The ruins of the major Hawaiian temple at the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Big Island, Hawaii
abandoned, ancient, beautiful, big, blue, brown, building, cloud, destination, destroyed, exterior, famous, fort, grass, hawaii, heiau, historic, history, island, landmark, landscape, lava, national, nature, oceania, old, outdoors, park, place, polynesian, protection, pu'ukohola, puukohola, religion, remote, rock, rough, rugged, ruin, scenic, shrine, simplicity, site, sky, spirituality, stone, structure, temple, texture, tourism, travel, vibrant, wall, weathered

©George Burba/Shutterstock

Puʻukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Top choice in South Kohala

By 1790 Kamehameha the Great had conquered Maui, Lanaʻi and Molokaʻi. But power over his home island of Hawaiʻi was a challenge. When told by a prophet that he would rule all of the Hawaiian Islands if he built a heiau dedicated to the war god Kukaʻilimoku atop Puʻukohola (Whale Hill) in Kawaihae, Kamehameha constructed this luakini heiau – a temple for human sacrifice. Today only the basic rock foundation remains, but it's still a massive 224ft by 100ft structure, with 16-20ft walls.

Kamehameha and his men formed a human chain 20 miles long, transporting rocks hand to hand from Pololu Valley in North Kohala. After finishing the heiau by summer 1791, Kamehameha held a dedication ceremony and invited his cousin and rival Keoua, chief of Kaʻu. When Keoua came ashore, he was killed as an offering to the gods. With Keoua's death, Kamehameha took sole control of the Big Island and by 1810 ruled the Hawaiian Islands.

Back then, Puʻukohola Heiau was adorned with wooden kiʻi (statues) and thatched structures, including an oracle tower, an altar, a drum house and shelter for the high priest. After Kamehameha's death in 1819, his powerful widow Kaʻahumanu and son Liholiho, who abolished the kapu (taboo) system, destroyed the deity images and the heiau was abandoned.

To get here, turn makai (seaward) off the Akoni Pule Hwy halfway between mile markers 2 and 3.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby South Kohala attractions

1. Pua Ka ʻIlima ʻO Kawaihae

0.24 MILES

This park, which seems to be in a perpetual state of work-in-progress, encompasses 1.4 acres of beach by the Kawaihae breakwater and is the most…

2. Spencer Beach Park

0.47 MILES

Shallow, sandy and gentle, this beach lacks the dramatic sweep of Mauna Kea or Hapuna, but it's ideal for kids and popular with local families. Come to…

3. Kawaihae Harbor

0.75 MILES

This sunny harbor is a good spot for a picnic or a place to just chill and watch the boats roll in. Beware of flies that swarm by the rubbish bins.

4. Mauʻumae Beach

0.98 MILES

What’s not to love about Mauʻumae (pronounced Mao-oo-my)? It has white sand, teal water, shady trees and protected waters – and is even more private than…

5. Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company

1.47 MILES

It's a tourist stop, but a darned good one, featuring a spanking-clean factory, gift shop and generous free samples. This eco-conscious company generates…

6. Mauna Kea Beach

1.84 MILES

Crescent-shaped Kaunaʻoa Bay (nicknamed 'Mauna Kea Beach' after Rockefeller built his landmark hotel on it) is blanketed in powdery white sand, with clear…

7. Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area

2.61 MILES

Hapuna Beach is world famous for its magnificent half-mile sweep of white powder sand and fabulously clear waters. In summer, waves are calm and allow…