One of the most gorgeous places on the big island of Hawaii is Waipio Valley. Waipio is a deep, narrow valley bordered by 1000 foot cliffs. Waterfalls over lush, green cliffs hide at the back of the valley, while the front opens to the turquoise sea over a black sand beach.
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Hawaiians lived here for thousands of years, and cultivated crops here – the valley was so rich it could support quite a large population. In the 1940’s, however, a tidal wave swept through the valley and Waipio was largely abandoned. Today only about 50 people live down there, and the rainforest is reclaiming many of the fields and houses.
This December 2000, I took a horseback tour through Waipio Valley. It was a wonderful, memorable experience, and I recommend it for anyone looking for something unusual to do in Hawaii.
We saw magnificent views of waterfalls and taro fields and rain forest and tropical vegetation. Orange trees, guava trees, ti plants, palm trees, ferns, impatiens. The scenery was spectacular – tall waterfalls, sheer cliffs, wide rivers and narrow streams, fog-shrouded mountains, and ancient cultivated fields.
Getting down into the valley: The only way down into Waipio is on an extremely steep (25% grade), one-way road. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed. For the horseback tour, you meet a van at Waipio Artworks about a half a mile from the lookout point, and they drive you down in a harrowing 20 minutes or so. (Otherwise, you can get down by renting a 4-wheel drive, taking a vehicle tour, or walking down).
What to bring: Wear long pants and close-toed shoes. Bring water and your camera, too – they provide saddlebags. Also consider sunglasses and a hat. Consider putting mosquito repellant on before you go, some of our party got munched on while we were down there. Don’t fret about bringing lunch – you can eat it after you get back if you take the morning tour, or before you go if you are going in the afternoon. There’s no need to bring a backpack on the ride – put the few things you need in the saddlebags, and you can stash the rest of your stuff if you have any at the stables in the locked cabinet.
The horses we rode were calm and knew the route well. In spite of his familiarity with the route, my horse (Pico) didn’t follow mindlessly and was responsive to my signals. They had horses for inexperienced and experienced riders. Experienced, for them, meant more than 200-300 rides on a horse, so we were all inexperienced by that definition. I don’t know what their horses for experienced riders were like!
The horses were equipped and trained in the Western style of riding instead of English. I had only ridden English before so this was new to me (for example, you turn the horse not by pulling on one rein but by putting pressure on the neck with a rein), but my horse put up with my inexperience and was responsive to my clumsy handling. The guides provided helmets for those that wanted them.
We had about 12 people in our party, and 3 guides, which is a very good guide-to-rider ratio. The guides rode up and down the line and talked to each of us many times, and pointed out interesting plants and crops and wildlife along the way. I never felt neglected and was quite impressed at the amount of attention we got – it was definitely a tour in addition to being a ride. The guides also picked fruits and gave them to us as we rode, so I got to taste guava, lime, pomello, and baby fern!
The guides were fairly knowledgeable about the area. They weren’t experts and didn’t know details about the history of Waipio or the plants we saw – their knowledge was limited to identification of a plant and a few sentences about its usage (e.g. Hawaiians used this plant for asthma, that one for heart trouble, and the one over there for hula skirts).
The ride itself
The ride itself lasted a little over 2 hours and went back into the valley (the tours no longer visit the beach). We forded a number of streams and walked up several of them, which I had never done before. We walked on roads, trails and streams.
For those of you who aren’t quite sure what to expect on a horseback ride, this was a standard single file, ‘nose-to-tail’ ride and was at a walking pace. The only downside I can see to this trip is if you weren’t quite sure what to expect, and imagined yourself riding alone or with your sweetie and a single guide into the wilderness, or galloping through the rainforest (brochures can be misleading). The ride is much more sedate and controlled that that, as are the majority of horseback tours. There are rides for more experienced riders on Hawaii (at the Parker Ranch) that have a place to gallop through an open field, if you are looking for something faster and more focused on the ride instead of the scenery.
At two places, the guides put us all side by side on our horses and took pictures with our cameras. They were pretty profligate with the film so make sure to bring extra rolls – one member had only one disposable camera with 24 shots and the guides used up 10 shots on two group poses.
We saw few other people. A couple Jeeps with some local kids, and one other horseback tour. Otherwise it was just us, the guides, and Waipio!
Contact information and cost
There are two competing horseback tours of Waipio Valley, and we took:
Waipio Naalapa Trail Rides
Tours are twice a day and last a total of about 3 to 3.5 hours, including the van ride down and back. The actual horseback ride lasts 2 to 2.5 hours. One tour starts at 9 a.m. and the next at 1 p.m.
It cost $75 per person, and requires advance reservations. Nobody over 260 pounds or under 8 years old.
For some pictures of Waipio Valley, check out:
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