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Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Waipi’o Valley is arguably the most magical place on the Big Island. Hawai’ian myths hold that Waipi’o Valley is guarded by Night Marchers, legendary ghosts of Kamehameha’ long-dead armies, and that the impossibly steep, incredibly beautiful valley was excavated by a bragging warrior using his club to demonstrate his strength. While the geologic explanation is more prosaic and less colorful, that doesn’t detract from Waipi’o Valley’s charm and allure. Always listed among the most beautiful spots in the State of Hawai’i, this valley is hauntingly lovely but distressingly difficult to see in its entirety.
The steep canyon walls and verdant fields of the valley floor, the mile long black sand beach and numerous immense waterfalls that line the valley walls all call out to the visitor for exploration, and this can prove challenging.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

The Road into Waipi'o Valley: Photo by Donald MacGowan

There is a four-wheel drive jeep road down into the valley but you really (REALLY) do not want to drive it, even in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The road is constantly steep (25% grade!!!), poorly paved, always narrow and winding, unbelievably hazardous and tricky, deceitful and populated by local drivers who do not want you on their road. Really. Tours down into the valley in vans, horse drawn wagons and ATVs can be booked in Honoka’a. Over-flights in fixed wing aircraft and helicopters offer fine views of this amazing piece of Hawai’i.

Perhaps the most satisfying way to see Waipi’o Valley, however, is the way the ancient Hawai’ians did, by walking forthrightly down into it and then creeping, wheezily, back out. However, if you attempt this hike, don’t be deceived by the numbers. The hike entails less than a thousand foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain to climb out) and fewer than 2 miles actual walking, but it feels longer; it is hard, hot, dry, and steep. No one who is not in good physical condition should attempt this hike-better to take a tour or flight. But the views and photographs to be had by making this difficult hike are well worth the sweat and time. The hike down into the valley takes about ½ an hour; twice that again for exploration of the valley floor and beach and at least an hour to walk back up. Be vigilant when walking on the road; local drivers will not deign to give you right of way and tourist drivers seem at the edge of control.

If you go into the valley, no drinking water is available, so take lots. When you hit the valley floor, the road to your right (toward the ocean) goes to the beach and a spectacular 300 foot waterfall. Here, you may wander through tamarisk and fir copses along the black sand beach, bathe in the waterfall or hike across the ridge into the next valley. Be forewarned, swimming and surfing here are for experts, due to the strong currents and big waves. Do not attempt to hike past the headland cliffs into adjacent vallies-it may seem tempting, but it is in fact extremely dangerous.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

This Majestic Waterfall Sluices Down Into The Canyon All the Way to the Ocean From The Overlook: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

At the foot of the valley, the road through the jungle tunnel to your left crosses private property; you need permission to pass here. Down this road, toward the back of the canyon are numerous, enormous, crazy waterfalls and scenery like you will see no where else on earth. Waipi’o’s true magic lies here.

Below the Observation Platform, there are no services available in Waipi’o Valley. Camping is by permit only; the one small bed and breakfast establishment is generally booked months in advance.
Natural and Human History: To the geologist, Waipi’o, Pololu and the other northern Hawaiian vallies provide exquisite evidence of the extremely delicate and ephemeral nature of the islands in the Hawai’ian Archipelago. Lava flows at the top of Waipi’o Valley which are cut by the stream are fewer than half a million years old, indicating the whole valley has formed since then.

Early in the history of Pololu, Waipi’o, and the vallies in between, rift vents along the flanks of Kohala Volcano evolved into major faults; relative movements up and down these faults caused large blocks of rocks between faults to be relatively down-dropped forming what geologists call “grabens”, or flat-bottomed vallies. Streams poured off the uplifted blocks causing erosion further lowering the floors of these grabens with steeply sided stream cuts. At some point between 450,000 and 150,000 years ago, a huge section of the north side of Kohala Volcano became detached and simply slid into the sea, forming the steep cliffs we see today on the north side of the island. The formation of the grabens, their subsequent incisement by streams and the truncation of the northern portion of Kohala Volcano by enormous landslides accounts for most of the landscape we see in these vallies today, but the questions arises: “why are the valley floors so wide and flat instead of the narrow, steeply-sided valley one would normally expect a small stream to carve”?

Although the streams continue to erode down into the floor of these canyons there are two more geologic processes at work on the the Waipi’o Valley landscape. Remember that due to their own enormous weight, all the Hawai’ian Islands are slowly sinking-or “subsiding”–into the hot, plastic rocks below the earth’s crust. This subsidence causes the bottom of the canyon to be continually sinking below sea level, and thus filling up with sediment. Secondly, the mouth of Waipi’o Valley acts as a funnel for tsunamis, causing them to back up into the valley and drop enormous quantity of sediment, which also fills the valley. In fact, during the tsunami of 1946, the ocean flooded Waipi’o to 40 feet deep and half a mile inland! This infilling of the valley by these two processes accounts for why the valley bottom is so broad and flat.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

The Mile Long Black Sand Beach of Waipi'o Valley: Photo by Donald MacGowan

The human history of Waipi’o Valley is every bit as interesting as its geologic history. Waipi’o was considered a place of great mana (power) and was densely cultivated in pre-contact times. It was a favored place for the ruling Ali’i to meet and many chiefs who had lands and homes elsewhere on the island maintained royal homes in Waipi’o Valley. It is estimated by some historians that at the time Captain Cook arrived as many as a hundred thousand native Hawai’ians inhabited Waipi’o and the region surrounding it. Waipi’o has been continuously inhabited in excess of fifty generations; native Hawai’ians believe the power of their ancestors’ spirits infuses the land today with mana and honua–power and peace.

King Kamehameha the Great was brought here for safety as an infant. It was interpreted by many when he was born that the Baby Kamehameha was the fulfillment of ancient prophecies which bespoke the coming of a great king, one who would overthrow all other kings and unite the islands. This notion did not sit well with many ruling families and did not fit their agendas or ideas about who should lead the people of Hawai’i. Fearing for his life, young Kamehameha’s mother fled to the safety of relatives living in Waipi’o, hiding with the infant in the jungle when royalty sent warriors out to hunt him down. Kamehameha, of course, eventually emerged, later becoming King of Hawaii; through a series of battles and treaties with Ali’i on the other islands, he eventually united all the Hawaiian Islands into a single country under his rule.

The tsunami of 1946 pretty much cleared out the more modern inhabitants of Waipi’o and it was more or less abandoned until the 1960s when counter-culture types and native subsistence groups started to move back in. Today, the population of Waipi’o Valley is a colorful oddment of farmers, artists, surf bums, recluses, hermits, dreamers and others, whose only point of common interest is to make sure that everybody else stays the heck out of Waipi’o Valley.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Vastness of Waipi'o Valley: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

After visiting Waipi’o, drive back down the highway to lovely Honoka’a and enjoy the laid-back, plantation era aloha here. There are numerous cafes and restaurant and coffee shops and the largest collection of antiques stores anywhere on the island–Honoka’a Town is equally enchanting, albeit in a different way, as the Valley you’ve just explored.

For more information about traveling to Hawaii in general and exploring the Big Island in particular, please visit and . For information about the author, visit here.