waipio valley hawaii island

Stretching six miles inland from its mile-long black sand beach, Waipio's steep and narrow access road limits the flow of visitors.

A rare look into Waipio Valley on Hawaii Island

The valley is hard to get into, but its beauty is hard to forget.

Welcome to Waipio.

Like all who are fortunate enough to find their way into Waipio Valley, photographer Jack Wolford remembers every moment, every feeling and every sight of every visit over the years.

"There are few places left where you can, literally, drive down a road into another world and step back into time," says Jack. "Waipio is like that. By the time you get to the bottom of that steep, four-wheel drive road, you've left everything behind and all you have is Hawaii and Waipio. That's a good place to be."

One of Jack's visits to the Hamakua Coast valley, in 2010, proved especially memorable when he met Kulia Tolentino. A lifelong Big Island resident and Hilo schoolteacher, Kulia has dedicated much of her free time since 2002 to restoring a six acre loi kalo (taro terrace) in the remains of the village of Napoopoo. In ancient times, it was the largest of five Waipio villages. She has deep roots in the valley. Her great-great grandparents were the last of multiple generations of her family to reside in Waipio. Growing up, she explored the entire valley with her father and grandfather. This spring, Jack asked Kulia if she would show him around aipio over a couple of days. We're grateful she agreed. Says Jack, "We set out on foot and walked and talked, with Kulia explaining the valley's stories and history. Around every corner was a more and more fabulous story and place."

A view into Waipio Valley. Its name meaning "curved water" in Hawaiian, Waipio is the largest of six valleys on Hawaii Island's Hamakua Coast marking the Kohala Mountains'
drop into the ocean.

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Kulia and her family return to Waipio each weekend to work on the lo‘i, often staying overnight on the property.

 

"When waterfall is real heavy, we can hear it, and the sound of the river flowing right next to us," says Kulia. "It's so beautiful." 
 

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The towering, 1,450-foot twin waterfalls Hiilawe and Hakalaoa were Napoopoo's main water source, and still feed the Waipio lo‘i kalo Kulia is restoring. "To hike up into the valley and lay eyes on both for the first time, took my breath away," says Jack.

 

Kulia hard at work in her lo‘i.
 

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Throughout the year, she brings dozens of intermediate school students from her Hilo classroom, many of them Native Hawaiian, to Waipio to get knee deep in the lo‘i and learn about their culture and the valley. She has also hosted college and high school students, and families from around the world. "I don't have a website. I don't even have a business card. But somehow they find me," she says, of people who call about her not-for-profit work restoring the lo‘i. "Some families just want to reconnect with their roots in the valley. Some people want to work the taro patch. Some people want to learn the history of the place that inspired a hula or a chant they are learning. Every group is unique."

 

“There have been wild horses in the valley for as long as I can remember,” says Kulia.
 

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“A lot of times, people catch them and train them because they’re ‘all-terrain’ kind of horses, used to walking through rivers, on rocks and through mud. They’re some of the best.”

 

Kulia’s son, Wai, has had his own kalo patch in his mom’s lo‘i since he was 4 years old.
 

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Says Jack, “Here, he’s picking kale leaves for dinner. The laulau made with the leaves that evening was incredible!”

 

Only four-wheel-drive vehicles can handle the access road into Waipio Valley.
 

waipio valley hawaii
Here, a truck crosses Hiilawe Stream on the valley’s main road.

 

"At dawn, I walked the road into Waipio to catch a glimpse of what a Sunday morning in the valley was like.
 

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"These men fishing quietly on the beach was pretty much the vibe I expected," says Jack.

 

No more than a hundred residents, most of them farmers, still call Waipio home fulltime.
 

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But alongside the main valley road are may old homes like this one—some of them occupied, some abandoned for decades. "When I was a little girl, this house looked exactly the same," says Kulia, now 37.

 

Known as the "valley of the kings" because of the many Hawaii Island alii (chief) raised within its walls,
Waipio was Kamehameha the Great's boyhood home.
 

waipio valley hawaii
“The hike to the twin waterfalls follows the stream fed by Hiilawe, passing “pool after pool of icy water both physically and mentally refreshing,” says Jack. As an adult alii, “Kamehameha would bring all of his warriors to Waipio after big battles to rejuvenate and collect themselves, because it is a healing valley,” explains Kulia. “Pools from Hiilawe like this would be where people would do their hiuwai, or cleansing, so their problems would be washed away.”