Reporting a recent story for our Washington State Parks centennial series, I got tuned into the impressive petroglyphs at Horsethief Lake and Columbia Hills State Park in the Columbia River Gorge. So when a local tipped me off during my Hawaii visit this week to a “secret” place to see petroglyphs on Maui, I had to go.
Nobody really knows the full significance of these ancient drawings of human figures, animals, boats and other phenomena — whether they told stories or recorded some historical event or were just the idle doodles of that day. In any case, they’re intriguing glimpses of a primitive art style and seem to give some pointer to what was important to the people who did the drawing.
In the Columbia Gorge, native people drew coyotes and moons and deer. On Maui today, I saw 200-to-300-year-old drawings — in Hawaiian, they call them ki`i pohaku, or rock pictures — of what’s thought to have been a big-chested chief and a canoe with billowing lateen sail, among other things.
These are the Olowalu petroglyphs, drawn in the soft lava of a volcanic cinder cone near the Olowalu General Store (at Milepost 15 on Highway 30, south of Lahaina). This is one of the largest concentrations of such drawings on Maui, with about 70 petroglyphs.
At one time the drawings were more accessible, with signs pointing the way from the highway and a stairway to help get you closer. Unfortunately, vandalism to the drawings — the addition of a few modern scrawlings, for example — has led to demolition of the stairway and elimination of highway signs.
Now, signs at the site prohibit climbing to get closer. From the road, you’re about 50 feet below the drawings, but even at that distance they’re clearly visible to the naked eye, and very clearly seen with binoculars or a telephoto lens.
Presuming that vandals don’t read, I’ll tell you how to get there: From just north of the Olowalu General Store, look for a road angling off the highway and leading to an old silver water tower. At the water tower, follow a paved road inland for about .4 mile. At a Y, go left on to a dirt road and continue for another .1 mile. Signs on the right mark the petroglyph site. An interpretive panel is directly below the drawings. Across the road is a shaded picnic table next to a tree-lined stream, making this a decent lunch destination next time you’re on Maui.