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Beyond the Lookout: Exploring the Big Island's Pololu Valley

Getting down to Pololu Valley’s black sand beach from the lookout along Awini Trail—carved into the soil of the valley’s north wall—took us just 20 minutes. And that included several photo stops to capture sweeping views of the churning ocean below, glimpses of Pololu Valley’s luxuriant interior, and countless lauhala (Pandanus) trees, naupaka shrubs and wilelaiki (Christmas berry) trees growing along the trail.

We didn’t necessarily need our trail shoes, either. Half of the hikers we encountered were wearing slippers. A couple were even taking the trail barefoot.

After trekking through the sand dunes and rows of ironwood trees, which protect the valley’s interior from the rough waves, we found ourselves toes in the sand on Pololu Beach, a wide expanse rimmed with jagged lava rock and shadowed by sheer cliffs. The shoreline was lined with black-, gray-, red- and white-speckled rocks made round and smooth by powerful wave action.

Pololu Valley's freshwater stream.

“Now you know where the spas get their rocks for hot-stone massages,” quipped my husband.

Valleys are sacred—and relatively scarce—on the youngest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Unlike Kauai, with its deep and craggy valleys and gorges carved out by rain and streams over more than 6 million years, the Big Island’s oldest valleys—which include Pololu, Waipio and three Hamakua Coast erosional valleys between them—are cut into land that only breached sea level 500,000 years ago. 

The freshwater streams that formed Pololu’s (Hawaiian for “long spear”) and its neighboring valleys’ coastline, however, were attractive to early Hawaiians for settlements.

“One of the reasons valleys like Waipio and Pololu were so important in Hawaiian tradition and history was because they were among the few areas where you could reliably grow taro,” says Michael W. Graves, an anthropology professor at the University of Mexico, who has done extensive field work in Pololu and along the Kohala Coast. Pololu Valley was, in fact, once widely known for a variety of taro called kalo pololu, crowned by crimson stems and leaves. “But Pololu is different even from that standpoint,” says Graves.

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Check out these related HawaiiMagazine.com posts:
"10 Hawaii Places You Haven't Been To Yet" extra: Pololu Valley, Big Island
Top 5 Favorite Hawaii Scenic Lookouts: HAWAII Magazine reader poll results
My Favorite Places: Waipio Valley

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