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Exploring Hawaii's History at Iao Valley

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

What never ceases to amaze me about Maui is that to walk any place is to walk among history. I suppose that’s true of any place, but here at the Valley Isle, virtually any place you find yourself has a story to tell. That’s never been truer of Iao Valley – Maui’s most readily accessible tourist attraction. Past the splendid photo opportunities and the sweeping views of Maui’s island namesake lies a gripping cultural history, one that show just how the monarchy that was came to be.

lush green forest surrounding peaks and spires of hawaii's iao valley

Maui's most accessible tourist attraction

When I say Iao Valley is accessible, I mean it in both commute and convenience. If you’ve just arrived on the island and are desperate to get moving after your 6-hour+ flight on the plane – which you no doubt will be – Iao Valley comes recommended highly enough. A straight shot from the airport, Maui’s “Needle” is luckily within reach.

The roads will become narrower and steeper, and the familiar landmarks will melt away as you recede from the city. Getting there is its own attraction. Trees reaching higher, greens getting greener; peaks rising and valleys getting lower as you near. If you’re looking to get away early on in your travels, or just looking to sate you inner wanderlust soul, Iao Valley provides a great deal of satisfaction.

At the park entrance, you won’t know where to start. Iao Valley celebrates the many cultures that reside on Maui— that have played a crucial part of the island’s agricultural history since the dawn of Western migration.

View from the lookout at hawaii's iao valley
View above the Lookout at Iao Valley

What’s there in the valley?

The lush Heritage Gardens spread across the first section of the park is an ode to the multi-cultures that had a hand in shaping Maui as we know it today, celebrating American missionaries, Chinese traditions; Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipino culture. Simply put, there’s history and the park is chock full of history.

My family held many a gathering at Iao Valley. It is a state park, after all, with plenty of benches, tables, and canopies for anyone – tourist and locals – to treat to a pow-wow of any size. As a kid, I did not know of the significance that literally surrounded Iao Valley. In my carefree mind, it was just a cool place to swim.

Waterfalls of Hawaii's Iao Valley
Mountain streams can mean breathtaking waterfalls and chilly waters!

The Iao Stream lies just off of the embankment, the dropoff west of the park entrance. On the way up, you’ll pass bridges and lookouts that provide but a taste of the stream’s grandiosity. The further up you go, the bigger the picture.

Fresh water streams means that it’s not only a refreshing dip, but a cold one. For me and my cousins, it became the first true test of our strength: who would go in first? All the dares and chicken-cawing in the world would make any kid take their sweet time, I assure you.

Free tip: if you’re going to go in, JUST GO IN. Dipping your toes or testing the waters will only make you hesitate further. Just. Go. (Of course, that is easier said than done.)

traditional structures of Hawaii in the Iao Valley
Iao Valley is a place to enjoy wilderness and local culture

The grandiosity of Iao Valley will certainly make you feel like a kid again. The ridges above seem sharper at stream level, and the stream itself – no matter how far you skip from one side to the other – keeps on ebbing, and keeps on flowing.

My cousins and I made it a game, a veritable The Floor Is Lava-like obstacle. Stay on the rocks. Don’t touch the water. (Pardon the logistics, we were kids.)

Barefoot and newly dried, we skipped from boulder to boulder, dashing from rock to rock – a veritable crossing of the streams. Was there a point to our dares and dare-deviling? I’m not so sure, in hindsight. We just played, sure as a stream, completely carefree of the scoldings we’d soon get from our parents, and the sacred ground we had been treading on. I suppose we should’ve come equipped with a Ghost-busting proton pack, all things considered.

What local history lies here?

Once upon a time, a great battle took place at Iao Valley. During the 18th century, the Hawaiian islands weren’t united; the islands stood apart as separate ruling kingdoms. The legendary King Kamehameha launched a campaign to unify Hawaii as a whole. This meant that each island chief, or Ali’i, were to relinquish their power.

Kalanikūpule, Maui’s last Ali’i, challenged the invading King Kamehameha’s campaign. The two armies met at Iao Valley and fought a bitter battle known as the Kepaniwai Battle. Kalanikūpule and his forces lost, and King Kamehameha went on to achieve his vision. The fight itself was said to have been so bloody, that the Iao stream overflowed with red. And, as superstition and legends prevailed, it is said that at the darkest hour of night, you can hear the cries of the fallen soldiers, and you can see the stream glistening blood-red.

sunlight on peaks of Iao Valley, Hawaii
Dramatic lighting at sunrise and sunset only add to the experience

You can imagine any child’s shock and intrigue with a story such as that. Did we know then that we were gleefully skipping across a brutal battle site? Perhaps the better question is would we have ceased our little games on the rocks had we known the site’s history? The answer would be exactly the same: we'd do it all over again.

I know this to be true, because we did.

Nonetheless, the legend of Iao Valley stuck with us as kids going into adolescence, especially that bit about ghosts and the stream turning red. (As superstitions are likely to do in any adolescent mind.)

Stream flowing through Hawaii's Iao Valley
No red here, would you take a dip?

What awaits visitors?

I’m happy to report that it is of course just a superstition. (How can anyone distinguish the stream's color at the supposed darkest hour of night, I wonder?) But I’ll never forget what the story lent to Iao Valley to me growing up. That history happened here. That great battles can arise amidst such sweeping beauty—in which our battles with my cousins and our parents seemed relatively tame, and A LOT less consequential. That Maui is full of legends, and being here is straight up legendary.

Stream in historic iao valley hawaii
A quiet place for locals and visitors alike

So no matter what you do at Iao Valley, whether you’re there for a picnic, a hike, or an epic selfie, take a moment to breathe in the green, the garden, the history. Even now, twenty years and centuries later, it’s madly surreal to stand where others stood and clashed before you. To reckon with the battles fought in the past, and to feel the unreserved peace of being alive today.

At the very least, take a dip in the ice-cold freshwater stream. I dare you.


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