The headline attraction in the Waimea Valley is a 45-foot waterfall where visitors splash and lounge, finding relief from the tropical humidity. Yet, while Waimea Falls hogs the spotlight, it is the valley's supporting cast that really makes a visit to the destination on Oahu's North Shore special.
The wedge of land surrounding the Waimea River was once home to Hawaiian kings, chiefs and high priests and today is a historical site, education center and botanical garden with 5,000 different types of plants from around the world.
Many visitors get tunnel vision for the waterfall and hustle down the paved pathway to the swimming hole with just a few glances at the flora and cultural sites along the way. The valley holds a plethora of worthwhile things to see, and all of it is less crowded than the waterfall, which by midday is packed with people adorned in yellow life preservers. Occasionally, the waterfall is closed to swimming because too much water is flowing down from the mountains, but rest assured that even on those days the valley is well worth a visit for its other treasures.
The lush landscape is divided into different regions of plants with some sections dedicated to one type of plant. For example, the hibiscus gardens were virtually empty while I explored the tutu pink, creamsicle orange and cherry-candy red variations, likely because that area of the valley is in the opposite direction of the waterfall.
The valley's gardens contain collections of plants from distinct regions, including the Ogasawara Islands, Central and South America, Fiji, Guam and the Mascarene Islands. The valley also has an assortment of plants found only in Hawaii, many of which are rare and endangered, brought to the Islands as seeds or cuttings by early Polynesian explorers.
While the botanical gardens are worth a leisurely stroll on their own, what makes Waimea Valley a special attraction is its rich history as an important place in Hawaiian culture. As early as 1092, it was identified as a precious, resource-abundant area and was designated for Kahuna Nui -- experts in their field who served vital roles in Hawaiian society, such as priests, healers and fishermen.
Throughout history, Waimea Valley has been home to many people of the Kahuna class and was dubbed "The Valley of the Priests." After Kamehameha the Great conquered Oahu in 1795, he recognized its importance and awarded it to his most trusted spiritual advisor, Hewahewa Nui. But Hewahewa would later betray that trust. After Kamehameha's death, he converted to Christianity along with Hawaii's new rulers and participated in the destruction of Hawaiian temples and religious symbols.
In 1850, foreigners were granted the right to own property in the Islands, and by the early 20th century Waimea was privately owned and used for ranching and farming. In the 1960s and 1970s, the valley was operated commercially as the Waimea Falls Ranch and Stables, offering guided tours, hula performances and 75-cent stagecoach rides with actors who rode along playing cowboys and Indians.
In 2003, the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Army and the Trust for Public Lands partnered with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to acquire Waimea Valley for public use, placing it under a Native Hawaiian governing entity, and it is now owned and managed by Hiipaka LLC, a nonprofit company created to steward the resource.
The first significant site you will see as you enter the valley is Hale o Lono (House of Lono), dedicated to the Hawaiian god of peace, fertility, agriculture, rainfall and music. The heiau (temple) is believed to be more than 550 years old, and early Hawaiians would mark the winter rainy season with offerings to Lono, such as taro, sweet potatoes, chickens, dried fish, clothing, feathers or anything else of value. The site is still used today by Hawaiians who participate in traditional practices.
Next up along the main route through the valley is a collection of buildings that represent the home of a high-ranking Hawaiian chief or priest. The buildings stand on the site where these Hawaiians lived but after decades of neglect have been reconstructed, adhering to ancient techniques to best illustrate what they would have looked like when in use.
The site is dotted with small hale (houses) made of wood, grass, coconut-fiber cordage and other natural materials, with different buildings and structures for holding livestock, cooking, building canoes, sleeping and practicing medicine.
Hale Iwi (House of Bones) is a sacred place in the valley, likely a burial temple for a high-ranking individual, according to archaeological research. The site has been dated to the 1600s and is one of the largest pre-contact structures still standing in the valley. (Pre-contact refers to the time prior to European contact, which first occurred in 1778.)
In addition to the historical sites, there is a section of the valley that illustrates the Hawaiian system of agriculture, with extensive terraces and walls built to contain crops and aid water flow.
As to the valley's main attraction, Waimea Falls crashes into a 30-foot deep pond. Every day by 9 a.m., lifeguards determine if it is safe to swim and will post the status on the valley website, but the determination can change throughout the day if conditions change. There are three waterfall conditions: regular swim, limited swimming and no swimming. If there is no swimming allowed, guests to the valley on that day
receive a voucher for free admission to be used within 10 days of the
original visit to come back and enjoy the waterfall.
The path from the visitor center to the waterfall is paved with a couple of steep climbs, but some of the side trails in the gardens contain stairs and some steep and uneven terrain. Shuttle rides available from the visitor center to the waterfall turnaround area start at 9:45 am and are priced at $10 each way per person.
Waimea Valley is open to the public Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with admission priced at $20 for adults, $16 for students and seniors age 62 and older and $12 for children age 4 to 12.