Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a coastal park on the big island of Hawaii. In this post, I’ll review the park, share some photos I took when we went here, and offer some tips for visiting. First, a bit of filler. Uh, I mean background…
Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park contains 420 acres of federal lands, including the coastal areas of two ahupua’a, Hōnaunau and Keokea and the upland areas of the Ki’ilae ahupua’a. I’m not entirely sure what any of that means, I just found it on the NPS website. The basic gist of it is that Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is large, and there are many trails, both coastal and otherwise.
As a park, Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park revolves around the Hawaiian concept of Pu’uhonua, or sanctuary. This location offered people a second chance at life. Early Hawaiians caught in hardship (ranging from having the wrong allies to breaking the sacred law) could seek reprieve from a death sentence if able to make it to pu’uhonua and receive absolution from the kahuna pule (priest). As a National Historical Park, Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau now tells the story of what life was like in this sanctuary, and what brought people here to seek absolution. It’s all very fascinating and picturesque…
Beyond pointing out that it’s fascinating and picturesque, I’m not really sure how much more needs to be said about Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. It was one of my favorite places we visited on the Big Island of Hawaii, striking a good balance between substance and natural beauty.
You can learn a lot simply by walking around the looping trail outside the visitor center (more on that below), where you’ll see several restorations of structures that would’ve been on these grounds centuries ago. This trail includes the Great Wall and fierce kii (wooden images of gods), who guard the Hale o Keawe Heiau, a sacred temple that housed the bones of 23 alii (chiefs).
This is a good example of “edutainment” as it’s simultaneously educational and entertaining. It’s great for kids or people who are visual learners, and is also simply beautiful. The black lava rock shoreline adds to the beauty, making Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park a beautiful place to visit even if you are completely averse to learning.
In terms of things to do at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, there’s a decent amount. We spent our time here hiking, which was really more of a stroll along a short loop that takes visitors through the Royal Grounds and the pu’uhonua.
This area has many re-created features of the area, to simulate what it would have looked like centuries ago. I’d estimate that this loop is maybe a half-mile long, but I’m not entirely sure. It’s short and easy.
If you want to venture farther, there’s another trail that branches from the main one, offering a two mile round trip hike through the agricultural areas that surround Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
On this trail, visitors encounter Hawaiian heiau, hōlua sled course, and the Keanae’e cliffs.
Walking these loops is definitely the main thing to do at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. However, you can also snorkel, fish, or participate in cultural demonstrations.
These demonstrations range from traditional Hawaiian craft techniques to playing Hawaiian games with cultural demonstrators who visit the park. Check the Schedule of Events Page to see upcoming events.
Admission to Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a modest $5 per vehicle. When we visited, the ranger station was unattended, so you paid on your way out via an honor system box. As with all NPS sites, I highly recommend the $80 interagency annual pass.
Even if you don’t visit enough NPS sites in a year to make this pass worth it, consider the purchase of this pass your contribution to the National Park Service. In the sage words of Ron Swanson, “the National Park Service is the only branch of government worth a damn.” 😉
Beyond that, I don’t really have much in the way of tips for Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, to be perfectly honest. My strong recommendation is to stay for sunset.
However, the visitor center closes at 4:30 p.m., which means you either need to spend a long time here to stop at the visitor center and stay for sunset, or skip one or the other.
We ended up choosing to skip the visitor center. While I would’ve enjoyed going inside to learn more about the concept of pu’uhonua and what it meant to Hawaiians in the centuries before the 1800s, our time on the Big Island was limited.
Moreover, we spent time at several other National Park Service sites that also delved into pu’uhonua.
It’s hard for me to minimize what we missed given that we don’t know, but if I had to choose between seeing sunset here or spending time in the visitor center to learn more, I’d make the same decision in the future.
Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park was the perfect sunset spot in Hawaii, and if we were staying closer to this side of the Big Island, I would’ve returned to photograph sunset here.
Overall, I cannot recommend Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park highly enough. It’s beautiful, serene, educational, and entertaining all at once. Learning about Hawaiian culture is, I think, one of the best things to do in Hawaii, and this offers that, plus an interesting “hike” and also a great stretch of coastline for viewing the sunset. As far as the top things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii, it checks off pretty much every box.
If you’re planning a visit to the Big Island or Oahu, please check out my other posts about Hawaii for ideas of things to do. There are a ton of incredible, under-the-radar experiences in Hawaii, and I highly recommend Hawaii The Big Island Revealed Guide. It’s written by a Hawaii resident, and is far better than other books we’ve read.
Have you visited Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park? If so, what did you think of it? Did you go on the shorter or longer hike? Did you spend some time in the visitor center? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Please feel free to ask any questions you might have or share additional thoughts in the comments!