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Hawaii's Waipi'o Valley

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We planned to visit the Waipi’o Valley on our last visit to the big island. It’s not an easy place to access without a 4WD vehicle unless you consider “easy” a 2+ mile hike on a road that hits a 40% grade a few times, and drops or rises at about 30% for most of those 2 miles. Since we had a rental that was a 2WD at the time, we were going to meet up with some local folks and ride down to the black sand beach with them. Unfortunately, due to a mishap on an unplanned hike involving a pair of new slippahs, a fallen tree trunk, and the side of my ankle smacking lava rock, we had to cancel.

Fast forward to a year later, and we were back – with my healed ankle, a 4WD Jeep Wrangler, and hiking shoes in the vehicle at all times.

After a fair amount of research on the drive (looking up maps and GPS routes, checking into the local rules, and reading about a few other people’s experiences on the road) we concluded that we could tackle this on our own in the Jeep. A few things to know about this road are:

  • It’s a steep and narrow asphalt road that is one lane for much of the drive.

  • Did I mention “it’s steep” in the last point? It is.

  • As most overland drivers and mountain bikers know, the one coming uphill always has the right of way. Pull into one of the wide spots and wait for the other vehicle to clear.

  • There is a lot of foot traffic going in both directions. Some of those going uphill is pretty wiped out and might not be able to get out of the road quickly.


We arrived at the Waipi’o lookout point and, after waiting for 3 local cats to vacate an otherwise empty spot, we parked the Jeep. There’s a nice spot to take in the local scenery, snap some photos of majestic waterfalls, sit a spell for a snack on picnic tables, and catch a glimpse of the black sand beach at the end of the road. As I looked around to take it all in, I noticed two horses frolicking and rolling around on the sand far below. More on these guys later… .

We walked over to the road to check conditions since there had been some rain the night before. It was definitely steep, but after seeing passenger vans and utility trucks driving up the road, it was clear that we’d be more than fine in our Jeep. There’s a ranger station (a small hut-type structure at the road’s entrance) across the road from the lookout point so we stopped by to get the official scoop. Rocky the Ranger was super helpful. After asking what sort of vehicle we were driving and gauging our abilities (were we complete noobs, or had we done this sort of thing before?) he showed us where we could get a good view of the different waterfalls and mentioned some pointers for our visit. He also mentioned the potential dangers of the road and emphasized that the person going uphill should never stop because they might not be able to start moving up again. Also, if you do get yourself into a pickle, you’re on your own. Most tow companies won’t come to get you down the road, and those who will are veeeeerrrry pricey. He was just sayin’.

The ranger station is a somewhat recent addition to the area as visitor numbers have increased over the last decade or so. There are many alluring sites that people want to access, but much of it is either across private land or not safely accessible from the road. Unfortunately, too many self-entitled tourists have presumed that it’s okay for them to trespass, and it’s causing grief for the locals.

These locals are working hard to restore the valley’s history with working taro farms and poi processing. The entire area was once exclusive to royals, and only those invited by royals from the area. You can see why when you stand at the lookout point. It was really exciting to think that we were going into this lush, green forest to emerge at a black sand beach. So. Many. Colors.

Rocky also told us that the Waipi’o Valley was featured in the movie Waterworld. [Spoiler alert! But then, this movie was released in 1995, which means it may be older than some of you reading this!] The waterfall, the beach, and the wild horses shown at the end of the movie are all in Waipi’o!

We hopped back into the Jeep and descended the Waipi’o Valley Road, winding and bumping our way along the tree-lined lane, yielding to uphill vehicles and weary hikers.


As we reached the valley floor, before turning to head toward the black sand beach, we took Rocky the Ranger’s advice and drove up to a muddy, wide spot in the road for parking that provided a gorgeous view of one of the bigger waterfalls.

As the road leveled off and the asphalt disappeared, it became a lumpy, muddy, puddle-pocked course that was still relatively easy to navigate. We continued on to a grove of evergreen trees surrounding a parking lot at the edge of the river and the beach. Part of the parking lot almost felt like it could be in Yellowstone or Colorado with the pine needle carpet and river.


We got down from the Jeep and started to take it all in, quickly noticing the horses' stone-cold munchin’ on the grass under the tall pines. They were not shy and didn’t mind us being there. However, these are wild animals so we kept a respectful distance. There were a few horses roaming around, one of them a fuzzy, handsome little colt. These horses have been there for a few generations. There are reportedly a few dozen wild horses in the area. Sadly, ten or more horses have died since the summer of a mysterious disease outbreak. Local authorities and veterinarians are investigating and running ongoing tests. Hopefully, the mystery will be solved soon and the horses will be protected from future outbreaks.


Where the river spills into the ocean, the black sand is heavy with water and it feels like walking in molasses. (I’ve never actually walked in molasses, I’m just guessing.) The black sand causes the waves to look grey and dirty.

After a nice day at the beach, we headed back up the narrow, windy road – this time with the right of way! The drive back up was thankfully uneventful. We stopped to say thank you to Rocky the Ranger at the top and chatted with him and one of the Waipi’o Valley locals for a bit, and then headed out… to Tex Drive-In for some tasty malasadas. A trip to the north side of the big island is not complete without a stop there!

Ranger Rocky again, because he's awesome!



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