Waipi’o Valley on the Hamakua Coast – Perhaps the Most Beautiful Place on Hawaii’s Big Island

Waipi’o Valley is arguably the most magical place on the Big Island. Hawai’ian myths hold that the fastness of 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 certainly much 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 as hauntingly lovely as it is 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, but this can prove challenging.

There is a four-wheel drive jeep road down into the valley but you really (and I mean 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 really do not want you on their road. Really. Tours down into the valley in vans, on horse drawn wagons and ATVs can be booked in the town of Honoka’a. Over-flights in fixed wing aircraft and helicopters also offer fine venues from which to see 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 may entail less than a thousand foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain to climb out) and fewer than 2 miles actual walking, but it feels much longer; it is hard, hot, dry, steep and, oh yes, did we mention hard? Really, really hard; no one who is not in very good physical condition should attempt this hike-better to pay for the van tour or flight. But the views and the photographs to be had by making this difficult hike are well worth the price of sweat and time. The hike down into the valley takes about ½ an hour. Allow twice that again for exploration of the valley floor and beach and at least an hour to walk back up. Be ever vigilant when walking on the road; local drivers will not deign to give you right of way and tourist drivers are notoriously at the very edge of losing control.

If you do go down into the valley, no fresh 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 only, due to the strong currents and big waves. Do not attempt to hike past the headland cliffs into adjacent vallies-it may seem passable, even tempting, but it is in fact impossible and extremely dangerous.

At the intersection at the foot of the valley, the road through the jungle tunnel to your left crosses private property; you should have permission to drive or walk 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 Valley is truly a magical place.

Below the Observation Platform, there are no services available in Waipi’o Valley. Hiking and camping are permitted in the valley by permit only; there is one small bed and breakfast establishment, but it is generally booked many 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 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 that formed 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 relatively uplifted blocks into these grabens causing erosion which further lowered the floors of these grabens with secondary, 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 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 formation of 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, also filling the valley. In fact, during the tsunami of 1946, the ocean flooded Waipi’o to 40 feet deep and half a mile inland! The infilling of the valley by these two processes accounts for why the valley bottom is so broad and flat, rather than the narrow, steeply sided valley we might expect here.

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.

The tsunami of 1946 pretty much cleared out the 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.