Puna Trail Planning Project

Puna Trail Planning Project

Welcome to the Puna Planning Project page! Here, you’ll find all the public documents relating to the ongoing planning project.

The Puna Historic Trail is a small part of the traditional ala loa, or trail system, that ran parallel to the coast around most of the island. It connected communities together and allowed for trading and gathering from different ahupua‘a. Today’s Puna Historic Trail stretches almost three miles long, through a number of former fishing village settlements. It ends at Hā‘ena Beach, a sacred site where Pele’s younger sister, Hi‘iaka, first learned hula. However, some people have mistreated the trail and the beach, showing little respect for their cultural significance. The planning team, consisting of Nā Ala Hele Trail & Access Program and Townscape, Inc., a planning company, is asking for the community’s help to come up with immediate actions and long-term solutions to protect and preserve the historic trail and cultural sites of this wahi pana.

Click the links below to review related websites and documents:

Cultural and Historic Significance of the Puna Trail:

Expand the tabs below to learn more about the rich cultural history of the Puna Trail.


The Puna Historic Trail was part of the traditional coastal trail system that ran parallel to the ocean around most of the island. It served an important role in linking all of the ahupua‘a together. This trail allowed Hawaiians to move freely upon the land from one place to another; it promoted the gathering and trading of resources between different communities. Traditional foot trails were generally narrow and often twisted and turned with the natural contours of the earth. In certain areas, waterworn stones, or ʻalā, were carried in and placed on the trail as a form of paving. Evidence of this stone paving exists along the Puna Trail. This type of work required a large number of people to hali-hali rocks from the shore. Most likely at one point in time, the area ali‘i (chief) or konohiki (land manager) facilitated such an event.

It wasn’t until Western influence, that Hawaiian trails were straightened out for horses, carts and wagons, and eventually cars. The Puna Trail was first modified in the 1840s to accommodate horses as more people began to rely on them for transportation. Horses had been around since the early 1800s, however, they were reserved for primarily chiefs and eventually missionaries. The existing foot trails were not suitable for large animals since they could easily slip on the smooth ʻalā. Horses also had a hard time following trails that were not clearly marked as paths. These initial modifications to the Puna Trail included straightening out the road, removing the paving stones, and adding curbstones along the sides of the trail. It was at this time that the Puna Trail became the main Government Road in Puna.
Additional modifications were made to the Government Road from 1869 to 1975. The road was moved closer to the beach at Hōpoe on Kaloli Point. It was also widened to fit two horses side by side. For the next 20 years, no modifications were made to the Government Road, and it was just maintained by clearing brush and picking up fallen stones.
Beginning in the 1890s, Hawaiian families living along the coast in Kea‘au left the shoreline for homestead agricultural and residential lots further inland. Other families moved into housing provided by W.H. Shipman, the main landowner of Kea‘au and owner of Shipman Ranch. With the influx of people inland, there was a need for an improved road away from the coast. In 1895, construction began on Kea‘au-Pāhoa Road (Highway 130). The Government Road fell back into its use as a pedestrian foot trail as government money was focused on the new mauka highway. For the next 46 years, repairs and maintenance of the Puna Trail became the kuleana of the native residents of Kea‘au and the workers of Shipman Ranch. A map from 1924 lists the trail as the “Puna Trail,” indicating its demotion from a horse “road” back to a foot trail. Another map from 1933 labels the trail as the “Old Government 10 Foot Road,” suggesting the road hadn’t been used in a long time.
In 1942, at the start of World War II, the Shipman Ranch lands became the temporary homes of the U.S. military’s coastal defense soldiers. To access these lands, they opened up the Puna Trail and smoothed it out for four-wheel drive military vehicles. The trail was in military use for a total of four years, throughout the duration of the war.
Despite the Puna Trail being referred to as a road, it was never intended for vehicular use. This Government Road was maintained as a 10-foot-wide horse trail for roughly 50 years before it fell back into its original use as a footpath. Today, the Puna Trail still holds its historic and cultural value. The traditional ʻalā, which were once used for paving, now line the sides of the trail embedded in rock walls. When the ʻalā were removed from the traditional footpath, they were reused to create animal enclosures for Shipman Ranch. The historic curbing also remains along other areas of the trail, as well as traditional retaining walls that were created to hold up low points in the trail. Unfortunately, these traditional and historic features, which includes the Puna Trail itself, are threatened with severe erosion due to continued vehicular use on the trail. This trail has provided access to food and other necessary resources for generations. It also played a key role in historic events that shaped traditional Hawaiian society. Preserving the Puna Trail’s historic and cultural integrity is crucial to ensuring that traditional moʻolelo and ways of life can be passed on to the next generation.
Pele and her younger sister, Hiʻiaka, resided in Puna, on the island of Hawaiʻi. While Pele rarely left her crater, Hiʻiaka often spent her days at the shores of Hāʻena, with her closest friend Hōpoe. Hōpoe taught Hiʻiaka the language of the trees, rocks, and ocean around her. She taught her how to tell the stories of the surrounding environment through the movements of their hands and bodies. Hōpoe and Hiʻiaka loved to dance hula together. Together they are credited with teaching hula pele to the Hawaiian people, a specific type of hula that originated at the shores of Hāʻena in Puna.
One day, while Hiʻiaka was playing along the shore with Hōpoe, Pele summoned Hiʻiaka to her crater. Pele decided to enter a deep sleep, instructing Hiʻiaka to awaken her in nine days and eight nights, as she hoped to encounter a lover in her dreams. As she drifted off to sleep, the scent of hala filled the air. Pele’s spirit departed from her body, drawn by the captivating sounds of drums and chanting. In search of the source of these sounds, Pele journeyed from island to island until she reached Hāʻena, Kauaʻi, the home of Lohiʻau, the high-born chief of Kauaʻi. The people of Hāʻena were captivated by Pele’s beauty, especially Lohiʻau. He asked her to be his wife, and she agreed. They married and dwelt together for several days, until Pele heard Hiʻiaka calling out to her. Pele, in tears, informed Lohiʻau that she must go. Before departing, she promised that when she awoke, she would send someone to bring him to her home in Puna.
Pele’s spirit returned to her body in Puna. As promised, she immediately asked her sisters to journey to Kauaʻi to retrieve Lohiʻau, but they all declined. Finally, she turned to Hiʻiaka, who agreed on the condition that Pele care for Hōpoe, her lehua grove. Pele accepted the condition, and Hiʻiaka embarked on her journey. Along the way, Hiʻiaka encountered numerous obstacles as she traveled from island to island; Pele grew impatient with her. When Hiʻiaka looked back towards Hawaiʻi, she saw smoke shrouding Puna. The smoke continued to grow darker and darker until it erupted into flames. Many days passed before she finally reached Lohiʻau. Hiʻiaka had a vision of Puna and witnessed the devastation as Pele’s fiery wrath consumed the forest she had promised to protect. Hōpoe was transformed into a rock, balancing at the shore, dancing as the wind blew and the earth shook. Hōpoe stood there for centuries until a tidal wave in 1946 washed the stone away.

During Kamehameha’s rise to power, two of his enemies, Keawemaʻuhili of Hilo and Keōua of Kaʻū, had joined forces in Hilo. Kamehameha, spying on events around Hilo, secretly paddled from Laupāhoehoe with his companion Kahakuʻi to Kea‘au. When Kamehameha arrived in Kea‘au, at Pāpa‘i, he spotted a group of men and women fishing near the shore; one man was carrying a child on his shoulders. Kamehameha leaped from his canoe to attack them. The group fled, except for two men who stayed to fight, including the man bearing the child. As Kamehameha was running towards them, his foot slipped into a crevice in the rocks, and he found himself stuck. The fishermen ran up to him and struck his head with a paddle. This fight was named Kaleleiki, describing the way in which Kamehameha rushed out of his canoe to attack. Kamehameha knew that the reasons he survived that day were because one of the men was burdened with the child, and because the men attacking did not know that it was Kamehameha they were fighting with. It was because of this event that the Māmalahoe Kānāwai was enacted by Kamehameha. This law states: “e hele ka ‘elemakule a me ka luahine a me ke keiki a moe i ke alanui;” let old men and women and children sleep safety along the trails.

This law remains in the State Constitution to this day. Article 9 Section 10 reads “the law of the splintered paddle, mamala-hoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I–Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety–shall be a unique and living symbol of the State’s concern for public safety.”

The nēnē, or Hawaiian goose, is the largest native land bird in Hawaiʻi. It’s characterized by its dark brown and white plumage, its long white neck, and black head. Nēnē evolved with no natural predators, which made them especially vulnerable to any sort of threat. By the early 1900s, nēnē were faced with extinction from loss of habitat and predation from introduced rats, dogs, and mongoose. In 1918, Herbert C. Shipman, a rancher from Puna, desired to save the near-extinct population of geese. He started the world’s very first nēnē breeding program at his property in Keaʻau. Years later in 1950, the State of Hawaiʻi (the Territory of Hawaiʻi at the time) initiated a breeding project at Pōhakuloa. Shipman supplied the State with birds from his captive population in Keaʻau. However, the State was unsuccessful in its first round of breeding. They reached out to the Wildfowl Trust, an English conservation organization, in an effort to increase their success rate. In response, the Trust sent their curator, John Yealland to Hawaiʻi. Yealland offered guidance to the State on implementing the Trust’s standard rearing protocol. Before returning back home, Shipman gave Yealland a pair of nēnē to breed back to England. But to their surprise (and amusement), upon arriving both nēnē had laid eggs! The Wildfowl Trust reached back out to Shipman to send a third bird, a male, which he did. The coordinated efforts of Shipman, the State, and the Wildfowl Trust demonstrated remarkable success. It was Herbert Shipman’s foresight in recognizing the imperative need for nēnē breeding program that ensured the continued existence of these birds today. Shipman’s contributions played a pivotal role in preserving a species that might otherwise have faced extinction.

The nēnē was later proposed as the state bird of Hawaiʻi to garner more public support and funding for continued conservation. The nēnē remains the official state bird to this day. In 2022, the annual nēnē population survey estimated a total of 3,862 birds statewide.