Sacred Falls State Park (Waterfall Hike)

One of the most beautiful waterfalls in Hawaii is located at a small, closed park called Sacred Falls State Park, on the northeast side of Oahu in Hau’ula, past Kaneohe going north and west up the Kamehameha Highway past Kahana Beach.

They say that we desire more that which we cannot have, the forbidden, and maybe that has something to do with why this hike remains so popular, despite the danger of visiting.

At approximately 2:30 pm. on Mother’s Day, Sunday, 9 May 1999 there was a catastrophic rock slide that led to the deaths of 8 hikers and injuries to dozens more, including children in the park who were there to visit the waterfall. The rocks, some of them the size of automobiles, fell about 480 feet from a cliff face above. Recent reports (2012) are that rocks are still falling occasionally from the mountains above. About 50 cubic yards of rock fell from the mountain at speeds around 100 mph that day.

The aftermath was like a war zone. From the Star Bulletin:

Witnesses who were at the falls yesterday said that at 2:30 p.m., they heard what sounded like thunder, then a roar like a freight train, then screams and cries of agony.

Then people began to emerge from beneath the landslide. Some had missing arms, missing legs, holes through their bodies, exposed abdominal cavities. One person had half a face. Others were flattened under boulders the size of cars, according to rescuers.

(Full story – http://archives.starbulletin.com/1999/05/10/news/story1.html)

The State of Hawaii was sued for not providing a safe experience, and they have closed Sacred Falls since then and there are no plans to re-open the park. You can probably see their point, they can’t afford to be sued for every rock that falls from the steep cliffs and injures hikers. It’s cost prohibitive to shore up the entire mountainside so no rocks can fall to the path below.

So, currently the only way to get up and see the falls is to do so illegally. The park is off-limits, it is closed, and yet there are still many people that go anyway and risk citations and literally, death if a rock falls from the hill and hits them in the head. There are frequently rocks falling, though when I did the hike, I didn’t see any falling rocks.


Ali at Sacred Falls, Sacred Falls State Park, Oahu, Hawaii by Ali Eminov is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Image may have been resized or cropped from original.

Is it worth the risk to visit Sacred Falls?

To me personally, it’s nice, it’s even stunning, but, there are so many other safer waterfall destinations in the Hawaiian Islands that it doesn’t make sense for me to risk the life of my loved ones by attending this one.

Sacred falls is a nearly 1,400 acre park that goes right up between steep mountain peaks. The hike is about 4 miles in length round-trip, and the falls are about 80 feet high. The pool of the water at the bottom is large enough to swim in, and can accommodate dozens of swimmers at a time. The water feels ice-cold, and takes your breath away when you first get in and unless you’re actively swimming around, you’ll be cold until you get out. When you get in, get moving and try to get your core temperature up a bit, then you’ll enjoy the freezing water a lot more.

Despite the risk, there are a dozen or more people that make the trek to the falls every day. There is a security guard at the entrance to the trail, and sometimes he is further along the first part of the trail. He hands out citations for trespassing if he catches you.

High Definition Video of Sacred Falls:

Map of Sacred Falls State Park Location:


View Larger Map

Are you still thinking about making the visit? Here’s some more information about other dangerous incidents at Sacred Falls since 1970 (from StarBulletin.com):

  • September 1997: A 20-year-old man was rescued after he spent four days at the park after taking a wrong trail and ending up in an area he couldn’t get out of.
  • July 1996: A Navy man was rescued and hospitalized after he fell on a muddy portion of a trail and hit his back on a rock.
  • April 1996: Two men were swept downstream and three others were stranded in a flash flood.
  • August 1995: A 21-year-old woman was injured when she slipped and suffered a sprain.
  • August 1995: A 39-year-old woman broke her arm after falling on a rock.
  • July 1995: A Navy man who was snorkeling was found dead in the pool. He suffered a head injury, possibly from slipping on a rock.
  • July 1995: A rescue helicopter crashed during a search for a missing hiker. The crashed killed the pilot and two police officers.
  • May 1993: A 22-year-old Hickam Army Airfield soldier was injured when he was hit on the head by a rock falling from the cliffs about 150 feet from the falls.
  • October 1993: Four Boy Scouts were rescued after they were swept away in a flash flood.
  • October 1991: A rock slide injured a man and two women. The rocks were loosened by heavy rains and hit the hikers in the head and back.
  • September 1988: Two men were hospitalized for two weeks after going swimming at the park. They contracted the bacterial disease leptospirosis.
  • August 1987: A 62-year-old Honolulu man was swept away in a flash flood. His body was never recovered.
  • March 1987: A 22-year-old Kailua woman and her 2-year-old son were killed after being swept away in a flash flood. Thirty others were rescued.
  • March 1987: Two Hauula men, 23 and 43, drowned in a pool at the base of the falls.
  • July 1982: Eleven people, several of them children, were rescued after being trapped by a flash flood.
  • June 1982: A 25-year-old Navy man died after falling from the cliffs above the park.
  • January 1982: A 4-year-old girl was killed when she was hit on the head by a falling rock at the pool. Her stepfather suffered cuts and a broken collarbone.
  • June 1980: A woman was injured when she slipped trying to escape rising waters.
  • August 1973: Twenty people trapped by a flash flood were rescued.
  • January 1972: A 22-year-old woman and a 9-year-old girl were killed and several others were injured in a flash flood.
  • May 1970: Thirty people were trapped under a small rock slide. One man suffered serious injuries.

Recommendation:

Don’t visit this closed park, the dangers outweigh the benefits. Sure, it’s a nice waterfall, but the possibility of rock falling from the side of the steep canyon walls is high and you never know when the next major slide will be, or even minor rock fall. All it takes is one rock the size of a soda can to kill you. There are many beautiful waterfalls on the Hawaiian islands – go see some of them instead!

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[Photo credits: top – rjones0856; bottom – cyrusbulsara]
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