Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones – The Quest for the Lanai Petroglyphs

Shipwreck Beach

We turned left at the sign pointing away from Kaunolu Village and towards Kaiolohia, otherwise known as Shipwreck Beach. It was the rainy season in Lana’i, and some of the roads were off limits, even though we had a Jeep. Disappointed that some of the sights I wanted to explore were verboten, I was determined not to waste my one chance to find an archeological marvel, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs.

It was our second time on the small Hawaiian island of Lana’i in less than six months. This time I had been graciously invited by the Lana’i Visitors Bureau as part of their New Media Artist in Residence Program. Like an impetuous teen, I had fallen head over heels in love with Lana’i almost instantly, and was relishing the chance to explore it on my own.

For whatever reason, when I first heard the name Shipwreck Beach, I instantly had a detailed image in mind of a white, sandy beach lush with nearby vegetation and the specter of a ship sunk long ago in the distance. I was partly right, there was a ship. As far as the idyllic beach scene, not so much. Instead we were confronted with a lot of gorse and uneven, rocky paths.

It was noon when we finally got out of our car, and the sweltering heat slapped us in the face. Even though it’s small, Lana’i has more ecosystems than any other place I’ve been. The highlands are often times cool, but a short 15-20 minute drive to the lower elevations reveals a much more hot and muggy area.

Like a pirate looking for his treasure, I unfolded my treasure map that would led me to the petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs are pictographic rock engravings created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, and abrading. These engravings are important in understanding the history of Hawaii, and examples can be found from all time periods.

The starting point was the foundation of an old lighthouse, which sounds much more romantic than it actually is. Turns out the remnants consist of old bits of iron, turned orange by the elements and bolted securely into a concrete block. I turned my back to it, and tried to see where the trail started.

The problem with a secluded area of an island that is already extremely secluded, is that marked trails don’t stay marked for very long. Instead of a clearly defined walking path, I saw several lightly trodden pathlings that might have been the magic one. Or not. We did all we could do, chose one and started walking. Twenty minutes later we were back at the lighthouse, confused as to what had happened. It felt like an episode of Lost when no one can find the super secret spot.

Scott is fair skinned to the degree that I fear for his spontaneous immolation whenever he is out of doors for too long, so I suggested he retreat to the Jeep while I carried on my mission for the petroglyphs. The words barely left my mouth before he was gone and I decided to try the next path.


There I was, trudging along in a pair of poorly selected flips flops, constantly reassuring myself that Lana’i was not home to anything particularly poisonous. Finally, I saw a cluster of large rocks to my right, with a path leading down. Surely this must be it, I thought, it was the first boulder sighting I had had all afternoon.

I gingerly negotiated the path, the small pricks of unknown plant life scratching my legs as I went. Then, as I turned the bend I saw it. Sort of. I thought, no I was sure, that I had finally found the petroglyphs. I walked a little further and was confronted with my treasure; an amazing display of ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs.

I couldn’t believe that I had actually found them. I spent some time photographing them, examining the artwork that had survived for centuries in this hidden cluster in an arid part of the island. It was humbling to stand there and think of the generations of people before me who had each stood in that very spot, marveling at the designs before them.

After a while, I gathered up my belongings, took a swing of water, repositioned my Indiana Jones hat and trudged back to the Jeep. Scott had the A/C on and was snoozing when I finally made it back to the car, a sweaty mess.

He awoke with a snort, asked if I had found them and then immediately requested we drive in search of the next treasure, lunch.

Well, he may not have been impressed, but I will always remember that small adventure.

Lanai Hawaii's Most Enticing Island

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

3 thoughts on “Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones – The Quest for the Lanai Petroglyphs”

  1. Great job with the photographs! The petroglyphs are a bit hard to find… I hope they stay pristine… Although not much of a concern since the number of visitors to this part of the island is so low! Wasn’t the drive to the beach great? It’s like passing through 5 different micro-environments. Lanai really can be a great place to feel like the edge of the U.S… The cat refuge is worth a visit also. Take the ferry to Lanai and gently rent a jeep if you’re in Maui…

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