Take Highway 450 as far as it’ll go in East Molokai, and you’ll hit Halawa Park on the shores of Halawa Bay. This beautiful, far-removed oceanfront lies at the mouth of Halawa Valley, the views which tantalize the parkgoer. That vista is reason enough to come here, but those wanting more—including a closer look at the valley head’s tall waterfall—have the option of a guided hike upstream.
Halawa Valley is the easternmost of a series of cathedral valleys draining the rain-socked northern coast of East Molokai. Heading westward toward the Kalaupapa Peninsula, the Papalaua, Wailua, Pelekunu, and other valleys form steep-walled breaks in the green coastal wall. This is unquestionably one of the world’s grandest coastlines, given it’s fortressed by arguably the loftiest sea cliffs, 3,000-odd feet tall, on Earth.
The staggering cliffs and deep cathedral valleys derive from a mighty dramatic geologic event. A million or so years ago, geologists believe, the north side of the East Molokai shield volcano slumped into the ocean. (Deposits from this epic landslide can be identified on the seafloor more than 40 miles offshore.) That left a sheer rampart, subsequently excavated into ridges and valleys by this windward coast’s hearty streamflow.
Most of the cliff-walled north shore is roadless. Halawa Valley—several miles long and about a half-mile deep—offers an accessible taste for its grandeur. The drive there (about an hour-and-a-half from Molokai Airport) is a memorable one, with plenty of twists and turns. The ocean and valley views as you switch back down to Halawa Park are just a reward.
Halawa Valley is notable for recording some of the oldest evidence for continual habitation in Hawaii. The Polynesian ancestors of Native Hawaiians settled here more than 1,300 years ago. The valley shows clear signs of longtime cultivation. Probably originally clad in koa stands, it’s now a mixture of grassland, shrubbery, and forest.
The plants are a blend of native/Polynesian species and exotics. They range from the shorefront’s coconut palms and lower Halawa Stream’s hau thickets to extensive guava, mango, breadfruit, kukui, and more on the valley floor. Heiau (temple) sites are scattered throughout, indicating Halawa’s deep cultural heritage.
Many visitors are content with looking up the valley from the Halawa Park oceanfront. But it is possible to hike into the valley via a guided tour. Most of Halawa Valley is privately owned, and “No Trespassing” signs abound. The Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike offers a rare chance to travel here.
Led by members of the local Solatorio family, the 3.4-mile (round-trip) hike is moderately challenging. That’s mainly on account of abundant mud and tree roots, plus a couple of river-crossings. In wet weather, the stream can be knee-deep. The guides offer assistance in these fords, but this isn’t necessarily a great undertaking for very young children.
Along the way, you’ll learn about the valley’s plant life and Native Hawaiian history, with rock walls and evidence of taro agriculture on display.
The turnaround point is Halawa Valley’s single-most famous feature: 250-foot Mooula Falls. This two-tiered waterfall is a vision of tropical beauty, and aside from lunching here, you can (if conditions allow) take a dip in its plunge pool.
Whether you admire the scenery from the end of the highway or join a guided trek, Halawa Valley is one of Molokai’s most magical destinations.
In calm summer conditions, you can swim (exercising the usual ocean safety caution) at Halawa Park. If the surf’s high, though—the usual mode in winter, but also possible at other times of year—stay onshore.