Long a place of pilgrimage for the royalty and warrior classes of Maui, the Iao Valley is renowned for its unprecedented beauty. Today it continues to be one of the top tourist attractions on Maui. The valley is the eroded caldera of the West Maui Mountains, an amphitheater where four streams converge. The state park is relatively small, but ample amounts of history and lore surround the area. Mark Twain wrote of his experience in the valley: “I still remember, with a sense of idolent luxury, a picknicking excursion up a romantic gorge there, called the Iao Valley.” Dominating the valley is a unique rock formation called the Iao Needle. As the most obvious feature of the park, it towers 1,200 feet (360 m) above the valley floor but is inaccessible for climbing. A path nearby the needle leads to a botanical garden filled with plants brought to the island by Hawaiians who lived in the valley preceding European contact. Before modern farming techniques, the lower portion of Iao Valley was ideal for agricultural production necessary to support a large population. These favorable conditions included a wide valley floor, rich alluvial soils, terraced gardens, and a constant supply of water from Iao Stream. Such factors combined with access to abundant marine resources in Kahului Harbor, made this a prime location for settlement on West Maui before the arrival of Europeans. The lower section of Iao Valley contained some of the most productive taro farming gardens on the island, and as such became a vibrant political and religious center. Fronting the mouth of Iao Stream are two large heiau platforms named Haleki’i and Pihana, the last remaining ancient Hawaiian religious structures in the Wailuku area. Traditional history credits the Menehune with construction of both structures in a single night with rocks collected from Paukukalo beach. Other accounts credit the rulers Kihapi’ilani, Ki’ihewa and Kahekili as the builders of the two lava rock platforms. The Haleki’i heiau was most likely a compound for chiefs, which had thatched huts on top of the stone structure guarded by ki’i statues placed around the surrounding terraces. Pihana heiau, the full name of which is Pihanakalani or “the gathering place of the ali’i,” was a luakini-type heiau. The luakini war temples were for the exclusive use of male ruling chiefs, and the most infamous religious practice were the frequent human sacrifices made to appease various gods. As such, the upper portion of Iao Valley was the most important location on West Maui for ancient Hawaiians, the equivalent to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they buried their kings in the long-lost Olopio Cave, and access was strictly forbidden to commoners.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw an intensified period of frequent warfare on Maui, first between the chiefs of Maui, and then with the chiefs of Oahu and Hawaii. The most famous was the Battle of Kepaniwai in Iao Valley, where Kamehameha I of Hawaii led his forces to conquer Maui’s army in an effort to unite the islands in the late 18th century. Prior to that, the lower Iao Valley was a political center under chief Pi’ilani who had succeeded in unifying Maui by warfare. His two sons, Lono-a-Pi’ilani and Kihapi’ilani fought for political control after his death. Eventually, with the help of warriors from the Big Island, Kihapi’ilani became the ruler of Maui. The last powerful ruler before Kamehameha was Kahekili, the fierce tattooed chief who ruled from about 1765 to 1790. Lower Iao Valley was the site of Kahalelani, his royal residence. He successfully defended his capital in the 1770s when an army of warriors from the Big Island led by Kalani’opu’u invaded. Kahekili’s warriors hid behind the sand dunes, surprised the invaders and systematically slaughtered them all. The most famous event in the history of Iao Valley was a battle fought between the forces of Kahekili and those of King Kamehameha the Great, which took place in 1790. Kamehameha arrived from the Big Island in a fleet so huge it was said that the whole Kahului Harbor was filled with war canoes containing his massive army. Kamehameha brought along a cannon, called Lopaka, and two Europeans, John Young and Issac Davis, who knew how to operate it. The Maui warriors were led by Kalanikapule, the son of the high chief Kahekili, who fought evenly with the Big Island invaders for two days. On the third day Kamehameha brought out the cannon, and a great slaughter occurred, conclusively deciding the fate of the famous battle. Had the fighting been in the usual style of hand-to-hand combat, the forces would have been equally matched and the outcome would have likely been a draw. As it was, the Maui army retreated into the narrow Iao Valley and fell under intense cannon fire. The warriors desperately tried to escape by climbing up the steep cliffs. The battle was subsequently called Ka-`uwa`u-pali (clawed off the cliff) and Kepaniwai (damming of the waters), because the Iao Stream had become so clogged with dead bodies floating downstream. The town Wailuku also borrows its name from the battle, literally meaning “bloody river.” As devastating as the battle was to the defenders of Maui, most of the important chiefs escaped and proceeded to take refuge on the islands of Molokai and Oahu.
Getting to Iao Valley
Iao Valley State Park is located 3 miles (5 km) above the sleepy town of Wailuku on Iao Valley Road. This West Maui refuge is a 6.2 acre (2.5 ha) place of uncommon history and beauty. Upon arrival visitors suddenly find themselves in a lush rainforest environment. The air is moist and cool and occasional rainstorms are common. Iao Valley State Park is designated a National Natural Landmark.