We got great info from a friend about these less visited falls and came up with a plan for finding/exploring them. Most of you know that Sacred Falls is illegal to visit, somewhat guarded, and still very dangerous. We've had friends visit it in recent years that mention how narrow the valley is, and the discomforting feeling of rocks falling near you. There is no place to hide when the heavens open up with inanimate objects that have no emotion or regard for human life. The chasm remains as it has for millennia, flowing and slowly crumbling, and I hope that no one gets hurt trying to explore these majestic pools. Above the unstable valley floor ascends a 300ft and 500ft waterfall that is only seen by the perpetual tourist helicopters that hover near them for a minute so their passengers can capture their memories. These enormous sections were repelled by a group of guys that may have accomplished one of the greatest adventures ever undertaken in the Oahu mountains. More on that story can be found here: Merman.us. And so begins our story.
Kaleo and I began our 11-hour day of hiking by ascending the Papali Uka ridge. We had meticulously planned our calorie requirements, and packed the bare minimum of food and clothing, but as with every overnight hike the pack feels heavy when climbing a ridge. The beginning of a hike is always exciting, and historically I'm guilty of starting at a fast pace and suffering for it later. Every hiker knows the demoralizing feeling of lactic acid burning your legs on day two of an overnighter, so it was important that we set our pace slow from the beginning to survive the three days. Neither of us have been hiking much lately, so our conditioning was not the level it should have been, and it was a legitimate concern that we might not be able to complete the adventure. I have never hiked so slow in my life, but keeping our heart rate low made such a huge difference from sea level to the summit of the Ko'olau.
Papali Uka was a pretty standard ridge hike with some nice views of Kaluanui Valley and the numerous peaks along the Ko'olau summit. It took us about 7 hours to reach the Castle Trail junction. The previously mentioned helicopters often buzzed close to our ridge, and after a few hours of seeing tourists suspended over us in insect like crafts I decided to stand tall when they passed so they could see us. For some strange reason I wanted to be a catalyst that changes their lives and gets them to walk some miles in hiking boots (or Vibrams). I concede that I was a little jealous that they got to see giant falls that I probably never will, but I contend that seeing paradise without effort takes little precedence in our memory banks. I have fond recollections of postcard views I worked for, but I can hardly recall emotion from when I took an aerial tour of Maui waterfalls. I felt bad for those passengers and wished that they could be in the dirt with us, but then my daydreaming was washed away with a flood of reality, and I remembered that I constantly fail at encouraging any of my friends to hike. Hiking is definitely not for the general population that safely rests in their couch & tv designated comfort zones. Logical fears of falling off a ridge keep most people indoors, but they don't think twice about our fragile bodies being 36 inches from disaster anytime we get in a car. Moving on.
From Castle trail junction to the summit is pretty overgrown and minimally traveled, and I think it's safe to say that long pants or gators are necessary to prevent thimble berry thorn induced shin bleeding. Kaleo warned me that the Ko'olau Summit Trail would be brutal with unavoidable mud pits, and that's exactly what we got. We spent hours of trudging sludge, and often cowering through Nate Rubio-esque hobbit tunnels. No Doubt/Gwen Stefani fans would be proud to know Kaleo sings "Spider Webs" in between curse words while entangled in silk. It's quite amusing to watch some of the smallest, harmless spiders cause a grown man so much frustration, but not so amusing when my own paranoia makes me think creatures with four times as many legs as myself have made their way down my own back.
After a few hours on the KST, and a few turns we can't mention, we reached a private cabin just before dark that would be our temporary home. We originally planned to hike to the waterfalls on day two, but after Mud Fest 2013© we realized that doing that swamp section three days in a row would be an absolute waste of mental and physical energy. We opted to stay-cation for day two at our mountain paradise so we could get an early, well-rested day three start and have more time for waterfalls.
And what a great rest it was. Day two's timeline was waking up around 8, breakfast, napping, lunch, napping, more eating, and concluded with some major/minor freaking out about an amazing nuclear bomb sunset. With the sky on fire Kauai was clearly visible on the horizon, and it was my first time seeing the Garden Isle from Oahu. It was also my first time eating Country Stew that tasted as bitter and unpalatable as anything can taste. The cabin was stocked with 20-year shelf life survival packets that we decided to eat after running low on food after Grind Fest 2013©. I thought Kaleo just got unlucky with a bad recipe, and my abs hurt from laughing so hard at the self-proclaimed "foodie" trying to stomach such a meal. I wasn't laughing for long when I realized that my Corn Chowder (and I use the term "chowder" lightly) was equally foul. Kaleo said it tasted like a Filipino tripe soup called Bindongo. I have never tried the said soup, but now I don't need to. The moral of this story is if you like prepping for the zombiepocalypse make sure you sample dried food options before buying them in bulk. And no, don't tell me you will indefinitely live off spam and vienna sausage. Good luck running from zombies when your crystalized gout toe becomes the handicap that gets you gang tackled and eaten alive. Zombieland Rule #20: It's a marathon, not a sprint, unless it's a sprint, then sprint. I digress.
Fast forward through a rainy morning and more mud treachery, and we reached the Castle Trail junction and descend to the stream below. Wearing boardshorts while boulder hopping on the valley floor is quite an amazing feeling after the previous hardships. Being covered in mud for a while makes you reach a point where you just stop caring about the dirt that has become a part of you. However, reaching the stream and seeing clear, flowing water is like reaching the promised land, and I found myself all the sudden caring when my legs acquired a new small spot of red soil on them. The stream water was surprisingly warm compared to every other O'ahu mountain stream that I've shivered from swimming in. The four waterfalls were just minutes apart, which was a pleasant surprise for tired legs. The first one was about 50 feet with a deep pool, but the rock was too slippery to climb higher and jump from the big boy ledge. The second and third waterfalls were relatively small, but the latter had a neat half-bowl cave on one edge.
Not seeing the fourth waterfall from the bottom is my only regret of the trip. From the top there's a picturesque pool about twenty feet down, and below that pool is the 70 foot waterfall. A little bit of fear set in when I realized that if I slipped and fell into the pool below I would not be able to climb up the wet, vertical face void of footholes. The only option would be to jump 70 feet into the pool below with submerged boulders at an unknown depth. Again, I have to credit those guys that repelled these waterfalls because they knew that once they began their journey there was no turning back. We then hiked straight up the ridge to the side of the fourth pool to find the "trail" that was traveled and photographed by our friend who gave us info about the area. After getting to the top we realized that going down might take an hour of blazing our own path straight down the side of the steep ridge (without rope), and it was more time than we had to spare. Fear of having to hike out with headlamps trumped our desire to see the fourth waterfall from its base, so we retreated. In hindsight it was the best decision we made that day based on the events that followed.
We leave the stream and get back on the Castle Trail with a few hours of daylight left. Author Stuart Ball said that the Castle Trail was, in his opinion, the nicest hike on O'ahu. As we begun the descent down the switchback I found my new favorite mountain view. I won't try to describe it and these photos do no justice. My euphoria gave way to pure frustration as we watched the famous eighty-something year old trail disappear. It was closed to the public about a year ago, and it is now gone. We needed to get off the mountain and we anxiously watched the sun get lower. There was no where to go except fight our way through thick brush tangles at a snail's pace, and our will power couldn't bring the trail back from the dead. After about 45 minutes, soaking with sweat, we realized we wouldn't make it down before dark. We made a desperation phone call to our friend who had hiked out on Castle a few weeks prior. With the much needed advice we backtracked up the switchback through our previous brush tunneling and jumped on a ridge junction. In almost no time at all we were easily a thousand feet below the summit and feeling good. We reached a junction where there's a sign saying "to road", and it pointed back to where the Castle switchback continues across the mountain face over a thousand feet below our previous point of frustration. All I could think of is how advantageous it was that we took the ridge down instead of being stuck high overhead in the dark, but we were faced with a new problem of whether to continue on the ridge that goes straight down, or follow a sign that clearly says the road is that-a-way. Ego is a poison that gets people killed in the mountains, but I flat out told Kaleo that I was over that damn switchback trail, and I wanted to continue on our ridge that we could see went straight down. He agreed.
We continued our rapid descent, but our walk turned into semi-horror as the ridge trail ended, and we were detoured sideways around the mountain face heading deeper into the valley. Our phone-a-friend advice didn't mention the detour, and now we were without phone reception to call again. Kaleo had previous bad experiences with pig hunting trails that lead aimlessly farther away from civilization. We stopped for a minute to think and fought the flood of panic setting it. With cloudy logic we strongly considered taking our sea level progress as a loss, and backtracking about 45-minutes uphill to the "to road" sign. We decided that although we were going deeper into the valley we were indeed rapidly descending. It is better to be at zero feet elevation and have to find our way to the ocean than to be stuck on a mountain face after sunset. I reminded Kaleo of his advice to me years ago that if I was ever lost I should keep descending until I find a stream or valley that takes me back to sea level. We really needed that advice now more than ever.
Adrenaline took over and we were absolutely blazing down the trail, ignoring our quadriceps pleas for rest. It seemed like the valley floor was an eternity away as the sun disappeared over the mountains, but all of the sudden our trail turned into a wide, well traveled path surrounded by strawberry guava on both sides. I think we were still somewhat in denial about civilization being close because we were speed walking at a pace that might qualify us for the 2016 summer Olympics (is that seriously still a sport?). We heard a lawnmower, saw a house, hit a dirt road, then a paved road, and a bearded hippy pointed us to the ocean. We later found out that our trail out was indeed the only way out. The sign that pointed "to road" should be destroyed because it takes hikers back into tangles and no realistic path of escape.
It was a few miles walking on pavement before we saw Kamehameha Highway, and I could feel my body shutting down as the survival adrenaline wore off and a 11-hour hike came to an end. We reached the sand and salt water as the earth went dark, but it was just in time to get two tall Red Stripes and fresh poke before a neighborhood store closed. Trip completed.
In hiking there are many ways for things to go wrong and to find yourself in a rescue helicopter situation over something small like a sprained ankle. Having a partner that can hike miles out to cell phone reception is absolutely essential, and having supplies to survive a wet, cold night alone on the mountain is even more important. Plan for the worst...and then put those thoughts behind you as you enjoy mountain adventures that a tiny fraction of 1% of Hawaii residents will ever dare to see.
"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil - this is the gift of God." Ecclesiastes 3:11-13