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.”