Known as the “Valley of the Kings, Waipo Valley is a dozen miles north of the small, rustic, windswept town of Honoka’a along Hawai’i Island’s Hamakua Coast, the highway comes to a dead-end approaching the cliff of a massive valley.
This is the Waipio Valley Overlook, where visitors can catch a glimpse of one of the island’s truly iconic natural wonders and take a step back in time to the days of ancient Hawaiian royalty. There is a long mortared black lava rock wall that runs along the cliff, with a heavily weathered sidewalk beneath it that gradually slopes downward to meet the precarious one-lane road that – after many steep switchbacks and hairpin turns – winds down onto the valley floor. Here, standing in front of the rock wall and peering out through the clouds of white mist that roll down off of two-thousand-foot-high cliffs, is the best spot at the overlook to take in the full majesty of Waipio.
The view is magnificent: a cliffside of bright green, broad-leafed shrubs that quickly falls away to reveal the valley floor and its immense black sand beach, which arcs down to the base of brilliant green and gold cliffs on the valley’s far side – cliffs so steep they seem almost vertical. Crashing waves of royal blue ocean water roll across the beach in blankets of white foam, tossing about small lava boulders and sending up clouds of sea spray which drift up and linger in the forests bordering the beach. A lazy, meandering rivers runs through the heart of the valley, and broadens into a small delta as it meets the ocean.
On clear days, streaks of sunshine break through the clouds and illuminate the valley, making the polished black rocks strewn along the beach sparkle with golden light. All the nooks and crannies of the far cliffside get exposed in a dramatic relief, and the shadows seem to move across the cliffs and make their way up the valley. With a view like this, it is no wonder Waipio Valley Overlook has become a indispensable staple on the itinerary of virtually every traveller coming to the island – it simply cannot be missed.
Coming from the parking lot, there is a sloping concrete walkway lined on either side with a bright yellow handrail leading to the long rock wall and lookout proper. Walking uphill beside the wall brings lookout-goers to a simple restroom facility partially tucked into the shade of tall overhanging trees growing along the cliff. Nearby there’s a collection of reader boards with historical, cultural and ecological information about the valley, helping visitors understand the great significance of the area to Hawai’i’s past.
Another stand of reader boards is full of warnings: beware of falling rocks, dangerous cliffs, flash floods. This is good advice for those groups amassed at the lookout planning on hiking down to the black sand beach – a hike for which the lookout serves as a trailhead. The river running through the middle of the valley can flood during heavy rains, turning many of Waipio’s dirt roads into mud pits. Hiking through this quagmire is impossible, and is a sure-fire way to ruin a vacation. So, for those looking to brave the narrow winding road down into the valley and take a swim at the secluded, idyllic beach, it’s crucial to plan ahead and hike only on days with favorable weather.
A Look Into Hawai’i’s Royal Past
Waipio is the easternmost and largest of Big Island’s seven windward valleys, which have been cut out of the flank of Kohala Mountain by eons of erosion. In Hawaiian, Waipio means “curved water” – named for the winding river running down through the valley to meet the ocean. In the old days, Waipio served as the permanent home for the island’s ali’i, or royalty, in the centuries before Kamehameha The Great. And this was for good reason: being about one mile wide and six miles deep, Waipio was a sort of natural fortification, where enemies would have to scale down the treacherous cliffs in order to do battle, and where war canoes could be easily launched from the beach. This made it a suitable home for the royalty, earning Waipio the moniker “Valley of Kings,” from which many of the island’s affairs were governed.
The population of the valley continued to grow, and by the year 1780 Kamehameha was making offerings to the war god Kuka’ilimoku in the valley and proclaiming himself to be the future conquerer of all the Hawaiian Islands – a prophesy which would come true. With his victories, the archipelago would be united for the first time under one crown. Even in the decades after the violent overthrow of the monarchy by U.S. imperialism in 1893, Waipio was still a flourishing paradise – one of the most densely populated areas on the island.
All of this changed in 1946, when a massive earthquake far away in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands sent a incredibly destructive tsunami barreling towards Hilo, which struck roughly five hours later and killed 173 people and injured hundreds more. The wave entered the valley, sweeping many out to sea and obliterating most of the existing structures. Since then, a small, diehard community of people have made their homes in the valley, continuing to raise animals, hunt wild pigs and grow traditional Polynesian crops.
Waipio is rich and fertile, and in the past supported a large population with ubiquitous marshy fields of taro (otherwise known as “kalo”, the traditional Hawaiian staple crop). Taro is still grown in the valley to this day, and hikers exploring the area will unavoidably stumble across a field of two. Horses also roam the valley, most belonging to inhabitants but some wild, though this is a relatively new addition to the environment: horses were unknown in the islands before European contact.
In fact, these days this is one of the most popular ways to explore the valley – on horseback. There are several tour operators located both within the valley and close to the parking lot offering rides, though availability is limited and must be booked in advance. Also, Google maps shows at least one vacation rental property inside the valley, with more informal arrangements available, too.
How To Get There
Take Highway 19, otherwise known as Hawai’i Belt Road, to the small town of Honoka’a. Here there’s a modest downtown strip of tidy shops and open-air markets, with a supermarket at the far end of town. For those planning on hiking in the valley, whether it’s the relatively easy black sand beach hike, the more strenuous Muliwai Trail hike, or the extremely demanding day hike to Waimanu Valley – the next valley in line after Waipio – it’s crucial to pick up supplies in Honoka’a.
Past the town, there are no other amenities along the 12-mile drive to the overlook, which itself only has basic bathrooms. So pick up enough high-energy hiking snacks, some sunscreen and bug repellent, and most importantly drinking water. The air in the valley can be extremely hot and humid, and publicly accessible potable water isn’t available, so all needed supplies must be packed in and packed out. Be sure to pack out all rubbish and show respect for the area; Hawaiians consider this sacred land, and nothing draws their ire more than foreigners who do not “malama aina”, or “care for the land”.
An added bonus of setting off on the 6-mile-roundtrip black sand beach hike after a heavy rain is spotting the towering Kaluahine Falls crashing down the cliff face. This majestic waterfall can be seen from the beach looking east under the right conditions.
Exercise caution while swimming at the beach – it is well-known among locals for its rip currents and occasional high surf, making it a dangerous place to go swimming in less than ideal conditions. Valley-goers must be especially vigilant during winter months when Hawai’i sees its high-surf season.
The hike back up to the overlook from the beach is very strenuous – at one point the road rises 800 feet over the course of only half a mile. The average grade of the road is 25 percent, but peaks at 40 percent in some places. So, visitors should keep this in mind when planning to embark to the beach, and to make sure they conserve enough energy for the climb back up which – as virtually every hiker who’s completed the circuit will say – is the toughest part by a long shot.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In late-February 2022, access into the valley for non-Waipio residents was prohibited until further notice due to rockfall and landslide risks associated with traveling along Waipio Valley Road. This is a temporary restriction in order to keep the public safe, so visitors to the valley should check the most updated information for the status of the road, or just ask around in Honoka’a town