This amazing valley is one of the most incredible places on Hawaii's Big Island. Located near the northern tip of the island, Waipio Valley was once home to Hawaiian royalty who oversaw the cultivation of taro root (loi) in the valley's fertile earth. Around fifty residents still make their home in Waipio and some of them still cultivate taro. When visiting the valley, remember that you are in someone else's backyard and a places that many people consider sacred—so, as with all of Hawaii, enjoy but be respectful.
To get to Waipio Valley, turn off of the Hawaii Belt Road (Highway 19) onto Highway 240 at the town of Honokaa. Follow Highway 240 for about 9.5 miles where it dead ends at the valley's lookout point. If you don't have a 4 Wheel Drive vehicle, don't drive any further. The road into the valley is paved but very steep (25% grade). Only a 4 Wheel Drive vehicle can reliably make it down and up the challenging road. Even experienced 4 wheelers may want to skip driving down during wet periods because deep mud puddles form on the dirt roads at the bottom of the valley that can be very dicey to navigate. How deep? Well, you usually have to get in to find out and by then it's too late! If you are driving down, make sure to give way to vehicles coming up.
The steep road down to Waipio
Watch out for mud puddles!
For those not driving down, you can park your car in the area near the lookout at the end of Highway 240. To get a closer look at the valley, the alternative to driving down is to walk. The one mile walk takes about half an hour going up and at least 45 minutes coming up.
Alternatives to driving down yourself or walking include taking a shuttle ($45, call 808-775-7121), a mule-drawn wagon tour ($60 for adults, $30 for kids), an ATV tour ($160), or a horseback riding tour ($90).
No matter how you get to the bottom of the Waipio Valley, once you get there, turning to your right will take you towards the beach and turning to your left will take you towards the back of the valley and Hi'ilawe Falls. The mile-long black sand beach at the opening of Waipio may make you feel like you just walked onto the set of Lost or Jurassic Park. Near the eastern end of the beach is the sometimes on sometimes off (depending on whether the water flow is being diverted or not) Kaluahine Falls. The western end of the beach meets the cliffs where a switchback trail climbs up and over into neighboring Waimanu Valley. Getting to Waimanu Valley is a long, hard hike of several miles. A trip to Waimanu and back requires an overnight camping stay of at least one night to make it worth while and camping permits are required. Even if you have no plans to hike to Waimanu, however, it is worth walking up the first few switchbacks (about 400 feet above the beach) for a great view of Waipio Valley that you don't get from the lookout at the end of Highway 240.
The black sand beach is split by Hi'ilawe Stream, which flows from the back of the valley and into the ocean at the beach. Be very careful when enjoying the beach. These waters are know for rough surf, strong currents and undertow that can overwhelm even strong swimmers. There are no lifeguards on the beach, so stay out of the water on anything but the most calm days. The area just behind the beach is protected by trees and makes a nice spot for a picnic.
Looking into the valley from near the beach
If, instead of heading toward the beach, you take a left at the bottom of the road that descends from the lookout, you will wind your way back into the lush reaches of Waipio and towards 1,200 foot Hi'ilawe Falls. It is possible to hike all the way to the falls by roughly following the stream but the trail is not well worn and getting to the falls usually means crossing the stream (which can be deep in places) a couple of times. If you do hike all the way to the bottom of the falls, be aware that rocks fall from above. There's no sign of a falling rock until it makes a loud slap as it hits the water and by then, well, it could have been your head. Needless to say, hanging out directly under the falls is a risky and harrowing experience once you realize that these rocks are falling. You don't have to go inland very far from the bottom of the road to see the falls, so most people will enjoy the view from somewhat further back.
The roads at the bottom of the valley are public roads, so feel free to explore, but be mindful of areas that look like people's homes. While exploring the valley floor and its lush green expanses, you might meet some stray dogs or even wild horses.
Even if you just stop to take in the view from the lookout above, a stop at Waipio Valley is a must if you're driving around the Hamakua Coast on the northern side of Hawaii's Big Island. Better yet, pack a picnic lunch and make a day trip out of it. Explore this hidden paradise that used to be the home of Hawaiian royalty.