- Historic Sites
The Big Island On Foot
The Hawaii of centuries long past emerges from the landscapes crossed by its ancient trails
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
Mark Twain and his party landed at Kau, on the southern tip of the island, and then rode on horseback for two days over trails that climbed high into the mountains, picking their “careful way through billowy wastes of lava.” On encountering Kilauea, he wrote, “I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup-kettle, compared to this.”
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the caldera, the huge depression caused by the collapse of the volcano’s center, was filled with hot flowing lava. Today the action has moved to the east rift zone, and the caldera is calm.
There are 150 miles of trails in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park. The 10mile Crater Rim Trail passes through rain forests where wild orchids grow in the trees and crosses a desert moonscape, meeting up now and then with plant and animal species that live nowhere else on the globe, including the nene, or Hawaiian goose, and the lava cricket. I headed for the Puu Loa petroglyphs, in part because to get there required a 20-mile drive down one of the world’s most spectacular ribbons of blacktop, the Chain of Craters Road. It was all sky, sweeping lava fields, vistas of the sea. and nothing else as I sailed down the slope, dropping 3,700 feet with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” full blast on the CD player.
The Puu Loa trail marker stands about a mile from where the road meets the sea. The trek is an easy mile and a third that ends in one of the island’s best petroglyph fields, alive with hundreds of dots, circles, and other mysterious symbols. Puu Loa means “long hill,” but it is little more than a small lava rise. Hawaiians translate it as “Hill of Long Life,” and the many holes indicate where umbilical stumps were buried to ensure longevity. I tried to imagine young parents coming here, carrying a memento of their baby’s birth, wanting to safeguard their newborn in the only way they knew.
It is a loving human emotion, one shared by parents from the beginning of time, and it is the kind of connection that makes walking these trails something more than a lesson in native Hawaiian history. On every trail I walked on the Big Island, I felt as if I were walking not just in their footsteps but in their time as well as in mine.