Māhā‘ulepū is an ahupua‘a (historic Hawaiian land division) and watershed running from the Hā‘upu mountain range to the shoreline on Kauai’s southeast coast.
The whole coast was populated by native Hawaiians when the first westerner, explorer Captain James Cook, sailed through Kauai waters to land in Waimea in 1778.
Cook’s arrival set the stage for an influx of newcomers from around the world and catalyzed a dramatic transformation of Hawai‘i’s land use and demographics.
By 1850, American entrepreneurs launched large-scale sugar plantations in southeast Kauai. Their efforts heralded the beginning of Hawai‘i’s plantation era, which lasted into the late 20th century.
Kauai’s South Shore coastline features a fascinating hike along the Māhā‘ulepū Heritage Trail, a 4-mile round trip stretching from Keoneloa Bay to Kawailoa Bay.
A range of natural and cultural resources reflect the state’s evolution through the periods of Hawaiian settlement and expansion, Western contact, and plantation life. The following summarizes some of them.
1. Keoneloa Bay – “Long Sand, Long Beach”
This is a long stretch of sandy beach on the far eastern end of the Po‘ipū resort area, fronted by The Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa and a county park facility.
It is also known as Shipwreck Beach, named for the wreckage an old, wooden fishing boat on the beach back in the 1970s (that has long since disappeared.)
2. Makahuena – “Rough Face” & Makawehi – “Calm Face”
The unusual cliff formations were formed from sand dunes that have been weathered by wind and surf over the centuries. These ancient limestone sea cliffs have been virtually sandblasted by a combination of wind, salt and water.
Today Makawehi point is being undercut by continual wave erosion. The huge blocks of limestone that lie at the base of these cliffs are examples of that erosion.
3. Pā‘ā Dunes – “Fence of Lava Rock” or “Dry and Rocky”
About 8,000 years ago, dunes began forming atop Makawehi as sections of the sandy shoreline accumulated a reddish fossil soil overlay.
The tradewinds blowing from the northeast or mauka (mountain) side of this area have had the most dominant influence determining the shape of the dunes along this section of coast, with kona winds from the southwest having a minor influence.
Sandstone-limestone pinnacles are usually formed by rain-water washing down along vertical fractures in the limestone. Pinnacles can be seen in stark formation to the right of a small bay just before the climb to the golf course.
5. Heiau Ho‘ouluia – “Fishing Temple”
This site is thought to have been a place of worship where fish were offered to the god of the sea, to ensure good fishing.
6. Punahoa – “To Bind or Lash”
Punahoa is composed of a very thick accumulation of coastal sand dunes that formed around 350,000 years ago. They are the oldest sand dunes of this region, carved by the tradewinds which formed all the dunes of this coast.
Along this area are short pieces of pipe anchored into the lava rock to hold fishing poles. This shoreline has been popular for centuries among local fishermen, catching primarily shoreline game fish such as ulua, papio (juvenile ulua) and oio.
7. Makauwahi Sinkhole – “Fear, Break Through”
The Makauwahi Sinkhole is a small portion of the largest limestone cave found in Hawaii. Paleoecological and archaeological excavations of the sediment that has filled the pond in the sinkhole put its age at some 10,000 years, and have revealed at least 45 species of bird life.
More importantly, the findings of this study show how the first humans that inhabited Kauai affected the pre-human natural environment. It is one of only a handful of sites in the world that show such impact.
8. Māhā‘ulepū Beach-“And Falling Together”
Māhā‘ulepū’s name comes from a legendary battle that occurred in the 1300s when Kalaunuio Hua, a Big Island ruler, made an attempt to take over all the Hawaiian islands.
By nightfall, it was evident that Kalaunuio Hua had lost the battle and became a prisoner to Kukona. Thus began the historical distinction of Kauai as an island that was never conquered.
9. Wai‘ōpili Petroglyphs – “Water Against”
In 1887, Kauai resident JK Farley discovered carved drawings or petroglyphs on a rock at Māhā‘ulepū Beach near the mouth of the Wai‘ōpili Stream. The carvings are normally covered by beach sand, but if tides and ocean conditions are right the petroglyphs can occasionally be seen.
North of Māhā‘ulepū Beach is a large petroglyph boulder which contains two cup-like carvings at the top. One of the carvings contains a pecked out groove from the cup and runs along the edge of the boulder.
The Māhā‘ulepū Heritage Trail is a project of the Po‘ipū Beach Foundation.