Note: Sacred Falls Park and Sacred Falls trail has been closed since May 1999. The State of Hawaii has no plans to re-open the park. It is illegal to hike this trail and to do so would be cause for citation or arrest. There is also a risk of falling boulders, landslides, and drowning. As our disclaimer partially reads: “I’m not your daddy, these are dangerous as sh*t hikes, even the simple ones, if you got [insert applicable disorder, disease, or physical impairment] don’t even think about it yo.” Also, consider these tips on Hiking Safely In Hawaii. Mahalo.
Before the tragedy of 1999, Sacred Falls was one of the top tourist attractions for those visiting the island of Oahu. This all changed the month before I graduated high school, Mother’s Day 1999, when eight people were killed and 50 more were injured from a massive landslide. At its height, the popular trail and waterfall received up to 55,000 visitors annually. Since 1999, the park and the waterfall trail has been closed to visitors and hopeful waterfall seekers. In 2003, the State of Hawaii reached an $8.56 million settlement with those injured and the families of the victims. Regardless, Sacred Falls continues to flow and thrill-seekers continue to visit her.
Accessing Sacred Falls is not difficult. In fact, if you grew up in Hawaii then you probably know of its exact location and may have visited it prior to the 1999 tragedy. Odds are that if you visited Oahu before the tragedy then you too might be familiar with the falls as well. You would simply need to jump on Kamehameha Highway and drive toward Punaluu. It’s useful to use the Kim Taylor Reece Gallery (53-866 Kamehameha Hwy) in Hau’ula as a landmark. You will need to find parking along the residential roads. Once you’ve found an ideal parking spot, back track on foot toward Punaluu, crossing a white wooden bridge (the bridge is on the mauka, or mountain side, of the road). Shortly, you will reach a rusted yellow metal gate. Beyond the gate looks to be a park, however, there is no signage at this particular park. You’ve reached Sacred Falls Park. It will be eerily empty.
At 55,000 annual visitors, Sacred Falls trail received roughly 150 daily visitors – many of whom were tourists. With that said, the trail itself to the falls is not a difficult one. In terms of terrain, it’s similar to the Manoa Falls trail (fairly wide with little elevation gain) but longer and with a couple of stream crossings. Don’t let the Manoa Falls comparison fool you, though. The Sacred Falls trail can be quite dangerous. You should definitely not even consider this trail if it has been raining recently, simply because of the stream crossings that need to be completed. Also, the valley will narrow considerably once you are deep in the valley. To be stuck in the stream while the water is raging would be very bad. And let’s not forget, there’s always the danger of you getting cited for trespassing. There are rumors that residents near the park will call the police if they see people entering the park. Other people have said that sometimes there is an officer/state official waiting along the trail to issue citations. I did mention above that the park has been officially closed since 1999, right?
The potential physical dangers are not the only things that you should be worried about. Make no mistake, Sacred Falls is indeed sacred to the Hawaiian people. The falls, known to Hawaiians as Kaliuwa’a, means “leaking canoe.” And according to Greg Cleghorne, this place is filled with legend. Folklore says that the valley’s name is derived from the story of a mischievous demigod known as Kamapua’a. This demigod was able to take the shape of man and pig. Legend says that this demigod would often steal food from a local village. The village people became tired of the mischief and set out to hunt the demigod. The demigod then ran into the valley to create a double-hulled canoe to help with his escape. The demigod was only able to finish one-side of the canoe, leaving the other unfinished. The unfinished hull is what is now known as Sacred Falls.
Meanwhile, ghost hunters believe that the falls is the starting point for night marchers on the Koolauloa side of the island. And let’s not forget the many people that have died here. Let’s just say that the mana in this area is strong. I could definitely feel it as it sent chills down my spine.
As I crossed the old and rusty yellow gate and into the abandoned park, every internal alarm went off. It’s as if my superego, as Freud had intended, was telling me that it was not morally acceptable to be here. That I should not be messing around with the mana here. And yet I continued on.
From the yellow metal gate, I walked toward the back of the park and then veered left. At the back you will find a gravel road in front of a facilities building. Turn left at this gravel road. This gravel road will eventually turn into a dirt road. Continue on this dirt path for about 15-20 minutes until you reach a fork in the road. The left fork will lead you to Kaluanui stream, at the end of which will be Sacred Falls waiting for your arrival. We found the trail from the fork to the falls to be very straightforward. It was surprisingly well manicured and defined. Note that there are no ribbons in place to guide your way. There are, however, “KEEP OUT” signs strategically placed throughout the trail, from beginning to end.
It should take you about 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach the falls. You’ll notice that the farther in you get, the narrower the valley becomes. The narrower the valley becomes, the greater the risk of a falling rock or boulder striking you. You’ve been warned.
Toward the end of the gorge you will reach a large dry chute on your left. This is the finished hull of the demigod Kamapua’a. At this point, you’ll need to jump down into the stream and do some rock and boulder hopping. If the stream is flowing hard and heavy then I would suggest you resist jumping in and come back another day. If the stream is relatively dry, then you should have no problem reaching the falls and the pool beneath it.
Sacred Falls looks heavenly. However, the vibe I felt while I was there was far from heaven sent. I had this really odd vibe. Normally, whenever I do a waterfall hike I love to just sit and enjoy the falls. Waterfalls normally evoke a serene feeling. Not this one. Almost as soon as I reached the falls I had this gut feeling that I needed to leave, that I needed to get out of there. Still, I lingered.
As soon as we started to settle down, my friend notified me that he felt his bag lift. He was wearing his CamelBak and he told me that it felt as if someone had lifted the bottom of the bag and then let go. He tried to replicate the feeling but he could not. Eerie. I had chicken skin. I waited for something, supernatural maybe, to happen to me. Although that supernatural experience never came, I still had this weird feeling boiling inside of me.
We snapped a few photos near the pool, but never jumped in the pool of water. I even dragged along my tripod hoping to experiment with some long exposure, but, I didn’t have the patience. That boiling feeling inside of me only strengthened. I felt as if someone, or something, was watching us. My friend felt the same way. We packed our things up and left, having only spent about 10 minutes at the falls. If you know us, you know that once we reach the destination of a hike we like to sit, relax and break. Not this time. Sacred Falls was different. It didn’t feel right being there. It felt like we were disturbing something. Of course, this could have been all in my head, however, having grown up in Hawaii I know better than to doubt the mana.
As soon as we started our trek out of the valley and away from the falls, the heavy weight over my shoulders began to lighten. I no longer felt as if I was being a disturbance. I was relieved that I was able to leave Sacred Falls physically untouched and unharmed. Mentally, I could still feel eyes following me up until I crossed over the rusted yellow metal gate. Once I crossed over the rusted yellow metal gate, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was fortunate to have experienced the mana of Sacred Falls and I know now what it feels like to be both in awe and terrified of something that looks so seemingly innocent.
Total Time: Roughly 2.5 hours roundtrip.
Directions to Sacred Falls Park: Coming from Waikiki, you will head west on H1. Continue on H1 and then take exit 20A to merge onto HI-63 N/Kalihi St toward Likelike Hwy. You will drive about 7 miles and then take the exit 20A to merge onto HI-63 N/Kalihi St toward Likelike Hwy Continue to follow HI-63 N. Merge onto HI-83 W (signs for Kahekilli Highway). The landmark to keep an eye out for will be the Kim Taylor Reece Gallery in Punaluu. The address to the gallery is 866 Kamehameha Highway. Look for parking around the residential areas nearby. Be cognizant of where you park and be sure to follow all parking laws. Once you’ve found your parking spot, you will reverse back along Kamehameha Highway and cross the white wooden bridge. Just past the bridge will be the yellow metal gate pictured above. You’ve found Sacred Falls Park. Remember, access to the park is closed.