Unveiling the Beauty of Waipio Valley: Exploring the Hidden Gem of the Big Island (updated 2023)
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.
** Currently the County of Hawaii has closed down the road to Waipio valley because of deteriorating conditions of the roadway. All traffic going to down to the valley is off limits to all visitors.
But – you can still visit the rim area and view Waipio Valley from the observation areas overlooking the entire gulch from above. You’ll be impressed by the grand scale of seeing the valley from above.
The short walk down from the parking area to the observation look out is still spectacular to experience and see the panoramic views of the valley from above.
Discover the Enchanting Beauty: Visit Waipio Valley
History of Waipio Valley
The Southern most of the 7 valleys of the windward Kohala mountain, Waipio valley 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.
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.
Waipio 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.
The large waterfall in the back of the valley is called Hiiilawe falls which is the largest waterfall on all of the Hawaiian islands and dropping from a height of 1,450 feet from the top to the valley. Going through private property, it is not advisable to hike to the back of the canyon area to visit the waterfalls.
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.
Discover the Enchanting Beauty: Visit Waipio Valley
Visit the Waipio Valley lookout point
Most visitors to Waipio Valley 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.
**as noted above – the road access to the bottom is close because of deteriorating conditions of the road so you can only see the valley from above.
This section below does not apply and you cannot drive or walk down into the valley for the time being.
Drive or hike down Waipio Valley (this road is temporarily closed)
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.
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.
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.
Weather and best time to visit Waipio Valley
The weather in Waipio Valley is influenced by its tropical rainforest climate, characterized by warm temperatures and significant rainfall throughout the year. The valley’s lush greenery, cascading waterfalls, and vibrant flora are a result of the ample rainfall it receives.
The best time to visit Waipio Valley largely depends on your preferences and the activities you plan to engage in. The months of April to October generally offer drier and sunnier weather conditions, making it an ideal time for outdoor exploration, hiking, and capturing the breathtaking views.
It’s important to note that even during the drier months, some rain showers can occur in Waipio Valley. However, these showers are often short-lived and add to the valley’s natural beauty. Be prepared with appropriate rain gear and clothing to fully enjoy your visit.
During the wetter months from November to March, Waipio Valley experiences more rainfall, resulting in a lush and vibrant landscape. This period can be ideal for witnessing the valley’s waterfalls at their fullest and experiencing the valley’s serene atmosphere.
It’s recommended to check the weather forecast before your visit and be flexible with your plans, as weather conditions can change rapidly in tropical environments.
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
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
Visit the look out point view for Waipio Valley
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
What to bring with you and other tips
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.
Swimming on the black sand beach is unpredictable with riptides and not advisable unless the weather and water is very calm at the beach area.
Places to explore around Waipio and the Hamakua coast
There are many places to drive close by and visit while you are touring Wapio Valley and explore more of the Hamakua coast or nearby towns.
Visit Honoka’a town on the Hamakua coastline
Honoka’a is the gateway town to Waipio with a variety of services, restaurants, shops and cool mom and pop shops to discover on the main street of town that is easy to walk through, grab some local snacks or even a nice meal.
Explore Paniolo country at Waimea, Hawaii
Waimea town is the largest town in the area and also a great spot to visit and check out the local farmers markets, shopping venues, adventure tour locations or eat at the many nice restaurants in the area.
Explore Akaka Falls
Akaka Falls is famous for the double falls and botanical gardens you can explore within this lush setting and an easy stop to visit along the Hamakua coastline.
Stroll around Honomu town
One the way to Akaka Falls is the sweet village of Honomu which is a perfect stop to discover some cute shops, bakery, art galleries and local eateries before or after visiting Akaka Falls.
Visit the area of Lapahoehoe Point
The dramatic point at Lapahoehoe is a beautiful drive from the cliffs of the Hamakua Coast to this coastline area with stunning views of the cliffs and ocean breaking over the lava rocks. Lapahoehoe also has a tragic past that is shown on some markers with a large tidal wave that killed many children and parents from a tsunami that struck the island and this small community.
Visit and hike to Pololu Valley
A gorgeous drive up the mountains from Waimea leads you to the west coast of the Big Island to a string of gulches that line this rugged area with the first being Polulu Valley. You can hike down this valley on a dirt trail to the black sand beach and explore this wonderful and natural environment.
Where to stay around Waipio Valley
If you are planning on exploring the surrounding areas of the Hamakua coast and Waimea, you can find accommodations in the Waimea area and Honoka’a area. Here’s you’ll find small inns, Air Bnbs and other mom and pop types of places to stay around the region.
Check out these top places to stay around the Honoka’a town area here for reviews and current prices.
Check out these places to stay around the Waimea area here for reviews and current prices.
Have you visited Waipio Valley?
Enjoyed your visit here or any other tips to share? Please share on the comments below.
Conclusion to exploring Waipio Valley on the Hamakua Coast
Visiting Waipio Valley is a truly captivating experience that will leave you in awe of its natural beauty and cultural significance. From the breathtaking views of the towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls to the lush greenery and black sand beach, every moment spent in Waipio Valley is filled with wonder.
As you explore the valley, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the rich history and legends that surround this sacred place. Engage with the local community, who have preserved their ancestral traditions and share their knowledge with visitors.
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