Ala Hele
Nā wāhine kiaʻi alanui o Nuʻuanu.
The women who guard the Nuʻuanu trail.
Hāpuʻu and Kalaʻihauola were supernatural women whose stone forms guarded the Nuʻuanu trail near the gap. It was around Kalaʻihauola that the umbilical cords of babies were hidden to ensure their good health.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2299

Let’s talk about . . . ala hele!

How did you get here today? Even if you walked, peddled your bike, drove your car, or rode a unicorn, you probably still had to use a road or a path to get to where you were going. Most of the paths that we see today are made of cement or asphalt, and it is not uncommon to see high-tech machinery being used to build new roads. Does that mean that roads are a new invention? Not even close. Though land-based pathways were not always the main way to get from place to place, ancient civilizations had well-laid out roads for travel, trade, and military movements. Roads have been uncovered that are thousands of years old! Hawai‘i too had its own system of pathways and trails, called ala hele.


Long ago people often lived in different area than we do today. The population distribution was not the same as it is now. People clustered around different things. Some lived high in the uplands, and others lived near the ocean. Some were farmers, and others were fishers. Families needed resources that grew ma uka (upland), like wood for houses and canoes, and some medicinal plants. They also needed resources from the areas that were ma kai (near the sea), like salt and seafood. Ala hele, or pathways, were built to connect these places and resources.

What are the practices connected to ala hele?

Stones usually mark the edges of the ala hele. These stones are carefully placed alongside each other to form a path. Sometimes the trail stones fall away and end up in the middle of the path. An unmarked or obstructed path makes it difficult for travelers to follow the trail. The custom is to gather and replace stones along the trail corridor as you travel. Today some of our hiking trails still have ancient stone-lined boundaries, and people still practice a similar kind of thoughtful behavior, replacing stones that may be out of place.

[Men with carrying poles] Walking over Nuʻuanu Pali Road to Kailua; Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 1886. Photo by Alfred Mitchell.

Another custom in ancient times was to use the ala hele only during daylight hours. Then you can see where you’re going and who’s around you. Nightfall was a dangerous time to travel. The lack of light and the danger of ill-meaning people or beings made it too risky for the traveler.

King Kamehameha worked to make the ala hele and his entire kingdom safe, and one of his earliest laws reflected that. The Kānāwai Māmalahoa (or Māmalahoe) states that: “E hele ka ‘elemakule a moe i ke ala; e hele ka luahine a moe i ke ala; e hele ke keiki a moe i ke ala; ‘a‘ole mea pepehi wale iho.” (The old man shall travel and rest on the road; the old woman shall travel and rest on the road; the child shall travel and rest on the road; no one shall cause harm.) Some accounts even say that one of the reasons Kamehameha wanted to unite the islands was so that he could proclaim this law across the entirety of the Hawaiian islands. This law is in our state’s constitution, and it is even symbolized on the badges for the Honolulu Police Department.

[Nuʻuanu Pali trail] Photo by Aaron A. Gould.Ala hele traveled through all sorts of terrain, so some may go through streams, and trail users are very careful walking on slippery river rocks. Heavy rains can make streams extra dangerous because they can cause rocks to wash away and create sudden, strong surges. And so travel in general may be avoided during such times.

Sticking to the ala hele is also a good practice, especially if you are not kama‘āina, or familiar, with the place. There may be culturally and spiritually significant sites off the trail that are unmarked, so staying on the ala hele protects you and those sites.

Saying “aloha” and greeting one another on the ala hele as you pass is a customary practice. A warm greeting and sharing about what’s ahead is a good way to show aloha to a fellow traveler.

Alanui today

[Nuʻuanu Pali Road under construction] Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, ca. 1899. Photo by Ray Jerome Baker.

There are many famous ala hele, some still in existence and some only in our mo‘olelo (stories). Famous in recent history was the ala hele going over the Nu‘uanu Pali, which connects Ko‘olau and Kona, O‘ahu. The path went straight up the edge of the cliff, so one false step and that was it. And yet some of our kūpuna would travel it regularly with bundles of food or children on their shoulders. To them, it was not difficult.

The alanui was called Nu‘uanu after the name of the pali (cliff). On the Ko‘olau side of the path was a stone called Kaho‘owahapōhaku. It was a resting spot, or o‘io‘ina, and from there the climbing began. Along the vertical climb was a spring of mirror-like water called by various names, including Waiaka, Kawaikilokohe, and Kawaikilokanaka. Continuing the ascent, you would reach a rock called Kaipuolono, which marked a very treacherous part of the climb. From there, you would reach Kapili, which is the name of the mountain pass. At the top of Nu‘uanu were two women, Hāpu‘u and Kala‘ihauola, whose stone forms guarded the alanui and who were prayed to for safe passage. From Kapili on is the area called Kaholoakeāhole, and the going was easier from there.

Eventually, steps were cut into the steepest parts of the path and an iron rod installed to help climbers. In 1862, the trail was widened to a road that accommodated horses and mules, which carried produce from the Ko‘olau side to market on the Kona side. The road was further developed into a highway now called the Old Pali Road, which hikers, bikers, and joggers still use. The road covers the trail, and many of the sites have been destroyed. Waiaka was filled with rock and earth. The Hāpu‘u and Kala‘ihauola stones were destroyed in the widening of the road. And today, we drive through the puka (holes) in the mountain on the Pali Highway.

[Pali Highway] Photo by Joel.

Asphalt and concrete roads crisscross our islands now, replacing and, in some cases, destroying our traditional ala hele. We get where we are going much faster, but we do not always greet the people we meet on the roads with aloha. We do not always treat our modern ala hele with respect, littering our rubbish along the side of road. Although many of our ancient trails may be hidden, no longer used, or destroyed, we can still practice the traditional Hawaiian rules of the road—aloha and hō‘ihi (respect)—on all life’s paths.