Hawaiian Steeps

A Visit To The Big Island's Waipi'o Valley Road

by Stephen Von Worley on April 10, 2012

Bradford Street was getting nervous. Two years ago, I’d crowned it as San Francisco’s – and possibly the world’s – steepest. But now, online chattered a successor to the throne: Hawaii’s Waipiʻo Valley Road, which reputedly cascades 900 vertical feet to the Pacific at a maximum grade of 45%! Impressive… except that you can’t believe everything you read on the Internets. So, last month, I grabbed my digital level, boarded a 747, flew to the Big Island, and motored over to Waipiʻo, in the interest of truth.

West out of quaint Honokaʻa, the road rolls gracefully through pasture and rainforest. Sure, it’s a bit hilly. But extreme? No way. Did I miss a turn somewhere? Then, ten miles in, after a particularly worrisome run of flatness, the faint hum of tourists, a parking lot, and the pavement dives into a giant gash. I’d reached the rim of the Waipiʻo Valley, and it was all downhill from here:

Signs Atop Waipio Valley Road

Signs before going over the edge. No AWD!

Per the signage, by law, only bona fide four wheel drive vehicles can proceed. No AWD allowed. Always the good citizen, I curbed my wimpy rental SUV, unpacked my level, and walked over the lip.

By any measure, the Waipiʻo Valley Road is steep: you might say damn steep, extremely steep, or even butt-ass f*cking steep, depending upon your particular level of refinement and color commentary. It averages a 26% grade – descending 900 vertical feet over two thirds of a horizontal mile – and long sections tilt at a sustained 30% plus. In general, for whatever reason, photos don’t do steep streets justice, but here’s one anyways:

Waipio Valley Road

Looking up the Waipi'o Valley Road.

As I descended, gravity urged: “Run, roll, slide to the bottom!” But that might hurt. So, instead, I carefully checked my acceleration with every step. Five minutes in, perspiration began to bead on my forehead. Walking downhill, the constant effort required to arrest my fall was making me sweat!

Along the way, I measured the instantaneous pitch with my digital level: 36%, 33%, 37%, 39%… and nothing steeper, anywhere, top to bottom.

Now, back to San Francisco, the median grade of the northwest quarter of Bradford Street’s tiltiest slab, as surveyed by Yours Truly, last November:

Bradford Street Grade

Digital measurement of Bradford Street: 42.8% maximum grade!

Yes, that’s a slope of 42.8%. Take a deep breath, Bradford, because in the kingdom of wheelbase tilt – how much your car would pitch, axle-to-axle, while driving up or down the road without any monkey business – you’re still the Big Kahuna.

Now, please permit me to veer off topic and dish a few niblets of Kona (leeward Big Island) wisdom:

  • Shaka: Like the Californian hang-loose sign, but with back of hand towards the recipient. Meaning: hey braddah, right on, thanks, etc. If you’re a tourist and get a shaka from a local, you’re doing it right.
  • Luau: Tried the Royal Kona version. Leis, fire, swords, poi, pork, and mai tais. Serviceable portrayal of Pacific Island dances. Pleasant with a hint of shlock. Recommended.
  • Accommodations: Relative to Waikiki, main town Kailua is cute and undespoiled, but I refuse to bed down anywhere within walking distance of a Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company. To get off the tourist grid, travel 15 miles south to Captain Cook and the low-frills Manago Hotel. No TV in the rooms!
  • Driving: Big Island is Big. But surely, I canz haul ass on the “Belt Highway”? Bzzzt! Even the slightest curve in the road means 45mph, tops. Any attempt to not slow down and feel the aloha will be met by a stinky Datsun pickup, limping just off your front bumper.
  • Snorkeling: We snorkeled Kona’s most popular sites: Kealakekua Bay (incredible variety of sea life), Honaunau’s Two Step (spinner dolphins), and Kahaluʻu (fish-bowl-style shallows). The young lava shoreline means many holes, fingers, slots, arches, cracks, tubes. Go before 9am to avoid crowds and near-entry gridlock. Equipment: dry snorkel with a purge valve, water shoes, fins. Visit a dive shop to find a mask that fits right. Cover your back with sunscreen or shirt. After you’ve “gotten your feet wet”, try the more adventurous options.
  • Helicopter: “You don’t appreciate the full scale of the eruption until you see it from the air,” says my wife. And the electric lava sloshing in the two-hundred-foot-wide bathtub atop Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater… beyond words. We flew Safari Helicopters out of Hilo, but next time, I might try Blue Hawaiian.
  • Luggage: Departing the Bay Area, our two bags weighed 92 pounds total. On the return, the same stuff tipped the scales at 108 pounds. The difference: damp, sandy clothes and gear? Dunno, but to avoid the onerous overweight fees, pack an extra bag, just in case.
  • Island Fever: Primary symptom: distant, removed stare, manifesting hourly upon return to the mainland. “I think Steve’s in Hawaii again.”


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