Waipio Valley Offers the Seen and Unseen
The Big Island’s Waipi‘o Valley commands a certain majesty that is not found anywhere else in Hawai`i. With towering walls ascending to 2,000 feet, and multiple waterfalls misting between the valley ridges, it’s a sight to behold from the conveniently accessible lookout nestled just below the parking lot.
But the valley is much more than just a visual sight to behold and appreciate. Enter its depths and you’ll find the majesty of its character only deepens. But, proceed with caution.
The road leading into Waipi‘o Valley has been called the “steepest in the United States,” though confirming that claim may prove tricky. In any case, it’s a near-vertical descent that will have you trotting forward on foot, or keeping the brake to the floor by truck.
If you are attempting to drive this unruly downslope of pavement and narrow turns, make sure you’re behind the wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle only. Sorry folks, no AWD allowed.
By foot, it’s a beautiful view – interspersed with dodging traffic – and you can reach the bottom within 30 minutes. Keep in mind however that you must climb back out. Fortunately, people are often gracious enough to offer a ride to exhausted hikers holding out a thumb. Be sure to pack enough water as there’s no spigots to be found.
When you reach the valley floor, you’ll be greeted by a fork in the road. Going left leads to some of the many residences within the area, but visitors are discouraged from heading this way unless they have permission to enter private property. Turn right and you’ll be greeted by an overhead canopy of trees leading out to the ocean. The road is often buried in several lakes along the way, with footpaths snaking around. For drivers, take it slow and steady. The muddy pools can often plunge into an unexpected car wash.
Waipi‘o’s beach is a black-sand wonder surrounded by towering walls, crashing surf, and an intersecting river. If you’re in the mood for a swim, be cautioned. There are no lifeguards and the surf and current can be overwhelmingly powerful. Even so, the surf draws experienced bodyboarders and surfers to enjoy the powerful waves. From the shore, you can capture some amazing photos and get a sense of the valley’s majesty up-close.
Despite some of its hazards, Waipi‘o commands a subtle but palpable spiritual presence, and the early Hawaiians were keen to recognize it. Perhaps that’s what inspired them to make it the home of their monarchs, earning Waipi‘o the name, “Valley of the Kings.” Legend has it there are royal bones buried in caves along the valley walls, and similarly it is recognized as a residence of Hawaiian gods.
Today, Waipi‘o continues to cultivate traditional Hawaiian culture in its taro patches, a staple food that is distributed and eaten locally.