The Dancing Men of Puako

Thirty miles north of the tranquil Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is another hidden gem, the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, one of the largest petroglyph fields in Hawaii. Over 3,000 k’i’i pohaku (images in stone) are tucked along the trails of the 233-acre preserve, quite a sight.

Petroglyph, Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Big Island, Hawaii

One of the more striking carvings by the parking lot

It all starts modestly enough. From Route 19, enter the manicured Mauna Lani Resort and follow North Kaniku Drive to a parking lot by the Holoholokai Beach. As you face the ocean, the petroglyphs are behind you, to the right. A short, paved path leads to one group of these ancient carvings — it looks like those boulders were brought here as the area around got developed. But do not stop there. An unpaved 1.5-mile trail meanders through a dense kiawe grove, looking so very Brothers Grimm that we almost didn’t dare pursue it.

Trail to the Puako Petroglyph field, Big Island, Hawaii

Petroglyph along the trail at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii Making your way through the thicket, keep your eyes on the path — it isn’t always obvious, and kiawe trees are full of thorns. A number of petroglyphs, half-hidden by the branches, lay poised to distract. We did consider turning back, but the centerpiece of the park is worth all this stumbling. The coppice clears before a large expanse of rock, a smooth, bright-orange lava sheet teeming with carvings.

Marker for the Puakō Petroglyph Archeological Preserve, Big Island, Hawaii

Human figures, boats, birds, turtles, and other animals assemble before you, many facing the mountain ahead. The meaning of these carvings is lost, but they are believed to carry a ceremonial significance, marking important events in community life — births, victories, deaths. The setting feels deliberate and solemn, so many thoughts petrified for centuries in this one location, surrounded as it once was by thirsty woods and lava flows.

Largest petroglyph field at the end of the Malama trail, Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

A group of petroglyphs, Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

This is a sunburned spot, so the best time to come is in the morning or late afternoon, when the figures come into focus as the shadows settle. We were there  in the brightest part of the day, so the images are not as striking as it felt to see them. Here are some of our favorites:

Carving of a male figure at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

Petroglyphs of the Malama trail at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

Carving at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

One of the carvings at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

Turtle at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve

Needles in a petroglyph, Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

The rock gleamed in the sun. A stray cloud suddenly came overhead, muting all color. The carvings seemed to step forward.

Dancing men or warriors at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

Carvings at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii Treat these with respect — they may appear immutable, yet your step, your touch can damage them. A number of the more eye-catching petroglyphs looked discolored and eroded by rubbing.

A turtle carved at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

Carvings at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

We stayed by the field far longer than we thought we would. Several people came by and left, one vociferously unimpressed. An odd reaction, I think: The field has such a strong sense of place, and the carvings, the only remnants of dramas long gone and unknowable, are a haunting presence. To me, like Kaloko-Honokōhau, this was land quietly bewitching, one I’d love to see again.

On our way back, our minds were no longer anxious for the destination, and we saw and heard more of the grove. It seemed to breathe, kiawe thorns scraping each other in the wind.Birds scuffled and chirped, unseen.

Trees along The Malama Petroglyh Trail, Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve , Big Island, Hawaii

By the parking lot, we finally caught sight of one, a Japanese white-eye. It froze for a moment, then flashed away as we prepared to leave.

Bird chirping at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, Hawaii

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10 thoughts on “The Dancing Men of Puako

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