Trying and failing to complete one of Kauai’s most dangerous hikes

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If you’ve ever doubted that we’ve reached the point where the miracle of machines has given humans access to places we shouldn’t be, then you’ve likely not yet visited Waimea Canyon State Park on Kauai.

From the town of Waimea, a small outpost of 2,000 on the island’s west side, a 45-minute climb on paved roads in a rented Chevy Malibu or Jeep Wrangler slip-slides visitors to the edge of the 3,600-foot-deep, 10-mile-long forested canyon.

There they will find a convenient ledge to look out over (or nowadays take selfies on) as touring helicopters buzz through the canyon. Tiny brave mountain goats traverse treacherously drenched cliffs with ease while the island’s unofficial/official feral chicken mascots preen and peck at the wet ground beneath their feet.

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The view from one of many Waimea Canyon lookouts — either at the side of the road or just steps away from the Puu Hinahina Lookout parking lot — is overwhelming in scope and grandeur.

Rainbow over Waimea Canyon in Kauai, Hawaii.

Rainbow over Waimea Canyon in Kauai, Hawaii.

rebelml/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For many visitors — me included — the easy proximity to an impossible-to-comprehend yet easily accessed trail can instill a sense of invincibility.

But these precious spots are also no secret. And that’s usually where trouble begins. 

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“We were looking at AllTrails and just, you know, social media and seeing what the places are to see,” Aliyah Moreno, a Davis resident who was on vacation with her partner, Jared Wade, told SFGATE. The pair gave each other a mid-December trip to Kauai as an early Christmas present.  

The couple’s Waimea Canyon day trip was ranked high among the best things they’d done on their Kauai visit as well as “maybe ever,” Wade said.

Tourists at the Waimea Canyon Overlook viewing Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.

Tourists at the Waimea Canyon Overlook viewing Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.

Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

He then marveled at how little effort it took to get to the canyon cliff’s edge.

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“We figured out this one was close to us,” Moreno continued, “not too strenuous a hike.”

“Oh yeah, straight to the point,” Wade chimed in. “Literally.”

While taking a few photos on the lookout’s edge, Wade gestured over his shoulder: “We did the trail over here to the Waipoo Falls.”  

A view from Waimea Canyon State Park above the canyon with distant waterfall. 

A view from Waimea Canyon State Park above the canyon with distant waterfall. 

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty

Did the pair make the entire 3.6-mile round-trip trek to the falls and back, which is marked conspicuously at the trailhead with a sign warning of inherent hazards, including dangerous cliffs and flash floods?

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“No,” Moreno admitted. “Yeah, it was rainy, and we had issues with traction.”

“Better that we turned around,” Wade added.

A smart pair that knew their limits on a cliff trail seemed to be in the minority that rainy day. Time and again, visitors who had taken to the trail were emerging back into the parking lot caked, especially across their backs, in the signature red-brown clay of the canyon.  

Along with the involuntary mud treatment, some hikers resurfaced with bloodied elbows or had red pre-bruise splotches on their knees. The look of serenity on the faces of those who chose only to partake in the lookouts was contrasted by a thin-lipped mix of fear and relief for those who took it a step further.

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A view from one of the trails at Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023. 

A view from one of the trails at Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023. 

Andrew Pridgen/SFGATE

When you’re feeling the pressure of being in a place that you may never return to again, red flags seem to dissipate. Vanished into the humid canyon air were several warnings I’d received from visitors onsite. Gone instantly from my memory the Redditor threads on the hike’s mostly self-imposed dangers — especially when rain is falling — and even fatalities en route: A 25-year-old Honolulu man named Devin Goetsch “lost his footing and slipped down the steep cliff” to his death here in 2014, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.  

Another man, a German tourist, slipped off the trail and fell 50 feet, landing on a ledge in May 2001. “The tourist was not injured, but he was very lucky,” Kauai fire battalion Chief Ernest Moniz told the Star-Advertiser at the time.  

The newspaper reported that if it weren’t for the ledge, the man could have plummeted about 1,000 feet to the bottom. “The rescue turned out well,” Moniz said. “The guys did a real good job. This doesn’t happen very often.”

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Warning sign near Waimea Canyon on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. 

Warning sign near Waimea Canyon on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. 

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yes, I was armed with all this knowledge — but also, the trials, the waterfall, the danger — it’s all RIGHT THERE!  

So after a little cajoling and bribery, my 9-year-old son, a constant hiking companion to me since he was old enough to poke his head out of his carrier, his mother and I set off on the trail decked out in flip-flops, board shorts and short-sleeve shirts, thinking that even in our resort wear we’d make it back to Waimea in time for a late lunch at Mama Bear’s Kitchen, which is rumored to have an island take on the Monte Cristo sandwich that is the best version this side of the Blue Bayou.  

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A woman leans on the guard rail as she enjoys the view from an observation platform offering views of Waimea Canyon, on the western side of the island of Kauai, Hawaii, circa 1955.

A woman leans on the guard rail as she enjoys the view from an observation platform offering views of Waimea Canyon, on the western side of the island of Kauai, Hawaii, circa 1955.

FPG/Getty Images

Instead, it was a 45-minute slog through the wilds of Waimea Canyon, which are a seasoned hikers’ buffet of slippery roots and sudden cliff edges that vanish in the fog. And, if you give yourself enough time to look up from nature’s most treacherous obstacle course beneath your feet, you notice sheer ridges blanketed in fog, once-in-a-lifetime birds swooping overhead and dense rainforest foliage with an active canopy that at once envelopes you and, according to my son, “slaps you wet and hard across the face.”

Once we got the rhythm of keeping our footing between the roots (think high knees through car tires — only a misstep on this one has much more dire consequences), the hike started to wind its way gently downslope in a predictable rhythm.  

And then, as soon as some confidence was gained and the pace picked up, it happened: My son took a step in the wrong direction and his feet went flying in the air, the rest of his body to quickly follow. He landed with an audible, echoey thud and bounced once toward the trail’s edge. I grabbed him by the shirt collar and dragged him back toward me using his body weight to somehow regain traction myself as my feet sank deeper in the mud. 

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A pair of visitors take a selfie at a Waimea Canyon lookout on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023.

A pair of visitors take a selfie at a Waimea Canyon lookout on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023.

Andrew Pridgen/SFGATE

It was then I thought of the advice of Jared Wade from Davis, who said after attempting the trail he really appreciated some of the more low-key aspects of his and his partner’s travels on the island. “We saw some dolphins, a little pod,” he told SFGATE. “We did some golfing, hit the little ABC store, the little taco shops. Puka Dog — that place is very good, so good. Oh my gosh. Just finding the little shops and stuff, shaved ice, bakeries, you know.”

And with that, without as much as a word between us, our small party of three tourists, ill-prepared and maybe a danger to ourselves and others, did the thing we should have done in the first place. We made an about-face on the trail to cautiously head back up toward the safety of asphalt and change into dry clothes waiting in the rental.  

A view of Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023. 

A view of Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai on Dec. 12, 2023. 

Andrew Pridgen/SFGATE

Back at the trailhead once more, we were greeted by others just like us, haplessly snapping photos in front of the warning sign right before attempting the same feat.  

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Hopefully they ended up knowing when to turn around, too. 

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