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 Los Angeles.

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 it died.

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.

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.