Reinventing Waimea Falls

One of Oahu's most storied parks gets a new name and a new ecotourism mission

By: Marty Wentzel

The reinvention of Waimea Falls Park officially began on June 29, when the North Shore attraction reopened to the public as Waimea Valley Audubon Center.

Officials with the National Audubon Society which was recently awarded management of the park say they are shifting the focus away from pure entertainment. Instead they are turning the park into a place where visitors and residents can learn about the area’s rich history, culture and nature and have fun at the same time.

Over the years, Waimea Valley officials have taken various approaches toward keeping the attraction competitive. They presented cliff-diving shows at the 45-foot waterfall and hula lessons for guests. They introduced theme areas, including a butterfly house and children’s play structure. A live evening show depicted the legends of the valley, and other activities included kayaking, horseback riding, all-terrain vehicles and mountain biking. Guests could tour the park on foot or in motorized trams.

Despite the innovations, Waimea Valley’s most recent owner, New York investor Christian Wolffer, was forced to place it under bankruptcy protection in April 2001. The City of Honolulu bought the park from Wolffer last year for $5.1 million. It awarded a 30-year lease to Audubon on April 30, 2003.

Now, according to Diana King, Audubon Society project manager, the park is going the natural route, eliminating the cliff-diving and hula shows, and removing all electric amplification, except for during special events.

“We’re working on developing more authentic, cultural, botanical and ecological experiences and programs,” King said.

“We want to encourage people to get out in nature, so we are not providing tram rides any more,” said King. “We have wheelchairs for those who need them, and we are exploring options for offering solar-powered golf carts for rent.”

The 1,875-acre valley, populated centuries ago by Hawaiians, is well known for its restored living sites and ancient agricultural terraces. Clients may spy endangered birds, walk through 35 gardens with thousands of rare plants from around the world and visit Hale o Lono heiau, a sacred outdoor place of worship for early inhabitants.

Audubon will present a true ecotourism experience.

“Native species will gradually be restored to uncultivated portions of the valley, creating a backdrop of ancient Hawaii,” said King. “Visitors can explore the valley’s stream, walk gentle paths, hike valley trails or picnic in a secluded spot.”

Under Audubon management, each guest gets a self-guided trail map/brochure identifying key points of interest, focusing on the history and culture of the valley.

Visitors can walk to the waterfall, approximately three quarters of a mile from the entrance, where they can swim from noon to 4 p.m. daily under the supervision of a lifeguard.

The park’s visitor center sells food, beverages and picnic lunches. Clients will also find a nature store with books, exploring gear, logo items and gifts.

Under Audubon’s management, the park is also reducing its admission fees, previously $24 per adult. Visitor rates are now $8, with a $5 charge for children ages 4-12. Parking costs $2 per vehicle.

Waimea Valley Audubon Center is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas and New Year’s Day.