Hidden Hawaii: The Haunted MacKenzie State Park
MacKenzie State Park is located in Opihikao on the scenic Red Road that follows the rugged Puna coastline. This remote and beautiful 13-acre park is named after Albert J. MacKenzie, a dedicated forest ranger on the Big Island, who died in 1938. A forest of tall ironwood trees (many of them planted by MacKenzie himself) surrounds the park, and their fallen needles blanket the ground like a thick spongy carpet.
The park offers breathtaking views of the ocean front, with rock cliffs on the blue Pacific. Decades ago, lava from Kilauea volcano had flowed in underground channels (lava tubes) through the park and drained into the ocean. Today, a large lava tube cave can be seen near the park’s picnic pavilion, as well as numerous sea caves (lava tube openings) along the cliff’s edge.
During the day time, the park is a peaceful place where you can do a number of things, including the following:
- Have a picnic
- Go on a hike
- Take in a round of disc golf with friends.
- Nap. There is plenty of shade and the soft, cushiony ironwood needle-covered ground is just begging you to lay on it!
- Overnight camping is also allowed, but you must obtain a permit from the Hawaii State Park Division.
- Fish. Local fishermen also come to the park at night to fish along the low rocky shores.
MacKenzie State Park is never crowded, regardless of what time of day or night it is, and sometimes you might find yourself the only person in the entire park! This could be spooky, and this article will go more in depth on that and cover the following topics:
- The park's dark history
- The crimes that have occurred here
- Its reputation for being haunted and ghost stories
- Where exactly it is and how to get there
- Travel tips for those planning on visiting
History: Built by Prison Convicts
- MacKenzie State Park was built by prison convicts in the late 1850s. This was during the height of the sugar plantation era in Hawaii and the convicts — mostly plantation laborers who committed crimes — were shipped over from Honolulu’s prison camps.
- Working under the unforgiving conditions of an isolated area, the convicts cleared the thick rainforest and removed large lava rocks to level the park’s ground. Many of them succumbed to the hot humid climate, did not have any sanitary water to drink, and suffered from an outbreak of diseases. There are no records of where their bodies are buried, but presumably it's somewhere in the park.
- To this day, local residents believe the souls of the dead convicts are still wandering the park. Park visitors have occasionally reported seeing ghostly apparitions of emaciated and unshaven men carrying pick axes and hand tools at sunset time. Those who camp overnight have also reported seeing in a far off distance what looks like a large campfire with sounds of people cooking and talking. However, when they attempted to go toward the campfire, it seemed to shrink farther and farther away and then it would suddenly disappear altogether! In daylight, no evidence of any campfire or large camping group can be found.
The Historic and Haunted King's Highway
- King’s Highway is an old coastal rock trail built by King Kamehameha the Great who ruled the Hawaiian islands from 1795 to 1819.
- This trail circled the entire Big Island and, for many decades, served as a major travelling route for native Hawaiians to go from one end of the island to the other. A restored section of this historic trail passes through MacKenzie State Park. Local legends say that the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors, called the ‘night marchers,’ are still using this trail.
- Over the years, people have witnessed eerie sights like a procession of disembodied flickering torches or heard haunting sounds of drumming, chanting and battle cries. These occurrences often happen during a windy rainstorm or on calm moonlit nights. Many local residents refuse to venture into MacKenzie State Park after sunset or on full moon nights for fear of an unwanted encounter with these fierce ancient spirits.
Crimes that Occurred at MacKenzie State Park
MacKenzie State Park has unfortunately been the scene of several terrible crimes:
- In 1980, a young couple was camping in the park when they were attacked and severely beaten outside their tent during the night. Their bodies were found by other campers the next morning — the man was dead and the woman was barely alive. No arrest was ever made, and the crime remains a mystery to this day.
- In 1993, a 16-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by three men. After beating the victim unconscious, the three men disposed of her body over the cliff in the park. The men were arrested and, according to their confession, the victim was still alive when they threw her into the ocean. Her body was never found.
- Most recently, in 2008, while filming the movie “The Tempest” (by Miramax, with Helen Miren and Djimon Hounsou) on location at the park, the film’s cast and crew discovered the bullet-riddled body of a well-known local surfer at the bottom of the sea cliff.
There are also many reports of drowning accidents at the park. Most victims were unprepared fishermen swept away by big waves and strong currents. During high surf periods, the crashing waves can rise to 30-40 feet high above the cliff, washing everything (including large chunks of rock and even a few ironwood trees!) into the ocean. The bodies of drowned victims are rarely recovered in these treacherous waters.
MacKenzie State Park Ghost Stories
For years, local residents have reported seeing ghosts or experienced strange unearthly phenomena at MacKenzie State Park.
- Some of these occurrences have happened in broad daylight. For example, there have been stories of folks who have hiked on the trail along the park’s cliff who reportedly heard footsteps following them. Then, when they turned around to look, there was no one.
- Native Hawaiians have long believed the park to be a spiritual place — a shadowy territory that belongs to the lost and restless ‘uhane (human souls). The eerily quiet ironwood forest always seems to possess some kind of unsettling energy or supernatural feeling to it. Many of the ironwood trees in the park are very old, and their exposed roots spread out over the ground like snakes or gnarly fingers!
- One local resident recalled that as she was taking a walk in the park one afternoon, she saw someone ahead of her on the trail. Whoever that was then turned around, gave her a wave, and then vaporized into an ironwood tree right in front of her eyes!
- People who take their dogs to the park have noticed that the dogs will sometimes appear and act nervously for no apparent reason. Or, they've barked hysterically up a tree at what appears to be nothing.
- There are also reports of cries and whispers heard inside the many gaping holes in the ground (collapsed lava tubes) seen around the park.
- Visitors who camp at the park for the first time — those completely unaware of the park’s reputation — usually have the creepiest stories to tell. Some have heard voices and footsteps around their tents all night with no apparent people in sight when this was further investigated. Others have claimed they were abruptly awakened in the middle of the night by bloodcurdling screams outside in the dark. A few have experienced frightening paranormal encounters, like being choked while sleeping by a presence inside their tent. Or, sleeping bags suddenly being unzipped and pulled away by invisible forces. There have also been reports of tents being shook up violently and repeatedly throughout the night without any explanation.
- People who take pictures at the park are sometimes baffled at mysterious objects appearing out of nowhere in some of the shots.
- Local fishermen who fish in the park at night have witnessed mysterious iridescent fireballs that bounce and roll along the surf, and then disappear into the sea caves at the bottom of the cliffs.
- Overnight campers have also reported seeing similar flickering green fires dancing around the park. Some thought they were fireflies. But alas, this insect does not actually exist in tropical Hawaii!
How to Get to the Park
MacKenzie Park offers spectacular scenery and many recreation opportunities like picnicking, hiking, fishing, camping, and not to mention, ghost hunting! It is definitely worth a visit if you’re vacationing on the Big Island. Here's how to get there from Pahoa village:
- From Pahoa village, head east on Hwy 132 (Kapoho Road).
- Keep going straight as the road turns into Pahoa Pohoiki Road.
- Follow this narrow scenic road for about 5 miles and you will come to a stop sign.
- At the stop sign, turn right onto Hwy 137 (Kapoho Kalapana Road, also known as the Red Road).
- Drive for another two miles or so, until you see the MacKenzie Park sign and park entrance on the left side of the road.
Travel Tips When Visiting MacKenzie State Park
- MacKenzie State Park is open year round with no entrance fee.
- There are picnic areas and bathroom facilities available.
- Overnight camping is allowed with a permit - but do so at your own risk.
- No swimming is allowed!
- Stay back from the unstable cliff’s edge. You can even feel the ground shake from the pounding waves!
- Keep a good, respectful distance from the memorial shrines you may see along the cliff’s edge. There could be a cross or a plaque, often surrounded with flower leis and personal memorabilia placed there by the deceased’s family and friends.
- This is an isolated area, with no cell phone service and limited police coverage. So, use your common sense and be safe while enjoying this amazingly beautiful park.
What's Your Experience?
Have You Been to MacKenzie State Park?
When you visit MacKenzie State Park, whether you want to believe or not, you may be walking among the living and the dead. Please have respect for the unknown realm.
Thank you for visiting, and I hope you enjoyed this article! If you've been to the park, please share your experiences with us below.
My Spooky Experience at the Park
The author experienced a spooky incident at this park one late afternoon when he was walking around taking photos for this article: at one point he heard—faintly but distinctively—musical sounds (like from a guitar) right behind his back, but when he turned around, he saw nothing but the silent ironwood forest.
All photos were taken with a Samsung Digimax 301 3.2MP Digital Camera.
Advertiser Staff. “Probation revoked in Big Isle murder.” Honolulu Advertiser 9 Oct. 2001 <http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com>
Daws, Gavan. Shoal of time: A history of the Hawaiian islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.
Edwards Hunt, Tiffany. “Puna News - MacKenzie Park’s dark past revisited.” Big Island Chronicle 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.bigislandchronicle.com>
Thompson, Rod. “Body with gunshots found at Big Island beach park.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin13 Dec. 2008 <http://archives.starbulletin.com>
Thompson, Rod. “Justice near for brutally murdered Puna teen.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin 11 Sept. 1999 <http://archives.starbulletin.com>
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Viet Doan