My recent springtime visit to the “Big Island” of Hawaii was my first to this particular island, and I wanted to sample as many activities as possible. The snorkeling was enchanting, the golf was challenging and scenic. Walking the beaches (white sand, black sand, and — I kid you not — green sand), hiking the volcanoes, strolling the streets of Kailua-Kona — it was all good! Indoor adventures included an astronomy lecture (Mauna Kea is home to one of the world’s largest and highest observatories) and wine tasting at the southernmost winery in the United States. But my trip would not have been complete without a horseback ride along the rim of Waipi’o Canyon.
Author and horse share a private moment.
Riding With Duane And Roy
Several vendors offer horseback rides in and around Waipi’o Canyon. Since my colleague and riding companion, Holly, is a far more experienced horsewoman than I, I gladly let her do the research and make the arrangements. We went with Waipi’o Ridge Stables, which rides along the rim above the canyon as opposed to the canyon floor. I can’t vouch for the other vendors or for the canyon floor rides, but I can definitely endorse Waipi’o Ridge Stables and their Canyon Rim Ride. They were courteous on the phone and e-mail, their horses were in amazing condition, and our guides, Duane and Roy, were top-notch. (Indeed, there was a slight mix-up in our scheduled ride, resulting in the need for two guides, which they accommodated quickly and cheerfully.) Our group included myself, Holly, my sister Peggy, and a husband and wife, plus the guides. The small size of the group afforded us lots of interaction with the guides, who were both entertaining and informative.
Roy, our wise, laid-back Hawaiian trail guide.
We met at Waipi’o Valley Artworks, an earthy little souvenir stand that was worth a visit. After purchasing snacks and bottled water for the ride, we were loaded into the van and taken to the nearby stables. Here, we signed waivers, picked out rain ponchos (it was sprinkling slightly), and met our horses. Here we also met “Roo-Roo,” the sprightly little cattle dog that would accompany us on our tour.
At a pace more reminiscent of Deputy Dawg than the Lone Ranger, we ambled out of the paddock and onto the trail. Single-file, we moved into the “forest” (actually a tree farm) and toward the canyon rim. A short distance out, my mount was observed to be favoring a rear hoof. Upon examination by Duane, it was determined that he might be sore from a recent shoeing, so he gave me his horse — a stunning chestnut thoroughbred — and walked mine back to the corral, where he retrieved another for himself.
Looking into Waipi’o Canyon from the rim; Waipi’o Beach below.
About the time Duane caught up, we were emerging from the trees for our first view into the canyon. While we were in no danger of falling at any time, I would suggest a different ride for those with a fear of heights. From this vantage point, Waipi’o Valley spread out some 2,000 feet below us, with its tidy taro patches and sugar cane fields creating a patchwork on the canyon floor. To our right, the froth of Waipi’o Beach could be seen. To our left, the upper plunge of Hi’ilawe, one of Hawaii’s highest and most beautiful waterfalls. The initial plunge is 1,200 feet high, with an overall vertical drop of 1,450 feet.
The beach is impressive and has a rich history. Nearly a mile wide, its characteristic black sand is a favorite destination for Hawaiian families and surfers. The valley and beach was home to Hawaiian royalty in the past, and was — according to Roy and Duane — the place where Kevin Costner built his watery settlement for the 1995 movie, “Waterworld.” (Curiously, the website for the movie cites Kawaihae Harbor as the location.) According to legend, this bay is near the entrance to the underworld.
Three amigas on canyon rim; waterfall at left, mist rolling over the opposite canyon wall.
Snacks And Kodak Moments
Turning toward the waterfall, we left the overlook to ride along the canyon rim, continuing to enjoy the vistas as we ventured into the rainforested hills of Kohala and the flanks of Mauna Kea. On clear days, Maui’s Haleakala volcano is clearly visible on the horizon. We stopped frequently for views and photo ops, and once so Roy could pick some thimbleberries to share with us. Similar to a raspberry, the fruits were slightly softer and more delicate than other caneberries.
Our destination for this 2.5-hour ride was a small park above the waterfall, overlooking the valley. Here, we dismounted, tied our horses (one, nicknamed “Houdini,” kept getting loose and was starting to amble homeward), and snacked on some steamed taro root Roy had packed along. Purplish and bland, the tuber had the taste of a sort of chalky potato.
At this point, we three amigas would head back to the barn with Duane, while Roy took the other couple on the longer, 5-hour ride to explore a secret waterfall. I’m sure the rest of the ride would have been wonderful, but Holly had a plane to catch and Peggy and I figured 2.5 hours in the saddle was sufficient for our level of experience. We returned via the forest, with a final snack of a perfectly ripe guava, plucked from a tree by Duane and quartered for us with his pocket knife.
Sally O’Neal shares her trailside adventures weekly at sportsmansguide.com. She visited Hawaii in March and April of 2011.