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Deeply incised radial canyons and valleys are common on the older, volcanically inactive Hawaiian islands, especially on their windward flanks. (Maui's spectacular Waimea Canyon is a prime example.) But such mature erosional features are a rarity on the the Big Island, where lava flows have for the most part added subaerial surface faster than erosion can remove it. Hence the fresh smoothness of Big Island slopes away from Waipi'o and Ninole in the shaded relief map below.
One of the most accessible of several notable erosional exceptions is the deep, lush, flat-bottomed Waipi'o Valley on the northeast flank of Kohala, the oldest Big Island volcano. Waipi'o and neighboring Waimanu, Honokane and Pololu Valleys all owe their existence to a lucky break in the form of a large graben (down-dropped fault block) that developed near the summit about 100,000 years ago and deflected subsequent Kohala flows away from the northeast flank long enough for erosion to take some very serious bites. Near its head, Waipi'o receives twin 300' waterfalls that run seasonally.
The lava-starved northeast Kohala flank also stands out for unusually high sea cliffs reaching 400 m, far above the 15 m average found elsewhere along the Kohala coast. Some sources attribute the high cliffs to surf erosion unopposed by new flows, but others point to a large section of the northeast flank that apparently slumped into the ocean around 150,000-100,000 years ago. Such massive landslides have occurred many times in the Hawaiian Islands.
Another ancient eroded flank at Ninole has been partially covered by much younger Mauna Loa flows.
Bring a 4-wheel drive vehicle with lots of ground clearance. It's an absolute must if you intend to drive in the valley in your own. There are several streams to ford.
Bring your bathing suit and a picnic lunch. The beach at the mouth of the valley is among the best on the island.
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© 2002 Jeremy McCreary; last updated January 21, 2006