Waipio Valley on Hawaii's Big Island

Waipio Valley Road
Waipio Valley Road. Tom Benedict / Getty Images

Located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeast shore of the Big Island of Hawaii, the Waipio Valley is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. The Waipio Valley is a mile wide at the coastline and almost six miles deep, and along the coast is a beautiful black sand beach often used by motion picture production companies.

On both sides of the valley, there are cliffs reaching almost 2,000 feet with hundreds of cascading waterfalls, including one of Hawaii's most celebrated waterfalls, Hi'ilawe. The road into the valley is very steep (a 25% grade). In order to travel into the valley, you must either ride down in a four-wheel drive vehicle or hike down to the valley floor.

Waipi'o means "curved water" in the Hawaiian language. The lovely Waipi'o River flows through the valley until it enters the ocean at the beach.

Wild horses on banks of Waipio Valley River
Alvis Upitis / Getty Images

Visiting Waipio Today

When you travel to the Waipio Valley today, you not only step into a place steeped in the history and culture of Hawaii, you are entering one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. One of the best ways to explore, though is to go on the Waipio Valley Horseback Adventure with Na'alapa Stables, but another excellent choice is Waipio Valley Wagon Tours, which features a trip through the valley in a mule-drawn wagon.

Waipio Valley Horseback Adventure begins in the parking lot of the Waipio Valley Artworks in Kukuihale. The tour groups are kept quite small and you really feel that you are getting a personal tour of the valley; an average group has nine people and two local guides.

As part of the tour, you are driven to the valley floor in a four-wheel drive vehicle, which takes about 30 minutes, and when you arrive at the stable area in the valley, you are greeted by your trail guide. What follows is a 2.5-hour ride through the Waipio Valley.

As you travel on horseback through the valley you see taro fields, lush tropical vegetation, and breadfruit, orange and lime trees. Pink and white impatiens climb the cliff walls. If you are lucky you might even see wild horses as you ride across streams that feed into the shallow Waipio River.

The guide horses are wonderfully tame, and some of them are actually the horses that you may have seen at the conclusion of the motion picture "Waterworld," the ending of which was filmed on the beautiful black sand beach of Waipio.

Valley of the Kings: A Brief History

The Waipio Valley is often referred to as the "Valley of the Kings" because it was once the home to many of the rulers of Hawaii, and as a result, the valley has both historical and cultural importance to the Hawaiian people.

According to oral histories as few as 4,000 or as many as 10,000 people lived in Waipi'o during the times before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778; Waipi'o was the most fertile and productive valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.

It was at Waipio in 1780 that Kamehameha the Great received his war god Kukailimoku who proclaimed him the future ruler of the islands. It was off the coast of Waimanu, near Waipio, that Kamehameha engaged Kahekili, the Lord of the leeward islands, and his half-brother, Kaeokulani of Kaua'i, in the first naval battle in Hawaiian history—Kepuwahaulaula, known as the Battle of the Red-Mouthed Guns. Kamehameha thus began his conquest of the islands.

In the late 1800s, many Chinese immigrants settled in the valley. At one time the valley had churches, restaurants, and schools as well as a hotel, post office, and jail. But in 1946, the most devastating tsunami in Hawaii's history swept great waves far back into the valley. Afterward, most people left the valley, and it has been sparsely populated ever since.

A severe deluge in 1979 covered the valley from side to side in four feet of water. Today only about 50 people live in the Waipio Valley. These are taro farmers, fishermen, and others who are reluctant to leave their simple lifestyle.

The Sacred and Mystical History of Waipio

Aside from its historical importance, the Waipio Valley is a sacred place for Hawaiians. It was the site of many important heiaus (temples). The most sacred, Pakaalana, was also the site of one of the island's two major pu'uhonua or places of refuge, the other being Pu'uhonua O Honaunau which is located just south of Kailua-Kona.

Ancient burial caves are located in the sides of the steep cliffs on either side of the valley. Many kings were buried there. It is felt that because of their mana (divine power), no harm will come to those who live in the valley. In fact, despite great devastation in the 1946 tsunami and the 1979 flood, no one actually died in those events.

Waipio is also a mystical place as many of the ancient stories of the Hawaiian gods are set in Waipio. It is here that the brothers of Lono found Kaikiani dwelling in a breadfruit grove beside the falls of Hi'ilawe. Lono descended on a rainbow and made her his wife only to later kill her when he discovered a chief of the earth making love to her. As she died, she assured Lono of her innocence and her love for him.

In her honor, Lono instituted the Makahiki games—a designated period of time following the harvesting season when wars and battles were ceased, sporting competitions and contests between villages were organized, and festive events were commenced.

Another story set in Waipio tells how the people of Waipio came to be safe from the attack of sharks. It is the story of Pauhi'u Paupo'o, better known as Nanaue, the shark-man.