Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sacred Falls

April 2, 2011

It's odd that I'd never visited this beautiful little waterfall tucked away in a narrow valley considering I grew up here on O'ahu.   Back in January our attempt to do so was thwarted by a small army of Department of Land and Natural Resources folks who were gathered in the field where people used to park when Sacred Falls State Park was still open.

James and I both had the midnight shift at work and while they're normally fairly tame this one was absolutely insane.  Normally the air traffic over Hawaii and the surrounding ocean is worked by three people.  One in the tower, one for the airspace surrounding the Honolulu International Airport, and one that covers all the rest of the islands and the thousands of square miles of ocean surrounding them.  When I came back in from my break to relieve my coworker the first thing I noticed was that the supervisor was plugged in assisting him and the scope was filled with far more traffic than usual.  I plugged in an assumed the sector for the next three hours which were filled with military tankers, bombers, fighters, international overflights, and a strangely high number of inter-island flights.  My supervisor and I worked furiously though all the traffic and an emergency involving a flight of tankers and F-15's until the morning shift arrived at 6am.  Exhausted, I unplugged and as I walked to my car watched the F-15 emergency catch the cable on runway 4R with his wingman escorting him to the runway before hitting the power with a ear shattering roar and circling back to land.  James who'd been working Honolulu Approach all night and I had discussed heading back to to try Sacred Falls again after the mid earlier on our day shift and despite the crazy night I decided I still wanted to go.

After returning home grab my gear, I dropped by his place and we headed out to Sacred Falls State Park just before the small town of Hau'ula.

In the various books I've read over the last few months the legends of Kamapua'a always seem to find their way into a chapter.  The theories and legends vary depending on the source but stories of the hog man of ancient times are always interesting to read.  Some tell of an 8 foot demigod who was able to change shape to a pig while others speculate that he was merely a powerful man who wore a trademark hogskin cape.  The mythical Kamapua'a was very busy with romantic pursuits of the fiery goddess Pele on Hawaii, stirring up trouble on Maui, and here on O'ahu.  He is linked with fertility, the god Lono, and even to the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a- the state fish of Hawaii. Rather than try to relate all of his adventures I'll simply refer you to the Coffee Times for a brief summary of some of his pursuits.  Even the legends of his association with sacred falls vary widely.  In some accounts he created the Sacred Falls when, pursued by an angry mob, he was trapped in the narrow valley just east of Hau'ula and changed himself into a giant pig.  As he fled he scratched out the falls releasing a flood of waters that drowned his tormentors.  In other legends it seems the falls were already there and he and his followers escaped when he turned himself into a pig and his followers ran up his back or, in others, via his "male member" to the valley above the waterfall.  Whatever the case, Kamapua'a and Sacred Falls will be forever linked.

On Mother's Day, 1999, a huge section of the mountain near the base of the falls sheered off and tumbled down onto a large group of hikers who were enjoying picturesque day.  6 people were killed and 33 others injured as boulders, some the size of cars, trees, and rocks tumbled down on them.  According to accounts, the rocks came down with so much force they bounced like ping pong balls in the narrow little valley.  The grisly scene is described in this Honolulu Star-Bulletin article and if you're planning to visit this place you should really read it. The danger here, while remote, is very real.

As we arrived at the closed state park there were road barricades from some type of work so we parked a block up near an art gallery and back tracked to the old park's parking lot.  No DLNR vehicles were in sight so we crossed the grassy lot and past the gate and headed up the road.  Eventually we reached an intersection where we veered left. 

Approaching the valley
There were plenty of signs to warn us danger and to let us know we weren't supposed to be there.  For the record, I didn't see any of them until we were on the way out.

Eventually the road ended and we arrived at the remains of the old ditch system that was part of the James Castle's Ko`olau Agricultural Company  plantations between Hau`ula and Kahana and more signage.

Continuing up the trail we crossed the stream a couple times through the introduced forest of ohia ai.  The trail was obviously once graded and most of it is still in good shape.  Despite the danger, both legal and physical, this trail obviously still receives a lot of traffic.

The valley walls narrowed and eventually we caught our first glimpse of Sacred Falls in the distance.  The only noises back here are the wind and the water.  It's shattered on a regular basis by tour helicopters that seemed to arrive about 10 minutes apart.

Just before the falls there's a massive dry waterfall chute which must be amazing to see in a downpour.  I think I'll pass though, the flash flooding potential in this narrow little valley is pretty high and I don't need to see it that bad!  Twice while we were back there we saw rocks falling.  One little shard came down and sheared several of the leaves off an ohia ai tree before whizzing across the valley.  Even that little rock would have been pretty painful if it had hit one of us.

Sacred Falls
James and I posing at the falls.
Looking back down the valley from the falls-  The left side is where the landslide was in 1999.
After taking far to many pictures of the falls we retraced our steps back out of the valley.  Along the way we stopped to check out some prawn that were trying to catch a fish in one of the pools in the stream.

I dunked the Nikon AW100 in the water to get a little perspective on how we looked to the various creatures who inhabit the stream.  I haven't been too impressed with the photos the little point and shoot delivers but it's far more rugged than the DSLR and also waterproof.

Done scaring the prawns with my crazy poses and shoving a camera in their faces, we continued downstream.  On one wall of the valley erosion had exposed the dike formations running though the rock.  If you've ever seen the tunnels of the Waiahole Ditch that collect water from the mountains you can visualize how boring though them to collect water trapped in the softer rock between the dikes works.

Arriving back at the dirt road we spotted a truck and heard voices. Cautiously and quietly we moved forward to investigate.

Dressed in my blaze orange shirt there was little chance I wouldn't be noticed but we kept quiet until we realized it had federal plates.  At ease now, we passed what turned out to be a USGS truck and exited the park.

Sacred Falls is a beautiful spot and it's legendary history only sweetens the experience.  However, the tragedy of 1999 and knowing that six people lost there lives there is also quite sobering.  If you choose to visit these falls, please be very careful and keep a sharp eye out for falling rocks and watch the weather.  If it starts raining get out of the valley and turn around if you feel uncomfortable at any time.  Also remember that this park is closed and DLNR employees can ticket you for trespassing.

More pictures from this trail and others I've done can be viewed on Flickr.  Aloha and mahalo for reading!


  1. Didn't know how bad the accident was until reading that article... now I don't blame them for closing it.

    Nice write up.

  2. Thanks Rico. I was shocked too. What a tragedy!

  3. Amazing! I'm hoping to do this hike in the very near future!

  4. It's a beautiful spot but as a reminder be super careful if you go back there. Haven't heard much about this trail lately but a while back the rumor was DLNR was getting more serious about enforcement after that kid from the mainland had to be airlifted out. Safe trails!

  5. Hiked it Monday morning, absolutely stunning, and no falling rocks. We got back around 12pm, no problems, but a group of 14 that was headed up when we were coming back all got citations on their way back. I think they may have parked close to the gate which gave them away. At any rate, I wouldn't park there, go in smaller groups, and maybe consider hiking it in the early morning or later evening (ie times when it's less likely to be patrolled).

  6. Stealthiness is so important to not irritating officials and neighbors. Glad you had a safe trip up to the falls and thanks for the info.


    A newly released video from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources highlights the personal and legal perils of entering Sacred Falls State Park on Oahu. Intended to counter countless blogs and websites which encourage hikers to trespass into the park, despite dozens of warning signs, this video traces the tragic history of death at Sacred Falls and chronicles DLNR law enforcement efforts to try and curb illegal entry.


  8. It's safe for dlnr to patrol and hand out citations but not safe to hike? Hypocrites. It's state land. Nanny state at its worst. Dlnr is a waste of taxpayers money. They are a revenue generating agency agency.

    1. common sense and logic would tell you... DNLR employees are paid to take risks, they are trained to take on some risky tasks too.. like getting you kooks BACK to safety when you ignore safety....

  9. Sacred falls will be closed forever for a good reason..
    adding up the stats, it looks like at least 21 people died in last 29 years it was open! 3 were in a rescue chopper, but most of the others were in flash floods, falling rocks, or falling on rocks... PS 8 people died on Mother's Day 1999, not 6, 2 more died days later... IMO, stay away, dont be a stupid kook and cost us tax payers more $$... we have so many other just as beautiful (and far safer) places to visit in the state... aloha Kealoha

  10. DNLR can bite my rear-end. Closing this park is not the answer. The people are the enemy to them. They want us to stay home while they enjoy nature (they think they own it). Just like the Stairway to Heaven.......they want everyone to stay away from nature. It is an Obama Police State.

  11. DLNR certainly has valid safety concerns especially after the Mother's Day deaths. While we can all say we accept responsibility for our own actions the problem is when we're hurt and HFD has to send firefighters in to get us out. Then we're risking their lives too. Not everyone has properly prepared themselves for trails by doing their research, bringing the correct gear, and having extra food and water. Even the most prepared can run into problems beyond their control. We all need to be mindful of our actions. Aloha.

  12. Two friends of mine died that Mothers Day. Please don't be so ignorant as to take the risk of going there. One friend of mine that was there survived and his account of what happened is terrifying and it happened so fast there was nothing his group could have done. Everyone is so cool about ignoring danger signs until they're dead. The signs are there for a reason and as a warning. Heed the warning.

  13. You only live once! I really really want to hike to this location but at the same time i dont want to break the law. Is there any way to get a special permit? Where theres a will theres always a way?