The northern part of Big Island is rather atypical. It is a rather temperate and humid zone that contrasts with the drought in the southwestern part of the island. As you walk along the roads of the tip of the island, the landscapes follow one another and are not alike.
So let's head north, from the yellow grasses dotting the lava fields to the green valley of Waipio, following in the footsteps of King Kamehameha 1st.
The temples and historical sites
Approximately 1km from the junction of Routes 19 and 270, the Pu' ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is the first point of interest on our northern journey. This is the site of Hawaii's largest restored heiau (ancient temple) restored.
Built under the orders of Kamehameha 1st as an offering to the war god Kukailimoku, it was built in 1790 and 1791 following a prophecy that would give strength to the army of the young king to conquer and unite the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. This was done in 1810. It is now one of the last sacred buildings built in Hawaii before the influence of Western countries.
It is believed that the stones used to build the temple were hand in hand from the Pololu Valley, more than 40km away. This stone structure has been particularly well preserved, so the restoration was very light. As with most historic Hawaiian buildings, only the walls remain, the rest of the buildings are made of degradable materials such as trunks, leaves, branches... coconut or palm trees.
The visitor centre is rich in documentation, and if you come during the winter months, you may have the chance to see whales off-shore, Pu' ukohola being translated as "Whale Hill". You will also discover other temples such as the Mailekeini Heiau built in the 16th century or the Hale o Kapuni, a submerged temple dedicated to the god of sharks.
We wanted to make this temple on the last day of our trip on Big Island, but in a hurry, (never underestimate the number of wonders that each of the Hawaiian islands holds), we could only observe the site from road 270 which dominates it. But it is clearly a site to be discovered, the historical aspect of first plan makes it a visit almost obligatory.
Further north, about 20 km from the Pu' ukohola Heiau, Lapakahi State Park highlights the traditional habitat of ancient Hawaiians. A preserved village that teaches us more about the daily life in Hawaii before the arrival of Captain Cook and the Western way of life. Stone stoneware utensils used at the time are included.
You will have to walk a few hundred meters to discover the different places. Don't forget to take the brochure at the shed located in the middle of the car park, or on the tables at the entrance. It will guide you through the village thanks to the numbers written on each building. She will tell us more about local activities such as fishing, rituals, water management and games... A habitat has also been preserved in its entirety to touch with a finger what a house of the time looked like.
You can stick to the park, but be aware that other traces of houses a little more "in their juice" are also located to the south of the village and can be reached on foot (see Google Maps).
The discovery of this site allows us to imagine how the Hawaiians lived in the past. Even though the stones that were used for the foundations of the buildings are almost all that remain, the visit to the site is culturally interesting. One realizes then the daily difficulties faced by the first inhabitants of the island.
As you will have understood, King Kamehameha I has a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. The birthplace of the Hawaiian island unifier can only be a sacred place, and that is precisely what we are talking about here.
Despite the symbolism of the site, there is not much to see here, apart from the reconstruction of the frail building where the future king was born and the few piles of stones demarcating the area and the ruins of the nearby temple, the Mo' okini Heiau, sacred in Hawaiian culture.
You will have crossed and seen some of the most important sites for Hawaiian natives as you travel up this northwestern part of Big Island. From our point of view, it is not necessary to stop religiously at each site, unless you are passionate about the heritage of the archipelago's ancient times.
We have only done part of the places mentioned above because unfortunately, or fortunately, the island is full of so many other treasures that we had to make choices. With a view to preparing for a future trip, I encourage you to list these places. It will be time to decide if you will have the motivation and time to make all these points, or if it will be better to spend some of these sites to discover others.
Personally, we've tortured each other a lot:"Are we stopping or not?" It would be a shame to pass by without stopping "-" Yeah, but we certainly won't be coming back, it would be a shame to pass by without stopping "-" Maybe but we'll have to sacrifice time a little further..."etc...
Tough choice, isn't it?
Continuing northbound on Highway 270, you will see the famous statue of Kamehameha 1st located in the centre of the village of Kapaau, on the right-hand side of the road. This statue has a particular history...
Originally intended to be erected in front of the Iolani Palace on Oahu, the statue was forged in Florence, Italy in 1880. The ship that was carrying her to Honolulu sank in the Falkland Islands. Believing she had been lost at sea, a replacement statue was ordered and placed in downtown Honolulu, making her one of the most photographed places in Oahu.
However, the original statue was miraculously recovered in 1912. The statue was restored and placed here in the centre of Kapaau, near the birthplace of Kamehameha.
But who is King Kamehameha 1st?
We've been talking about Kamehameha I for a few paragraphs, but who is he?
A great warrior, diplomat and leader, Kamehameha I unified the Hawaiian islands into a single kingdom in 1810 after years of conflict. Kamehameha 1st was destined for greatness from birth. A Hawaiian legend prophesied that a great light in the sky with feathers like a bird would signal the birth of a great chief. Historians believe that Kamehameha was born in 1758, the year Halley's comet passed over Hawaii.
The birth name of the future king was initially Paiea in order to hide him from the clan wars in the isolated Waipio valley on the coast of Hamakua just after his birth (see Waipio Valley Lookout). Once the death threats were over, Paiea came out of hiding and was renamed Kamehameha (Le Solitaire). Kamehameha was trained in the arts of warfare and his legendary strength was witnessed when he overthrew the Naha Stone, which weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons. According to legend, anyone who had the strength to move the Naha Stone would rule the Hawaiian islands. Today this stone can still be seen in Hilo, in front of the public library (Waianuenue Avenue).
At that time, war between the chiefs was widespread in all islands. In 1778, Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii, in harmony with Kamehameha's ambitions.
With the help of Western weapons and advisers, Kamehameha won fierce battles in Iao Valley in Maui and Nuuanu Pali in Oahu. The Puukohola Heiau Temple (see above) was built as a fortress on the Kohala Coast in 1790, prophesying the conquest of Kamehameha in the islands. In 1830, when King Kaumualii of Kauai agreed to become dependent on the kingdom of Kamehameha, prophecy was finally fulfilled. Kamehameha spent his last days in Kailua-Kona, on the west coast of his native island.
The unification of the Hawaiian islands by Kamehameha has been significant not only because it is an incredible step forward in the history of the archipelago, but also because, with different rules, the islands could have been torn apart in the face of different Western interests.
At the end of Highway 270 is the Pololu Valley Lookout. It is not only a superb view of the lush Pololū Valley, as its name suggests, but also the departure of the trail that descends into the valley.
After having parked you on the small parking lot at the end of the cul-de-sac, you will be able to go down to the heart of this wild valley, and isolate yourself a little from the other visitors who stay mostly at the top of the hill. Once down below, you will have the opportunity to take great pictures, because finally the bottom of the valley is more photogenic than the lookout. Unfortunately, our pictures do not pay homage to the place, the bad weather is part of the game.
Be careful, in case of bad weather, this path can be very slippery and the view less exceptional. Remember to take into account the difference in altitude of just over 100 metres, which can be exhausting when you return. We also advise against swimming here, as the currents are strong and the pebble beach is not very comfortable.
Once the valley crosses, you can continue the trail to the other ridge, you can discover the Honokane Nui Valley, after 4 km from the car park. Or you can just enjoy the view from the beach and go back up to the car park. This alternative should take you just under an hour to cover the 2.4 km round trip to the beach.
Now let's turn left on Kynnersley Road, 1 mile (1.6km) past the Kamehameha statue in Kapaau. From now on, we will not leave Route 250 before returning to Route 19.
I would call this route on the Kohala volcano slope "Scenic Road" because it is bucolic. We pass through small craters, pastures and farms. It's very pleasant and reminds me a bit of Auvergne in France.
Take time to walk around here, where the air gets cooler. We are at an altitude of 1000 meters and the grass is soft and thick. There are also many ranches here, which make Waimea famous.
After this rural episode, we arrive at the highway 19 crossroads and several choices are available to you:
- You can continue on the left to the Waipio Valley, it will take you to reach Hilo in 1h05 and 80km, or 1h20 and 98km to return to Kailua-Kona.
- You can go back to Kailua-Kona if your accommodation is there, count 50 minutes and 66km.
- You can stop here if you plan to stay in Waimea.
- Finally, as the weather is fast moving, you can in this late afternoon consider a ascent to Mauna Kea depending on the weather conditions, the visitor center being located at a short time, 74km from the crossroads (see our article on Mauna Kea).
Waipi'o Valley – Valley of the Kings
Here we are at our last stage of our trip north of Hawaii Island, and what a stage! "Cherry on the cake, Cerise sur le gâteau, Cereza sobre el pastel, no matter where you come from, the feeling will be the same.
At the end of the small car park, a staircase leads down to the viewpoint. Here the view is incredible, and other wonders are hidden here.
You will have to go down the 400m of vertical drop to reach the beach below following the road. Allow enough energy to rise because the average slope is 25%!
From here you can admire, if the conditions are right, the superb waterfall that rises from the crest to ground a few meters from the ocean, on your left, looking towards the valley. The bottom of the valley is superb, but it is not easy to reach.
For those wishing to reach the valley effortlessly, it should be noted that access is only allowed to 4x4 (apart from the usual rental companies), this route is the steepest on this length in the USA! In fact,"classic" rental companies will forbid you to take this road, even if you rented a 4x4, and for good reason. The average slope is 25% and some portions are not coated. This road is therefore extremely dangerous, especially not rainy weather. However, you will be able to rent the services of "tour companies" that will take you to the heart of the Waipio Valley.
It is at the bottom of this almost inaccessible valley where there are less than 100 souls whose main activity is agriculture. Waipi' o Valley is also full of history. It was here that the future king Kamehameha was hidden during his childhood while wars raged over the archipelago, and he practiced here to become Hawaii's greatest warrior and unifier.
If you have a little bit of strength and time left, you can go to the Hi' ilawe Falls, Big Island's highest falls (422m). Once down in the valley, take the road on the left, the falls should be visible after 5-10 minutes of walking.
We didn't come down into the valley for lack of time, but beware, because according to testimonies, access to the falls is difficult because you have to cross a lot of private properties to get there. Yet, because Hawaiians are friendly people, maybe they will let you through?
How long to discover Northern Big Island?
That's what closes this walk to discover the north of the island. To take advantage of the different points of interest mentioned in this article, 2 days seem to us necessary to enjoy it well, and 3 days if you want to do long hikes. Having done it in one day, I can tell you that it was clearly too short!
The complete video of our route north of Big Island