Hawai'i, Part I: Laupāhoehoe, Waimanu Valley, 'Akaka Falls, Punalu'u - AlpenScapes Photography

So Hawai’i was awesome. That might prove to be the most obvious statement I make in 2015, but whatever. Over the course of the 20 days we spent on the island of Hawai’i (“the Big Island”) we backpacked into a remote, waterfall-studded valley, spent a few days at a white-sand oasis, enjoyed sunsets with sea turtles, and swam with dolphins. I’ll be posting about our trips over the course of the next week or two. Here’s Part I:

Sunset at Laupāhoehoe on the east coast of Hawai'i

We’d read about a remote valley on the northern end of the island that we could backpack in to and stay for a couple of days. “Getting to Waimanu requires excellent fitness and above average routefinding.” Perfect. Hike down the steep 4×4 road to the Waipi’o Valley, ford the river, pick up the Muliwai Trail, climb the side of a steep-ass mountain in the blazing sun, then endure for 5 miles of gully crossings and a knee-jarring descent into the Waimanu Valley. Here’s a map (start is on the right, end on the left). It was a long slog but a beautiful day for the hike, and what better way to finish than by arriving at a deserted black sand beach?

Looking down to the Waipi'o Valley from the overlook. Step 1 was to hike down to and across the valley and then climb up the other side.

Watching the sun light creep down the steep walls of Waipi’o Valley was a welcome distraction from the gnarly road that served as our trail down. We took off our boots, crossed the stream, and skipped across the beach and into the sunshine. And then we climbed…

The major climb behind us, we pressed on into the ridgetop forest. Over the next 4 miles we crossed a dozen gulches, pausing to admire waterfalls, massive trees, and the jungle around us.

At last the final descent was just ahead of us. Peering down into the valley, I could hear my knees cursing me for bringing that bottle of margarita. One more mile to go.

I’ve generally found that the harder something is, the more worthwhile it is. This trek into Waimanu was certainly no exception to that rule. We walked to the far end of the beach, our toes wriggling in the soft black sand, and set up camp to the rhythmic lullaby of crashing waves.

Coffee in hand, we watched the sun slip above the horizon to a soundtrack of the rhythmic tide.  We spent the day exploring around the beach, hiking up the rocky shore to watch a’ama crabs dodge crashing waves and studying the tropical flora. With all the coconut palms around, it was inevitable that we would attempt to find a way to enjoy some fresh coconut milk.

With the cloud cover increasing and the daylight fading, we made the 10 minute hike to the spring that served as our freshwater supply. I had noticed what appeared to be an old neglected trail on an earlier resupply mission, and we decided to follow it for a bit. I knew there was a (closed) trail out to Waiʻilikahi Falls and figured this might be it. We hiked along through the forest, dwarfed by trees whose branches were more like trunks. After about 30 minutes we came to the ruins of an old native Hawai’ian community. With daylight waning, we turned and headed back toward camp (being an impromptu hike we lacked provisions for a longer excursion – mainly, shoes).

Just as we were about 10 minutes from camp, the rain turned on and we were instantly soaked. Not remembering how well we had packed up camp before heading out, we ran back to the tent. After securing our packs and gear, we climbed into our dry space and rested up for the hike out the following morning.

The hike out was rather uneventful. Perhaps on account of the rain, we made great time getting back to the car. Though thoroughly soaked, we were all smiles as we took the final soggy steps along the beautiful back road.


There was no end in sight for the rain as we hurriedly changed into dry clothes. Fortunately, we had reservations to camp under the covered pavilions at Kalōpā State Recreation Area. We strung p-cord, read the Big Island book our friends had loaned us, and drank beers with our little coquí frog friend who decided to join in.

The next morning the rain had mostly tapered, but we were reminded that, despite being hung out of the rain, things don’t dry in damp climates. So we checked in with our trusty companion, NOAA, to figure out where to go next. With a forecast for temps in the 80s and gusty winds, Punalu’u sounded like the perfect place to go dry our gear and plan our next move. Driving south towards Hilo, we made the impromptu decision to check out a 422′ waterfall. And so we came to find ourselves touring ‘Akaka Falls State Park with coffee in hand.

Punalu’u was everything we’d hoped for. Hot, breezy, and blanketed with partying locals. We set up our tent, laid out our clothes to dry, and went for a stroll to enjoy the sunset and look for turtles. It turns out that there’s a small section of beach the turtles like to frequent, so that part was pretty easy. A starry night gave way to a leisurely morning, making coffee while waiting for the sun to crest the horizon and more sea turtle seeking.

We spent the better part of the next week exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, hiking in to a remote white sand beach where we had amazing snorkeling and awoke one morning to a monk seal lounging on the shore. And we did some other stuff. But more on that later. Stay tuned!

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