Oahu’s landscape is full of beautiful tropical plants, mountains, palm trees, and wildlife. Walking or hiking around the island feels like immersing oneself in a large botanical garden. So when you visit a botanical garden on the island it may not seem as impressive. That’s why you should visit the Waimea Valley Botanical Garden.
There are two parking lot options. The first is paved and in front of the garden entrance. It’s small, but worth trying first. If you strike out in the main lot, try the overflow parking lot. It’s a dirt lot, off the side of the road leading to the gardens.
The ticket booth for the gardens is not where you first enter. The buildings straight across from the parking lot are the Na Mea Ono Grill restaurant, Ku Ono Wai Wai gift shop, and bathrooms. Keep walking down the paved path to find where you pay and enter the gardens.
Bring extra cash if you have small children, toting a lot of items, or are unable to make the 3/4 mile walk to the waterfall. I have no idea if children are allowed to ride in them, but wagons are available for rent for $10. There is also a shuttle to the waterfall. One-way costs $8 and a round-trip costs $12. Shuttle stop locations are: Hale Ho’ike and Wailele waterfall. Another reason to have cash? The snack bar near the waterfall only accepts cash.
Waimea Valley Offers an Educational Experience
One of the main reasons why you should visit the Waimea Valley Botanical Garden is for the opportunity to learn about the Hawaiian culture and the native plants. The valley was known as “The Valley of the Priests” because this region of Oahu was awarded to the Kahuna Nui (High Priests) by the Polynesian voyagers who settled on the Hawaiian islands. The Hawaiian religion worships 4 main gods: Kāne (god of forrests), Kū (god of war), Kanaloa (god of ocean), and Lono (god of peace) [these are shortened descriptions. find out more here.] When walking through the gardens, visitors can see several places of worship, known as heiau, and other sites devoted to the four gods. As you make your way through the gardens, respect these sites by not touching, disturbing, or removing rocks or other objects.
(1) Hale o Lono (House of Lono)
This is the first site visitors see. This is a religous place of worship, dedicated to the god Lono, and is believed to have been originally built around 1470 AD. The winter, rainy season, is known as the time of Lono and when offerings were collected. This site is still used for traditional practicies.
(2) Ku‘ula Shrine (god of fishing)
There is a collection of stones (pohaku) built as a shrine to the fishing god, Ku‘ula. As one can imagine, fishing was an important part of traditional Hawaiian life. Praying to Ku’ula for successfull catches was equally as important, and the first catch would be given as an offering.
(3) Kauhale Kahiko (kau hale – many houses)
The largest of the buildings is the Kauhale, a traditional site for a high-ranking priest or chief. The house was reconstructed using traditional materials and techniques, giving visitors an idea of what it would have looked like originally. You can walk through and even sit down inside.
(4) Hale Iwi (House of Bones)
One of the more interesting sites, in my opinion, that I saw was the House of Bones, located above the Hawaiian Ethnobotanical B section. (Follow all the paths in this garden because you’ll never know what you’ll find). Archaeological research shows that this was a burial place for a high ranking person, built in three stages during the 1600’s.
Though not listed on the website as one of the cultural sites, there is a place above the main road featuring some traditional Hawaiian games. Above is a photo of Hawaiian Checkers. The board is a large stone with small carved circles on top for small rocks. There is another game where players would slide a large “dart” between two rods. The main space is dedicated to ‘ulu maika (rolling stone disks). This game resembles modern day “lawn bowling”. These games weren’t just for passing the time, but for strengthening warrior’s skills in agility, strategy, and aim.
Valley Ownership over the Years:
This region was awarded once again in 1795 to Hewahewa Nui, a spiritual adviser to Kamehameha the Great after Kamehameh conquered Oahu. In the early 1800s, due to foreign influences in the region, Hewahewa and his co-rulers converted to Christianity and denounced the Hawaiian gods. More changes came in the early 1800’s as western ideals spread across the islands. After Hewahewa’s death in 1837, the land was granted to his granddaughter. Sadly, the Mahele Land Redistribution Act of 1848 forced her to give up her claim to half of her land. In 1886 her land was foreclosed on and it changed hands several times over the following decades, including the Castle & Cook pineapple and sugar company, the U.S. military, and under Waimea Falls Ranch & Stables’ management. This all changed in 2003, when the valley was put back in the hands of a native Hawaiian Governing unit: Hi‘ipaka LLC.
There are several different areas throughout the Waimea Valley gardens. Here is only a taste of what you can see at this 300 acre garden, with 45 themed gardens, nestled between the mountains and only a few minutes from Waimea Bay.
Native Botanical Collections
The area dedicated to Hawaiian Ethnobotany displays native plants that were used for multiple purposes, including clothing, medicine, and food. The best part of this section, down below the main road, is all the sugar cane. Hiding behind these tall plants is one of the streams running through the valley. Did you know than around 90% of Hawaiian Flora is found only on the Hawaiian islands? Even the commonly seen hibiscus flower has its own variety only found in Hawaii. These white blooms give off a faint scent of perfume at dawn and dusk. Native ferns are an important part of Hawaiian culture (in lei making for example). Many ferns are at risk of being snuffed out across the island due to hogs, other invasive species, and development. This is why this botanical garden aims to protect all of these native plants in the Waimea Valley.
Featured Botanical Collections
Some of the featured collections found throughout the garden are many varieties of lilies, such as the spider lilies. My favorite collection was “Aunty Coco’s” Lei Garden. This small garden has several awnings covered with plants and leis guiding you through this slice of paradise. Many of the flowers found in this garden bloom in March and September. Try to find the crazy flower pictured below! You can also find a variety of bamboo as you wander through Waimea Valley. Other collections include fruits, ginger, and spice plants. For more information on these collections, click here.
Be on the lookout for a ground orchid that smells like grape juice! Look for the name “Spathoglottis Unguiculata” from New Cadelonia!
The name of the falls changes depending on the flow of water. “When the water gently flows, the name is Waihe‘e (softly trickling water). When the water flows heavily, the name is Waihī (purging water).” This fresh water stream, cascading down a 45 foot waterfall, would have been sacred to Hawaiians. Hawaiians would not defile fresh water, so all bathing would have been done closer to the ocean. This is why its interesting that you can go swimming here.
Swimming at the falls. If you want to add swimming at a waterfall to your itinerary, come to the botanical gardens in your swim suit. Or, carry it with you and change in one of the two dressing rooms available. Life vests are required before entering. There is a station next to the falls where you can sign in and get your vest. If swimming isn’t for you, there are places to sit and watch as others partake.
My advice is to swim first, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. By noon the swimming hole was full of people. This applies to taking photos without people, too.
On the way to/from the waterfall, if you’re feeling peckish, stop by the Wailele Snack Shop for a bite to eat or something to drink.
Did you know you can also see peacocks roaming the gardens? Be careful not to get too close as they can be aggressive.
Have you been to Waimea Valley? What was your favorite part?