A Trip to Parker Ranch on Hawaii’s Big Island

Hawaii Island conjures images of beaches, palm trees, and volcanoes, but the Big Island is also the birthplace of a unique and surprising culture: Hawaiian cowboys. It is home to one of the oldest cattle ranches in the country, pre-dating many mainland ranches by more than 30 years and boasting a rich and complex history.

The Cowboys of Parker Ranch

Founded in 1847 by John Palmer Parker and headquartered in Waimea, 40 miles from our Big Island bed and breakfast, the historic Parker Ranch spreads across more than 130,000 acres, making it one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States.

The Bulls of Parker Ranch in the 20's - Parker Ranch Hawaii


Humble Beginnings

It began with only a few cows—brought to Hawaii by British Captain George Vancouver in 1793 and again in 1794. Vancouver gifted the cows to King Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great). The cows were set free to roam and the king declared them to be kapu (off-limits) so that they could multiply- and multiply they did.

In the decades that followed, the cows numbered in the thousands. When Massachusetts sailor John Palmer Parker, 19, jumped ship to visit Hawaii in 1809, maverick cattle dominated the countryside, wreaking havoc by destroying crops, damaging property, and terrorizing residents.

Parker stayed for a time, tended fishponds for the king, and then returned to sea again during the War of 1812. When Parker returned to Hawaii, he brought a new, state-of-the-art American musket. The king granted Parker permission, not only to hunt the wild cattle but to supply meat and hides for local and foreign consumption.


Historical Photo of the Largest Cattle Ranch in Hawaii

One of the Largest Cattle Ranches

In less than a year, a thriving salt beef industry replaced sandalwood as the island’s chief export. Parker quickly grew into a respected man of wealth and influence. In 1816, Parker married King Kamehameha I’s granddaughter, Chiefess Kipikane. They were awarded two acres of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea where they built the homestead “Mana Hale,” had three children, and eventually founded Parker Ranch.

During the reign of King Kamehameha III, Spanish-Mexican vaquero (cowboys) were brought from California to help train Hawaiians to rope and handle cattle. They were called “paniolo,” a Hawaiian version of the word “español.”

Over time, the Parker Ranch grew and now the annual beef production of Parker Ranch’s cow-calf operation totals more than 10 million pounds. Easily the largest producer of grass-fed beef in the state, their beef can be found at local grocery stores and served at many restaurants under the name Paniolo Cattle Company.

Cowboy Roping a Bull Statue at the Parker Cattle Ranch in Hawaii

Stunning Views & Fun Activities

From our Big Island bed and breakfast, it’s only an hour’s drive to Waimea where Parker Ranch is headquartered but the journey is like going to a whole other world. Nestled around 2,600 ft above sea level, above the beaches and lava fields, Waimea sits between the mountain shoulders of Kohala and Mauna Kea. Uniquely situated between dry and wet sides of the island, the weather can vary dramatically depending on which side of town you are on. On the wet side, green rolling hills and pastures, sometimes shrouded in mist and fog, evoke images of Ireland’s countryside.

During your visit, you might be able to catch a local rodeo or tour the ranch’s historic homes, Pu’uopelu and Mana Hale. Self-guided tours are available, by appointment, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 am, 11 am, and 1 pm. The homes tell the Parker family’s story through historic heirlooms, everyday items, works of art, family portraits, antiques, and treasures from world travels.

Historical Photo of a Hawaiian Cowboy with 2 Horses - Hawaii History Parker Ranch

Saddle Up & Shop

Stop at the Parker Ranch Shopping Center for ranch souvenirs and memorabilia. The Paniolo Heritage Center at Pukalani Stables showcases the Paniolo Hall of Fame and Nā Wahine Holo Lio Paʻu Museum, honoring the history of the region’s pa‘u riders.

Time your visit to coincide with one of the two farmers’ markets hosted at the historic stables. Both markets feature a variety of fresh locally grown, raised, and produced products, including coffee, produce, honey, soaps, free-range grass-fed beef, handmade jewelry, crafts, snacks, food carts, and gifts to bring home. Markets are Saturdays 7:30 am to 1 pm or Wednesdays from 9 am to 2 pm and both include free live music.

While not offering horseback riding tours themselves, the ranch recommends Kahua Ranch or Paniolo Adventures at Ponoholo Ranch for guided horseback riding.



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