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I’ve come to the end of the road. Literally. Highway 240 dead-ends and the land falls away to the ocean almost 2,000 feet below. With its jungle-covered, emerald cliffs, dropping straight down to the Pacific, pretty much everything about the Hamakua Coast on the north shore of Hawaii’s Big Island is spectacular. But at a mile wide and nearly six miles deep, Waipio Valley is not only the Valley of the Kings, it’s the king of Hamakua Coast valleys.

Michelle waffries' photo of Waipio Valley.

View from the overlook. Photo by waffries.

Waipio Valley History

This lush gorge was once home to the Hawaiian Alií (nobility). Estimates say that 4,000 -10,000 people once occupied this fertile valley before the time of European contact. It remains a prime spot for growing taro (a tuber which was the staple food of native Hawaiians) and you can see taro plants on the valley floor as you make your way out to the beach. King Kamehameha launched his conquest of the neighboring islands from this area and the valley remains a culturally important site to Hawaiians.

In its more recent history, Waipio Valley was populated by Chinese immigrants, and the valley floor had public amenities like schools, churches, restaurants, etc. But the deadly 1946 tsunami devastated the settlement and today Waipip Valley is sparsely populated.

SF Brit's photo of Waipio Valley.

From the air. Photo by SF Brit.

Hiking in Waipio Valley

If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or don’t want to deal with that adventurous of a driving experience (the descent boasts a 25% downgrade and flooding is common once you reach the bottom), you can hike down.  It’s quite a huff coming back up, but what the heck, you’ll feel entitled to another shave-ice after burning all those calories.

Scott Carpenter's photo of an adventure on the valley floor.

There are advantages to NOT driving. Photo by Scott Carpenter.

Once you reach the bottom and have had your fill of beaching-it in the soft, black sand,  there are a few options. Hiking to the back of the valley is discouraged because locals have posted “private road” and “no trespassing” signs. Whether or not the road really is private is debatable, but regardless- tourists may not be welcome.

pixtory's photo of black sand at Waipio Valley.

There’s nothing so Hawaiian as nestling your toes in black sand. Photo by pixtory.

No matter. I recommend crossing the beach to opposite side and hiking up the cliff to (at least) the first switch-back on the makai (ocean) side. The sweat you put in to reaching this point is rewarded with a marvelous view all the way to the rear of Waipio Valley. You can see at least two waterfalls, one at the back of the valley and one underneath the parking lot of the overlook. And of course, there’s that beautiful coastline.

To get here, you will need to cross the river. How bad can that be? Well, on an incoming tide it can get a bit hairy and even dangerous. Check the tide tables in advance and plan accordingly. When the tide is out, crossing is a peace of cake.

Another option is to turn right when you reach the beach and hike out to the waterfall that’s under the overlook. Again, the timing of your hike should be synchronized with the tides, otherwise you might find yourself trapped. Check the tables ahead of time and don’t be stupid.

Rob Lee's photo of the Waipio Valley floor.

The valley floor. Photo by Rob Lee.

Waimanu Trail

If you’re a serious hiker, then once your reach the top, you can continue on the Waimanu or Muliwai Trail which winds through pine forests at the top of the cliff and eventually reaches the next valley – Waimanu. The round trip from Waipio Valley to Waimanu Valley and back (there is no road to Waimanu Valley) is 19 miles. This is not a trail for novice hikers, and I have not attempted it. If you do, you’ll need to carry lots of water, mosquito repellent, nourishment etc.  Flash floods are common in these valleys, so try to be informed about the weather forecast.

Waipio for Wimps

If strenuous hiking is not your cup of tea, there are other ways to see Waipio Valley. You can hitch with other tourists with 4-wheel drive vehicles, and locals often take pity on hikers dragging their tired asses up the hill.

If you don’t want to hike, but still want to feel adventurous check out these options:

Regardless of how you get there, Waipio Valley is likely to be a place you’ll not soon forget.

Few corners of the world offer so much variety in so little space as Hawaii’s Big Island.  If you can get yourself to the middle of the Pacific, here are a few tips to make the most of your time:

Lava flow. Photo by Wm Leler.

Volcan-O

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is not only a must-see travel destination, it should be one of the first places you visit when you’re on the Big Island.  There are two reasons for doing this at the start of your trip:

1)    The visitor’s center shows a short film which provides an excellent orientation to the unique geology, flora and fauna, and culture of the Hawaiian islands.  This will provide context for your entire trip.

2)    Conditions at an active volcano can change quickly and drastically. Sometimes there are spectacular views of the caldera, or of glowing lava flowing into the sea.  At other times you can’t see half a meter in front of you.  Parts of the park may be closed for safety reasons when sulfur dioxide levels are too high.  However, your entrance fee of $10.00 per vehicle gives you access to the park for 7 days. Making Volcano one of your first stops means you’ll have time to go there again if Mother Nature foils your initial visit.

Telescopes on Mauna Kea. Photo by Kate Ure.

Overhead

We may all be looking at the same sky, but trust me, it looks better from Hawaii.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world (9,750 meters from it’s base under the sea) is home to multiple world class telescopes. The air atop Mauna Kea is thin and clear, and there is little light pollution in the middle of the ocean.

Stargazing at Mauna Kea is an unforgettable experience. Constellations which you may be able to find easily from you home become difficult to spot, because of all of the “extra” stars around them.  You do not need to pay hundreds of dollars to go stargazing at Mauna Kea. The visitor center at (2,800 meters elevation) offers free viewing through their telescopes Friday through Sunday evenings. Dress warm- I’ve seen it snow up there, and if possible, schedule your visit for a night when there is little or no moon.

If you reach the summit (four wheel drive required), you may be able to tour the University of Hawaii telescope and the ingeniously designed (made of multiple hexagonal mirrors) Keck.  And of course, the view, looking down on the clouds, is spectacular.

 

Successful snorkeling! Photo by Wm Leler.

Ocean

Obviously, splashing around in the Pacific is one of Hawaii’s main attractions. Three of the west side’s best known snorkel spots are not to be missed:

–     Kahalu’u Beach (around mile post 5 on Alii Drive)
It’s convenient location, protected waters and all the amenities make this perfect spot for novice snorkelers, or experts snorkelers wanting a quick dip before setting out for other activities.  There are bathrooms, snacks for sale, gears for rent and shady trees.  The abundance of turtles and colorful fish make you feel like your in an aquarium.  The only downside is that everyone knows about it so you’ll see a lot of humans too.

–     Kealakekua Bay
Famous not only for it’s beautiful waters, but also as the place where legendary explorer James Cook met his death in 1779, Kealakekua Bay lies a little south of Kailua.  The waters are crystal clear and a natural drop off makes for a spectacular coral-covered wall.  Getting here can be tricky.  You have a choice between signing on with a snorkel cruise and coming by boat, hiking the 3.2kms down from Napoopoo Road (remember to save energy for hiking back up), or renting a kayak and paddling across the bay.  All are good options, but if you choose the latter, you may find yourself in the midst of playful spinner dolphins.

–     Honaunau 
Adjacent to Pu’uhonau o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historic Park, which is definitely worth a visit, this is another undersea paradise.  Lovely coral, occasional dolphins and an underwater sign saying, “Aloha,” welcome snorkelers.  In spite of the “two steps” for which the site is known, I sometimes find getting out tricky.  If you’re having trouble, check for safety and use the boat ramp.

If you can’t pronounce the Hawaiian names, you can use the “haole” place names; Snorkel Beach, Captain Cook, Two Step (respectively).

Onomea Bay and Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Photo by RDPixelShop.

Onomea Bay and the Hamakua Coast

The big Island has several botanical gardens.  My favorite is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden  just north of Hilo as you head up towards the Hamakua coast.  Access the garden by taking the Onomea Bay Scenic Route turn off.  (Do this anyway, even if you’re not interested in the Botanical Garden).  Literally thousands of tropical plants are displayed and labeled, and the scenery is spectacular.  After you leave Onomea Bay and continue north, stop at Akaka Falls.  The water cascades down some 400 feet and your experience at the Botanical Garden will allow you to recognize some of the jungle flora you’ll see while hiking to the viewpoint.

Outstanding Guidebook

The Big Island Revealed by Andrew Doughty is an indispensable resource. (There’s an iPhone app too.) It will give you access to hiking trails, pristine beaches, and many things you might not discover on your own. Don’t leave home without it.