Located near the heart of West Maui, the Iao Valley is above all a symbolic place for Hawaiians because it is steeped in history. The sanctuary became a State Park in 1972 and since then it has welcomed many visitors for its historical side but also for its very pleasant setting, in the heart of the valley where a beautiful river flows overlooked by imposing ridges and rocky peaks.
1The history of 'Iao Valley
The site of the 'Iao Valley is above all sacred because it refers to the Hawaiian god of the underworld, Kanaloa, represented by the 'Ioa Needle, this emblematic needle-shaped rock.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the Iao Valley was an important burial place for high lineages from the end of the 15th century. But it is especially in 1790 that the place gained importance following the battle of Kepaniwai which took place there. Kamehameha 1st defeated Kalanikūpule, the last king of Maui and his army during his campaign to unify the islands of Hawaii. According to the accounts, the battle was so bloody that the piles of dead bodies formed a dam in the Iao River, blocking the flow of water. The place of this battle was named Kepaniwai ("the dam of the waters").
You can find information about this sacred and bloody history on the signs at the entrance of the park.
2Visit the 'Iao Valley
Although the place could have been particularly suitable, don't look for a hiking trail here, there are none. They would probably have been too difficult to maintain given the frequent floods that occur here during heavy winter rains or during the hurricane season.
Moreover, it is not uncommon for the park to be closed due to landslides, which was the case during our first visit in 2017, when the park was closed for several months.
Given the lack of hiking trails, a visit to the Iao Valley will be fairly quick unless you plan to swim in the river. From the parking lot overlooking the river, a concrete path leads into the valley and then branches off quickly enough to propose 3 itineraries and discover 3 sectors that are worth a look.
The belvedere on the Kuka'emoku ('Iao Needle)
The small belvedere is the most famous attraction of 'Iao Valley since it allows access to a point of view on Kuka'emoku, which is the name given to the famous needle-shaped rock (rather wide anyway) also called 'Iao Needle. It is the lava that was the origin of this strange monolith that has been eroding for thousands of years. The whole thing rises to 370m from its base and culminates at 690m.
From the parking lot, follow the concrete path that crosses the river and then quickly ascends to the belvedere thanks to a series of steps.
The belvedere is simple and doesn't offer a really more exceptional view than from the parking lot. It is especially the ridge behind the 'Iao Needle that impressed us.
The small botanical garden
During your visit, you will be able to stroll in the very small botanical garden located at the foot of the parking lot along the river. It is easily accessible thanks to a concrete path that goes down on the left just before the bridge over the river. The path then winds around some ponds and allows you to admire some pretty plants as you get closer to the river.
Count about ten minutes to stroll around it.
The 'Iao River
A short walk allows you to go down to the river and walk along it for a few dozen meters. The place is very pleasant because it is cool! The water comes down directly from the peaks of West Maui and is perfect for a refreshing (or even invigorating!) swim.
It is possible to bathe in various places along the river, some areas having been built with stones to form small shallow natural pools.
The access is done by going down the concrete path that leaves on the left before going up to the belvedere. It then turns into a trail and to a loop of about 150m to go along the river and then return to the nearby shrubs.
The river is our favorite place here. We didn't think to bring our swimsuits, too bad because swimming was tempting!
3Practical information to know before coming to Iao Valley
Access, schedules and fees
The Iao Valley State Park is located at the end of the Iao Valley Road which ends at the dead end with the parking lot. It is easily accessible from Kahului.
Entrance to the small State Park is free but parking is charged. You will therefore have to pay the $5 parking fee to come and park in the parking lot located at the foot of the park, the only area where it is possible to park. Payment is made at a small booth at the entrance of the parking lot.
The park is open every day from 7 am to 6 pm. Sanitary facilities are located at the entrance of the State Park.
When is the best time to come to Iao Valley?
The parking area is very limited and given the large number of visitors, we strongly recommend that you come to the opening.
We came on the weekdays at 8:00 am and when we left at 9am the parking lot was already full!
Coming early is also to make sure you have a small pool of your own to refresh yourself in the river if you wish to enjoy it. The only disadvantage of the morning is that the lights will not be ideal to take beautiful pictures easily, the play of shadows with the ridges and the contrast of the bright sky will not make it easy for you, especially since the site is exposed to the East and at 8:00 am, the sun is already high. In the evening, a little before closing at 6:00 pm, the lights will be softer, but the other problem will be the sun which will then hide behind the ridges and plunge the site into shadow.
Finally, a last piece of advice, avoid going near the river if the weather conditions are bad, it can become very dangerous, as floods are unpredictable.