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My wife and I turned left off Hamakua Coast Highway and followed Waipio Road to the Waipio Valley Lookout, located on the northeast shore of Hawaii’s Big Island. We had read about the valley’s tremendous beauty, but nothing could prepare us for the view from the lookout at dawn.
We stared in utter amazement as the lush beauty of Waipio ascended from the valley floor all the way up to our rental car. We didn’t have four-wheel-drive, so we followed the 25 percent grade road to the valley floor on foot, enjoying the tropical splendor of the deepest, verdant valley on the island. The 1,000-foot descent was steep, but the epic scenery easily took our minds off the walk to the bottom of the mile-wide valley, the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains.
The view of Waipio Valley from the lookout is one of the best in the islands.
A hike into Waipio Valley is like a step back in time, when Hawaiian royalty ruled the island chain from the valley floor. Inhabited by 50 generations of Hawaiians for over 1,000 years, Waipio was the epicenter of political and religious life in Hawaii. Often referred to as the Valley of Kings, Waipio was the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I. According to oral histories, as many as 10,000 people lived in the valley before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778.
An eclectic, hardy few — less than 100 residents — live in the valley today, sustained by solar power and generators. For the most part, people live on their own terms here, and disputes are settled within the valley. Taro patches are the main staple of Waipio Valley residents. Visitors to the valley floor will come across several plots of well-maintained taro farms nestled along the rivers of the pastoral valley. Two herds of wild horses roam freely along the valley’s flowing rivers, lotus ponds, tangled jungles and stunning beaches. Leftover from the tsunami of 1946 that wiped out nearly everything in the valley, the wild horses remain, symbolizing Waipio’s freedom.
Hundreds of cascading waterfalls feed the valley floor. One of those is Hiilawe, an immense 1,600-foot waterfall that is the Big Island’s tallest and one of Hawaii’s most celebrated. Waipio means curved water, and from above, it’s easy to see why, as the slew of streams and rivers serpentine from the bottom of the falls to the black-sand beach.
We waded across several waist-deep flat-water rivers — each crossing a refreshing diversion from the valley’s steamy humidity. Other pools of water had mirror-like reflections of puffy clouds and the sheer cliffs bordering the valley. While standing in a flowing stream under a canopy of trees, my wife and I were suddenly surprised to see a Jeep come barreling down the narrow runnel. Life in Waipio appeared to be an everyday adventure.
After we finished exploring the depths of the valley, we headed for the shaded Waipio Beach. The ocean was inviting, and if clients hike here on their own, I recommend jumping in to cool off before beginning the ascent back to the lookout, but only if the ocean is calm. Visitors need to be aware of potentially powerful surf and swift ocean currents that frequent this scenic stretch of coast.
Camping is not allowed in Waipio Valley, but the adventurous can continue to Waimanu Valley — the next valley north of Waipio — where camping is allowed with a permit. From the Waipio lookout, clients can see the switchback trail to Waimanu ascending up the cliff on the other side of the beach.
Clients can take advantage of many modes of travel and scenic vantage points as they see and enjoy Waipio Valley. The view along the rim is unforgettable, and there are two ways to experience it. Waipio Ride the Rim ATV offers two trips per day, by reservation only. The other way is through Hawaiian Walkways, which now offers an exclusive hike along the rim. To enjoy a taste of the valley floor, clients are free to explore on their own, but several other options are available. Waipio Valley Shuttle is the original 4x4 drive tour of Waipio. Waipio Valley Wagon Tours presents mule-drawn trips, and Naalapa Stables leads adventures on Waipio-bred Hawaiian horses.
No matter how they experience Waipio Valley, clients need to respect the homes and privacy of its residents. Advise them not to trespass or pick any fruit. They should stay on the main roads and keep the noise level to a minimum. A daytrip spent on the valley floor will require food and at least two liters of water. While this may sound like a lot of rules, the effort is well worth it.