Getting Reacquainted With Waimea Valley

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 15, 2010
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It was a late summer day in 1976, the blue of the cloudless sky was intense, and from the top of the precipice of Waimea Falls, a slight breeze chilled our wet bodies. For my three boys and me, swimming across the large pool at the end of the rocky trail had been easy, but the climb up the cliff from one rock outcropping to the next was the tricky part. My youngest son - then 10 years old - was eager for action. “Dad, Dad, let’s stop up the falls like we did last time.” His two brothers chimed in, “Yeah, just like we did before. Let’s fool the tourists.”

“OK,” I replied. “Let’s go for it!” I stretched myself out flat along the water-smoothed ledge where the river flowed over and down but just out of sight from below. The boys tucked their stretched-out bodies against mine upstream, adjusting an arm or a hip where necessary to cut off the flow as completely as possible. As the water backed up behind our “body dam,” we giggled as we thought of the wondering of the tourists on the rocks of the far bank: “Oh dear, I wonder what’s happening. The waterfall has stopped!”

After maybe a minute, or when the water pressure threatened to push us over the edge, “OK, on the count of three” we jumped up and to the side as the backed up water went gushing over the ledge. Then, emboldened by our power to actually “stop the flow of nature,” we picked our way back down the cliff to our favorite “jumping off” ledges to plunge back into the pool below, knowing it was deep and safe from hours of watching others do the same.

After an absence of decades, this past long weekend my wife Susan and I and our daughter, son-in-law and 2-year-old granddaughter visited the park and falls, and I marveled at all the positive changes over the years. The three-quarters-of-a-mile trail to the falls crossed several bridges, and was now paved wide and smooth with generous stretches of shaded lawn on either side. Much of the 150-acre arboretum was closely accessible from the trail, with most plant species and origins clearly labeled. Numerous side trails accessed archaeological sites, cozy grottos or the meandering riverbed.

The last bridge provided a photographer’s view of the falls, which were as pristine as I’d remembered them. But the familiarity ended as we reached the actual pool. On the side opposite the falls, wide concrete steps formed a kind of amphitheater for picnickers and observers. A semipermanent lifeguard post shaded two guards, who briefed each arriving group on the safety rules: Enter the pool only at the designated access and “no climbing the rocks around the falls, no jumping or diving” - much less “turning off” the falls. (Which, by the way, neither guard had ever seen or heard of! Kinda sad, but understandable in today’s litigious society.)

Once called the “Valley of the Priests” for its sacredness to Native Hawaiians, Waimea Valley’s history is long and storied. After Cooke’s death at Kealakekua Bay, his two boats, the HMS Discovery and the HMS Resolution, put into Waimea Bay for provisions. As the first white foreigners to set foot on Oahu, they were greeted warmly by the natives of the valley.

Over the years the valley has been inhabited by Japanese farmers, developed as a theme park with stagecoach rides and as an adventure park with ATV trails. These ventures failed. Most recently, the 1,875-acre valley was purchased for $14 million by a coalition of the City of Honolulu, Audubon Society, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Army (a contiguous land owner).

According to the official website,, title to the property is “to be assumed by OHAfor eventual transfer to a future Native Hawaiian governing entity.”

In any case, Waimea Valley, its falls and arboretum are precious resources to be enjoyed and appreciated by our visitors and all Hawaii residents - even if we can no longer “turn off “the falls!

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