Few places offer a better chance to “chase wonder” than Hawaii’s Big Island, said Anthony Doerr in Condé Nast Traveler. You can’t find it at one of the island’s many “perfectly pruned” resorts, where the warm beach towels are “impossibly white” and the cold drinks come with umbrellas. When I called my brother with an idea about trying to recapture some of the adventurous spirit of our youth, I was thinking about the Waipio Valley, or Valley of the Kings, on the island’s unspoiled northern coast. 

Cliffs plunge 900 feet to a beach below us as we stand at the end of Hawaii Route 240. From this lookout, the hike to the valley floor is only a mile down what must be America’s steepest road, but we’re virtually alone. This is sacred ground, and my guidebook warns that Hawaiians are more begrudging of outsiders’ presence here than elsewhere on their island. A sign just off the beach reads: “Burial Site—Stay Off.” Honoring it, we soon wade across a stream that has a reputation for sudden, dangerous surges and begin “one of the most truly wondrous walks” I’ve ever experienced. For nine miles, we climb up and down ridges and gullies, passing though Java plum trees, Christmas berry, and fragrant ferns. Every time we start struggling on the hike, the trail “gives us what we need: a devastating view of the Pacific,” sweet fruit, or “a cold green pool beneath a little cascade where we can soak our feet.” 

Six hours of hiking brings us to “the only Hawaiian valley that may be more sacred, less accessible, and more beautiful than the Valley of the Kings: Waimanu.” As we stand 1,100 feet up on the valley’s wall, “the ocean teethes at a black beach” below, and across from us 1,080-foot Waiilikahi Falls “spills like sifting sugar.” Below us awaits Waimanu Stream, which turns back many trekkers before they reach Waihilau Falls, the tallest falls in the U.S. “But the spirits of Waipio are merciful,” and we wade through the hip-high current before dropping our packs to camp. “For a long moment, we hear only songbirds and surf and the pounding of our own hearts.”

Waipio Valley’s two-bedroom Cliff House (cliffhousehawaii.com) can be rented for $199 to $269 a night.