The Geography of Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley, meaning “curved water” in the Hawaiian language, rests within the Kohala Mountains of Hawaii Island, Hawaii. The valley encompasses an area roughly five miles long and one mile wide. High cliffs enclose the valley on three sides, while a fourth side abuts the Pacific Ocean and features striking black-sand beaches. Despite the natural beauty of the beaches, swimming is discouraged due to the area’s strong currents and turbulent surf.
A series of waterfalls feed into the valley, the most notable of which is Hiilawe Falls, the tallest waterfall of the Hawaiian Islands at over 1,000 feet high. The Waipio Stream eventually carries the water through the valley to the ocean. The alluvial deposits from the stream create incredibly fertile conditions for farming crops such as taro, a staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet.
The steep and rugged terrain of the surrounding areas makes travel to the valley difficult. Waipio Valley is only accessible via 4-wheel drive vehicles and features one of the steepest roads in the United States.
The Waipio Valley Road is currently off limits to visitors who are prohibited from using the road due to ongoing rockfall and erosion hazards. Many locals of the area strongly support this measure, citing unsafe road conditions, increased maintenance costs due to washboarding, and traffic jams caused by overheated 2-wheel drive vehicles.
A Brief History of Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley was once an agricultural center with a native population in the thousands. Many historical Kings of Hawaii, including Kamehameha I, called the Waipio Valley home, earning it the nickname “Valley of the Kings”. It was here that Kamehameha the Great conducted the first naval battle in Hawaiian history and began his conquest of the islands in 1780.
One of the earliest foreign visitors to the valley was a missionary named William Ellis who arrived in 1823. He was accompanied by a fellow missionary, Asa Thurston, and a local guide named Makoa. He noted four separate villages and extensive cultivation of taro, bananas, and sugar cane at the time of his arrival. His census of the area estimated the population at 1,200 people in 1831.
Waipio Valley is virtually uninhabited today, with fewer than 100 people currently residing there. This is largely due to extensive damage caused by a 1946 tsunami. The tsunami was triggered by an 8.6 magnitude earthquake near the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and was the most destructive tsunami in Hawaii’s modern history. At that point, many people left the valley and most never returned.
Legends of Waipio Valley
Waipio Valley is a place of both historical and religious importance. It is home to the burial caves of many of Hawaii’s former kings and contains many temples, or heiaus, including a pu'uhonua, or place of refuge.
As a once-thriving cultural hub, Waipio Valley is also the birthplace and setting of many of Hawaii’s legends. Some of these tales of the valley include How Milu Became the King of Ghosts, The Shark-Man of Waipio Valley, and The Bride from the Underworld.
How Milu Became the King of Ghosts carries special significance for both the valley and Hawaiian legends in general, as it describes the origins of Milu, the ruler of the Underworld or Lua o Milu. Milu features prominently in Hawaiian legends, appearing in many other stories.
In this particular tale, Milu is the chief of Waipio Valley and has been cursed by the god Kalae. To combat this curse, Milu enlists the help of an exceptionally skilled healer, Lono. Despite Lono’s medicine and warnings, Milu succumbs to the curse of Kalae and drowns in the ocean off the coast of Waipio Valley. Milu then becomes the ruler of the Underworld, the place where spirits go after being driven away from the land of the living.
According to legend, the mouth of Waipio Valley was once home to an entrance to Lua o Milu, the Underworld. Over time it has been covered in sand and is no longer a visible passage between the worlds.