Visiting Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site on Hawaii’s Big Island

Pu'ukohola Heiau
Pu’ukohola Heiau

On the sunny, leeward Kohala Coast, you’ll find Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where you can learn about Hawaii’s ancient culture and history.

Pu’ukohola Heiau was built under the direction of Kamehameha I in 1790 – 91  before he united the Hawaii Islands under his rule in 1810. Building this heiau was a crucial step towards the eventual king’s ascendancy as he was told by a prophet that he must build this heiau dedicated to the war god of his family.

The construction of this massive heiau is astounding – starting with moving the smooth lava rocks from Pololu Valley — nearly 20 miles away. Historians estimate that approximately 37,000 people stood in a human chain, moving the rocks from Polulu to the heiau site in Kawaihae. They estimate this rock relocation process lasted a year!

Pu’ukohola Heiau can be translated to mean the temple on the hill of the whale. During humpback whale season (mid-December – March), this national historic site is a great place to watch for whales.

Within this national historic site, there are two other heiaus – Mailekini and Hale o Kapuni. Mailekini the oldest of the heiaus at this site. It was converted into a fort, so it no longer truly resembles its original shape.

Hale o Kapuni is an underwater heiau dedicated to the shark gods. In ancient Hawaiian culture, sharks were believed to be ancestral deities. Blacktip sharks still frequent the waters here.

Hale o Kapuni - under water heiau dedicated to sharks
Hale o Kapuni – an underwater heiau dedicated to the shark gods.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the history at Pu’ukohola National Historic Site. I highly recommend you go see it and learn for yourself. I’ve been there twice already and plan to go again someday to discover even more.

What to know when you go:

  • Visiting is free!
  • Opening hours are 7:45am – 5pm. You must arrive no later than 4:30pm and remove your car from the parking lot by 5pm.
  • The park is located at 62-3601 Kawaihae Road (Highway 270) in  Kawaihae along the Kohala Coast.
  • Wear or bring sun protection as there’s very little shade here.
  • Bring water.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes for walking the dirt and gravel paths.
  • You can visit this site year-round, but if you can, aim to time your visit for mid-August when the Ho’oku’ikahi Establishment Day Hawaiian Cultural Festival is held.
  1. Hi Sheila- This is one of my favorite spots in my back yard. The black tip reef sharks frequent this site every day and can easily be seen at low tide. These gentle creatures have a limited range and frequent the same place for their entire lives. At low tide their dorsal fins can be seen cutting through the water as they hunt for food- This site is magic and of great historical importance to the Hawaiian people. Did you know that the Heiau was constructed with the Hawaiians passing each rock – man to man all the way from Kohala? Also, did you know that Captain Cook chose a young lieutenant- named William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) in 1776 to be the Sailing Master aboard Resolution. They were doing soundings of Kaiwaihae Harbor in front of the Heiau when the “kamakani” (the wind) hit them and broke their main mast- Captain Cook turned around and went south to Kealakeakua Bay for repairs and met his unfortunate death…. small world- and that is one reason that this site is so incredible- jerry

    1. Hi Jerry — how awesome that you live so close to such a historic site.

      I didn’t know the story of William Bligh and the Resolution doing soundings. in Kaiwaihae. Though I did know about the fateful Kealakekua visit.

      Maybe I didn’t explain well enough in the post when I wrote that a human chain of approximately 37,000 people moved the stones from Pololu.

      I hear that the black tips come in the mornings…I suppose that’s low tide?

  2. Wow, I cannot imagine the organizational skills required to coordinate 37,000 people.

    1. Lee – it’s mind boggling, isn’t it! I was told that the stones from Pololu because they were smoother which makes them nicer to sit on.

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