Waipio Valley Lookout
Big Island Hamakua Sights
Located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeastern coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i, Waipi'o Valley is the largest and southernmost of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains.
Time and nature's elements have carved an unimaginably massive valley filled with deep green-encrusted cliffs cut by plunging waterfalls. Its floor is carpeted with forests and neatly formed taro patches interspersed with the homes of its few residents.
At the mouth of the valley, the ocean licks the mile-long black sand beach which is sliced in half by the river that is partially fed by the 1,200 ft. free-falling Hi'ilawe Falls which resides deep in the valley.
The road into the valley is incredibly steep and out of respect for the residents, we do not encourage driving into the valley. However, we have been told that it is fine to walk in and hike to the beach, but do not explore the interior of the valley without a tour guide. As of early 2022, access to the valley is closed; see below.
Additionally, you will need to hike across the beach to hike the Muliwai Trail or any portion of Z-Trail (which can be seen etched in the opposing wall from the official lookout). The view from the third switchback of Z-Trail offers the most amazing view of Waipio Valley and is well worth the effort to reach.
2022 Closure Notice
On February 25, 2022, the County of Hawaii issued an Emergency Rule announcing the closure of Waipio Valley Road to visitors as a precautionary safety measure and to further assess and mitigate the road's conditions, effective immediately.
To limit vehicular traffic, the road remains open to Waipio Valley residents, farmers, property owners, and leaseholders with agricultural businesses in the Valley only. The decision is based on recommendations provided in a geotechnical assessment done on Waipio Valley Road, which outlines the immediate need to mitigate rockfall and address slope instability and erosion, for everyone's safety.
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Waipio Valley History
Historical Significance of Waipio Valley
For the Hawaiian people, Waipio is more than just a beautiful place, it holds deep spiritual significance. Often called the "Valley of the Kings," Waipio was home to many ali'i (ruling class). King Kamehameha received a statue of his war god, Ku, here and was told he would one day rule the islands.
Because of its fertility, Waipio became a rich farming area, producing abundant taro and bananas. Oral histories of Waipio claim that anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people inhabited the valley before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. So many generations of Hawaiians have lived and died in Waipio that it is considered to be full of their mana (spiritual power). In fact, the cliffs of the valley were often used as burial sites for rulers and chiefs. The spiritual quality of Waipio is further enhanced by the presence of several heiaus, including a place of refuge similar to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau on the south part of the island.
The population of the valley was diversified in the late 1800s when Chinese immigrants moved in and began farming rice in great quantities. It may be hard to imagine, but at one point this valley had schools, restaurants, churches, and even a hotel and post office.
However, in 1946, life on the Big Island changed when a devastating tsunami hit this side of the island. It completely washed out the valley, although miraculously, none of the residents perished. The tsunami did not claim lives in the valley, it did however change it.
Today only approximately 50 people call the valley home. It is a peaceful, simple existence, which makes it understandable that anyone who seeks such a serene environment would not be keen on lots of visitors. Waipio hosts a colorful cast of characters, from farmers to old-time hippies. Disputes between residents do occur, mostly over land rights, but are settled in the valley. Additionally, a few "rogue farmers" who grow the pokalolo plant (marijuana) have been known to set up booby traps to protect their 'crops'
It is for this reason, amongst numerous others, that we recommend only visiting the beach on your own and seeing the back of the valley with a guided tour. Below, we've covered both options.
Inside Waipio Valley
Exploring the inside of Waipio Valley
Currently, as noted above, Waipio Valley access is closed to the public at this time!
The main valley lookout is stunning and includes picnic tables and full facilities, but for those who want to see the valley from the bottom, there are two ways to do it. First, let's go over the do-it-yourself options.
The Waipio Valley Road is a 25% grade paved road that descends 900 feet in only one mile. The trip down the road should never be attempted in a normal car, only four-wheel drive is allowed. Evidence in the valley suggests trying to descend into the valley with any other vehicle is a bad idea.
Once you reach the bottom of the road, take a left and follow the road for less than a quarter of a mile. For those who are prone to mosquito bites, bug spray will make this hike much more enjoyable.
If the weather is cooperating you should be treated with a phenomenal view of Hi'ilawe Falls plummeting 1,200 feet down a mossy green wall. Its flow is determined by the amount of rainfall received in Waimea. Believe it or not, the streams that feed Hi’ilawe originate near Waimea. There are rumors that a trail to this waterfall exists. Our take on this is if a resident of the valley looks at you like you are crazy for suggesting the hike, it’s probably best left to the wild pigs and goats.
After seeing Hi'ilawe turn back the way you came. The road and land beyond the waterfall are considered private property. The dirt road to the beach passes through a wooded area with views of taro patches to your left. If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of the beautiful wild horses of Waipio. Also, be aware of what the lovely wild horses may leave on the path.
It should only take about 10 minutes to reach the beach on a fairly dry day. Budget more time if it has rained recently as puddles the size of wading pools build up quickly. Once you reach the beach, the path veers to the left through a grove of Ironwood trees that were planted to provide a windbreak. This area is designated burial/sacred grounds by the state and signs state “no camping” in certain areas.
The addition of port-a-potties makes the visit a bit more enjoyable (and sanitary). Never drink from the streams as the bacteria leptospirosis is likely present due to the many feral animals that live in the valley.
The raw beauty of Waipio Beach is stunning, but swimming here can be dangerous. As with many Hawaiian beaches, the surf can be high and rip tides treacherous. There are several accessible coastal waterfalls to your right as you are facing the ocean. Approximately 10 minutes of rock walking along the coast should guide you to Kaluahine Falls. If this one is dry, and many times it is, just another 20 minutes or so down the coast is Waiulili Falls. Make sure to exercise extreme caution while walking along the coast. Never turn your back on the ocean and try to attempt the hike at low tide.
Hiking in Waipio Valley
The parking lot at the lookout is a fairly popular hang-out, so do not leave any valuables in your car. You'll want to start this hike as early as possible because unless you plan on spending the whole day in the valley, you do not want to be hiking up the steep Waipio Valley Road with the afternoon sun beating down. Hiking sticks are very useful, despite the fact that the road is paved. The extra "legs" take a little bit of pressure off your calves and back. Going down might not seem so bad, but be prepared for gallons of sweat and plenty of huffing and puffing on the steep climb up.
Z-Trail - Muliwai Trail
Now, if you thought the view from the main Waipio Valley lookout was fantastic, we have something even better. When possible, we recommend hiking across Waipio Beach to the other side and up the valley wall for a peek into the heart of Waipio. You can see the trail from the lookout. It is the zigzag cut into the side of the cliff; it's the start of the Muliwai Trail which leads to Waimanu Valley, the next large valley over along the Kohala coastline.
When hiking across the beach you will have to wade through the Waipio River which dumps into the ocean. Only try this when the tide is low and always try to gauge the speed and depth of the water before crossing. If you are wearing hiking boots, bring water shoes for this part of the journey. Your feet will thank you later. Once you are at the end of the beach a small path leads to a gate. Do not go through the gate, instead, look to your right for several signs that mark the trailhead.
The walk to the third (and best) switchback is only about half an hour. The trail begins in a very wooded and mosquito-ridden area but eventually opens up on the side of the cliff. Once you reach the third switchback, turn around and take in the vast natural sight before you. From this side of the valley, you can see deep into the heart of Waipio. If you look closely you should be able to see the lookout and parking lot. From this vantage point, you can see the cascading Hi’ilawe Falls flowing through a crease in the valley wall. Notice how far back the valley reaches as it cuts around gently sloping cliff sides.
Trail at the back of Waipio Valley (Closed/KAPU)
At one time there was an incredible hike that skirted around the back of Waipio revealing stunning views of the 2,000-foot drop. The hike, which started just outside the city of Waimea, has been permanently closed.
Waipio Activities & Tours
There are other ways to experience Waipio Valley too if you're not looking to make the trek down into the valley on foot. We highly recommend taking a horseback riding tour, or any other commercial tours, as available. Here are some of our picks:
- Waipio Na'alapa Trail Rides. Their two-and-a-half-hour tour includes a drive in and a leisurely ride around the back of the valley.
- Waipio on Horseback is another option for a ride around the valley.
- Waipio Ridge Stables gives the rider a different view. The tour is two and a half hours around the rim of Waipio and on top of Hi'ilawe Falls.
- For those non-equestrians, Waipio Valley Shuttle will take you on a two-hour tour in one of their vans.
- Finally, Waipio Valley Wagon Tours also provides a unique one-hour tour of the valley in a mule-drawn wagon.
Beyond Waipio Valley
If you are eager to explore the beauties that lie beyond Waipio's far ridge, you can continue along Z-trail and down into Waimanu Valley. If only it were as easy as it sounds. This trail is not for the novice hiker. Once you reach the top of the ridge, it is another eight miles of hiking through gorges and over hills to reach Waimanu Valley. Do not attempt to do this hike in a single day. You will have to cross 13 streams along the way, so it is not advised during the rainy season where unbelievable amounts of mud and swollen streams will make the trek dangerous and significantly less enjoyable.
The descent into Waimanu can be tricky. Once you reach the end of the switchbacks, cross the stream to the campsites on the other side. Do not drink the water straight from the stream. It must be purified to be suitable for drinking.
If you are one of the adventurous to make the trip, you will likely have the valley to yourself. Waimanu has all the charm and beauty of Waipio without the people. At one time several hundred people lived in Waimanu until a tsunami made them leave for good in 1946. You may encounter some of the ruins on your exploration. Waimanu is bursting with waterfalls, including the spectacular Wai'ilikahi Falls on the far side.
Camping permits are required. It is worthwhile to make your visit last at least a few days. Your permit will allow you to stay for a maximum of seven days and six nights. Get one well in advance by calling the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife in Hilo at 808-974-4221.
If you do camp overnight, park your car at Waipio Valley Artworks for a small fee. No overnight parking is allowed at the lookout, plus your car will be safer in their lot. The store is located on Kukuihaele Road which branches off to the left when you are leaving the Waipio Valley lookout.