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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Naálapa Stables offers Waipio Valley horse back tours
- Or try a mule-drawn wagon tour
- Finally, there is the Waipio Valley Shuttle
Regardless of how you get there, Waipio Valley is likely to be a place you’ll not soon forget.