Legends of the Pali

Legends of the Pali

Originally Appearing in "Hawai'i Intrigue" (Abstract 4)
Text by Misty Sanico // Images by Raul Soria Jr.


Like the clouds that move over the Pali peaks, the water that rushes down Likeke Falls, or the gusty wind that blows over the lookout, Hawaiʻi Route 61 is a conduit of perpetual motion, of coming and going. In all of its incarnations, it has been a necessity of commerce and community, and a witness of change. Straddling the majestic Koʻolau Mountains, Route 61—better known as Pali Highway—is an iconic thoroughfare of both history and legend whose memory of centuries past often echoes back to us the stories of what was, and of what could be.

Locals know many of its infamous tales—firsthand accounts from the friend of aunty’s brother-in-law, chicken-skin stories of a wandering goddess and her white dog, ghostly apparitions, and pork taboos. But these stories barely scratch the surface.  But these stories barely scratch the surface. To better understand this place we must explore its social, economic and political history, gaining insight from local tour guides and cultural historians.

Ancient Battleground

No history of the Pali Highway would be complete without mention of the Battle of Nuʻuanu in 1795. The highway runs through the district of Nuʻuanu, a valley between the Ko'olau mountain range on leeward Oʻahu, and it was here that this decisive battle unfolded.

To seize Oʻahu from its warring chiefs, Kamehameha I divided his warriors and outflanked his enemies, driving them into Nuʻuanu and up the Koʻolau mountain range until they were backed against the Nuʻuanu Pali, a sheer cliff that dropped thousands of feet into the valley. The Battle of Nuʻuanu provided a crucial victory for Kamehameha I, in his quest to unite the Hawaiian Islands.

Hundreds of warriors fighting for the chiefs of O'ahu, trapped by Kamehameha I’s warriors, either jumped or were pushed over the Pali. Years later, during the initial development of what would eventually become the Pali Highway, more than 800 skulls were recovered. Some believe that the spirits of those warriors continue to haunt the area.

A Road to the Past

As far back as 1852 people were arguing about the state of Honolulu’s roads, especially the road that would eventually run through the Koʻolaus and be named for its most infamous cliff, the Nuʻuanu  Pali. Funds were appropriated to widen the road and have it paved, but there was much contention over how much was allotted, how long the job would take, and how far it would go. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, predecessor to The Honolulu Advertiser,  printed numerous letters to the editor and snarky comments from 19th century readers quarreling over whether there should be a toll on the proposed Pali road or not. In this respect, very little has changed.

The 10.8 miles of the Pali Highway we know today is the third roadway to be built in the area. It stretches from Vineyard Boulevard, through the residential areas of Nuʻuanu Valley and the Nuʻuanu Pali Tunnels, to Hāmākua Drive in Kailua. The second Pali Road, developed in 1897, followed much of the same route as the current one. Building it provided natives and immigrants with much needed jobs.

Once the Nuʻuanu Pali Tunnels were built in 1958, a portion of the former road was closed off, creating the section now known as Old Pali Road, which is currently a popular hiking route. This prominent section of the road has come full circle: before Old Pali Road existed, it was an ancient Hawaiian footpath over the Pali Pass, a vital crossing and one of the only safe passages over the steep Koʻolau cliffs. The footpath was widened in 1845 to accommodate carts and horses and this became the first Pali Road. It was critical to the livelihood of farmers in windward Oʻahu who needed to bring their goods to Honolulu for sale.


Myth and Mystery

Old Pali Road is a staple of local lore and a popular spot for nightly ghost tours. People come back with photos of orbs or white mist, or stories of supernatural encounters. Tales passed down from parents and grandparents who grew up using the road, from kolohe cousins who tried to test their mettle against the spirits.

There’s the urban legend about Morgan’s Corner, about a girl waiting in a car for her boyfriend. She hears a “thump thump thump” and finds him hanging from a tree.  It’s a common story found across America that has transplanted itself here, and sticks out among the local lore that has grown so organically with the Pali itself and developed over centuries.

However, many stories told about Pali Road have roots in Hawaiian mythology. The ancient Hawaiian gods are said to have lived at the tops of the mountains. This was their domain. The domain of mortals were were the lowlands and farms. Local storyteller and tour guide Joe Punohu says the Pali is where the natural and spiritual worlds touch and as humans move further into the valley, bringing lights and noise with them, the spirits are forced to find silent refuge higher up the mountains. This is one possible explanation for why the Pali may be a hotbed of otherworldly commotion.

These spirits are a part of us and a part of a land that is dense with mana. The atmosphere of Old Pali Road is subtle and complex.

Another popular myth warns us not to take pork over the Pali. Perhaps it has something to do with the menehune trails that overlap the cliffs, or perhaps taking pork over the Pali is an insult to the spirits. The animosity between Kamapuaʻa and Pele, two ancient Hawaiian gods who, according to the stories, were once lovers, is the stuff of legend; they finally came to an accord by laying claim to separate territories. It is speculated that taking pork over the Pali is like breaking their treaty.

Other ancient Hawaiian legends and chants describe two large stones at the start of the Pali trail. These stones, according to the legends, were akua wāhine, the goddesses Hāpuʻu and Kalaʻihauola, who took the form of these stone sentries to guard the Pali. Travelers would leave offerings in exchange for safe passage, and women would bury the umbilical cords of their newborns as protection from evil spirits. Though the stones were torn down when Wilson Tunnel was built, their presence is still felt.  Hāpuʻu and Kalaʻihauola were said to be calling spirits who lured people to a cliff’s edge.

Historian and storyteller Lopaka Kapanui, of the Mysteries of Hawaii blog (www.mysteries-of-hawaii.com), has had many experiences with these calling spirits at the Pali Lookout. He tells of spirits calling out to people using their little-known nicknames. It’s an example of how personal these encounters can be, and why Kapanui believes mainland methods of paranormal research aren’t as effective here. These spirits are a part of us and a part of a land that is dense with mana. The atmosphere of Old Pali Road is subtle and complex.

Punohu advises that those interested in exploring these sites should only do so with someone familiar with the area, and to remember that many of these sacred places should be treated with respect and honorable intent.

A Nod to the Future

The mysteries of Old Pali Road are an understandable draw and questions about its historical and supernatural background abound. But  perhaps the better question is: If Nu'uanu Pali has a memory, what stories will it tell about us? Our urban sprawl, noise and pollution will surely leave specters that will haunt our children and generations to come.