The Hawaiian islands were shaped and continue to be shaped by massive volcanic eruptions, and one fantastic place to see evidence of ancient volcanic creations is Pololu Valley on the Big Island.
Pololu Valley is located on the northeast corner of the island and is the result of the Kohala Volcano. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 years ago, volcanic activity here resulted in a massive landslide. That landslide took a significant chunk of the Kohala Volcano and sent it careening down the slopes, ultimately crashing into the ocean. The speed and magnitude of this landslide were such that it triggered a tsunami that reshaped the surrounding islands! The event also created the steep and abrupt cliffs that so define the Kohala shoreline, and the tens of thousands of years of erosion that followed created seven gorgeous valleys, including Pololu Valley.
There are three incredible ways to experience Pololu Valley. The following is a look at each.
Pololu Valley Lookout
The first and easiest way to experience Pololu Valley is via a drive-up lookout location. The Pololu Valley Outlook is a paved parking lot area that lies about 20 minutes east of the village of Hawi and at the very end of Highway 270. Yes, just take Highway 270, eventually, it will dead-end at this parking lot.
A short rock wall extends around the northern and western perimeter of this parking lot and offers a fantastic place to sit and soak in the beauty of Pololu Valley. Here, you sit high on a cliff looking down the steep slope to the verdant Pololu Valley stretching out just below you. Lush green cliffs and hills rise up on the other side of the valley and turquoise blue ocean waves crash to the north of you. It’s a spectacular vista to sit and ponder at.
Pololu Valley Hike
Those eager to get closer to the beauty of Pololu Valley can with the short, but very steep hike down to the valley’s floor where land meets the beach. The hike cuts as switchbacks directly into the cliff, so it is fairly direct and only 0.45 miles from the top of the Pololu Valley Lookout to the beach, with a small portion meandering a bit further on for a full 0.6 miles each way. The elevation change here is about 350 feet and parts of the trail will have a 13% grade, which is a very steep incline! If you have a hiking stick, you will want to grab it for this one.
This is a well-trafficked trail, and it is rare to find yourself as the only one or the only party on it. The regular crowds have helped to keep the dirt trail largely packed down, but you will still find plenty of loose rocks here. Keep an eye on your footing, especially after or during rainfall when the loose rocks and dirt can create slick and muddy conditions.
Steep and hazardous it might be, the Pololu Valley Trail does have some pretty special things going for it. Every step you take and turn you make offers fantastic views of the dramatic coastline and lush gullies. So don’t rush; enjoy the experience. And when you finally do reach the valley floor, you’ll have Black Sand Beach and its wooded dunes to explore.
Black Sand Beach
Black Sand Beach does not have lifeguards, or facilities, or is otherwise a place where you will want to swim (high surf and rip tides making swimming treacherous and not recommended), but it is quite beautiful. Born from volcano landslides and eons of erosion, the sands here are black and a rich, deep brown. This is a good place to go beachcombing or to lay out the picnic blanket and enjoy feasting in an incredibly unique island valley.
There was once a hiking trail, Honokane Nui, that continued on along Black Sand Beach to its eastern end and then climbed up the opposite cliff to lead hikers on to the next of Kohala’s seven valleys. Unfortunately, this trail was largely destroyed by a 2006 earthquake and resultant landslides and has not been repaired. You will follow this trail partly up to a nice lookout point, before seeing a sign prompting you to turn around.
Note that the inner lands of the Pololu Valley were once home to populous ancient Hawaiian settlements thanks to the land’s fertility. The people eventually left those lands but sacred burial mounds and other sensitive archeological locations remain. It is viewed as disrespectful for outsiders to thus venturing too far inland into these culturally significant places. Best to stay near the coastline.
During winter, Pololu Valley Lookout is one of the best and easiest to reach spots for whale watching. The best time to arrive is just before sunrise when whales are the most active and calmer ocean conditions can make spotting these magnificent creatures all the easier.