In a nutshell: ‘Iao Valley is a treasure that is easily accessed by anyone. While most people don’t spend an extended period of time here, it is a must-see.
Minuses: Official trails are minimal. Not a whole lot to do for most visitors after you’ve seen the main attraction.
Sound-bite: “One of wettest places on earth.”
‘Iao Valley State Park is on virtually every guidebook and tourist pamphlet’s short-list of must-see places – and for good reason. It is easily accessible by car or tour companies, has paved walkways, steps, and signage with historical information. It is also dramatically scenic and particularly well suited for older folks and kids.
The second wettest place in Hawai’i (the wettest, on Kauai, is also unofficially the wettest place on earth), the summit of the valley receives an average of over an inch of rain per day. (that isn’t an inch every day…maybe it’ll rain seven inches the day before your visit and take the rest of the week off!) Much of this water flows into the `Iao stream – and virtually every drop is drained by a massive diversion that Wailuku Water takes off just outside the park.
The main attraction here is the ‘Iao needle (Kuka’emoku) – a 1200′ (2250′ from sea level) high peak created by erosion of the softer rock around it over many millennia. In Hawai’ian culture, it is known as the phallic stone of the god of the ocean (Kanaloa.) They must not have wanted to share this view when they erected the lookout deck – because any normal person will wonder what kind of Freudian case-study thinks of a phallus when they see this scene. But if you look from a different angle (hint: parking lot) you can see a much clearer (if less impressive) view of the whole package.
This valley is sacred and was kapu to all but Hawaiian royalty. The sheer, inaccessible cliffs in `Iao Valley were used as a burial site for Hawai’i’s ali'i for centuries. Ancient Hawaiian’s believed that their bones contained their mana. Desecrating or stealing bones could give power, control, and even cause harm to living descendants.
When you first enter the park you can choose to cross a footbridge or descend to an exhibition area where the park has simplistically modeled what the greater valley (just outside of ‘Iao) once was. They have constructed a hale with thatched roof common for the time, and have many examples of plants that were cultivated in pre-contact Hawai’i. The park has struggled for years with the model lo'i in this section. You may get lucky and see taro growing – though while well intentioned, these lo’i simply do not accurately portray the vast area of Na Wai Eha that once sustained tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians. (If you’re interested in taro, you can see several producing and lovingly tended examples of lo’i along the Road to Hana.)
Heading back up to the foot-bridge, you’ll typically see local kids jumping off into a small pool below. Like most teenagers, they may come off as too cool to pay attention to you, but they’re most definitely there for your attention. (There are plenty of better jumping options close by if they didn’t want a steady stream of tourists walking by as witness to their coolness!) So feel free to observe, yell some encouragement or even throw ’em a shaka!
After the bridge you have the option to go up or down. Taking the high road brings you to the `Iao Needle observation deck. Down takes you to the stream, and a short nature loop (with access to many informal trails.)
There are trails that follow the stream and go into the valley alongside Iao stream (some access points have signs marked not to follow.) I’m not gonna tell anyone to follow them, but I will tell you there are some nice places to enter the stream (when safe), and to my knowledge there is no kind of enforcement or land ownership in this area. Speaking of extra trails, there are also some nice places along the park access road (before the park) to jump and swim as well – from them you can follow more of the trail network. In those places, however, you may run into local folks who aren’t so happy to see you there. I’d advise being respectful (if they wanted to swim with a throng of visitors, they’d be jumping with their show-off buddies at the foot bridge.)
On the road through ‘Iao Valley, and before the State Park there is also the Kepaniwai Park Heritage Gardens. The gardens memorialize the multicultural history of Maui, with buildings and gardens representing Hawaiian, American missionary, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipino cultures. The gardens were restored in 1994, and are a nice place to stroll around, and have a picnic lunch.
Next door to the Kepaniwai Park Gardens is the Hawai’i Nature Center. Unfortunately the museum has been permanently closed to walk-in visitors.
Location: End of Iao Valley Rd (extension of Main St aka Hwy 320)
GPS Coordinates: 20.880576,-156.545166
Facilities: Bathrooms. (Kepaniwai Park just before the park has sheltered picnic tables & BBQ’s)
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