Waipio to Waimanu Valley - A Big Island Backpacking Adventure

During the Labor Day weekend, my 2 friends and I headed off to the Big Island for a backpacking and camping adventure in Waimanu Valley. In all honesty, they planned it all and I had no idea what was in store for me. The idea of going to an outer island without accommodations was a new one for me but I was rather excited. All I knew was that I needed a tent, there were river crossings, and I needed to pack in food.

When we finally reached the Waipio Valley lookout, I didn't really know what I was looking at. We were standing at a lookout overlooking a black sand beach and across the way was a mountain with a trail that zigzagged to the top. I thought to myself, well at least we aren't going up that zigzag. I was wrong. My friend Bianca asked me to drive down the steep driveway to the beach below and explained that we would have to park, hike across the beach to the other side, and hike up the zigzag. By this point, I wished I had done a little more research and worked out a little more in preparation.

As I drove over what seemed to be a cliff and down a (sometimes) 2 lane driveway, I was glad that I was driving and not a passenger. I fare better knowing that my death would be at my hand. =) When we reached the bottom, we parked, assembled our packs, and started on our way. My companion Tatyana, or Taty, suggested we use our tabis (reef booties) and of course I didn't heed the warning and decided to walk across the river in my bare foot. Walking across rushing water on mossy volcanic rocks the size of bowling balls with a 40+ lb top heavy backpack was pretty gnarly. Although I'm glad I put all valuables in ziplock bags, I should have put on my tabis. Other hikers used walking sticks although I feel they may have been cumbersome the rest of the way. Once across the river we proceeded across the beach to the mountain. If there is one way to workout your ankles and calf muscles, it would be walk with extra weight in the soft sand - my mistake #2.

The zigzag ascent was insane. I thought I was going to die. I thought about turning back, telling my mates that I would meet them in 3 days, cozying it up at the finest suite Waikoloa has to offer, eating breakfast in bed, swimming in blocked off areas to keep the tourists (like me) safe, and taking hot showers. But, I couldn't do it. I wasn't that much of a pansy (although not far from it). I trekked on for what seemed like centuries, across many continents, sweating profusely, and drinking what little water I had. At each turning point of the zigzag, I was sure that I would perish. Surely someone would find my body and discover that I only had $8 in my wallet. Finally, the narrow walkway that had been my torture, opened up, the winds evaporated every bead of sweat on my head, and made calm whistling noises through the pine trees. I was at the top! As I continued on into the forest the first sign notified me (almost sarcastically) that this was the Muliwai trail and that I had completed approximately 1 mile. 1 Mile? WTF???!!! I was certain now that I had become a pansy and was regretful for making silly comments about the name of the trail.

Throughout the hike in, Taty kept me company, ensuring this novice was on the right trail as we shared stories of hobbies, work, and more. We took breaks, sitting among gigantic trees, walking in and out of little valleys and switchbacks, hopping over dry stream crossings, eating guavas, and stopped at a little watering hole to cool our feet. It was an AMAZING feeling to remove our smoldering shoes and socks and dip our feet in the cold mountain water. We trekked on and passed a few helipads joking about how much it would cost for them to take us back to the car. Finally, we reached a sign informing us that we had .9 miles left. Oh, our spirits soared as we realized that we had completed roughly 80% of the journey. As we hiked on, we began to see the sights of a new (to me) and uninhabited valley, Waimanu Valley. Through the foliage we could see the black sand beach, lush greenery, and waterfalls that adorned the back of the valley. It was amazing! Ironically, it was also a very long .9 miles of descent. Here, the path wasn't smooth or gradual like the initial ascent and if you had shoes with good grip, it would now come into play. The trail seemed to descend quicker and was lined with dry leaves from Hala trees.

We all walked the remaining .9 miles at different rates and met up at the bottom before crossing the river to the campsites. I don't know about my hiking buddies but my feet were throbbing and my shoulders were sore from my pack. Mistake #3 - I was not able to tighten the chest strap on my backpack enough. I am glad that my waist strap could be cinched enough to carry the load on my hips. Although this river crossing was a little deeper and the water had more velocity, it did help that there was a rope strung from one side to another and this time, I decided to use my reef shoes. Momma didn't raise no fool!

There are 10 campsites spread out along the coast of the beach. It is advisable that you reserve a campsite online beforehand. Each campsite has a fairly flat spot for a tent(s) and some sites have fire pits. All campsites accommodate different numbers of people. Campsite 2 seems to accommodate the largest group, is the closest to the river, is the most central, and has the best view in the house (waterfalls of Waimanu Valley). There are 2 restrooms complete with composting toilets situated between the 10 campsites. Just a few words of caution - bring a flashlight but, don't shine your flashlight down the toilet, don't stay in the restroom for more than 2 minutes or you will pass out, don't wait until the last minute to use the restroom - there were lines. A ten minute walk from the most remote campsite will take you to a little spring/waterfall where you can collect drinking water. Purifying the water via boiling, tablets, or water filter/pump is recommended. Taty brought an awesome Katadyn water filter/pump device that she purchased for $100 at Sports Authority. I will admit that when I heard her say that she was planning on catching and eating the prawns and drinking filtered spring water, I was petrified. However, having partaken in her filtered water and comparing that to the water I collected at the Kona airport drinking fountain, the filtered water was much more pure and clean tasting (translated: don't drink the water at the airport =) ). We started a fire in the fire pit designated for campsite 3. Taty cooked Qui Noa and warmed the Tasty Bites packets she suggested we pick up from Down to Earth. The next time, I will be sure to bring paper plates and another pot or warming dish to put over the fire.

As the first day came to a close and the party raged on at another campsite, I walked the banks of the river with my headlamp and saw all of the red beady eyes of the prawns. I looked up at the sky and it took a couple of seconds for me to focus and see all of the stars in the clear sky. One thing this trip provided me was a perspective from big to small. As I looked down at the prawns I was clearly bigger than they yet, as I looked up to the stars, I was but a prawn in this amazing universe, almost insignificant. I then realized that in the grand scheme of things, we all need each other, as insignificant as we may seem to one another.

It rained overnight and it was the first time I was using my tent. A little water had leaked in via one of the seams that had a sewn-in tag. Taty learned that sleeping with Bianca in a small tent was not a good idea and got very little sleep. I spent most of the morning starting a fire that would not cooperate and eventually cooked Taty's food while she fell back asleep (minus the tent hog =) ). After making friends with some of the natives, we learned that they were really cool folk and decided to hike back to the waterfall. Taty, Bianca, and I ventured off and 45 minutes later, we reached the waterfall.

The waterfall was SIIICK! We had hiked for 45 minutes through a hot, humid, and mosquito infested forest to a clearing at the bottom of the waterfall. While the mountain formed walls almost on 3 sides and there was no way wind could come through, the air was cold and the crashing of the waterfall generated amazing amounts of wind. Along the way, I had collected a handful of Awapuhi that I had affectionately renamed "bath bombs" and decided I would jump in to refresh myself and use the gel of the Awapuhi to clean my skin. The water was awkwardly red and cold enough to shock you like a dose of Redbull. After about 15 minutes of freezing in the water, we decided to hike back to the spring, collect more drinking water, and return back to camp. We were joined by the remaining 2 locals, Anson and Trey and they shared with us some stories of the area, hunting, fishing, surfing, native plants, animals, traveling, life, and more. They invited us to their campsite, "Camp Hawaiian" as they would later call it, for some grub and talk story.

Taty had hopes of catching some prawns and after we finished dinner we headed over to "Camp Hawaiian" to meet up with Anson. He previously offered to show her how to catch them. Within the hour, members of the other campsites showed up, also invited by the our 2 new friends. What happened after was awesome. It was like a Coca Cola commercial with all kinds of people coming together - people of different nationalities, styles, ideas, and opinions. We all sat together, talked story, and passed around a concoction of coconut milk and rum and a bottle of Crown. One fella brought with him a guitar and jammed James Taylor, 3rd Eye Blind, Bob Marley, and every other feel good song under the sun (or moon in this case). At one point, his D string snapped and another fella picked up the guitar, tried to fix the string, and after not being able to repair the string, he jammed for about 45 minutes w/o it and with a total different style. It was INSANE! People talked story, Anson joked for days, there was a sharing of food, a cooking show at the fire pit, Gilligan showed Taty how to use a 3 prong spear so she could catch prawns, we had a bong making demonstration using a coconut, and more. The hunters managed to catch a few prawns, butter and salt them up, and throw them on the fire. Eventually we all crashed out in our respective tents and all in all, it was a great time. I would have never thought we would have a night like that with people we didn't know in what turned out to be a very beautiful place. That was certainly a lesson in faith for me.

The next day, one by one the campsites were vacated. Several of the people from campsite 2 started their hike back around 7AM while the others stayed back to pack up the camp. Those who remained kayaked in and were getting ready to kayak out. I watched as one by one, each of the kayakers would help each other ford the shorebreak. Other camps started their journeys throughout the day and eventually, our 2 new friends from the Big Island also packed up, swam their kayak out, and paddled away to civilization.

Although, we took our sweet time packing up and exiting the valley, I was anxious to start my hike. I had taken roughly 6 1/2 hours to hike in and wanted to beat that time hiking out. 2 of the locals we spoke with on day 1 took 3 1/2 hours to hike in so I knew it was possible to bring my time down to roughly 4 hours. Taty and I walked back into the valley to filter more water for the hike while Bianca borrowed the board of the remaining inhabitant of Waimanu valley. Finally we were on our way and dang... The ascent out of Waimanu valley was waaaaaaaay more potent than the ascent on the way in. It must have taken me at least an hour plus to climb the mountain.

I finally made it to the mountainside where it all started, overlooking Waipio Valley and it was beautiful. I practically ran down the final descent thinking about breaking my record, wading across the cool rushing river water, soothing my aching feet, and sitting in the car with the AC on. I arrived at the car 4 1/2 hours later. =)

All said and told, the adventure was awesome and I was glad to have met some awesome people. If you are contemplating the journey, do it. It is soooooo worth it!


  1. Planning to go there this August. Thanks for the great post!



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