When my brother and I visited the Big Island in 1997, we had driven to the north end of the island to a viewpoint looking into the spectacular Waipi’o Valley. Unfortunately, we were on our way to Hilo to catch our flight home and we didn’t have time to go down into the valley. I vowed the next time I visited the island, I would take the time to explore this isolated corner of Hawaii.
Waipi’o means “curved water” in the Hawaiian language. From the rim, the cliff walls drop nearly 2,000 feet to the valley floor. On one end is a beautiful black sand beach popular with surfers. The upper end of the valley is surrounded by forested cliff walls and spectacular water falls. At one time, there may have been as many as 10,000 people living in the valley; now there are fewer than 50 permanent residents, most of whom raise Taro in the moist, fertile soil.
The road into the valley is extremely steep (25% grade) and narrow and requires a 4WD vehicle in order to reach the valley. On this trip, we didn’t have the appropriate vehicle, so we hired a local guide to take us down in his van. After meeting Jeff, our guide and driver, at the Waipi’o Valley Artworks, we hopped in the van and headed down the road into the valley.
I can understand the need for a 4WD vehicle on this road. Without a 4WD’s ability to gear down, you could easily overheat the brakes of a regular car. This wasn’t the worst road I’ve ever been on, but it was extremely narrow, making it a challenge when you have to get around someone coming the other way. Jeff left the sliding door to the van open, making for a spectacular, if not dizzying, view looking down the cliff wall into the valley bottom as we traversed the narrow road.
At the bottom, we passed by numerous settlements while Jeff told us about the inhabitants and some interesting stories of their lives in the valley. Waipi’o Valley is incredibly lush with thick rainforest interspersed with Taro plantations. At one end of the valley, we stopped for a nice view of a spectacular waterfall cascading down the side of the valley wall.
At the end of the road, we stopped again to briefly walk around and take pictures before getting back in the van for the ride back up the steep, narrow road. We passed several people who had hiked down into the valley and were now struggling back up the road under their own power. I like a good challenge, but I was glad to let someone drive me to the bottom, and was especially happy to be hauled back up.
The tour was short (about two hours), but we really enjoyed seeing this magnificent valley up close while learning about its flora and fauna, history, and the colorful folks that still live here. I waited 15 years to finally get my chance to descend into Waipi’o Valley; it was worth the wait.