Puukohola Heiau
National Historic Site
Park Photo
NPS photo

The Temple on the Hill of the Whale

The stone heiau at Pu'ukoholā is one of the last major sacred structures built in Hawai'i before outside influences altered traditional life permanently. Constructed in 1790-91 by Kamehameha I, this heiau, or temple, played a crucial role in the ruler's ascendancy. By 1790, Kamehameha, whom many believed destined to rule all of the Hawaiian islands, had invaded and conquered Maui, Lāna'i, and Moloka'i. Yet he was not able to lay full claim to his home island of Hawai'i because of opposition from his chief rival and cousin, Keōua Kūahu'ula. While on Moloka'i, Kamehameha learned that Keōua was invading his territory. Kamehameha sent his aunt to seek direction from the prophet Kāpoūkahi, who told her that Kamehameha would conquer all the islands if he built a large heiau dedicated to his family war god Kūkā'ilimoku (Kū) atop Pu'ukoholā—Whale Hill—at Kawaihae.

Kamehameha set to work immediately. According to the prophecy, the builders had to follow rigid guidelines in order to please Kū the war god. To ensure perfection, the prophet Kāpoūkahi served as the royal architect. Thousands of men camped out on the hills for nearly a year to work on the massive structure. Because the heiau had to be constructed of water-worn lava rocks, it is believed that rocks came from the seaside valley of Pololū. Workers formed a human chain at least 20 miles long and transported the rocks hand to hand to the top of Pu'ukoholā. Kamehameha himself labored with the others. When news of the war temple reached the rival chiefs, they decided they must attack while Kamehameha and his warriors were occupied. At the least, the rivals would interfere with the ritually specified construction process, and Kū would be displeased. At best, the invasion would eliminate Kamehameha and the threat he posed to his rivals. The chiefs of Maui, Lāna'i, and Moloka'i reconquered their islands and, joined by the chiefs of Kaua'i and O'ahu, sailed to attack Kamehameha. Kamehameha counterattacked, routed the invaders, and resumed work.

In the summer of 1791 the heiau was finished. Kamehameha invited his cousin Keōua Kūahu'ula to the dedication ceremonies. Perhaps awed by the power of the heiau and its god, perhaps resigned to the ascendancy of his cousin, Keōua Kūahu'ula came willingly to what would be his doom. When he arrived there was a scuffle and, whether Kamehameha intended it or not, Keōua and almost all of his companions were slain. The body of Keōua was carried to the heiau and offered as the principal sacrifice to Kū.

The death of Keōua Kūahu'ula ended all opposition on the island of Hawai'i, and the prophecy began to come true. By 1810, through conquest and treaties, Kamehameha the Great, builder of Pu'ukoholā Heiau, was the revered king of all the Hawaiian Islands.

Pu'ukoholā Heiau measures 224 by 100 feet with 16-to 20-foot-high walls on the landward side and on the ends. Three long, narrow terraced steps cross the side that faces the sea, opening the interior to view from canoes floating offshore and, presumably, intimidating any attackers. At the time the temple was in use, there were thatched houses and an altar for the ruling chief and his priests. Wooden images of Hawaiian gods stood on the platform and terraces. After Kamehameha I died in 1819, his son abolished the religious traditions of the past. Most temples, including Pu'ukoholā Heiau, were abandoned. Only heiau that served as mausoleums were maintained.

The Island Kingdom of Kamehameha

From childhood, Kamehameha seemed destined for greatness. With the appearance of a bright, white-tailed star (possibly Halley's Comet) in 1758 Hawaiian seers predicted the emergence of a great leader. Kamehameha, "The Lonely One," was born around that time in the Kohala district on the northwestern tip of the island of Hawai'i.

Son of a high chief and a princess, Kamehameha began training as a child to join the ranks of nā ali'i koa, the chiefly warriors. By young adulthood he was tall and muscular—every bit the powerful warrior his family had expected. In 1782 at the death of his uncle, Kalani'opu'u, who ruled the island of Hawai'i, Kamehameha inherited land on the northern part of the island and was given custody of his family's war god, Kūkā'ilimoku. As he gained power, he intended to one day rule all of the Hawaiian Islands.

Unification, in his view, would bring peace to the continually warring chiefdoms throughout the islands. His rival for control of his home island was his cousin Keōua Kūahu'ula, with whom he battled indecisively in the 1780s. In 1790 Kamehameha successfully invaded Maui, Lāna'i, and Moloka'i with the aid of John Young and Isaac Davis, stranded British sailors who became his close advisors. The next year he returned to Hawai'i and defended his lands against the chiefs of O'ahu and Kaua'i in a naval battle off the coast near the Waipi'o Valley. The island of Hawai'i finally came under his full control when his cousin Keōua was slain on the beach below Pu'ukoholā Heiau.

In 1794 Kamehameha reconquered Maui, Lāna'i, and Moloka'i. Victory in a bloody battle on O'ahu ended opposition there in 1795. Fifteen years later, peaceful negotiations finally brought him Ceremony at Pu'ukoholā Heiau Kaua'i. By 1810 Kamehameha had established his island kingdom.

Kamehameha appointed governors to administer each island. He ruled according to Hawaiian tradition but outlawed some of the more severe practices such as human sacrifices. With John Young as his trading agent, he parlayed the sandalwood trade into great wealth for himself and his people. Kamehameha remained king of the islands until his death in 1819. The Hawaiian monarchy he founded lasted until 1893.

The Chiefly Warriors of Hawaii

Hawaiian chiefs attained ruling status by heredity but were often required to defend their territory by force. During his rise to power, Kamehameha I had four main battle chiefs from his home island in addition to his foreign advisors John Young and Isaac Davis. These chiefs led armies composed of nā ali'i koa and nā koa.

Nā ali'i koa were a highly trained, organized, and disciplined force with centuries of tradition behind them. These elite warriors were sons of varying degrees of ali'i (chiefs) and were trained by personal tutors to increase their battle skills and proficiency. Kamehameha himself was trained from age seven or eight, not surprising for a child of such promise—and whose family deity was the war god Kūkā'ilimoku.

Because of their high status, nā ali'i koa did not train with the maka'āinana (commoners), who were taken away from the land and their tasks only in time of war to serve in the ranks of nā koa. Organized military training was a luxury afforded to a select few, and for most young men, duty meant tending to farming, fishing, and other daily needs. At the call of the kālaimoku (a rank equivalent to prime minister), nā koa rose from all classes and from all regions of the islands except from the kauwā, society's outcast class. Kauwā could not mingle even with commoners; they were sacrificed in the heiau when no lawbreakers or war prisoners were available.

The war god Kū depicted in the form of a feathered deity with dogs' teeth and mother-of-pearl eyes. A double-hulled canoe, with an English swivel gun mounted at the bow, was a formidable war vessel. These crafts were based on traditional Polynesian designs dating back several centuries. The boat's two hulls were individually constructed of wood, then connected with crossbeams. The heaviest and strongest crossbeam supported the full weight of the mast and sail. Sails were made of woven pandanus leaves. This vessel could carry up to 35 warriors.

Weapons of war: Pāhoa (dagger) made from hardwood, nearly 17 inches long; ma'a (sling) made from braided fiber with a spindle-shaped stone; wooden pāhoa with sharks' teeth bound to its edges; niho 'oki (curved wooden knife) with single shark's-tooth blade. Warriors would wield a wooden ku'ia (fighting quarter staff), about six feet long with points on either end. A warrior's club, or newa, has a carved stone head lashed to its wooden base with fiber cord.

Like high chiefs, warriors usually had body tattoos. Patterns signified the wearer's family ties, loyalty to a particular chief, and 'aumakua (family guardian spirit). Warriors usually wore headgear indicating military rank and social status, along with providing protection.

As part of their training, to maintain constant readiness for attack or defense, nā ali'i koa routinely fought mock engagements called kaua kio. An impressive showing in one of these fights would bring a youth to the attention of his superiors and even to the chiefs. In 1793 Kamehameha himself put on a demonstration where he dodged six spears hurled toward him. Though blunted spears were usually used in these mock encounters, even the most accomplished warriors were sometimes killed.

Exploring Pu'ukoholā Heiau

General Information

park map
(click for larger map)

Getting to the Park The park is on the island of Hawaii, one mile south of Kawaihae off HI 270. The island is served by Kona and Hilo international airports. Waimea-Kohala Airport, 12 miles east of the park, has commuter flights.

For a Safe Visit Federal laws protect all natural and cultural features in the park. The temples are fragile and are sacred to native Hawaiians. They are closed to the public; you can view them from below. • Stay on designated trails. Carry ample drinking water; wear proper clothing, footwear, hat, and sunscreen; do not attempt hikes if you are not in good physical condition. • This region is prone to grass fires; smoking is prohibited. • Camping, picnicking, and swimming are not allowed within the park. They are permitted at nearby Samuel M. Spencer Park. • Use caution entering and exiting the park road and visiting the John Young's Homestead site. • For a full list of regulations, including firearms information, go to the park website.

Accessibility We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information, ask at the visitor center or visit our website.

A Walking Tour of the Park

The visitor center and the park road gate are open daily. Note: These hours change—check with the park. A self-guiding walking tour (allow about one hour) begins at the visitor center.

Pu'ukoholā Heiau Built by Kamehameha I in 1790-91. Today it is the setting for cultural events.

Mailekini Heiau On the hillside between Pu'ukoholā Heiau and the sea are the ruins of Mailekini Heiau, possibly a war or agricultural temple used by the ancestors of Kamehameha. This older temple was nearly as big as Pu'ukoholā Heiau but not so finely crafted. During the rule of Kamehameha I, John Young helped the king convert this temple into a fort.

Hale o Kapuni Heiau Dedicated to the shark gods, this heiau lies submerged just offshore. The temple was last seen in the 1950s, when the rock platform was visible during low tides. The Stone Leaning Post overlooks the site of the shark temple.

Pelekane On the coast below Pu'ukoholā and Mailekini is the site of the royal courtyard at Kawaihae. After his father died, Kamehameha II returned here to prepare for his role as king.

Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail This trail was established in 2000 for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of traditional native Hawaiian culture and natural resources. A small section of this 175-mile trail corridor runs through the park.

Site of John Young's Homestead John Young was a British sailor stranded on Hawaii in 1790. He became a trusted military adviser to Kamehameha I. Young served as governor of Hawaii Island after Kamehameha designated him an ali'i nui (high chief), giving him the name 'Olohana. Young married Ka'oana'eha, the niece of Kamehameha. His granddaughter was Queen Emma, wife of Kamehameha IV. Today Young's homestead site has the remains of the oldest known European-style house in Hawaii.

Source: NPS Brochure (2014)


Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site — August 17, 1972

For More Information
Please Visit The
Link to Official NPS Website

Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


A Cooperative Archaeological Excavation Project at the John Young Homestead, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Kawaihae 2, South Kohala, Island of Hawaii Publications in Anthropology 1, Pacific Island Cluster (Mara Durst w/Jake Barrow and Kecia Fong, September 2001)

A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island (HTML edition) (Linda Wedel Greene, September 1993)

Accessibility and Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan, Pu'ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai'i (September 2023)

Benthic marine algae of the coastal waters of Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site (Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site marine flora) Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 16 (F. W. Ball, February 1977)

Biological inventory of anchialine pool invertebrates at Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park and Pu'ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai'i Island Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 181 (L.K. Tangio, D. Foote, K.N. Magnacca, S.J. Foltz, K. Cutler, 2012)

Bird inventory of Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic site, Hawaii Island Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 102 (M. P. Morin, May 1996)

Coastal Hazard Analysis Report: Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site and Kaloko-Honokōhau Historical Park, Big Island of Hawai‘i NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRTR—2010/387 (S. Vitousek, M.M. Barbee, C.H. Fletcher, B.M. Richmond and A.S. Genz, October 2010)

Excavations at John Young's Homestead, Kawaihae, Hawaii: Archeology at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site Western Archeological and Conservation Center Publications in Anthropology No. 47 (Paul H. Rosendahl and Laura A. Carter, 1988)

Foundation Document, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii (Draft, August 2014)

Foundation Document, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii (March 2015)

Foundation Document Overview, Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii (January 2015)

Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Pu'ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2011/386 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, April 2011)

Hawai'i Island National Parks Junior Ranger Adventure Book (c2016)

Herpetological inventory in West Hawai'i national parks: Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, Pu'ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 141 (J. Bazzano, April 2007)

Pahukanilua: Homestead of John Young, Historical Data Section of the Historic Structure Report (Russell A. Apple, September 1978)

Inventory of marine vertebrate species and fish-habitat utilization patterns in coastal waters off four national parks in Hawai'i Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 168 (Jim Beets, Eric Brown and Alan Friedlander, February 2010)

Junior Ranger Adventure Book, Hawai'i Island National Parks (Date Unknown; for reference purposes only)

Junior Ranger Program, Pu'ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site (Date Unknown; for reference purposes only)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Puukhohola Heiau (Heiau of Pu'u Kohola) (John A. Hussey, May 25, 1962)

Puukohola Historic District (Edmund J. Ladd, c1974)

Pu'ukhoholā Heiau Draft (Robert A. Pacheco, M.J. Tomonari-Tuggle and Matthew J. Bell, August 31, 2015, rev. August 2023)

Natural and Cultural Resources Management Plan and Environmental Assessment - Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii (December 1982)

Predicting Impacts of Sea Level Rise for Cultural and Natural Resources in Five National Park Units on the Island of Hawai'i Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 188 (Lisa Marrack and Patrick O'Grady, June 2014)

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site plant survey Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 15 (J. D. MacNeil and D. E. Hemmes, February 1977)

Reestablishment of the Historic Scene at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawai'i County, Hawai'i Environmental Assessment/Assessment of Effect (April 2004)

The physiography and marine fauna of inshore and intertidal areas in the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 13 (D. Cheney, D. E. Hemmes and R. Nolan, January 1977)

Vascular plants of Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic site, Hawaii Island Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 101 (L. W. Pratt and L. L. Abbott, May 1996)

Vegetation Inventory Project: Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/PUHE/NRR—2011/459 (Dan Cogan, Keith Schulz, David Benitez, Greg Kudray and Alison Ainsworth, September 2011)

Vegetation management strategies for three national historical parks on Hawai'i Island Pacific Islands Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 121 (Linda W. Pratt, September 1998)

Water Quality in the Brackish Waterbody at Pu’ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site: Summary Report 2007-2011 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/PACN/NRDS—2013/508 (David F. Raikow and Anne Farahi, July 2013)


Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Books expand section

Last Updated: 04-Jun-2024