Story by Vanessa Chiasson
A feathery cape. The billowing sail of a canoe. The squiggly flash of a lizard.
You may have come to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to satisfy the child within, hunt down fiery lava and stalk ancient eruptions. But it’s your inner artist who will be squealing with glee on a hike exploring the park’s Puu Loa Petroglyph Field.
Roughly translated from Hawaiian as “long hill” or “hill of long life,” the Puu Loa archaeological site is home to more than 23,000 petroglyph images, carved into lava bedrock and dating geologically between A.D. 1200 and 1450. Keep a keen eye and you’ll see the cape, canoe and lizard images mentioned above. With a little imagination, you’ll have no problem deciphering human forms in many of the petroglyphs. And there’s no way you’ll be able to miss the site’s thousands of small, dimple-like, rock-carved cups, which early Hawaiians utilized as repositories for umbilical cords after the birth of a child. With the offering promising blessings and a long life for the newborn, it’s no surprise Hawaiians considered Puu Loa a revered location.
Not all of the carvings at Puu Loa have a similarly strong spiritual connection. Some were purely practical, created as a kind of primitive travel log to record journeys and activities, and mark boundaries. To stand among the petroglyphs of Puu Loa is to feel as if you’re perusing an ancient diary and day planner, absorbing privileged insight into the most sacred and prosaic details of someone’s life.
The most incredible thing of all about Puu Loa is its accessibility. You won’t have to descend into a deep, narrow lava crevice or squeeze into an ocean cave at low tide to see its petroglyphs. They’re all there for you at the end of a brief 0.7 mile hiking trail off of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Chain of Craters Road. The 1.4-mile round trip is a moderate hike — its primary challenge being the uneven footing of the lava bedrock. On our hike, we found that a sturdy pair of sneakers and a willingness to trek slow were sufficient to enjoy a safe and steady walk. (The uneven bedrock did provide one unexpected benefit. When I found myself warming up in the sun and needed to lighten my layers, I found easy cover for an impromptu quick-change behind some rocks.)
The sight of a small circular boardwalk ahead on the lava rock trail to the petroglyph field marks your arrival at the site. The boardwalk offers a perfect way to gain a little bit of height to properly see and appreciate the petroglyphs, while providing the carvings with much needed protection – the centuries-old etchings are fragile and should never be touched. One of my favorite moments on the hike was taking a breather, sitting on the boardwalk and gazing at the hardened-lava landscape in silence. There were no sounds save for the crashing of waves against oceanside lava cliffs in the distance.
What made early Hawaiians seek out this isolated, unforgiving terrain to log their journeys on the lava? Was there a sacred energy that drew them in? Did Puu Loa serve as a kind of rest point on island travels, with no journey complete unless one stopped here? There’s an air of mystery about the petroglyphs and the people who created them. They left so many tantalizing clues but there are still so many unanswered questions.
While the inner artist in me was filled with excitement and anticipation when we began our hike, my return journey was spent in contemplation. I was filled with a newfound respect and admiration for these long gone carvers, and the journeys they bravely undertook, their love of family and celebration of life, and their language and artistic skills. In these harsh lava fields they created something beautiful and unforgettable, which makes this hike truly about the journey and not the destination.
If you want to experience Puu Loa Petroglyph Field for yourself, you’ll find its trail clearly marked – its trailhead found in small parking area off Chain of Craters Road after driving east down Hilina Pali (pali is Hawaiian for “cliffs”). Happy hiking is safe hiking. And even for short distance treks like this one, I recommend wearing layered clothing, bringing snacks, applying sunscreen and carrying plenty of water.
Finally, remember the cardinal rule of nature: Take nothing but photographs. Leave nothing but footprints.
About Vanessa Chiasson: Vanessa Chiasson is a Canadian travel blogger who shares inspired storytelling and tales of intrepid value travel at TurnipseedTravel.com. Follow her journey every day on Twitter at @Turnipseeds.