by Sara Stover

The Kīlauea Volcano and its lava lake aren’t the only awe-inspiring sights to behold in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (HVNP). While visiting the park, a hike in the footsteps of the kūpuna to Pu’u Loa is not to be missed! 

Puʻu Loa (long hill) is the site of the largest field of petroglyphs in the state of Hawai’i. And hiking to this sacred display of ki’i pohaku (stone carvings) in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is an experience that is hard to put into words, but we’ll try! 

Photo by Dr. Alyx Barnett

Pu’u Loa is located in the ahupua’a (an ancient Hawaiian subdivision of land) of Panau Nui on Kīlauea’s southern side. At once primal and invigorating, this moderate hike begins at the Pu’u Loa parking area on Chain of Craters Road and ends at Pu’u Loa.

At first glance, you may assume you are looking at simple carvings in stone, but this vast gallery of ki’i pohaku is actually a collection of pivotal documentations of the native Hawaiians’ life, culture, and spirituality. 

Viewing the Petroglyph Field

The coastal trail to Pu’u Loa is 1.4 miles round trip and can be hiked year-round. Set aside one to two hours for your journey to this nearly 550-year-old field of petroglyphs.

There are around 23,000 petroglyphs etched into the hardened lava, so you’ll want enough time to take it all in. You’ll also want to carry some water with you and wear sunscreen – Even if the temps are cooler when you begin your hike, it can get surprisingly hot when the sun beats down on the shadeless lava fields. 

Photo by Dr. Alyx Barnett

The petroglyphs are extremely delicate and walking on Pu’u Loa’s lava surface is prohibited, as this will fragment and eventually destroy the fragile petroglyphs. Be sure to stay on the boardwalk, which has been constructed for viewing purposes. 

You may notice ahu (stacked rocks) in the area. These are used by Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park’s staff for the purpose of marking trails and keeping visitors safe, so leave all rocks where you found them and do NOT create new ahu. Not only can building new stacks of rocks be disorienting to hikers, but it may be culturally offensive and even illegal in some instances. 

Understanding the Carvings

The petroglyphs may appear to be crude carvings, however, anthropologists believe the images were chiseled with hatchets or tools made of durable stone. Hardly the iron instruments that we have available for cutting stone today!

According to anthropologist Martha Beckwith, who hiked to Pu’u Loa in 1914, each character, hole, and image in the rocks is full of meaning. She interpreted the petroglyphs to have communicated events, recorded travel around Hawai’i Island, marked trails and boundaries, and expressed notions of human well being and longevity. 

A cross with a dot at each end, for example, is the cross before an ali’i (a ruling chief) traveling at night. And a dot is the hole for a child, while a dot in a circle is reserved for the hole of the firstborn child. If you find a dot in two circles, that is the firstborn child of an ali’i. 

Photo by Dr. Alyx Barnett

The latter symbols are of particular cultural significance. Following Hawaiian custom, parents brought their newborn baby’s piko (umbilical cord) to a large pahoehoe mound at Pu’u Loa or to the Puumanawalea mound on the southern boundary of Apukiu. 

After making a hole in the mound’s hard crust, the piko was deposited within and a stone placed over it to ensure long life for the child. It is said that by morning, there would be no trace of the piko. 

Beckwith explained that this offers hope that the child would be blessed with a prosperous life. Incidentally, Pu’u Loa can also be interpreted to mean “long life.”

Today, there are too many thousands of these small holes to count, and we seem to spot a new one every time we visit the Pu’u Loa petroglyph field!

Staying Near the Park

From hiking past steam vents along Crater Rim Trail and bird watching in lush rainforests to gazing at Halema’uma’u crater’s lava lake and discovering the petroglyphs, there is so much to see and do that you’ll want to spend a few nights at lodging near Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

Only five minutes from the park’s entrance (and just an hour or two from Kona, Hilo, Waimea, and any attraction or destination that you could possibly want to visit on the Big Island) Volcano Village is the perfect place to stay. 
Our charming Volcano Heritage Cottages are vacation rentals located in the heart of the same lush rainforest as Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Spend the day exploring the park and spend the evening back at your historic cottage, reminiscing about your day while you cozy up in front of the fire.