Gouged into the walls of Hawaii’s Hamakua Coast is the Waipi’o Valley, a legendary gorge that has been the home to countless rulers of the island. Getting down to this sacred site is hard. Getting out is even harder.
“Hey bro. You want a lift?”
Considering I was standing on a 25 percent grade that descended two thousand feet to the valley floor, I couldn’t tell which was a worse idea: battering the hell out of my joints all the way down, or adding weight to a vehicle that would have to ride its brakes and lowest gear all the way to the bottom of a narrow, cliffside road. As it often does, my sense of comfort won out over my pride.
“Jump in the back.” And like that, I was on my way into the Valley of Kings.
The driver, Kamas, kept looking back to check on me, sitting in the open bed of his pickup and feeling like a prince.
“This is really beautiful,” I shouted up.
“We live for this.”
At several points, the road becomes too narrow for two vehicles, and the vehicle going downhill will have to pull over for the vehicle coming uphill, as you don’t want the one trying to fight up that hill to lose its momentum. It’s terrifying to think what would happen if somebody’s brakes failed.
Once down in the valley, the road turns to pitted mud, all the more so because of the heavy rains that have inundated the island recently. Flash floods have been the norm of late, and the threat of rain was hanging over us as we made our way to the beach. The truck rocked through the valley’s rainforest, then pulled into a clearing, where a river ran into the ocean, and to that uniquely Hawaiian entity: the black sand beach.
Black sand beach on the valley floor. You can just make out the zig-zag switchbacks of the Z Trail cut into the cliff on the top left.
I’d read that if I hiked the trail on the far end of the beach, known as the Z Trail for the way its switchbacks set into the side of the cliffs, I would have one of the most extraordinary views on the island. I came prepared for the trek. Bananas, extra water, lots of sunscreen, good boots. The walk up to the cliffs is about a half mile along the sand, but you have to cross the river first.
I want to take a moment and thank the good folks at Hilo Surplus, who I visited that morning before heading out. An Army surplus store that has stood at the same corner in Hilo for over forty years, they sold me an adjustable walking stick that proved to be my saving grace on more than one occasion this day. The first occasion was crossing the river, which pours in from the waterfalls at the farthest reaches of the valley.
View of the valley from the mouth of the river.
The rivers and the waterfalls of the Waipi’o are not to be trifled with. As I write this, it’s been less than two days since eight people had to be evacuated by helicopter from the valley due to flash flooding. The river wasn’t quite that fierce when I crossed, but crossing is still serious business. The only place it’s possible, at least at this time of year, is right against the shore, where it meets the ocean. There’s a thin highway of rocks there, and the water reached up to my thighs at most points, and up to my waist when a wave came in. I held my backpack over my head with one hand and used my walking stick as a guide with the other. The rocks are highly unstable, and there’s little chance I would have crossed without falling in without the stick.
From the other side, it’s a pretty easy walk to the cliffs. Once there, I found a place to change out of my swim shorts and sandals into long pants and boots. That end of the beach is pretty much deserted, so there was no shortage of privacy. Once I’d changed into dry hiking clothes, I ate a banana, took a big slug of water, and proceeded to make my way up the wrong trail.
Fortunately, I am generally aware of my limitations. Recognizing that I was due to go ass over teakettle if I continued up the unbelievably steep grade I was on, I decided that I must be on the wrong path. Or, if I was on the right path, that it was far above my pay grade. I went back to the beach and tried another entrance, this time finding the real trail, along with a rather disconcerting warning about what I was getting myself into.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Z Trail makes its way all the way up the cliff face and over to the next valley (the Waimanu). I didn’t go that far, as my goal was to get to the top of the fourth switchback, where the incredible view was supposed to be. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have gone much further than I did. Pound for pound, this is one of the most physically demanding things I’ve done in years. The trail is very steep, very rocky, and includes quite a few bowel-loosening drops over the side. And although I could see people off in the distance, it was a seriously isolated spot.
This reminded me, a little, of my ill-advised drive down an abandoned road in Nevada a few weeks ago in a foolish search for earthquake faults. But at least I had a truck in that situation. If something went wrong in the Waipi’o, there wouldn’t be any help coming any time soon. At the same time, I was a lot more confident than I’d been in Nevada, because I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into, and I was about as well prepared as I could have been. The hike was intense, but I never felt in danger. And for a flatlander, I think I did pretty well.
Also, I got to take in this view.
If I had to guess, I’d say I was about 500 feet above the valley when I snapped that shot. I sat down and drank some water and ate another banana and just took it all in. I also took a second to thank all the gods and spirits that roamed that place. This has been a very sacred spot in Hawaiian history (which is why you’re not allowed to camp there). When you’re in this valley, you’re a guest, and as a guest, I think it’s always good etiquette to thank your hosts.
Especially when you’re standing on a sheer cliff 500 feet in the air.
Just before I started back down the trail, a helicopter flew over my head. This was one of many helicopter tours that visit the valley each day, taking in the view. I waved to them, but if they could read my lips from that distance, they would have seen that I was calling them a bunch of wimps.
And, of course, because I said that, I only made it halfway down the trail before my boots came apart.
Pride comes before the fall.
If I were a pair of boots, I could think of worse places to make my final sally than the Waipi’o Valley. If I hadn’t been on sacred ground, I would have given them a proper burial. As it was, I had to pack them out of the valley with me. The weather had warmed up considerably by the time I reached my changing spot. I had to wring all the sweat out of my t-shirt before putting it in my bag. Then I started making my way back along the beach to the river, which had swelled some since my first crossing (I think the tide was coming in). This time, when a wave hit, the water was up to my chest.
I wish that final fording of the river had been the end of the journey, but the hardest part of any journey into the Waipi’o Valley is the way back out. No matter how much energy you think you have, you better keep something in the reserve tank, because walking 2,000 feet up on a 25 percent grade will teach you humility real quick. Near the top, I encountered a family of three whose daughter was bonking. I gave her my last banana, which helped her considerably, and the family in turn gave me a ride back to Honoka’a after, gasping and lightheaded, I finally made it to the top.
Thank you to them for that. I was feeling mighty accomplished hiking out of that valley, but pride has its limits. Sometimes you just need a lift.
Hilo surplus is a great place to outfit yourself for a hike in the valley. They are located at 148 Mamo Street, and are open Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They also have a website here.
The Waipi’o Valley sits about nine miles northwest of Honoka’a on Highway 240. The lookout point offers wonderful views and can be accessed by anyone, but you need to be in good shape to make it in and out of the valley on foot.
And for God’s sake, do not attempt to drive down without four-wheel drive, a strong engine that doesn’t overheat, and top-notch brakes.
There are also ATV tours and horseback riding tours available.
Do not go into the valley if there are flash flood warnings.