The remote park that is the site of Native Hawaiian burials and a popular camping spot has suffered years of neglect.

The spot at Polihale State Park where Nohili Dora’s ancestors were laid to rest had long been a family secret.


But recently, relatives who tidy the beachfront burials concluded that secrecy was no longer enough to protect the bones of the dead from disturbances, like sunbathers looking for a place to relieve themselves.

“Last time I was there I had to pick up human feces,” said Dora, 38.

Handpainted signs now spotlight the sand dunes that hold the bones of the departed. “Authorized personnel only, burials nearby,” one sign reads. Another wooden marquee urges in highlighter yellow, “Be pono. Respect this place.” 

Nailed to thorny kiawe trees that were once considered repellent enough to keep people away, the signage marks a striking reversal from a more furtive family approach to taking care of the hidden graves. 

Camping on the dunes is prohibited but commonplace at Polihale State Park, where the unique dune system hosts Hawaiian burials and several species of endangered plants and animals. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

“It’s time to show what is here and maybe then and only then will people appreciate what’s here,” Dora said on a recent Saturday morning as she watched a middle-aged man stake his tent and beach chair atop a dune system that he said he was unaware contained fragile cultural and ecological treasures.

Camping and driving on the dunes and beach are technically illegal. But they have become commonplace as the underfunded state parks system struggles to police bad behavior in a remote wilderness that locals liken to the Wild West.

At Polihale State Park, a convergence of sacred Hawaiian burials and a lineal push to protect them is running up against neglected park enforcement and management. 

The state is about to invest $4.3 million in park improvements, starting with the development of a conceptual master plan to better protect Polihale’s cultural and ecological treasures and educate visitors about them. Meanwhile, concerned residents who have become the park’s de facto stewards say they want to formalize their role.

Revered as a jumping off point for departing souls, Polihale is sacred to many Native Hawaiians. Sand dunes throughout the park contain iwi kupuna, or Hawaiian skeletal remains, as well as critically endangered plants and habitat for native bees. A heiau, or Hawaiian temple, sits in disrepair, shrouded in the thorny kiawe overgrowth. 

“It’s so much more than a place to go and get drunk,” said Piʻi Matias, 29, whose ancestors are buried in the dunes at Polihale. Through her work with the nonprofit Hui Malana Polihale, Matias said she wants to help usher in a paradigm shift in how people view Polihale. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

There is no restroom in the vicinity of what’s popularly known as Queen’s Pond, a swimming area guarded from the open ocean by coral reef, and it’s not uncommon to find balled up tissue or toilet paper littered along the dunes that border the beach.

Miles down the coast, the septic system from a public toilet facility undermines the purity of an underground freshwater spring once sought by King David Kalakaua for its supposed healing powers.

“Honestly, we haven’t done a very good job of managing this place for a very long time,” said State Parks Assistant Administrator Alan Carpenter.

Stretching across 140 coastal acres, Polihale State Park is a prized beach camping destination. Part of its lure is its remoteness.

The only vehicular access point is at the end of a potholed 5 mile dirt road that most rental car companies forbid their customers from traversing. This makes Polihale a rare sanctuary from the throngs borne of overtourism. It also makes it difficult for the state to police unpermitted activity along the miles-long shoreline.

Things got so out of hand two summers ago that state parks officials shut down Polihale State Park indefinitely after more than 1,000 people had camped at the park over a single weekend but only 80 of them had secured a camping permit. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees Hawaii’s state parks, said trucks had been racing on the beach and driving through sand dunes. 

More than two years passed before the state reopened the park to overnight camping in August 2022. During the park closure, two endangered Hawaiian monk seals were born on the beach — the first recorded monk seal puppings at Polihale since 1962, according to DLNR.

Hui Malama Polihale, a nonprofit organized by lineal descendants of Hawaiians buried within the park’s dune system, was also borne of the closure.

The group tasks itself with filling the glaring gaps of government neglect — archeological site protection, invasive species control, trash cleanup. It’s also responsible for the new handmade educational signage that stands in for a lack of official historical markers or interpretive plaques.

The unofficial signage posted throughout the state park by concerned community members aim to make people think twice before racing their trucks up and over the sand dunes.

The $4.3 million budgeted by the Legislature for park improvements begins with the development of a conceptual master plan to better protect and educate visitors about Polihale’s cultural and ecological treasures.

“The vision is that this dune system will become more or less a preserve and that there will be zero tolerance for vehicles going through it,” Carpenter said. “If you look at the dune system right now you will just see tire tracks throughout it and that just can’t happen anymore.”

Hui Malama Polihale member Chris Kaʻiakapu, 31, said Polihale State Park can still be a recreational paradise — but not at the expense of the health of the cultural and ecological splendors within its 140-acre bounds. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The plan will include facilities upgrades and changes, including the removal of the restroom that sits above a natural spring and the construction of a new one near the park’s entrance and the heavily trafficked Queen’s Pond access.

The plan is being developed in close coordination with the public. Over the course of several public meetings, West Kauai residents have argued, often heatedly, over what does and doesn’t need to change at Polihale.

The state is not considering adding the kind of crowd control features that have been instrumental at the newly redesigned Haena State Park on Kauai’s North Shore, Carpenter said, because most days of the week the park is not overcrowded, a result of the simple fact that it’s difficult to get to.

Residents have been clear about one thing, however: They do not want the state to pave Polihale’s long, bumpy, sometimes treacherous dirt access road. But there are competing views when it comes to driving on the beach.

Other improvements have been easier to build consensus around. The state will likely build more shade pavilions and create more overnight camping opportunities, including a new option for group camping permits. Currently, every camper needs to secure a permit, which doesn’t cater to the larger family and multifamily camping outings that are popular among locals.

Tire tracks are prolific across the beach and dune system at Polihale State Park. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

Any significant management changes at Polihale likely won’t happen until next summer, Carpenter said.

Meanwhile, members of Hui Malama Polihale continue to meet at the park once a month to chainsaw invasive shrubs, collect rubbish or clear weeds away from fragile archeological areas. And they’re campaigning to continue this work through a more formal DLNR stewardship agreement.

Hui member Chris Ka’iakapu, 31, said the group is also advocating to help guide the development of the educational materials that will ultimately inform visitors about the cultural wonders the park holds.

“For many people Polihale is a place to camp, fish, surf, and it can still be all of those things,” Ka’iakapu said. “It can be the place you go for a fun escape and it can be a cultural landmark and it can be a model of environmental preservation. But it’s important that people learn what’s here and understand that it’s not just a playground.”

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