This breathtakingly beautiful valley has long been a source of fascination, inspiring song and story. From the black-sand bay at its mouth, Waipio (“curving water”) sweeps 6 miles between sheer, cathedral-like walls some 2,000 feet high. Hawaii’s tallest waterfall, Hiilawe, tumbles down 1,300 feet from its rear cliffs. It’s called “the valley of kings,” in part due to the royal burial caves dotting its forbiddingly steep walls. Some believe the ancient ali‘i buried here rise up to become Marchers of the Night, whose chants reverberate through the valley. In a more modern mystery, the mystery thieves who stole the woven caskets of Hawaiian chiefs Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki from the Bishop Museum in 1994 are believed to have secretly reinterred them here.

Between 4,000 and 10,000 Hawaiians—including a young Kamehameha—are said to have lived here before Westerners arrived, growing taro in Waipio’s stream-laced plain and catching fish beyond the surging shoreline. Chinese immigrants later joined them, but in 1946, the same tsunami that devastated Hilo and Laupahoehoe swept through the valley, washing away modest homes, shops, and other buildings, though luckily without fatalities. The town was never rebuilt, and later floods also discouraged regrowth. Only about 50 people live in the valley today, most with no electricity or phones, although others live above Waipio and come down on weekends to tend taro patches, camp, and fish.

To get to Waipio Valley, take Highway 19 from Waimea or Hilo to Highway 240 in Honokaa, and follow the highway almost 10 miles to Kukuihaele Road and the Waipio Valley Lookout, a grassy park on the edge of Waipio Valley’s sheer cliffs, with splendid views of the wild oasis below. The lookout is a great place for a picnic; you can sit at old redwood tables and watch the white combers race along the black-sand beach at the mouth of the valley.