Exploring Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii: what to see and do now

In ancient times Waipio valley was a large community with Hawaiian kings that ruled and lived in this densely populated valley on the Kohala side of the Big Island. Now the valley has reverted back to its agricultural past and growing mostly taro and other indigenous or staple plants to sell at local markets and stores in the surrounding area.

The Southern most of the 7 valleys of the windward Kohala mountain, Waipio is expansive with 2,000-foot-high cliffs and a deep valley filed of forest, taro patches and small farms of the residents living here. At the mouth the valley is a gorgeous black sand beach about a mile long with a river that dissects the beach in half and then empties into the ocean. One the other end of the canyon is the hidden Hi’ilawe waterfall which descends 1,200 feet into the lush and verdant valley floor. Getting to the bottom an adventure in itself with a very steep incline that ranges from 25 to 40 percent which is enough to scary anyone from driving down.

Exploring Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii: what to see and do

History of Waipio Valley

Waipio in Hawaiian translates into “curved water” for the river that runs through the valley floor which is approximately 1 mile in width and around 6 miles deep into the many smaller valleys and waterfalls that feed directly to Waipio valley. The “Valley of the Kings” was home to many Hawaiian rulers and is said to have over 10,000 Hawaiians living there at one time. Burial caves are located on the steep cliffs of the valley and Kamehameha from the Kohala region was the first king and anointed one who conquered all of the islands of Hawaii and became the first king of Hawaii. The Valley is one of the most fertile areas of the island and taro and other staple crops are still grown in the area by local farmers today for their livelihood.

The valley was populated until 1946, when a devastating tsunami destroyed most of the valley and most of the existing structures and communities. Most of the families that survived the tsunami moved up from the valley floor and into the surround areas around Waipio. Since the major tsunami that devasted the entire island in 1946, only a very small community still lives here farming and living an agricultural lifestyle.

Note – there are ancient burial grounds and Heiau or temples around the valley floor and care should be taken not to avoid any kapu areas that are off limits for visitors.

History of Waipio Valley

Main visit at Waipio lookout

Most visitors to Waipio will drive directly to the parking lot and walk the short downhill path to the observation lookout to magnificent views of the entire valley from above, the cliffs and some of the waterfalls that run down the sides of the cliffs and into the ocean. You don’t need to go down the valley to get these wonderful views and most visitors just do that, observe, capture in pictures and then leave. It’s only a few that are adventurous enough to walk or even dare to drive down the very steep road to the valley floor. The walk down and hike to the beach area is acceptable but if you plan on touring further back into the valley then a tour is recommended.

Main visit at Waipio lookout

Drive or hike down Waipio Valley

The road down to Waipio is one of the steepest on the island with an average grade of 25% and up to 40% (in a few spots) which is very scary for most drivers. Also, the only way to take these roads is by 4 wd, take a tour or walk down the road yourself. The road is also very narrow and all uphill traffic has the right of way on this road, so it is extremely difficult.

If you decide to hike down to the valley and beach area from the observation point and back, the total length of this hike approximately 3 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 975 feet. The hike is considered moderate but will definitely test your strength on the hike back up unless you can hitch hike or pay someone to drive you back uphill.

Drive or hike down Waipio Valley to the valley floor

Black sand beach of Waipio Valley

Once you get to the valley floor from the road, make an immediate right heading towards the beach which is a relatively flat and fast walk to the beach area (the road on the left side of the fork is all on private property and visitors are not allowed to walk through the back roads on private lands).  The Wailoa river runs down the length of the valley and splits the beach into two areas and depending on the amount of water on the river, can be easy or difficult. Swimming on the beach is also dependent on how rough the waves and undertow is when you visit. Most of the time the beach is known for rough surf and rip current that make it very dangerous to swim in especially in the winter months. Also, there are no lifeguards at the beaches so you swim at your own risk. The black sand beach of Waipio Valley is composed of volcanic minerals and lava rock and fragments that gets churned and made into finer black sand particles.

Black sand beach of Waipio Valley

The Kaluahine Falls

Depending on the rainfall you may be able to see the Kaluahine Falls on the far right-hand side of the canyon and is visible if there is a lot of rain that has occurred in the area and makes a fantastic photo op. You can view the falls from the mid section of the beach area closer to the river. If you try to walk to the waterfalls, there are some jagged and difficult rock areas that make it impossible to get closer to the waterfalls.

The Kaluahine Falls

Tours down to Waipio Valley

There are local outfitters that take you down and tour the Waipio Valley so you do not have to worry about driving down yourself. The different options include:

You can check these outfitters for a variety of tours offered here to visit the Valley or combination of tours.

You can sign up for a variety of tours offered with this outfitter from a mule wagon tour here

You can do some of the fabulous horseback riding tours of the valley here to experience a more unique way to explore the valley area

Tours down to Waipio Valley

The Muliwai Trail

Hike the famous Muliwai Trail to the other side of the Waipio valley for fantastic views back into the valley.  To get to the start you have to go down the black sand beach and cross the Wailoa river to the end where you can find signs and the Z shape trail starting. The trail is not as well maintained and can be muddy or slippery at different points and will be about 4.7 miles to the lookout point, you can then explore to the next valley at Waimanu Valley (If you have obtained camping permits) Or, you can return back to the lookout point when you parked. Unless you are a strong and fast climber intent on doing this in one day, then getting a permit and staying overnight in the next few valleys is the typical adventure experience visiting the gulches of Kohala.

Best time to visit is during the dry season from April to October time frame when it is easy to walk down and back up to the other side and also to cross over the Wailoa river to get to the other side of the beach area.

How to get to Waipio Valley

From Hilo town on Hwy 19 – 49 miles west and past to Honoka’a and then drive through to the end

From Kona town on Hwy 19 – 61.2 miles east to Honoka’a, left turn at junction and drive to the end

Closest airport is at Kona International Airport

There is plenty of parking at the look out point and you can take the short downhill walk on paved road to view the entire valley from above. If you plan on hiking down or driving in a 4wd, then the steep road is right on the left-hand side. Uphill drivers do get the right of way on the road with very few turnouts. Once you reach the bottom turn right and walk down the dirt road all the way to the black sand beach and you can enjoy the beach area and explore the Wailoa river in the middle.

Here’s a quick video of what the hike down is like to the valley floor

How to get to Waipio Valley

What to bring with you

Sunscreen and mosquito spray for the valley floor

Plenty of water, there is no water available

Hat for shade

Hiking boots or sneakers – depending if you want to continue on the Muliwai trail to on the other side to Waimanu Valley

Towel or place to sit and picnic at the beach

Any snacks for food to keep you energized.

Places to explore around Waipio and the Hamakua coast

Visit Honoka’a town on the Hamakua coastline

Explore Akaka Falls

Stroll around Honomu town

Visit the area of Lapahoehoe Point

Visit and hike to Pololu Valley

Explore Paniolo country at Waimea, Hawaii

Have you visited Waipio Valley?

Have you visited Waipio Valley?

Enjoyed your visit here or any other tips to share? Please share on the comments below.

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Noel Morata this Hawaii Life

Meet Noel Morata

Noel Morata is the creator of This Hawaii Life along with a small team of contributors. Living on the Big Island and traveling regularly to the neighbor islands, Noel and team actively search and share the latest information and updates to Hawaii travel, food, adventure and various lifestyle activities on the islands for your planning and vacation. Aloha and enjoy This Hawaii Life.