Posted by: soniahs | March 14, 2011

Iao Valley: not quite as idyllic as it appears

Back to Maui, and our December trip to Hawaii (wow-that long ago?) The West Maui mountains are older than Haleakalā, and consequently more eroded. Hawaiian volcanoes tend to reach their largest extent as massive dome-shaped mountains that have a somewhat symmetrical appearance (as Mauna Loa looks today). Once the eruption rate of the volcano slows down, erosion starts to work: rainfall creates streams, and eventually these streams create deep valleys. This is the stage the West Maui volcano is in.

ʻĪao Valley is a picturesque spot deep within the West Maui mountains. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but also has historical significance. The highlight, for most people, is probably ʻĪao Needle, a rock formation at the end of an eroded ridge.

'Iao Needle

ʻĪao Valley contained important agricultural agricultural and religious sites for Native Hawaiians. ʻĪao Stream watered many kalo lo’i (taro fields) and supported a large population. ʻĪao Needle itself was a sacred site, as it represented the phallus of Kanaloa, the god of the sea and the underworld. It does seem like a reasonable association.


Another view of the valley.

Hawaiian culture is frequently presented as lu’aus, surfing, and beautiful women dancing, and other historical cultural elements are frequently glossed over. ʻĪao Valley, for example, was the site of a huge battle in 1790, between the invading forces of Kamehameha (who would go on to conquer all the Hawaiian Islands) and the defending Maui chief Kalanikūpule. So many were killed that the stream was dammed up by bodies, and the remaining water ran red with blood.

Today, ʻĪao Valley contains a state park, and the stream is only likely to be dammed by a wall of tourists. Aside from Kanaloa’s phallus (which is, appropriately, the most prominent sight), there is now a botanical garden with many ethnobotanical specimens, as well historical markers about the Native Hawaiians and later immigrant groups.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a comedown for the valley to go from a sacred site and royal burial area to a well-groomed historical park. But that diminishing of magnitude (both sacred grandeur and terrible deeds) is something that we see in many places in Hawaii.



  1. […] not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but the West Maui mountains creep me out. They’re intermediate in erosion between the massive-yet-pimpled with cinder […]

  2. Next time give me a call and I can show you the Iao that you wanted to see


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