The King's Trail
by Steve Graves
The Big Island of Hawaii has one of the oldest and
most historic trail systems in the islands. For visitors
interested in Hawaiian antiquity it offers a means to
see some of the most interesting locations of ancient
Hawaiian habitation and culture. In some areas old trails
are the primary means to reach sites.
However, in visiting a particular section of trail,
a visitor may hear two or three names for the same path.
This is because the trail may have had a different name
at various times during the island's history.
For example, there is a great wide smoothed trail in
the area of the Kohala beach resorts called the King's
trail. It was developed and improved by King Kalakaua
in the 1870's as a corridor through the rough lava beds.
The trail was used for driving cattle from ranches along
the shore to a place where they could be loaded onto
ships. The King's Trail lies over the much older Ala
Hele trail. To make matters even more confusing, the
trail is also a segment of a long trail system called
the Kealanuipuni Trail which extends all the way around
the island. At times this section of trail has been
called the Ala Kahakai trail as it runs along the shore.
The King's trail stands in relation to the older trails
in much the same way as a new highway stands in relation
to a surface street that usually winds up being called
"the Old Road." Where the King's Trail is
relatively straight and level with curbs of stone to
keep the cattle in, the older trail winds its way along.
The people who made the older trail were looking for
the easiest way over the rough grounds, and not the
shortest distance between two points.
It was difficult to build the King's Trail. King Kalakaua
used criminal labor, and the work of people who had
failed to pay their taxes to build it. Earlier people
did not expend a great deal of effort arranging the
landscape to make a trail straight. If the ground was
smooth, they were happy to make the easiest route with
a series of stones, and nothing more. This was quite
practical because the kind of traffic that went along
the path most of the time needed little indication of
direction. Water-tumbled smoothed stones were used to
pave the surface only is a segment of trail was rough,
as when passing through a jagged aa lava flow, and if
there was exceptionally heavy traffic in that area.
When visitors see such a path, they may think it is
to be a primitive paving system. What they are seeing
however, is a paved surface that testifies to a location
where people were once active. Such a path might have
connected a village to a boat launching location, a
swimming spot, or a farming area.
Some people see the importance of trails only in the
sense that they connect various significant archaeological
locations such as the Heiau at Puu Kohola, which precipitated
the ascension of King Kamehameha as ruler over all the
Hawaiian Islands, or the fishponds at Kiholo and Kaloko,
or the Place of Refuge at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, near
Kealakekua Bay, where people who transgressed the kapu
system could literally run for their live to gain sanctuary,
find absolution, and return to society. But the trails
are important as an archaeological feature in themselves
because they are as much an expression of Rom, or the
Champs Elysees of Paris, or the Hollywood Freeway of
In the island trails we see an economy of effort in
their construction which reflects their use. For the
most part the early Hawaiians moved about from place
to place on the sea. Even if they had to get to another
location on the same island, it was often easier to
go down to the ocean, paddle around to a convenient
landing point and then walk inland again.
The islanders preferred the sea partly because there
were no beasts of burden, such as horses or camels,
available to them and there was no creature they could
domesticate that was able to assist in moving material
and people about on the land.
On the water the canoe could be filled with provisions,
gifts, goods and people. Paddling was easier than walking,
and a sail made the going easier still. But the sea
was not always available as a means of travel. Sometimes
heavy winds and storms made the water dangerous. For
obvious reasons the land route became a better choice.
Though traveling by water was easier, the Hawaiians
none the less considered the trails to be an essential
part of their transportation system.
Hawaiians, crossing the land, had to travel on foot,
and people were themselves burdened with any items they
wanted to transport. The old trails were therefore created
with an economy of effort, they were often narrow and
winding, because people are agile. Why build a highway
when it will not substantially improve a hiker's speed.
The King's Trail, on the other hand, is flat and wide
and shaped by the necessity of accommodating the animals
they wanted to move along it. It shows the impact of
the European mind on the Hawaiian culture.
We have said the Hawaiians liked to travel on the sea,
but there were occasions when they chose the land route
even if the sea was fair. During the Makahiki, a four
month long festival of leisure, sports, and celebration
of the harvest god Lono, the King sent around his tax
collectors to gather the annual land taxes. The taxes
were minimal, a token of respect for the king sufficient
to sustain the travelers as they journeyed from one
region to the next. This trip was always made on the
land. The party traveled in a clockwise movement around
the island so that the mana of the mountains was on
their right. They carried the Makahiki god, a totem
which looked remarkably like the square sail used on
Captain Cook's ship. The route taken during the Makahiki
has lent the name of the festival to the trails. Some
people call them the Makahiki Trail, but they are more
properly the trails of the Makahiki.
The importance of trails is indicated by the persistence
of the memory of people associated with them. The trail
builder Maui, son of Kalana, has been remembered for
over two thousand years in the chant that speaks of
the winding trails of Maui. Ehu, the red headed son
of King Kauiwa, is credited with building a trail from
the highlands of South Kona to Kau. King Kauiwa ruled
in the early 1300s.
Warriors and spies used the trails as well as those
who ran for the sport of running. Athlete runners were
sometimes remembered for their prowess and speed over
the land routes. Ka'ohele, son of Kumukoa, a Moloka'i
chief, was said to be able to run a distance of sixteen
miles so swiftly that a fish put on the fire to cook
would not be cooked before he finished the distance.
Makoa, who accompanied William Ellis when he made his
trip around the Big Island in 1823, was also a noted
runner. People reported that he could take a live fish
from a Hilo pond and run fast enough to reach Kona before
Whatever their name, and uses, the ancient trails which
once were continuous around the island are now in some
disrepair. Many sections have been obliterated by development.
Alii Drive in Kailua was built on top of the old Ala
Hele trail. Erosion, and foliage has covered up some
sections, especially along the windward side of the
island where the rainfall is greater. The Kona side
supports the best places to see the trails clearly.
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