When Native Hawaiians lived in Haena in the late-18th century, kids would hike the 2 miles to Hanakapiai Valley in 20 minutes to catch hihiwai (shellfish) and oopu (a type of fish) for their families. It took my group of four, wearing 30-pound backpacks, about an hour and a half to get there—today’s average hike time. We crossed the calm Hanakapiai Stream, excited to make it to the first leg of our journey on the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, and then walked to the nearby Hanakapiai Beach, just like the dozens of people around us. It’s here where I noticed something different: The beautiful boulder beach I remembered from my youth was now completely covered with rock stackings. Hundreds of them.
The first 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapiai doesn’t require a permit and is a popular day hike—an estimated 500,000 people visit this trail every year—so I wasn’t expecting it to be in pristine condition, but there was something troubling about what I saw. I watched the continuous cycle of people who would hike down the trail, cross the stream, see the beach, stack their own rocks, snap a picture, then leave. This beach that was once a respected resource for subsistence living was now being treated like a toy.
“The stacking of stones—one on top of the other—is not a traditional practice. Hawaiians did build ahu (altars) or cairns for ceremonial purposes and as markers, but they tended to be more substantial and carefully constructed,” says Dr. Windy McElroy, owner and archaeologist of Keala Pono Archaeological Consulting. “Traditional Hawaiians would have valued the beaches as a place for resource procurement and would not have modified them in a way that is detrimental to the environment and the species that live on the shoreline.”
Cairns have a long history and have valid uses as markers on trails. Later in the day, a single cairn will direct me where to turn when it looks like there are many directions to choose from in the forest of Waiahuakua Valley. But the rocks at Hanakapiai are not being utilized in this way. Instead, they’re being built to memorialize a person’s visit. This is not a new trend, nor is it only an issue in Hawaii. In the same way that people have carved their names into the banyan tree in Lahaina on Maui, or have used white coral to write their names by a road and stacked lava rocks at Kilauea volcano on Hawaii Island, it’s considered by many to be a form of graffiti.
“I think that mindlessly stacking of stone has happened all the time, but it’s suddenly turned into this kind of group sport thing and that’s what makes it kind of like graffiti. Somebody sees a tag and someone must do that too. Soon you have all kinds of people doing it,” says Sam Ohu Gon, senior scientist and cultural advisor of The Nature Conservancy.
“You might consider the fact that, at beaches and various other places, you don’t know whether or not that area has archaeological or deep cultural significance and whether those stones are in a place for a certain reason,” Gon continues. “If you get into the habit of moving stones because you want to, then one of these days you’re going to find yourself at an important cultural site and be damaging the cultural integrity of a place.”
There are historic Native Hawaiian archaeological sites up and down the Kalalau Trail, including many in Hanakapiai Valley that people pass every day. They’re rock walls, shelters, heiau (places of worship), agricultural terraces and habitation sites, and many are indistinguishable, either because of age or disturbance through the years, unless with a trained eye.
Ten feet away from where I’m sitting at Hanakapiai Beach, I spot one, a historic site. I see stones buried in the earth, unmovable because of size and depth, forming a straight line—not something you’d normally see in nature. This was a historic habitation site, once made up of a stacked rock wall, but it’s incredibly disturbed and only these rocks in the earth remain.
“If you look at the cultural significance of stones in Hawaiian culture, stones are really important. Hawaiian culture was a lithic culture and a lot of the tools were made of stones: poi pounders, rock walls, various tools, even mirrors are made out of stone. So, there’s a great deal of cultural significance of pohaku (stones),” says Gon.
“Pohaku are considered as much of the conscious universe as any other part of the Hawaiian universe would be. So you wouldn’t be messing with stones unless you had a real good reason to do so. And not in a kind of mindless manner: you would choose where your stones were coming from and probably be talking with those stones as you did this.
“The whole popular thing about taking stones from the volcano and having bad luck. That’s kind of like modern day superstitious holdover of the idea that stones have a lot of significance.”
The Hawaii Division of State Parks is also aware of the rock stacking and discourages it. “The activity modifies the natural beach setting and poses a safety hazard if formations were to fall on, say, a small child and causes injury,” they wrote me in an email. “People are coming to see a natural, untouched environment. Caretakers will unstack them whenever found. We ask visitors to leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them. There is no traditional cultural significance to the stacking being done in this magnitude at Hanakapiai Beach on Kauai. It is just a tourist trend and cultural practitioners frown on it.”
The rocks are heavy, I learned, as I began to dismantle some of the stones at around sunset when the beach emptied of people. I tossed some smaller ones on the ground, but many were too heavy for me to carry, or even to push over. I stopped after an hour of not making a noticeable difference in the landscape and hiked back to Haena, hoping one day the beach will be back to its natural state.