The Valley of the Priests
Updated: Mar 24
Many members of the climbing community have taken on the responsibility of stewardship of the area, especially more recently as bouldering has become more locally popularized.
Waimea Bay: Maintaining and Taking Care of Public Climbing Sites
Waimea Bay has been a defining location for the climbing community on O’ahu: many have met other climbers there, experienced their first time climbing outdoors there, and have felt like part of the climbing community after spending an evening with friends there. It has been a central location for the climbing community — both for community-building and as an easily accessible climbing spot for many. Many members of the climbing community have taken on the responsibility of stewardship of the area, especially more recently as bouldering has become more locally popularized. From the Volcanic Rock Gym days, when folks would organize group clean-ups, to the annual clean-ups organized by the Arch Project now, climbers have become protectors of Waimea Bay. More recently, some may recall when anonymous individuals defaced the rocks at Waimea Bay, and a group of climbers banded together to clean up the graffiti themselves. Such events have set the standard for how to maintain and take care of our most public climbing site. As such, the members within the climbing community have been exceptional leaders in demonstrating what it means to take care of the ‘Āina, both through organized clean-up events and of their own volition.
Waimea Valley / Valley of the Priest History
While many within the climbing community understand the importance and beauty of Waimea through a climber’s lens, Waimea is also a culturally significant Native Hawaiian historic site. Waimea Valley has a rich history and is also called the Valley of the Priest. The valley is/was home to multiple Heiau, Fishing Ko’a (Shrines), burial caves, petroglyphs and advanced agricultural systems. All which point to the fact that the Valley was intensively used by Native Hawaiians; oral history in the Valley takes us as far back as 1090AD. Waimea Valley’s cultural significance is remarkable, as it can help us answer several questions about traditional Hawaiian life.
Upon conducting our own genealogical research, we know that Waimea Valley was a sacred location for Native Hawaiians. In 1773 during the rule of Kahahana, his high Kahuna Nui (High Priest), Kaopulupulu, held Waimea until 1776, when Kahekili, the Ali’i nui (High Chief) of Maui, invaded O’ahu and defeated Kahahana in battle. Kahekili gave Waimea to his Kahuna Nui, Kaleopupu, who by birthright was an O’ahu priest, but was still connected by blood to Kahekili. Eventually Kahekili placed his son, Kalanikupule, as ruler of O’ahu. Kalanikupule then placed Koi as the Kahuna Nui. This succession of possession of Waimea shows how land was traditionally passed down with hereditary preference through bloodline, and that Waimea would always belong to the priests from the Pāʻao line of O’ahu.
After Kamehameha invaded O’ahu and defeated Kalanikupule in 1795, Kamehameha gave Waimea to his high priest, Hewahewa. Hewahewa was the last Kahuna Nui of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He remained Kahuna Nui of Waimea until his death in 1837, during the reign of Kamehameha III. Additionally, he was the only Kahuna to posses Waimea who was not a direct descendant of the O’ahu Kahuna bloodlines. In 1819, the Kapu system was abolished by Kamehameha II, which meant that the use of Heiau as places of worship and sacrifice came to an end. All Heiau were then officially abandoned, and most destroyed, to make room for development, agriculture, and Christianity. Despite the abolition of the Kapu system, some families continued to take care of the Heiau.
With the abolition of the Kapu system and “development” of the Hawaiian islands, the islands and their abundant resources faced increased exposure. When Captain Kendrick sailed to the islands in the late 1700s, he smelled the familiar aroma of sandalwood, known to Native Hawaiians as ‘iliahi, and knew these trees were valuable, particularly in China where sandalwood was in high demand. Shortly after, Hawai’i became known as “The Sandalwood Mountain,” and ‘iliahi became Hawai’i’s first export. Kamehameha tightly controlled both supply and sale of ‘iliahi, and placed restrictions on harvesting young trees. Over time and under a new King, the Ali’i had a strict monopoly over the exportation of sandalwood. Waimea Bay was an incredibly significant site in the midst of sandalwood exportation, and was used as a major port for the sandalwood trade. It has been reported that in March 1818, a Columbian ship took more than 200 canoes, demanding laborers to work day and night for 36 hours straight, to load the ship with sandalwood. Evidently, the high demand for sandalwood became incredibly arduous for both Native Hawaiian citizens and the land, as it caused many fields to become unused and desolate.
Also, during the late 1800s, with the boom of exportation and agriculture, the OR&L railroad was constructed. In order to construct said railroad, they used dynamite to blow a path through Waimea Valley for the railroad. Lastly, from the 1930s-1960s, it has been estimated that over 200,000 tons of sand was removed from Waimea Bay by Castle and Cooke, forever changing the ocean and tides on the North Shore of O’ahu. With all the exploitation Waimea has seen over the years, it did finally become part of The Pūpūkea Marine Life Conservation District in 1983.
Most proximate to a bouldering location at Waimea Bay is the heiau named Keahu O Hupu‘u. However, the structure has been identified by some as a Heiau, by others as a Ko’a, and by some as a hybrid of both. The story states that two men built the area to honor the god Kaneaukai. While the two men were fishing, each time they pulled up their nets, they only caught the same stone, over and over. This continued happening for an extended period of time. Once the two men went to sleep, they both had a dream that the stone was crying out, as it was cold and thirsty for ‘awa. When they awoke and shared their dreams with one another, they concluded that it must have been the god, Kaneaukai, appearing to them in their dreams. Thus, they built the Heiau or Ko’a in honor of him and to house the stone embodiment of Kaneaukai. To this day, this area remains under debate, particularly in relation to what type of structure it was. However, if Keahu O Hapu’u is a Ko’a (fishing shrine), it would be structurally unique, and the only one of its kind on the Hawaiian islands.
Through oral stories, family members have said the offering table/lookout at the Heiau cracked during the railroad construction. Once the railroad and plantation boom slowed, the North Shore area’s road was paved to allow for greater accessibility. While the road was paved, a bulldozer moved the rocks at Waimea Bay, along with other methods such as attempting to blast an erect stone, which ended up killing 3 workmen. Due to the unsuccessful blast, they had to carry the stone away. Oral history suggests that this stone was referred to as Kupua, a shapeshifting demigod. Some stories passed through our members ‘Ohana is that the stone was taken to an undisclosed location by Hawaiians to protect and hide it. To learn more about this area, see the attached plan map from a historical survey. At the time of recordation in the 1980’s, the Heiau was 47ft by 38ft in total, and the walls reached 6 ft tall. *This structure has been passively preserved, which means this site has been acknowledged by the state as sacred, but has been largely unregulated and left to deteriorate.
Another Heiau nearby, Kupopolo Heiau, is located just before the Keahu O Hapu’u Heiau. It was commissioned by the Ali’i nui Kahahana, and Kaopulupulu, his Kahuna Nui, presided over it. This Heiau is a relatively contentious site, as oral history ties this location to the fall of the Kahahana reign. Shortly after this Heiau was built, Kahekili, the Ali’i nui of Maui, invaded and took over O’ahu. Currently, the site is being taken care of and used by indigenous archeological students.
Additionally, Pu’u O Mahukua Heiau State Monument, located just above the bay, is a Native Hawaiian historical site and the largest Heiau on the island, covering 2 acres. Priests in the area would climb to the top of Pupukea, and used smoke signals to communicate with other priests at Malae Heiau on Kauai. It was also a popular choice to give brith at by the Ali’i of O’ahu. The name of the Pu’u O Mahukua Heiau means ‘Hill of Escape” because the Goddess Pele leaped from that point on O’ahu to the next Island, Moloka’i. If you stand at Ka’ena Point at the start of the Makahiki, you can see the Pleiades (Makali’i) constellation rising out of Pu’u O Mahuka Heiau.
Out of Waimea Valley, but still close enough to be included in this segment, is Nā Ukali O Pele, Pele’s followers. In the Pūpūkea area near a large flat area of lava sits multiple boulders, the largest stands at about 15ft tall. These boulders are some of Pele’s followers. She turned them into stone so they would be immortal. This is one great example of how Hawaiians feel that our ancestors’ mana is held within natural elements, and thus these rocks should NOT be climbed.
We hope with this now available reference to the cultural importance and significance of the area, we as a community can truly become stewards of the history and the ‘Āina, along with setting examples for our newer and vacationing climbers. Our goal is that through these educational blogs, our climbing community is inspired to truly take on the Kuleana (responsibility) to respect Mother Earth and the islands we inhabit.
*Access concerns: Every climbing location in Hawai’i is access sensitive. Please do not post directions or geotag photos. This website does not give you permission to access any lands, either public or private. Climb and enter at your own risk, remember YOU represent the entire climbing community. If a member of the general public or state agents asks you to leave, it is best to go.
McAllister, J. G. 1933 Archaeology of O‘ahu, Bishop Museum, Bulletin 104, Honolulu, HI
Pukui, Mary, Samuel Elbert, and Esther Mookini 1974 Place Names of Hawaii. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu. Second Edition.
Sterling, Elspeth P. and Catherine Summers 1978 Sites of Oahu. Department of Anthropology, Department of Education, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Takemoto, Anne H. 1974 The History of Waimea Valley, Oahu. Prepared for Bishop Corporation. Department of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum. Honolulu, Hawaii
Oral histories from mulitple Kanaka Climber members