Outdoor Activities

Visitors at the Visitor Center watching humpback whales with volunteers from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sancturary.
Visitors whale watching during whale season.


There are many exciting opportunities for getting out into the "great outdoors".

  • Hiking
    In addition to the Park's loop trail (1/2 mile), many visitors enjoy hiking south from the Park along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. A nice section is from the Park to Mau'umae Beach (about 3/4 mile). For more the adventurous, you can walk further to Hapuna Beach (about 3 miles).
  • Shark, Whale & Dolphin Watching
    Many visitors enjoy watching the variety of sea life that live and play off of the Park's shoreline. During the winter months, humpback whales are a very common sight. Throughout the year, black-tipped reef sharks come into Pelekane Bay (the best time to see them is usually in the early morning). As well, spinner dolphins can sometimes be seen frolicking in the ocean.
  • Bird Watching
    During the early morning or late afternoons, the Park comes alive with various birds. Occasionally you might see the pueo (hawaiian owl) scouting out the fields for prey.
  • Photography and Painting
    Over the years, artists have found Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site to be an amazing site for artistic expression. So grab your sketch book, camera or easel!
  • Special Programs
    Throughout the year, we also hold special programs just outside of the Visitor Center, including Whale Watching, Shark in the Park, cultural demonstrations, and more. Visit our Calendar for the most up-to-date information on special programs.
  • You can also enjoy the following outdoor activities at nearby Spencer County Beach Park:
    - Picknicking
    - Swimming
    - Camping
    - Snorkeling / Scuba Diving

Audio Tour Transcript

Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site

1. Introduction – Visitor Center

Aloha, and welcome to Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site. This audio tour will guide you on your journey through the park. The tour takes approximately 30 minutes, and it is less than half a mile in length.

Be sure to stop by the Visitor Center either before or after your tour to check out the exhibits and videos, as well as the museum and nonprofit bookstore. Park Rangers and staff are available to answer your questions.

We hope that you have a meaningful and safe experience as you learn more about unique sites, fascinating people, and the epic stories associated with Puʻukoholā Heiau.

2. Heiau

Our first stop is Puʻukoholā Heiau. One of the last major temples built in the Hawaiian Islands, this structure was constructed by Kamehameha the Great from 1790 to 1791.

Arguably one of the greatest leaders in Hawaiian history, Kamehameha became the first person to unite the warring islands into the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Puʻukoholā Heiau played a crucial role in the unification of the Hawaiian Islands, for Kamehameha built the temple as a result of a prophecy that came to a priest named Kapoukahi.

This kahuna (or priest) told Kamehameha that if he were to build a heiau on the hill known as Puʻukoholā and dedicate it to his family's war god, Kūkāʻilimoku, he would be able to conquer all of the islands. What you see in front of you today are the remains of that temple.

It is said that thousands and thousands of men labored for nearly a year to construct this heiau, through the stories that have been passed down generation to generation. We believe that builders brought the rocks from the distant Pololu Valley. Forming a human chain nearly 20 miles long, the laborers handed the water-worn lava rocks–one person to another–up and over Kohala Mountain to this site. Without the use of mortar, cement, or other bonding materials, these skilled laborers placed these rocks in exact locations in order to meet specific building requirements.

It is important to remember that Kamehameha built a sacred temple, and not a common structure. There are many stories that have been passed down that talk of the various events that occurred during the construction of this heiau. One such story tells of an event that highlights the grave importance placed upon following specific guidelines in building the heiau you see in front of you.

It is said that Kamehameha had a younger brother, Keliʻimaikaʻi, who was instructed not to work with the rocks during the construction of this heiau, for he was told that he would be defiled if he did so. Ignoring these instructions, the brother is said to have worked with the stones, assisting the other workers. Furious, Kamehameha gathered all the stones that his brother had worked with, placed them on a canoe, and had them carried beyond the horizon and dumped into the sea, hoping to appease his war god, to whom this temple was to be dedicated.

Many visitors are surprised to find that the events that took place here occurred not too long ago. At the same time that George Washington was serving as this nation's first President, Puʻukoholā Heiau was being used by Kamehameha to secure his mana, or spiritual power, to help in his unification of the Hawaiian people. What might appear to you as nothing more than piles of rocks on a dry and desolate hill, in reality stands as a silent testament to one of the greatest periods in Hawaiian history.

As you approach Puʻukoholā Heiau, you will notice a wall that extends from the bottom of the temple into the field beside you. The pathway crosses the remains of his wall just beyond the first tree that you come to. The wall, which continues down towards the ocean, is believed by archaeologists to be a boundary line of the sacred grounds.

In ancient times, Hawai'i was ruled by a system of laws known as the kapu, which means “forbidden.” These rules or laws affected everyone, and determined such things or what you ate, when and where you could fish, and relationships that you had with other people. For example, at that time it was kapu (or forbidden) for a commoner to get too close to an aliʻi, or chief. Females could not eat certain foods, and men and women could not eat together. The punishment for breaking a kapu was very often death. When you look up at Puʻukoholā Heiau, you are seeing the pinnacle of the kapu system. Passing through that wall into the sacred area was restricted to only the highest chiefs and priests. This was not a place for commoners. This was Kamehameha’s temple.

For Puʻukoholā Heiau, much has changed since the days of Kamehameha. The place where you now stand was once full of activity. Daily rituals, and special monthly and yearly ceremonies would have taken place on the heiau and on the temple grounds. During the years of its use (1791 to 1819), there stood various structures on the heiau, such as a house for the priest, an oracle tower where the priest would have gone to receive revelations from the gods, and an altar for the sacrifices and offerings.

Following the death of Kamehameha in 1819, his son Liholiho became the king, taking the name Kamehameha II. In November of that same year, he abolished the age-old kapu system. At that same time, Liholiho ordered that all temples on all islands be destroyed. All of the wooden structures and features that were on Puʻukoholā Heiau at that time (the oracle tower, the priest and king's house, the drum house, the images of the god), were all destroyed. All that remains today are the large platforms where these structures once stood.

When the temple was in use, the rituals, sacrifices, and rites that took place in the temple were not for the eyes of commoners. As well, the most sacred places on the temple would not have been seen, even by other chiefs.This was Kamehameha’s temple, built for the purpose of uniting the Hawaiian Islands. He was believed to be a descendant of the gods, and thus possessed the mana, or spiritual power from the gods. He had this temple built in such a way so that the ceremonies and rituals would be done by him, away from the eyes of his followers. Although some visitors are disappointed that they cannot enter the heiau, we must remember that in times past, to have even come to where you now stand, would have meant certain death. This was a great temple built by an equally great king.

Just below Puʻukoholā Heiau stands an older temple known as Mailekini Heiau. This temple was built approximately 500 years ago, and throughout its existence has served many purposes. One significant use was as a fort by Kamehameha. Although Kamehameha’s rule over the Hawaiian Islands seemed secure (his major rivals having been killed or thoroughly subjected) he was undoubtedly aware that threats to his power could arise at any moment. The increasing presence of Europeans might have made him uneasy and mindful of the vigilance he would need to keep all of his subjects and his arriving foreigners in line. Influenced by his exposure to European military strategy and Western weapons, Kamehameha decided to build forts with mounted guns to protect his major ports. Reinforced by a navy, these safeguards would hopefully ensure the longevity of his reign.

Around 1812, Kamehameha sent cannons obtained from foreign traders to Kawaihae Bay to be mounted under the charge of one of his chief foreign advisors, John Young. Western observers at that time noted that as many as 22 cannons had been installed on the foundations of Mailekini Heiau, which guarded the king’s residence nearby, as well as the valuable harbor of Kawaihae.

In many ways, Mailekini Heiau stands as a symbol of the drastic change that took place in Hawai'i during the time with Kamehameha. Barely 30 years before Mailekini Heiau was transformed into a fort with cannons, a storehouse for muskets, and swords, the Hawaiian people were literally living in a Stone Age society. The arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s led to a quick transformation in the use of new technologies by the Hawaiians. Mailekini Heiau testifies to the fact that as an adept and intelligent leader, Kamehameha was able to utilize new modern technologies to secure his control over the islands.

Submerged just offshore below Mailekini Heiau are the ruins of what is believed to have been another temple, which local lore relates was dedicated to the shark gods. The ancient Hawaiians believed in animal helpers and protectors, half-god and half-human, who relayed their counsels through the lips of some medium, who became for the moment possessed by their spirit. These ‘aumukua were served in worship in particular families, this duty being passed down through the generations.

The large stone that you see just below the Hale o Kapuni overlook is known as Pohaku o Alapai ku palupalu mano, which is translated as “the rock of Chief Alapai, of the one who puts the human shark bait out.” It was common for the chiefs in ancient times to have favored stones where they would rest against. Alapai was one of Kamehameha’s staff chiefs who would lean upon the stone as he watched as the sharks entered Hale o Kapuni to devour the food offerings he had put out for them. The once large stone is now broken into three fragments, having been broken during a 1930s construction accident. Hale o Kapuni Heiau was last seen in the 1950s, when the rock platform was visible during low tides.

From the 1950s to this day, the coastline has been drastically changed by the construction of the large Kawaihae Harbor, that you see extending out into the ocean just north of the park. You've probably noticed how much darker and muddier the water looks when compared to the turquoise blue waters south of the harbor, as the natural currents are now unable to clean out the waters you see in front of you.

Although the entire natural landscape of the coast has been forever altered, sharks are still a common sight in Pelekane Bay. Although small blacktip reef sharks are the most commonly seen, large sharks including massive tiger sharks, have been seen in the proximity of Hale o Kapuni Heiau. If you look closely out at the water in front of you, you may be able to see black, gray, and white triangles moving on the surface of the water. These are the dorsal fins of blacktip reef sharks. Although sharks can be present in the bay at any time of day, it is usually easier to spot them in the early morning hours just after sunrise.

3. John Young Homestead

This stop will focus on the John Young Homestead, which you cannot see from where you are currently standing.

In 1790, a 46-year-old British sailor from Liverpool, England named John Young became stranded on this island. He had been serving aboard the Eleanora, the first American ship to visit Hawai'i, when, through a series of events, he had been prevented from returning to his ship before departing for his voyage to China. Noticing his plight and potential usefulness, Kamehameha brought John Young here to Kawaihae to live with him.

Over the next several years, John Young proved himself to be an able advisor to Kamehameha. Serving as a translator for the king, he secured various trade and political agreements with many other foreign dignitaries that came to meet with the now powerful Kamehameha.

John Young fought alongside Kamehameha during his conquests of the islands, and trained Kamehameha’s warriors in the use of European weapons and modern military tactics. As well, John Young and another British sailor (Isaac Davis) taught Kamehameha how to sail and later how to build modern Western style ships.

Although he arrived as not much more than a hired sailor, John Young was soon given great authority in Kamehameha’s growing kingdom. By the early 1800s, John Young was made an aliʻi nui, or high chief, and made governor of the entire island of Hawai'i.

Just beyond the present highway behind Pelekane lies the remains of John Young’s homestead, where he lived out the majority of his years in Hawai'i. Believed to contain the remains of the very first Western style house in all of the islands, this was the location where John Young met with political and trade representatives from around the world. A combination of Hawaiian and Western styles, John Young covered the outside of his house with a bright white plaster believed to have been made from crushed coral, poi, and hair. It is recorded that many sea captains used his house (shining brightly in the tropical sun) as a waymarker when sailing into Kawaihae Bay.

John Young married Kaʻōanaʻeha, the niece of Kamehameha, and had children here. His family and any servants that he might have had probably lived in an adjoining, more traditional-style house. After the death of Kamehameha the Great in 1819, John Young continued to advise his successors. John Young is believed to have died at the age of 93 and is buried on the grounds of the Royal Mausoleum in Nu'uanu, Oʻahu.

If you would like to learn more about John Young and his homestead, there are displays inside the Visitor Center Museum containing actual artifacts that were found at the site, as well as illustrations and descriptions of the site. If you would like to visit the site, please talk to a Park Ranger for more information.

4. Pelekane

The royal courtyard called Pelekane, was used as the residence of Kamehameha and his family. The area consisted of the royal residence and probably some housing for other members of the nobility that comprised the Royal Court. Pelekane is probably best known as the site where Kamehameha’s chief rival and cousin Keōua Kūʻahuʻula was killed in the summer of 1791.

It is said that Kamehameha invited Keōua for the dedication of his new temple Puʻukoholā Heiau and he had no intention of having him killed. Kamehameha and Keōua had been vying for control of the island for quite some time and it is said that Keōua came to acknowledge that Kamehameha was indeed destined to be victorious. It is said that he became convicted of this through a series of events that took place prior to his arrival at Pelekane.

Years earlier, Kamehameha had been made the caretaker of the image of the family’s war god Kūkāʻilimoku. Keōua knew that if their family’s war god was pleased by the construction of Puʻukoholā Heiau, then surely the god would side with his enemy, Kamehameha. As well, Keōua had lost a third of his army in an unexpected explosive eruption of the Kilauea volcano. As a general fighting for control of the island, this would have been bad enough, but it is also said that Keōua believed that he was a direct descendant of the goddess Pele, who inhabits the Kilauea volcano. Keōua saw that his war god Kūkāʻilimoku was against him, the goddess Pele was against him, and now he had lost a third of his army. This is why it is said that when he came here to Pelekane, he came willingly, to what would be his certain demise.

The day prior to his arrival at Pelekane, Keōua performed a ritual upon himself that indicated his imminent death, and the following day he arrived with his canoes and warriors. As his canoe approached the shore, Kamehameha stepped forward and called out for Keōua to show himself, for Keōua was now dressed in very common clothes instead of his royal cloak made of tens of thousands of feathers. When Keōua made himself known, several of Kamehameha’s men rushed out into the water and killed Keōua and some of his warriors.

There are different accounts as to what happened next, but it is believed that Keōua's body was taken to the top of Puʻukoholā Heiau, and offered as the sacrifice for the temple’s dedication. With that one act here on Pelekane, Kamehameha had become the ruler of the entire island. Soon after this event, Kamehameha began to invade the other islands, and in 1795, he gathered over 15,000 warriors and over 1,000 double-hulled war canoes right here at Pelekane for his final invasion of Oahu.

5. Ala Kahakai

The trail that follows along the coastline of the park is called the Ala Kahakai, established in 2000 for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of traditional Native Hawaiian culture and natural resources.

The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175-mile trail corridor, full of cultural and historical significance.This trail traverses through hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites, and through over 200 ahupua’a, or traditional sea-to-mountain land divisions. Cultural resources along the trail include several important temples, royal centers, fish ponds, fishing shrines, petroglyphs, and sacred sites.

As the trail follows the coast from Upolu Point, the northernmost point of the island, past South Point all the way to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, countless sea cliffs, ancient historic lava flows, forests, habitats of various threatened and endangered endemic species of plants and animals, and other natural and geologic features can be seen. Though still a work in progress, there are many segments of the trail that you can safely access at this time.

One particularly beautiful segment is from Puʻukoholā Heiau to Hapuna Beach State Park, several miles to the South. Other enjoyable segments are within Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park and Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. If you plan on hiking any segment, please be sure to wear proper footwear, monitor the weather, and take plenty of food and water. As well, there are many archaeological sites and culturally significant sites along the trail. Please respect these sites by leaving only footprints and taking only pictures.

If you would like more information about the Ala Kahakai, be sure to stop by our park Visitor Center.

As you continue down the trail, you will notice various walls scattered throughout the field between the trail and Puʻukoholā Heiau. Though the exact purposes of these walls are unknown, we know that the area surrounding the temple has been used for a variety of purposes, from farming and grazing, to coastal defense during WWII.

During the Second World War, this coast was the site of massive training operations which prepared tens of thousands of U.S. Marines and other military personnel for some of the most epic battles of the Pacific Campaign. In fact, stop for a moment and take a look down at your feet. Chances are, you are standing in the same place where many of the men who took Iwo Jima once stood. Like the warriors of Kamehameha’s army generations before, it was on these shores that these modern warriors prepared for their battles.

Now look towards the ocean. Look out towards the rock walls that extend into the bay from the large harbor. This seemingly insignificant small boat harbor was actually the site of a top secret Cold War nuclear project. Code-named Operation Plowshare, the United States government conducted a series of tests here. Taking the equivalent of the small atomic bomb, the area that is now the small boat harbor was blasted out to test whether nuclear weapons could be used for peaceful purposes. All of this operation lasted for over a quarter of a century. This small boat harbor, which was named Project Tugboat, is considered to be one of the only lasting positive projects of the whole operation.

As you continue along the Ala Kahakai or coastal trail, keep a look out for many of the fascinating creatures that live in the adjacent waters. From December to April, humpback whales are commonly sighted just offshore. The waters just off the coast are part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Keep a look out for other creatures, including spinner dolphins, various types of sharks, and manta rays. On rare occasions, you may even see an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. At this time there are only 1,000 remaining in the wild, with only four living on this island.

It is important to remember not to take for granted your opportunity of seeing any of these amazing creatures. Local residents tell of a time several decades ago when they never saw humpback whales or green sea turtles in these waters. Through conservation and protection, these species have made a remarkable comeback. However, the monk seal is on the verge of extinction, with their numbers dropping annually. So remember that many of our sea creatures are protected by federal and state law.

I'm sure you have noticed how dry this region is compared to the rest of the island. In fact, Puʻukoholā Heiau is located in one of the driest areas of the entire island chain. Classified as a desert, the average annual rainfall is less than 9 inches, with some years receiving much less rain. When it does rain, the usually brown grasses and shrubs quickly brighten the hills into a rich green, especially during the winter months, which is the rainy season.

If you look up to Kohala Mountain on most afternoons (the mountain behind Puʻukoholā Heiau), you'll usually notice the presence of clouds. Because of the usual trade winds that blow in from the northeast, these winds cause the clouds to form on the eastern side of the mountain. As the clouds rise and the air cools, the clouds drop their rain. Believe it or not, but barely 10 miles from here, just on the other side of Kohala Mountain, nearly 200 inches of rain falls every year. As this moist air crosses over Kohala Mountain, the air begins to descend to the warmer air below, the air loses its moisture. By the time the same air, once saturated with moisture on the other side of the mountain, reaches Puʻukoholā Heiau, we are lucky if we can receive even a few drops of moisture. On many afternoons you can watch as the rain descends a few miles from here, and visibly see the clouds dissipate just before reaching the coast. Standing here in this desert, it's hard to imagine that some parts of this island receive more than 350 inches of rain a year, which is equal to over half a century of rainfall at Puʻukoholā Heiau.

During your visit with us, you are likely to encounter various types of birds along the trails. From Pelekane to Spencer Beach, you will often see the black-crowned night heron waiting patiently for fish along the shore. Along the return trail to the Visitor Center, visitors often see the small, boisterous brown birds called Gray Francolins. First introduced to Hawai'i from India in 1958, these brown birds favor dry open grasslands as well as the coastal kiawe (or mesquite) forests. They usually travel in flocks and call out to one another, in loud, piercing calls. The yard area around the Visitor Center is a popular location to see other types of birds, including the bright yellow saffron finch, the small Japanese white-eye (which is easily identified by its small green head and white encircled eyes), as well as the yellow-billed cardinal. Other common birds seen around the Visitor Center include the common mynah (a crow-like bird with a yellow splash behind its eyes), the fire-red northern cardinal, and the blue-faced Zebra dove. Rarely seen during the day, the pueo (or Hawaiian owl) can sometimes be seen in the park.

Besides bird life, the park is home to various other creatures as well. The most common creature seen in the park is the mongoose. These small squirrel- or weasel-like animals can often be seen darting across the trail. A native of Southeast Asia, they were introduced to Hawai'i in the 1880s to control the rats on the sugar cane plantations. Unfortunately, the nocturnal rats sleep while the diurnal mongoose roam about.

Seldom seen but ever present in the park are herds of wild goats, as well as several wild pigs. When down at Pelekane, visitors will often see pig tracks and holes where the pigs have been looking for food. As for the goats, they tend to stick to the rugged gulch areas behind the temples and the John Young Homestead. As invasive species, the mongoose, goats, and pigs have had a detrimental effect on both the natural and cultural resources of Hawai'i. Hawaiian hoary bats, the only native land mammal found in Hawai'i, can sometimes be seen looking for insects above the Royal Courtyard. And contrary to popular belief, the park is home to Hawaii's only snake species. The Hawaiian blind snake, which actually looks like a small worm, can sometimes be seen slithering around the park.

6. Conclusion – Visitor Center

Often visitors ask, “why is there a British flag flying alongside the American flag in front of the Visitor Center?” This flag, which contains a British Union Jack, is the Hawaiian flag. In 1816, Kamehameha the Great commissioned this flag, which remained the official flag of his Kingdom, became the flag of the Republic and Territory of Hawai'i, and remains the official flag of the state of Hawai'i.

This Visitor Center, which opened in 2007, was constructed in such a way as to not detract from the cultural scene or historical significance of the park. If you haven't done so, we encourage you to explore the Visitor Center, which includes many displays, movies and interactive exhibits. Also, come cool off inside our museum and bookstore. The Hawai'i Natural History Association operates an excellent bookstore, which offers a variety of excellent DVDs, CDs, artwork, postcards, craft guides, children’s material, maps, and other resources. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask our knowledgeable staff. As well, ask about any special programs or events that might be going on in the park or in the surrounding communities during your visit.

On behalf of the National Park Service, we would like to thank you for joining us on this tour. Established by Congress in 1972, Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site is one of nearly 400 National Park units operated by the National Park Service. The Big Island is home to several other National Park units, including Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. Brochures and information for these parts are available at the information desk inside the Visitor Center.

Once again, thank you for visiting us today. We look forward to seeing you again. A hui hou!

Last updated: May 25, 2023

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Mailing Address:

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
62-3601 Kawaihae Road

Kawaihae, HI 96743


808 882-7218

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