National Historic Site
The Big Island is the youngest island in the Hawai‘i chain and was formed by five large
volcanoes (see map below). Two of these volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, plus several
smaller ones along the Chain of Craters, are still active today. The highest point on the Big Island is Mauna Kea at 13,796 feet (Yuen & Associates 1990). The park is on the western slopes of the Mauna Kea Volcano, at approximately 128 feet above mean sea level (PSOMAS 2000). The Mauna Kea Volcano primarily consists of the shield- and postshieldstage Hamakua Volcanics, which is overlain by the post shield stage Laupahoehoe Volcanics.
Mauna Kea’s Laupahoehoe Volcanics last erupted about 3,600 years ago (Yuen & Associates 1990) during the Holocene Era. Rift zones, marked by cones and fissures, contain numerous volcanic dikes, and are found in the upper layer of the Hamakua Volcanic Series, which is covered by a layer of up to three feet of Pahala ash deposited about 39,000 years ago. The site is divided approximately in half by a rise of approximately 50 feet and is relatively level above and below the rise, with an average slope of seven degrees from the volcanic decline (USGS 2003).
Repeated submergences and rising of the volcanic land during island creation have left sedimentary deposits throughout the area. Brackish and freshwater springs along the shoreline have historically deterred the growth of coral. The white sand beaches on the adjacent Spencer Beach Park and neighboring beaches are products of earlier corals that grew along the early coastline. Between these coral and sandy beaches, the shoreline is usually weathered pahoehoe lava, with narrow mud flats at the seaward end of gulches (NPS/USDOI 1988). The Island of Hawaii and its five volcanoes. The rift zones of the historically active volcanoes are indicated by the stippled gray pattern. Dashed lines indicate the boundaries of districts on the island.
The soils from the Pu‘ukohola Heiau National Historic Site are from prehistoric lava flows associated with Hamakua and Laupahoehoe Volcanics capped by Pahala ash, resulting from the later stage venting of the Mauna Kea eruptions. The ash was thrown in the air by the volcanic eruptions and carried by the winds (PSOMAS 2000). Soils generally appear reddishbrown, typical of arid desert regions and commonly termed Kawaihae Series. Many of the soils from these lava flows are alkalic basalt to hawaiite in composition. The more differentiated flows tend to be massive and not conducive to recharge by rainfall. Thick ash deposits associated with the Pahala Ash and numerous cinder eruptions are ubiquitous throughout the region. With limited precipitation and irrigation, the soils preserve high mineral content but low levels of organic material. With these characteristics, the soil provides minor support for grasses, hardy shrubs, and a few long-rooted trees. One nonnative tree that was introduced to the area is the kiawe tree, which compounds the aridity problem in the soils by pulling any existing moisture out of the soils (USDOI 1994).
Source: Environmental Assessment; Assessment of Effect; Reestablishment of the Historic Scene at Pu‘ukohola Heiau National Historic Site; Hawaii County, Hawaii, Natonal Park Service, April 2004. https://www.nps.gov/puhe/pphtml/documents.html
The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.
For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.
Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.
Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout
The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!
Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.
For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.
The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.
A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.
NPS Geology and Soils PartnersAssociation of American State Geologists
Geological Society of America
Natural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
U.S. Geological Survey
General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.