Getting to the Bottom of Waipi‘o Valley

Perhaps the most unexpected way to experience the valley is by mule-drawn wagon. This narrated cultural and historical tour organized by Waipi‘o Valley Wagon Tours (meet at Last Chance Store, Kukuihaele, 808/775-9518, three tours Mon.-Sat., adults $55, senior $50, children 4-12 $25) allows you to get down into the valley without exhausting yourself. The tour is only 1.5 hours and that is a bit short given the amount of time it takes to actually get down into the valley. It’s a good option for people short on time or families who want to travel together.

Hiking into Waipi‘o Valley

It is possible to walk into the valley on your own. More complicated, however, is to walk the rim, as it is private property and tour companies lease rights to pass through it. Most people only take the journey into the valley as a means to the end—the end being the beach at the end of the road.

To begin the vertical trek down into the valley park your car in the lot at the end of Highway 240 or, inevitably, on the street. The road walkers take down to the bottom and onward to the beach is the same paved road the cars use. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen for the walk—and a snack (I recommend picking up malasadas at Tex’s in Honoka‘a before you go—you’ll thank me for this tip). You’ll be sweaty and thirsty by the time you get to the bottom. And don’t underestimate the downhill part of the journey—for many it’s actually more challenging than the uphill part since it’s quite hard on the knees. Give yourself about 45 minutes to get down and an hour to get back to the top. There are no public restrooms in the valley and just the portable potties at the beach, so use the nicer facilities at the Waipi‘o Overlook before you head down.

Stretching over a mile, Waipi‘o Beach is the longest black-sand beach on the Big Island.
Stretching over a mile, Waipi‘o Beach is the longest black-sand beach on the Big Island. Photo © Waifer X, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.


Waipi‘o Ridge Stables (check in at Waipi‘o Valley Artworks, 48-5416 Kukuihaele Rd., Kukuihaele, 808/775-1007, morning and afternoon 2.5-hour ride $85, five-hour morning ride $165) can accommodate beginners, but it may be nerve-wracking since no training is provided. The horses are on auto-pilot, so there isn’t much for you to do but enjoy the views. The important thing to note is that the ride is not through the valley, but through a eucalyptus forest to a great lookout spot. The ride is still nice and relaxing, but it doesn’t offer the nonstop outstanding views that a ride through the valley might have. Also, while the wranglers are incredibly friendly and want to make you feel comfortable, they offer minimum background information about the area while you ride.

But if touring the valley is what you want, then your best option is Na‘alapa Stables (check in at Waipi‘o Valley Artworks, 48-5416 Kukuihaele Rd., Mon.-Sat. 9am and 12:30pm, $68-89). Known for their quality service and excellent guides who share stories of Hawaiian history and culture, this tour books up quickly, so make sure to plan ahead. Riders meet at Waipi‘o Valley Artworks and then are transported down into the valley in the ranch’s four-wheel vehicle. The road down to the valley is steep, so this trip might not be for the faint of heart. The entire tour is 2.5 hours, but actual horse time is not that long given the amount of time it takes to travel up and down into the valley.

Similarly, Waipi‘o On Horseback (Hwy. 240 at mile marker 7, mauka side, 808/775-9888, daily 9:30am and 1:30pm, $85 plus tax, discount if booked with ATV tour) is another valley trip that will get you there and near to the waterfalls. The ride through the valley is similar to those of other companies, but the guides do not seem as knowledgeable or as engaged with riders as guides at other companies.

The 1450 foot high Hi’ilawe waterfall cascades down the wall of the Waipi‘o Valley.
The spectacular Hi‘ilawe waterfall in Waipi’o Valley. Photo © Les Williams, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Four-wheel-drive or Shuttle

The road leading down to Waipi‘o is outrageously steep and narrow, averaging a 25 percent gradient! If you attempt it in a regular car, it’ll eat you up and spit out your bones. More than 20 fatalities have occurred since people started driving it, and it has only been paved since the early 1970s. You’ll definitely need four-wheel-drive to make it; vehicles headed downhill yield to those coming up.

Not everyone can walk down to the valley on their own or has time or funds to join a tour. But residents of the area have asked me to nicely request that you do not drive down unless it is completely and utterly necessary. Residents have been organizing the last few years to cut off the tourist traffic to the valley as the cars not only create a preventable traffic mess on the road but also inflict environmental havoc on the landscape.

If you do want to be shuttled down to the bottom, the Waipi‘o Valley Shuttle (808/775-7121, $45 adults, $20 children under 11, reservations recommended) makes a 90-minute descent and tour of Waipi‘o Valley in air-conditioned, four-wheel-drive vans that leave from Waipi‘o Valley Artworks in Kukuihaele, at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm Monday-Saturday. Along the way, you’ll be regaled by legends and stories and shown the most prominent sights in the valley by drivers who live in the area. This is the easiest way into the valley, and the guys know what they’re doing, as they’ve been at it since 1970. Sometimes drivers of this shuttle will give hikers a ride down to the valley floor or up the road to the overlook parking lot for a few bucks, if there’s room in the vehicle.

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