Visiting Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii had been on my bucket list since 2006. At that time, we were on a seven month assignment on Maui and had hopped over to Hilo for a weekend visit. We planned to hike the volcano, see waterfalls and drive down into Waipi'o Valley. I had done all the research, rented the jeep, was raring to go, and then we simply ran out of time. Not realizing how much larger the Big Island was to the other islands, I failed to plan for the driving time. Plan accordingly, from Hilo, it is an hour and fifteen minute drive and from Kailua-Kona, you are an hour and a half away. That's no stopping to take pictures or sightseeing but straight drive time.
Fast forward 11 years to 2017, when I received the news of the Big Island assignment my first thought was, "I finally get to see Waipi'o Valley!"
Waipi'o Valley is located on the North Shore of the Big Island. It is named after the river that runs through the valley. Waipi'o means “curved water” in the Hawaiian language. This valley is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. It is a mile wide at the coastline, almost six miles deep and has a beautiful black sand beach. On both sides of the valley the cliffs reach almost 2000 feet in height!
Waipi'o Valley Road is the steepest road of its length in the world! This makes the valley very difficult to access. The one lane road leads down into the valley from a lookout point located on the top of the southern valley wall. This road gains 800 vertical feet in a half mile at a 25% average grade but several sections have grades up to 45%. This is a paved public road but it is open to 4 wheel drive vehicles only.
If you decide to drive down yourself be aware of one very important rule: Downward vehicles give way to any vehicles coming up.
Seeing is believing...
I shot the image above from the opposite side of the valley. That diagonal curvy line between the trees is Waipio Valley Road.
Even if you have a 4 wheel drive, I would not recommend visiting the valley on your own. The public road ends at the first stream, once you cross that you are trespassing on private land. The tour companies have all received special permission from the landowners to access this property.
I would recommend taking one of the local tours: Na'aplapa Stables offer's tours on horseback. Waipio Valley Shuttle has a 4 wheel drive tour in a windowless van. Waipio Valley Wagon Tours takes you down by 4 wheel drive, switches to horse drawn wagon while in the valley and then back to 4 wheel drive to bring you back up.
Bounded by 2,000-foot cliffs, the "Valley of the Kings" was once a favorite retreat of Hawaiian royalty. From the 13th through the 17th century, Waipi'o Valley was the center of Hawaiian life and densely populated with somewhere between 4,000 to 20,000 people making their home here. That all changed somewhere around the time of King Umi in the 1600s.
Today, there are 47 homes in the valley with only 6 of those having electricity. The area is so remote that most of the landowners do not live here year around. You will only find one road sign, that's the one that marks the end of the public road. All others look the speed limit sign above.
Twin waterfalls flowing from Lalakea Stream tumble down an immense jungled wall into the deep Waipi'o Valley. The waterfall on the right side is Hi’ilawe Falls. This is the most famous waterfall in Waipi'o Valley. No one knows the exact height of this waterfall but it is somewhere between 1200 and 1600 feet tall, making it the tallest waterfall in the state of Hawaii. Sharing the same cliff wall with Hi’ilawe, the waterfall on the left is Hakalaoa. Hakalaoa is dry much of the time and only flows with strength after periods of rain.
Traffic backs up on Main Street in Waipi'o Valley when everyone slows down to cross Hiilawe Stream.
Once the public road ends it is necessary to drive through the Hiilawe Stream on the way to Hale O Kalo Taro Farm.
A lone Monkeypod tree stands sentinel over the taro fields near the steep Waipi'o Valley walls.
Hale O Kalo which translates to the House of Taro is a beautiful taro farm surrounded by the towering Waipi'o Valley cliff walls on the Big Island of Hawaii.
found the Halo O Kalo Facebook page while I was researching the area. They have a few videos up if you would like a closer look at taro growing in the fields.
It was slow going across the stream in the 4 wheel drive van. I was so happy when the driver paused right in the middle of the crossing so I could capture this image of all the beautiful rainforest vines upriver.
After a short hike through the rainforest, we saw the late afternoon sunbeams filter through the sea spray weathered trees right along the edge of Waipi'o Beach. It was absolutely magical!
We lucked into this beach hike since the shuttle was allowed to fill the remaining seats of a "private tour" with a large group. I was told that the Waipi'o Valley Shuttle does not normally make a trip down to the beach. Please, ask about your options if it this is a spot you want to see.
The golden glow of the late afternoon sun reflects on the voggy haze (volcano haze) in the atmosphere giving Waipi'o Beach an almost otherworldly glow. Look closely, there is a waterfall off the cliffs into the ocean.
Looking down the rugged Waipi'o Valley coastline from the Waipi'o Black Sand Beach.
This is not a swimming beach. Only enter the water on the calmest of days.
This is the last image I captured down in Waipi'o Valley. We had just completed our hike down to the beach and were standing beside the Hiilawe Stream waiting to climb into the 4WD when I looked behind me and noticed the sky was just starting to color up and the sun’s rays faintly outlining the mountains in the distance.
This image gives you a good feel for the location and for how rustic Waipio Valley actually is. This is the public/government maintained Waipi'o Valley Road and this section of the road was the best stretch of road in the valley. From here we started the climb back up to the top.
The slow ascent up Waipi'o Valley Road to the Waipi'o Valley Lookout. One small slip and it's straight down for us. One of the curves was so tight that the van made half the curve and then backed up against the valley wall just to get enough space to complete it.
After our Waipi'o Valley tour, we hurried back to the Waipi'o Valley Overlook for sunset. It had been a voggy/hazy day and I've always heard that vog (volcano smog) makes for colorful sunsets. This sunset sure didn’t disappoint, even though the sun was setting behind the Kohala mountain range, it threw amazing colors high up into the sky. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day!
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I am the 8th photographer in 4 generations of my family. Back in 2006, my husband accepted a job traveling and I jumped at the chance to go with him. We have spent the last 11+ years traveling the United States.