Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and covers about 730 square miles. Maui consists of two separate volcanoes with a combining isthmus between the two.
The Mauna Kahālāwai (West Maui Mountain) is probably the older of the two; Haleakala (East Maui) was last active about 1790, whereas activity on West Maui is wholly pre-historic.
The West Maui Mountain’s highest peak, Puʻu Kukui, towers 5,788-feet; it is one of the wettest spots on earth (average yearly rainfall at the rain gage since 1928 is about 364-inches.) The rain carved out valleys on either side, one of these, ʻĪao Valley (“cloud supreme,”) has a narrow entrance facing toward Wailuku that opens into a much larger expanse in the back.
For centuries, high chiefs and navigators from across the archipelago were buried in secret, difficult-to-access sites in the valley’s steep walls.
ʻĪao valley in the West Maui Mountain is the first place mentioned in the historical legends as a place for the secret burial of high chiefs. Kapawa, the ruling chief of Hawaiʻi about 25-30 generations ago, was overthrown by his people, assisted, perhaps, by Pāʻao. (Westervelt)
His body was said to have been taken to ʻĪao and concealed in one of the caves of that picturesque extinct crater. From that time apparently this valley became a “hallowed burying place for ancient chiefs.” (Westervelt)
For centuries, aliʻi (chiefs) were laid to rest in secret burial sites along the valley’s steep walls. The practice of burying aliʻi in the valley began in the eighth century and reportedly continued until 1736, with the burial of King Kekaulike.
Commoners were not permitted into ʻĪao, except during the annual Makahiki festival, which was held on the grassy plateau above the Needle.
Then, in the late-1780s into 1790, Kamehameha conquered the Island of Hawai‘i and was pursuing conquest of Maui and eventually sought to conquer the rest of the archipelago. At that time, Maui’s King Kahekili and his eldest son and heir-apparent, Kalanikūpule, were carrying on war and conquered O‘ahu.
In 1790, Kamehameha travelled to Maui. Hearing this, Kahekili sent Kalanikūpule back to Maui with a number of chiefs (Kahekili remained on O‘ahu to maintain order of his newly conquered kingdom.)
“Kamehameha marched overland to Hāna. His army is said to have contained 16,000 men. Nelson’s famous exhortation to his men at Trafalgar (1805) fifteen years later was:
“England expects every man this day to do his duty,” but Kamehameha’s command to his battle-scarred veterans was: “Imua e nā pōkiʻi a inu i ka wai ʻawaʻawa” (Onward brothers until you taste the bitter waters of battle.)” (Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1912)
After a battle in Hāna, Kamehameha landed at Kahului and then marched on to Wailuku, where Kalanikūpule waited for him. The ensuing battle was one of the hardest contested on Hawaiian record. The battle started in Wailuku and then headed up ‘l̄ao Valley – the Maui defenders being continually driven farther up the valley.
Kamehameha ordered his army to advance, the Maui army met the invaders, but the Maui defenders were so powerless in the face of musketry that they retreated up the valley with the Kamehameha army following them.
Kamehameha’s superiority in the number and use of the newly acquired weapons and canon (called Lopaka) from the ‘Fair American’ (used for the first time in battle, with the assistance from John Young and Isaac Davis) finally won the decisive battle at ‘Īao Valley.
The Maui troops were completely annihilated, and it is said that the corpses of the slain were so many as to choke up the waters of the stream of ‘l̄ao – one of the names of the battle was “Kepaniwai” (the damming of the waters.) Kalanikūpule fled.
Kamehameha left for Moloka‘i to secure it under his control, and there received Keōpūolani as his wife. Then, in 1795, Kamehameha moved on in his conquest of O‘ahu, meeting and defeating Kalanikūpule, at Nuʻuanu.
Visiting Wyoming Senator Clark once declared ʻĪao Valley to be the Yosemite of Hawaiʻi. “These words of adulation were not inspired by momentary flattery, for many others who have feasted their eyes on that famous place, thousands of miles away, were also of the same opinion.” (Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1912)
“In order to properly understand the significance of the Yosemite Valley or any of the well-traveled picturesque places of the mainland, there is always some historical fact attached to give added interest.”
“We all know that the Yosemite is named after an enormous grizzly bear who made his last stand against the Indians in the fastnesses about the celebrated falls. And so it is in Hawaiʻi, nearly every one of the beautiful and sometimes overpowering pieces of scenery is associated with some historical fact that gives food for thought.“ (Overland Monthly, July 1909)
A hundred years ago, visitors had the opportunity to travel to the back of the ʻĪao, “After leaving the needle, the traveler crosses the stream, and up the narrow, winding path leading to the plateau several hundred feet above. This table land is called Kaalaholo. Around its entire base gently flows streams of pure, crystal-like, mountain water.”
“When the top is reached the visitor views a scene so grand, inspiring and majestic that its equal cannot be found within the bounds of the Hawaiian Islands. It is beautiful beyond comparison.”
“Imagine oneself standing at the bottom of a huge basin four miles wide and about five miles long, and looking up with awe at the crest of the Iao mountains above, rising to a height of five thousand feet. The circumference of the ridges which encompass Iao Canyons is about twenty miles.”
“They rise up perpendicular all around and are inaccessible except in a few places. And from the summits of these tall, lofty precipices, called “Palilele-o-Koae,” or the home of the seabirds, play myriads of tiny waterfalls in mid-air, which as they reach the bottom, form part of the mighty stream.” (Mid-Pacific Magazine, January 1912)
From the present viewing area within the State Monument at ʻĪao (and in all the photos showing the valley,) you can see Kūkaʻemoku (more commonly called ‘Iao Needle.) From this perspective, Kūkaʻemoku appears to stick up from the valley floor like a ‘needle,’ thus its modern name.
Actually, what people see is a bump on a side-ridge on the right-side of ʻIao Valley with a large protrusion that sticks up on top; it stands about 1,200-feet tall. It looks like a ‘needle’ of rock, but really isn’t (it’s part of the ridge.)
The Valley and volcanic rocks within it were selected to serve as a National Natural Landmark (1972.) It also serves as a Hawaiʻi Monument operated under DLNR’s State Parks system. It is at the end of ‘Īao Valley Road (Highway 32.)