Heiau O Kaniakapupu

Lost to time

Needs more pandas…

Hidden deep in the heart of Nu’uanu Valley, at the end of an unmarked trail, lies a sacred site, forgotten by time, The Temple of the Singing Long Shells.

From the late-18th to mid-19th Century, the Hawaiian kingdom experienced a period of rapid-fire political and social upheaval beginning in 1778 when Captain James Cook of the HMS Resolution first made contact with the islanders.

Prior to this, the archipelago collectively known as Hawaii had been a collection of separate kingdoms divided more or less by island; Hawaii, Maui, Moloka’i, Oahu, Kaua’i, Lana’i and Ni’ihau. By exploiting alliances with, and the more advanced technology of, the British Empire, King Kamehameha I united the island kingdoms through a combination of shrewd diplomacy and brutal warfare in 1810.

But let’s back up a bit. In 1795 King Kamehameha I, with the aid of Captain George Vancouver and his pledged artillery and guns, defeated the defending armies of Oahu at the infamous Battle of Nu’uanu. We start our story here because it’s rumored that during this campaign, Kamehameha I (aka. Kamehameha the Great, aka. Pai’ea) rested his army at the Heiau O Kanaikapupu. This is the earliest semi-historical reference I can locate for this location; as a sacred temple to the god Lono established prior to the unified Hawaiian kingdom.

But the victory did not come without cost as, in striking the deal for arms and armament, Kamehameha I ceded the island of Hawai’i to Great Britain. But, recognizing the superior tactical location of Honolulu harbor, the Royal Court was relocated from Hawai’i to Waikiki in 1804. This more centralized location made it easier to deal with the islands of Kaua’i and Niihau which had, to date, been reluctant to join Kamehameha’s unified kingdom. In time, despite a series of defeats brought on by weather and disease, Kamehameha I was able to bring the outer island in line with his vision by way of treaty. Shortly thereafter, the royal court was moved back to Kamehameha’s home island of Hawaii in 1812.

Following the death of King Kamehameha, the Great, the Royal capitol was yet again relocated. This time to Lahaina on the island of Maui in the year 1820. This too was to be a short-term settlement as, in 1845, under the reign of Kamehameha III, the capitol would move one final time to Honolulu.

In preparation for this move, and perhaps knowing the reigning king’s distaste for the then-dusty plains of Honolulu, the Royal Governor of Oahu, Mataio Kekuanao’a constructed a home for the king in the cooler Laukaha region of Nu’uanu Valley, just outside the city within the sacred complex of Heiau o Kaniakapupu; it’s worth noting that Kamehameha III’s older brother and predecessor Kamehameha II had issued decrees ordering the destruction of traditional Hawaiian sites in promotion of Christianity in the islands, so it’s possible the religious significance of the site was diminished at the time of construction.

Curiously, King Kamehameha III opted to purchase Hale Ali’i in the heart of Honolulu upon his arrival, from Mataio’s daughter, Princess Kamamalu; perhaps as a power play (purchasing the existing seat of power), perhaps simply due to its proximity to his brother, Kamehameha II’s tomb. Hale Ali’I would later become the site of `Iolani Palace, which still stands today.

The home at Kaniakapupu, though, became the king’s Summer Palace and take on a new significance under Kamehameha III. Built in a more traditional Hawaiian style (stone walls, grass roof), it was a place he and the Royal family could go to not only escape the hustle and bustle of the city, but also the summer heat and dust of Honolulu; a retreat beyond the eyes of foreigners, to shed their western-style clothing for traditional garb, sit down and discuss Hawaiian affairs like proper Hawaiians.

It’s speculated that it is in this house that Kamehameha III and his officials composed the Great Mahele which begat the Kuleana Act of 1850 two years later, allowing commoners to petition for ownership of ancestral lands. While Mataio Kekuano’a’s son, later known as Kamehameha IV was educated in western governance at Hale Ali’i in Honolulu, it was at Kaniakapupu where he was taught to be a Hawaiian Chief.

Perhaps the most notable historic event was the La Ho’iho’I Ea (Hawaiian Sovereignty Restoration Day) celebration in 1847. In commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the Kingdoms of Hawaii’s independence and sovereignty, it’s said as many as ten thousand people attended a grand luau on the site.

And yet, despite being arguably one of the most important historic sites in Nu’uanu Valley, not a lot is known about Kaniakapupu after 1874, nor why it was allowed to be consumed by the jungle and reduced to its current, ruined state. In fact, no written accounts exist to describe this building between 1874 and its rediscovery in 1950.


View of Palace from South

Heiau Path

View of stone pathway from heiau to Palace, from direction of heiau.

But that’s enough history lesson, you’re here for trail talk, so let’s talk trails.

Trailhead Sign

That little sign says, “Restricted Watershed” and then some stuff about how commercial activity is prohibited. My interpretation was that I wasn’t allow to sell stuff in there.

It’s worth noting here that, since this was the king’s residence and a heiau site, it is considered by some to be kapu, meaning off-limits or forbidden. Among those who think this way is the State of Hawaii. Though rarely patrolled, trespassers are subject to citations and fines, though the little sign at the trailhead doesn’t make this explicitly clear.

That said, I’ll show you a picture of the trailhead, but I’ll not be including a map of its location. You’ve got Google, if you want to find it, you know how. Also, it should go without saying but, be respectful of the site. Don’t move rocks, don’t litter… Just be cool.

As mentioned before, the actual hike to Kaniakpupu is short. It’s an easily traversed tunnel through an invasive bamboo forest; the only real obstacles are a web-work of roots and mud, so you’ll want to watch your footing. But what the trail lacks in distance and hills it makes up for in sheer expansiveness and history. The entire site of Kaniakapupu consists of a network of trails in and around the Palace and Heiau complex. Some of these trails are quite new, cut through the forest by recent visitors to the site. Others are very, very old. Everywhere you look there are rock walls, and ancient pathways cutting through the area.

Old Path

“This old stone pathway is nearly as old as I am!” –Matt

We actually visited the site in two days. Not long after getting on the trail it splits left and right. Contrary to my first assumption, this is not a loop trail. The left-hand path will take you to the Palace ruins, where you can easily kill a few hours just looking around if you like history. But if you go to the right you’re in for a very different, road-less-traveled kind of experience.

Labelled as an access trail the Luakaha Falls, this trail swings south around the ruins toward Nu’uanu stream. After a short distance you’ll come to some old pipe-works which you can easily climb over and continue to follow a trail of rapidly degrading quality until you appear to reach a dead end. From here you can hear the waterfall, but you cannot see it. We knew there had to be a way through because we could hear voices on the other side, somebody else had gotten through.


That’s the trail… No, seriously.

After a few minutes of snooping around we found that just to the left, it looked as though a tree had fallen relatively recently. Upon closer inspection, we found that we could squeeze our way under the tangled mass of trunks and shrubbery in order to access the stream on the other side.

Beyond that natural tunnel is Luakaha falls… The top of Luakaha Falls. Yeah, that’s one thing the trail reviews we read failed to mention. Unlike most trails which lead to beautiful pools and refreshing spray which typically furnish the downhill side of a waterfall, this trail takes you to the top. So, all you can do is look down on where you want to be standing to get that perfect Hawaiian waterfall photograph.

It’s my understanding, after some more research, that the lower reaches of Luakaha Falls used to be easily accessible via the Judd trailhead; instead of going downstream to the swimming hole (we’ll talk about this in coming weeks), you follow Nu’uanu stream upstream to the falls. That’s where most of the pretty pictures of Luakaha Falls you see on the internet come from.

Misionary lawns

View from Luakaha Falls, looking down on beautiful not-publicly-accessible lawns.

Unfortunately, we’re back to history now, the Great Mahele and Kuleana Act, sort of backfired in the region surrounding the Kaniakapupu heiau and the area downhill from Luakaha Falls became the private property of various missionary groups who still own it to this day. These same groups have, within the last few years, blocked access to the falls via the Judd Trail since it crossed their property. Since then efforts have been made to create a new access trail working its way down from the top.

The voices we heard earlier turned out to be a trio of adventurous gentlemen who had made their way down but advised us against it. I decided to at least get a look at the “trail” but reached a similar conclusion; it’s less trail and more muddy-rock-climb. In short:


Not falls

Not Luakaha Falls

But that’s not to say there’s nothing to see at the top of the falls. This particular stretch of Nu’uanu stream is really quite lovely. The first thing you see after crashing your way through the underbrush to get there is a is a soft cascade tumbling over smooth stones toward to edge of the falls. On closer inspection you can see that this was once a part of an ‘auwai or irrigation ditch intended to divert at least part, if not all, of Nu’uanu Stream toward the gardens at the heiau complex. Though long since breached, the stacked stone walls are still visible.

Ruined irrigation

Remnants of breached ‘auwai.

The stream itself boasts a surprising diversity of aquatic life which you wouldn’t expect at the top of a 70’ waterfall. In the short time I was there I spotted several different species of small fishes, some type of freshwater shrimp, and the Hawaiian Crayfish I missed out on at Waimano Ridge.


Turns out Hawaiian crayfish look a lot like Washington crayfish. I dunno what I expected, floral prints?

What I didn’t see, sadly, were the Hawaiian Tree Snails.

Kanaikapupu means, roughly, “the singing of the long shells”. This is a reference to the Hawaiian Tree snail which, according to local lore would sing at night. So plentiful were these animals, once, that their shells were collected to create necklaces or leis. Unfortunately, due to the presence of various invasive species and habitat loss, of the known 42 species of tree snail, every single one is classified as either critically endangered or extinct.

One source I found, claimed as many as thirty popular poems or songs (called mele) referenced these beautiful striped-shelled mollusks. Unfortunately, like the tree snail itself these have become scarce in modern times and I was only able to locate one of said meles.

Still a popular children’s song, it’s called Kahuli Aku. While many modern translations exist, the oldest one I could find says that the song is largely onomatopoetic in nature. That the words for the bird and the fern (kolea and akolea, respectively) are similar in nature to the chirping sound made by snails. The author imagined that these snails called out to the birds to bring them dew-water from the leaves of ferns.

Kahuli kolea akolea

Image courtesy of the internets.

Kahuli aku,

Kahuli mai,

Kahuli lei ula

Lei akolea.


Kolea, kolea,

Ki’i ka wai

Wai akolea


I was able to find a couple modern recordings of this song, and I think I’m just going to leave you with that: Click Here.


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