A lot has been written and discussed about Opaeka’a Falls on Kauai. It’s on Kauai’s windward side and is remarkable for its natural beauty and place in ancient Native Hawaiian legend and cosmology. We’ll make this much clearer: hiking to the waterfall is illegal. Its name translates to “rolling shrimp” and refers to the once plentiful population of freshwater prawns that made the Wailua River their home that in older days could be seen tumbling down the cataract.
It is an unsanctioned trail that runs through private property, access is blocked, and area residents are vigilant in reporting trespassers (who face stiff fines and a possible 30 days in jail). Attempting means breaking the law. Opaeka’a Falls is visible from a scenic lookout with free parking nearby however, and there are plenty of other safer and legal hikes in the area throughout the nearby Wailua River State Park.
Opaeka’a Falls – dangerous and deadly.
Opaeka’a Falls made major headlines in 2006 after two visiting hikers fell 300 feet to their deaths along the critically dangerous, unmarked, and unmaintained trail. They had ignored posted “Danger” “Keep Out” and “Hazardous Conditions” signs. Their families were awarded a $15 million settlement from the State in 2012, which a judge found was at fault in the hikers’ deaths. It was all a terrible, tragic mess that took an act of the state legislature to pay for.
Legend and lore at Opaeka’a Falls
We’re willing to wager that few if any visitors to Opaeka’a Falls are aware of its place in the tragic legend of Lohiau, an ancient story of love, lust, death, and betrayal. The waterfall is in the Kauai home of the high chief Lohiau, who was fascinated by the goddess Pele. After a brief liaison, Pele left Lohiau on Kauai and returned to her home at Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii island.
But Pele would miss Lohiau and soon dispatched her sister Hi’iaka to collect him. The story of Hi’iaka’s journey is foundational to native Hawaiian spirituality, fraught with peril and intrigue that encompasses notable geographical features on all the Hawaiian Islands. Firstly, she learned on arriving on Kauai that Lohiau had died. She battled two magical mo’o, or lizards/dragons, for Lohiau’s soul, which she restored to life.
But nothing is that easy, and ultimately goddess Pele ends up killing Lohiau at Kilauea for falling for Hi’iaka. But wait! Lohiau’s spirit returns to Kauai. He is restored to life by the powerful god Kane, and Lohiau reunites with Hi’iaka until his (third) death. Quite a tale! It’s an intriguing story to ponder from the Opaeka’a Falls lookout as you marvel at the Wailua River below. And it’s a reminder that natural beauty can be deadly.
Hard facts about a natural wonder
But if ancient lore is insufficient to persuade visitors to keep their distance and not attempt to scale Opaeka’a Falls, then the plain facts should. The trails are truly dangerous, unmarked, and unmaintained. Cell phone coverage at the base of the falls is a “maybe” at best, so if you get into trouble, no help is coming anytime soon. People have died there. There is a serious risk of contracting a nasty and possibly fatal leptospirosis from the waters of Wailua River, which often run brown and turbid. Flash floods can sweep unsuspecting hikers away in the blink of an eye. Trespassing at Opaeka’a Falls can land you in jail, too. (And don’t forget about the vengeful mo’o.)
There are plenty of Oapaeka’a Falls trail reviews on the web. Some recommend it. Some offer disclaimers. We don’t. It’s illegal trespassing, plain and simple. Check out the dozens of Department of Land & Natural Resources Na Ala Hele trails on Kauai and hike the Garden Isle the right way. It’s the proper way to Malama Hawaii. Glory-seeking selfie hunting for clicks and views is not.