park Service

In the 1820s, Governor Kuakini and Chiefess Kapi'olani instituted a program of public works on the Island of Hawai'i. The development of existing trails and new western-style roads was initiated to facilitate access to mission stations, landings, and key areas of resource collection. Trails were widened to accommodate a single horse and many were lined with curbstones. In the 1830s, island-wide improvements were made to the Ala Kahakai and beginning in the 1840s, a formal program established government roads. Eventually criteria were developed for widening the trails to accommodate two horses, realigning the trails with an emphasis on areas with larger populations, and building newer straighter trails located inland. Population decline led to the abandonment of many of the ancient trails.

In the 1890s, steps were taken to protect the ancient trails in support of citizens who lived in remote locations. Queen Lili'uokalani enacted what is known as the Highways Act of 1892, one of the last bills she signed into law before the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Through the Act, all roads, alleys, streets, ways, lanes, courts, places, trails, and bridges in the Hawaiian Islands, whether laid out or built by the Government or by private parties, were declared to be public highways and were owned by the Government. This protected the ancient trails and ensured their survival. The Act is still in place today in the State of Hawaii.

The Ala Kahakai became a part of the National Trails system in 2000. The National Historic Trail preserves the portion of the Ala Kahakai extending from Upolu Point on the northern tip of the Island of Hawai'i, down the west coast of the island to Kae Lae (South Point) and east to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail reflects a Hawaiian concept of trails as a network connecting ahupua`a, settlements, and places of importance to the Hawaiian people.

Plan your visit

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is located on the Island of Hawai'i and is managed by the National Park Service and the State of Hawaii. The trail can be accessed through sections within the four National Parks on the island: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Pu'uhonua National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, and Pu'ukohola National Historic Park and through the state trail managed by Na Ala Hele (State of Hawaii Trail and Access Program). For more information visit the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail website or call 808-326-6012

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