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

Sumptuous vistas and a black sand beach attract visitors to this place with a rich geological and cultural history.
Pololu Valley's black sand beach and Paoakalani islets beyond. Photo: Thinkstock

On your next visit to Pololu Valley Lookout, at the end of the Big Island’s northernmost highway, do the following.

Take a seat on the lookout’s rock wall. Close your eyes. Inhale the salt-kissed air of the meeting of rugged North Kohala and Hamakua coastline. Exhale slowly. Then open your eyes and take in the visual splendor before you.

You are seeing Pololu Valley the same way everyone who paused here before you has for centuries. Turbulent surf crashing on the black sands of the valley’s rocky beach and shoreline. Emerald, foliage-filled cliffs, cradling Pololu’s valley floor and its winding, freshwater stream. The wave-pounded, offshore Paoakalani islets and, beyond them, the Hamakua Coast’s most remote sea cliffs.

There are no oceanfront resorts. No surf schools. No ziplines cutting across the valley. No manmade anything. Pololu Valley remains as unspoiled to modern-day visitors as it was to its first Hawaiian residents, who settled in the valley in the 15th century, raising kalo (taro) and other staple crops.

My last visit to the lookout was about a year ago. My Big Island-raised husband and I had been searching the North Kohala town of Kapaau for Holy’s Bakery—famed by residents and visitors for its frozen apple, pear and peach pies. It was his suggestion to take a break from our pie quest to show me the stunning view from the Pololu lookout.

I was so captivated, I immediately set a goal of heading down into the valley on my next visit. And so, on a January morning earlier this year, trail shoes, blister cream, extra bandages, water bottles and emergency One-Ton Chips from Hilo’s Maebo Noodle Factory in tow, we set out from the Pololu Valley lookout ready for anything nature chose to send our way on the hike to the valley floor.

Turned out, all we needed was the water and chips.

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.
Photo: Catherine Toth

“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.

Unlike its neighbor valleys, Pololu’s primary stream doesn’t stretch deep into the back of the valley, explains Graves, which forced its settlers to depend on floodwater for farming and cultivate other staple crops, such as sweet potato.

The valley’s sand dunes—some of which rise to heights of 100 feet above sea level and stretch more than 1,300 feet across the valley floor—are also unusual for the area, and are where most of Pololu’s inhabitants settled. The ironwood trees that line the dunes were a more recent addition to the valley, planted in the 1950s to hinder erosion.

The bulk of Pololu Valley’s inhabitants departed after the completion of the Kohala Ditch in 1906. The freshwater carriage system comprised of flumes, tunnels and open channels was constructed to move water from valley streams for usage by Kohala-area ranches, farms and homes miles away. The diversion of the water, however, made it difficult to continue growing kalo and other crops in Pololu.

Today, the only people who set foot in the valley tend to be day visitors, overnight campers and experienced surfers, many of them likely unaware of Pololu’s cultural and historical significance.
There aren’t even that many people who trek into the valley. The Awini Trail hike is short, but lugging coolers and beach chairs down the winding path is no simple task. There are no public restrooms or concession stands on the beach, and only a sliver of a parking lot at the lookout. All you get at Pololu Valley is the beauty of nature, rapturous and unspoiled.

But, then again, that’s its allure, too.


Pololu Valley Lookout and Awini Trail

In North Kohala, follow Akoni Pule Highway (Highway 270) past Hawi and Kapaau towns to the end of the road, where the trailhead begins. Swimming is not recommended at Pololu Beach due to rough ocean conditions.

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