Take the Hamakua Heritage Corridor from Hilo to its endpoint, and you’ll find yourself at the Waipio Valley Lookout. Set in the far north of the Big Island, this vantage overlooks the “Valley of the Kings,” drenched in Native Hawaiian history as well as breathtaking scenic beauty. It’s one of the must-see highlights of the windward Hamakua Coast.
The Waipio (“curved water”) is one of the great valleys draining the slopes of the island of Hawaii’s northernmost and oldest shield volcano, Kohala. The valley bottom, strung through by the Waipio River, still supports taro fields, though the population has greatly dwindled from the valley’s bygone heyday.
Fed by the major rainfall Kohala’s windward rise produces, the river system has cut a deep, fairly square-edged gouge into the volcano’s flanks. (It’s one of a whole series of these deep-cut valleys and gulches.) The Waipio Valley’s green walls rise several thousand feet above the lush floor. Those sidewalls end in bold sea cliffs overlooking the Pacific breakers. The scenery magnificently embodies the translation of Hamakua: “land of the tall cliffs.”
Headwater and tributary branches of the Waipio Valley Lookout tend to begin with impressive waterfalls. Indeed, the tallest waterfall on the Big Island is among the streams plunging dramatically into the Waipio Valley. Hiilawe Falls drops some 1,300 feet in a stunning ribbon.
The scenic splendor of the Waipio Valley is reason enough to drive to the Lookout. But, as we’ve mentioned, this spectacular chasm is also a very significant site of Native Hawaiian heritage. Centuries of Hawaiian royalty called it home. The hugely influential King Kamehameha I, who became the first ruler of the unified Hawaiian Kingdom, partly grew up in the Waipio Valley.
Many travelers simply enjoy the big-picture views of the valley from the overlook. A road descends into the Waipio Valley, but it’s a notoriously steep four-wheel-drive route not recommended for visitors. You can hike into the Waipio Valley down to the black-sand beach at its mouth, with the Muliwai Trail switchbacking up the cliffs on the other side. (The strenuous Muliwai eventually reaches the Waimanu Valley.) It’s also possible to take guided jeep, horseback, or foot treks here.
Otherwise, bear in mind that much of the valley is private land. (That includes Hiilawe Falls, off-limits to the public without the proper permission. Beware of sources suggesting otherwise!)
A drive along the Hamakua Heritage Corridor to the Waipio Valley Lookout ranks among the Big Island’s top sightseeing experiences. The grandeur of the landscape and its immense cultural significance make for a rather unforgettable excursion.
The parking lot at the Waipio Valley Lookout is on the small side. There are options for parking a bit up the road, but make sure you’re using adequate pull-offs.