One of the most popular hikes or backpacks on the Big Island of Hawaii is the route from Waipio Valley over to Waimanu Valley. The Waipio Valley is on the NE corner of the island near the town of Honokaa. From Kona travel North and East on Highway 11 through Waimea and follow the signs to Honokaa. Once you reach Honokaa, turn left from the main cross street in the middle of town. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the Waipio Overlook. Views down into the valley and the blue Pacific Ocean are wonderful from here. The real beauty begins when you get down into the valley though.

The Only problem with accessing the valley by vehicle is you need a 4×4 vehicle…not an AWD vehicle to drive down the hill. If you don’t have a 4×4, you cannot drive down into Waipio Valley. Don’t even think about cheating, you will be sorry! First there is a Ranger at the top of the road that looks at all the vehicles before they are allowed to proceed down the hill. If you pass the inspection, you will need to put the car or truck into 4 wheel drive and in LOW gear range. Proceed very slowly down and DO yield to uphill traffic at signed locations.

So, if you don’t have a 4×4, you must park at the top of the road, not at the overlook parking, but along the road, and walk down the very steep road. This is a very steep hill so if you start out walking down, strongly consider if you are capable of walking back up. At the bottom of the hill, turn right and go out to the beach. The road makes a left turn and you can proceed on down to the river. Be considerate as you park to not block any other traffic.

The beach here is really beautiful and large waves break near the shore. Many “Locals” come here on weekends to surf, boogie board or picnic. Be respectful and remember this is their home not a resort foe tourists. Private lands come down near the beach and you should not trespass onto those properties, but the beach is open to the public.

At the end of the road is the Waipio River. Upstream from the beach are the Taro Farms and family homes some of which have been occupied for generations. Sometimes if you are lucky, you will see the wild horses of Waipio. They are truly wild, not domestic stock and they wander free throughout the valley. Sometimes they come down to the beach so watch for them.

The route on to Waimanu starts by crossing the river somewhere near the beach. Hopefully, the river is low and not RAGING as it does whenever there is a downpour. I have been there trying to get back across the river when I was too terrified to cross for fear of being swept out into the ocean. Trust me when I say, be cautious if there have been recent rains. If conditions are right, wade across the river. It may be about waist deep so walking sticks are helpful.

Once across, walk along the jeep track through a beautiful forest just above the beach until you come to the far side of the valley. Enjoy this part of the trail as the next part is really tough. It is called the “Z” Trail. It is very steep and rugged. You will test your metal here.

The high humidity in the area, the steepness of the trail and sun exposure in places will make you sweat hard. Do carry lots of water. You will need it.

As you climb, you will be able to get glimpses of the valley with its taro farms along the pond, huge waterfalls some of which are 1,000’ high, Palm treed beach and the steep road back up the far side of the valley. Even if this is as far as you hike, it is worth the effort.

All along the trail, there are shady spots to sit and rest if you need to, but no water is available at this area. The steep grade has rocks to climb up, slick muddy areas and full sun exposure in other spots depending on the weather.

Once you get near the top of the hill, you will enter the Ironwood Forest. These beautiful trees look like pines, but are not. It is a symbol of you almost reaching the top of the hill and you will be happy to see them, trust me!

Just at the top of the hill is a place where you can rest and rehydrate from the strenuous Z Trail. The forest changes here and you will be impressed with the majesty and size of these huge trees. Be inspired as the next part of the trail unfolds before you.

After about another half hour walking, you will come to a place where the trail crosses a stream at a waterfall. I suggest you take off your pack and jump in!! It is a deep pool and cool water. Let the waterfall splash down on you and refresh you. The rest of the trail is tough and the cooling off and walking with wet clothes will help you keep cool. If you are just out for a day hike, this is also a good turning around point.

There is a debate about how many valleys and ridges you will cross on the way to Waimanu. It may be 10-12. Some are steep and hard others easy, but all of them are beautiful. You will see huge broadleaf trees and some will have large Birdnest Ferns high up in the branches or in crooks in the trunks. Many of the valleys have streams in them to refill your water bottles but do filter the water.

You will likely see pig tracks or scuffed up trails where the pigs root for food. Don’t worry, they don’t want to be near humans as they get heavily hunted by locals. Consider yourself lucky if you do get a glimpse of one.

After MANY ups and downs, you will finally come to the cliff that leads down to Waimanu Valley. Take note, the long narrow leaves on the ground are slippery and the edges have sharp hooks on them. They also cover loose rounded rocks that may roll out from underfoot as you walk down the hill so do be cautious there. Also, there is a stairway and bridge over a washout. It gets really slippery when wet so caution is advised it could be disastrous to fall down the cliff here..

As you descend into Waimanu Valley, stop where ever there is a clearing. Look upstream for some amazing views of the waterfalls in the valley and downstream to the ocean.

I have been told, the big waterfall you see from the trail is the tallest of its kind in the world. It is really a spectacular fall and you can make a day trip up to its base if you have the time and energy. It is well worth the time but isn’t easy as the route covers lots of rounded rocks that can hurt your feet or ankles. If you make it, you will be rewarded with spectacular falls and huge pool at its base. The thunder of water spilling so far down the almost vertical cliff is amazing. You can get into this pool to refresh or maybe just climb up the grassy, but rocky slope adjacent to it for a nice lunch. The mist from the falls will cover you and cool you.

On your way back to the beach and campsites from the big falls is a smaller falls some call the “Spring”. This is up off the trail on the North side of the trail about 200’. This is the best place to get clean clear water but I suggest you still filter or purify it.

The state run campsites must be reserved before you leave town and they almost always get full so I would recommend you plan this trip in advance if you want to camp here. All the campsites are along the beach and are nice but the composting toilets often get overfull. Please do use them though so as to protect the wetlands from human pollution.

If you are lucky enough to be able to stay here for at least a couple nights, you will be treated to the sound of the pounding ocean surf which I find peaceful. If you need quiet to sleep, bring earplugs as the surf is quite loud. At night, if it is clear out, the stars are amazing because there is no light pollution to hide them. I would not count on having fires here as there is very little dry wood to collect.

One thing to keep in mind is the weather. If you are at Waimanu and a heavy rain comes in, it can make crossing both Waimanu and Waipio rivers difficult. I strongly suggest you carry extra food along in case you get caught here by raging rivers between you and your car. Even along the trail, you will see signs warning of flash floods which do occur and can sweep you away if you get caught in one.

From the campsites, you can see a series of waterfalls at the far back of the valley in a semi-circle. It is possible but EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to reach them. It took us a full day, over 10 hours to reach them and get back to camp. Then, we needed a day of rest afterward at camp before we felt able to make the hike back out to the trailhead. It might be hard for some people to find their way out and back so I would suggest that if you want to see these falls, some of which are also over 1.000’high, that you go out there with someone who is familiar with the territory.

I think some of the pics I share will give you a sense of the beauty there, but can never compete with the journey as is almost always the case.

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