November 27, 2022

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Unforgettable trip

Hawaii’s Waipio Valley closed indefinitely due to hazardous road

Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii, as seen from the overlook.

Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii, as seen from the overlook.

Michele Falzone/Getty Images

For decades, residents and visitors have traversed a steep, largely unpaved incline to the Big Island’s Waipio Valley, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful and sacred spaces. But in February, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth shut down Waipio Valley Road indefinitely to all but residents living there, citing hazardous roadway conditions. 

The road is one of the steepest in the United States, and travelers have to cross areas with a nearly 40% grade. To tackle the excursion, visitors either drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle — the only type able to manage the 1,000 foot ascent or descent in 1.5 miles — or hike. 

Trucks traversing the dirt road often pass each other with mere inches to spare, or must find a place to pull over and allow another vehicle to pass due to the spatial constraints, leading to unwieldy and unintentional games of chicken. In 2021, a four-wheel-drive Toyota lost its brakes while heading into the valley, colliding with a tour van traveling uphill. 

Opinions are divided on the Waipio Valley Road closure: Residents of the valley are supportive, saying that the closure would allow the area to heal, while visitors and even other Hawaii Island residents have mixed feelings. 

“Our administration is committed to ensuring safe and equitable access to Waipio Valley. Right now, the road is an unreasonable risk to our community, and instead of ignoring the facts or kicking the can down the road, we are choosing to take action,” Roth said.

“Waipio is an incredibly special place for so many reasons, and as such deserves the utmost respect, which includes sound maintenance of the roadway for this generation and those to come,” he continued. “We know this decision is frustrating to some, but we are encouraged by the response of the community and look forward to better, safer access in the near future.” 

Visitors are drawn to the valley’s unusual black sand beach and feeling of seclusion once down in the serene and sacred spot. Swells crash upon the beach, offering surfers consistent sets. 

Before the road closure, Schuyler Harris, a surfer and waterman born and raised in the islands, spent a lot of time in the valley. He said that Waipio is a powerful place deserving of love and respect, and that he understands that the road needs time to heal from intense visitation — even from locals.

“Being the dangerous road that it is, having first-time drivers head down there caused a lot of stress for the locals who knew the rules of the road,” Harris told SFGATE. “To me, it’s the most beautiful place in the world. You’re mesmerized and get into a different state of mind there. It’s the mana [divine power] of the place, time seems to stand still, but it’s also a dangerous place. Visitors unfamiliar with the road and the ocean need to be warned.” 

The sacred place of Waipio Valley

Meaning “curved water” in Hawaiian, Waipio Valley spans approximately 1 mile across and 5 miles deep. It’s also called the “Valley of the Kings,” as it was once a haven for alii (chiefs). In the late 1700s, Kamehameha the Great was raised in this valley and proclaimed future ruler of the Hawaiian Islands by the war god Kukailimoku there. Caves deep in Waipio act as the final resting place for alii, and hallowed heiau (traditional Hawaiian temples) were constructed, remnants of which are still visible today.

The valley is also a place of stunning natural beauty. Myriad waterfalls tumble down sculpted, skyscraping cliffs 2,000 feet high on their way to meet a river meandering through this sublime Hawaii Island basin on its voyage into the Pacific. Waves roll onto one of Waipio’s most notable features, an exquisite black sand beach. 

The Native Hawaiian population subsisted for centuries in Waipio Valley, then made way for Chinese immigrant farmers. While much of the valley’s acreage was used for agriculture, by the 1960s, only around 100 acres of taro were being farmed. Today, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reports that less than 100 people reside there — and they need safe access to their home.


Tourism versus safety

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau (IHVB), has an intimate connection to the valley: His wife was born and raised there.

He says that the closure of Waipio Valley Road is purely a safety issue. Over the years, the overall deterioration of Waipio Valley Road has been exponential, with erosion, falling rocks, grade leveling and traffic, sometimes numbering 200 cars and 400 hikers in a day.

Birch explains that Waipio Valley has not been promoted by the tourism agency in more than a decade.

“Access to the bottom of the valley was never something promoted from our standpoint,” Birch stated. “Social media over the years, by those who have had access or those who made visits, are really what has amplified the attraction of that location.”

This has also contributed to visitors and residents illegally hiking through taro farms to reach Hiiawe Falls in the back of the valley. Hikers have been injured, or gone missing.

Now, anyone who isn’t associated with owning property or managing a farm in Waipio Valley is considered a visitor.

Limiting visitation will decrease the amount of vehicular accidents, physical injuries and even disappearances that first-responders must assist with in a location that’s difficult to enter and often has spotty cell service. 

Steep mountain road into Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Steep mountain road into Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Michael Szonyi/Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

“I’ve had a chance to visit the valley many times; but when I look back, when I did visit the valley, there [were] two things had to happen in order for me to do that. I had to have an invitation and a reason,” Birch said.

Among those residing there, Birch says there’s now a sense of relief that they’ll still have access to their homes, while the mandated lack of visitation may lessen the human impact on the valley.

The closure is indefinite until construction timing for the repairs has been determined.

There’s still one option for visitors who wish to appreciate the valley — and it doesn’t require being in the valley itself. As the Hamakua Heritage Corridor Drive ends, visitors can still experience the valley’s majestic sights from the Waipio Valley overlook. And until the road reopens, the overlook may be the only way to experience the valley.

Natasha Bourlin is a travel-loving, Hawai’i Island-based freelance writer who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, AFAR media, Time Out, USAToday.com and more.