In Hawai’ian, “Pali” means cliff and “Nu`uanu” means cool heights. A million and a half years ago, when Oahu was still forming, a massive landslide occurred and nearly one third of the island fell into the ocean. This force created a tsunami wave over two thousand feet high that rose up and covered ninety-five percent of the island of Lānaʻi.
The Nu`uanu Pali Lookout is 12,000 feet above sea level; it overlooks the 985-foot cliffs of the Ko’olau Mountain Range and offers one of the best views of Oʻahu.
From this vantage point you can see Kaneohe Bay, Chinaman’s Hat, Hawai’i Pacific University’s Windward Campus, the University of Hawai’i’s Marine Biology Research Center, and Coconut Island. If you find that Coconut Island looks a bit familiar, the exterior of the island was used to shoot the establishing shot for the 60′s TV show Gilligan’s Island.
The Nu`uanu Pali is also a site of deep historical significance. One of the most important battles in Hawai’ian history took place here in 1795. King Kamehameha I and his army invaded Oʻahu and won the struggle that united the Hawai’ian Islands. Kamehameha’s army marched to Nu`uanu Valley to face Kalanikupule’s troops. Kamehameha’s men gained an advantage and forced Kalanikupule’s soldiers to retreat further up the valley, where they were pursued and driven over the steep cliffs to their deaths. It’s been said that not a single Oʻahu warrior that got into the upper part of the valley escaped alive.
The name of the historic battle of Nu`uanu Pali is Kaleleake`anae, which means “the leaping of the mullet fish.” In 1897, an engineering firm was hired to build what is now called Old Pali Road. When you are at the Pali Lookout, you can see the old road going down the mountain to the right. It’s a great place for walking or hiking, and has fantastic views! During construction of the road, workers found the century-old remains of Kalanikupule’s slain warriors – an estimated 800 human skulls and other bones – at the foot of the cliffs.
When approaching from the windward side of the island, just above and to the left of the Lookout you can see two notches cut into the ridge line. The notches are evidence of unique defense mechanisms; they were man-made by warriors to house cannons. King Kamehameha’s warriors disabled the cannons in the Battle of Nuʻuanu, and this helped him to conquer Oʻahu.
There are a number of legends involving the Pali and its surrounding areas. One such legend tells of two large stones called Hapuʻu and Ka-lae-hau-ola located near the back of Nuʻuanu Valley. These stones are said to represent a pair of goddesses who were guardians of the passage down the Pali. To ensure a safe trip, travelers would leave offerings of kappa (bark cloth) or flowers, and in order to gain protection against evil, parents would bury the umbilical cords of their newborns at the entrance.
Another story tells of a moʻo wahine (lizard woman) lingering around the pass. The moʻo wahine is said to be a mythical creature who transforms herself into a beautiful woman and leads male travelers off the cliff to their deaths.
Hawai’ian folklore holds that you should never transport pork over the Nu`uanu Pali. This is especially true at night, as hungry spirits haunt the Pali in search of food. Stories have been told of assaults by ghosts and cars mysteriously stopping until the pork is removed.
The root of this myth has been traced back to a disagreement between Pele, the goddess of the volcanos, and Kamapua`a, a half-human half-pig god. It is said that Pele would not allow Kamapua`a (in the form of pork) to trespass on her side of the island.
In an attempt to deter the spirits, truckers are known to tie a fresh green ti leaf, banana leaf, or a strip of bamboo around the pork – a practice called “Placing a Law upon the Food”.
Nu’uanu Pali State Park is open daily (weather permitting) from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Admission is free, and there is ample parking for a $3.00 charge.
It is extremely windy. The trade winds blow through the valley between the high mountains on either side, forming a strong wind tunnel, thus a light jacket is recommended (as are waterproof backpacks) You are also advised to remove hats, caps, or anything else that may be blown away by the gusty winds, and to hold children’s hands.