Kauai's Canyons. Waimea, Olokele, Loli Waialae, Koaie, Poomau, Iliiliula, more.

The Canyons of Kauai.

Adventure in a Wet Koaie Gorge or "Heed the rain, dummy."

Let's set the stage. March 2006 was the second wettest March on record atop Waialeale, 94.3 inches, topped only by the 148.83 set in 1982. Using a thirty-one day rolling period, the rainfall was as high as 125 inches. It even recorded almost 18 inches in one twenty-four hour stretch. Lihue and other points set all time records. Mid-month, Ko Loko reservoir failed on the north shore, killing seven. Even by Kauai standards it was WET.

A couple days earlier, we'd probed Waimea Canyon, descended the Kukui trail but found the river too high. We went upstream and spent a pleasant afternoon and night at the cabin located at the weir and inlet for the ditch/tunnel supplying water for the Waimea Mauka power plant downstream. It's also where the Koaie diversion tunnel ends.

Cabin in Waimea Canyon above junction with Koaie Stream.
Nice cabin, well maintained, awesome location in Puu Ka Pele Forest Reserve with even a state compost toilet. So who is it for? From the contents (it's unlocked as is Waialae Cabin), it appears to be used by hunters. ?
Towering Waimea cliffs of bad rock.
Steep cliffs, badass rock!

We watched as the river pulsed, rising a bit, going down a bit even though we didn't get a drop of rain. The next morning, it hadn't dropped significantly so we called it quits.

Early on the 21st of March 2006, after the stream flow had dropped on Waialae Stream(immediately south of Koaie Stream and historically, it's fluctuations mirrors Koaie's,) we decided to give it another shot, even though the flow was about well above median flow. The summit had stayed rainless. Although the flow had dropped, it hadn't dropped nearly as rapidly as usual, indicating waterlogged conditions in the Alakai.

Clear view of Mount Waialeale from Lihue. Kawaikini on left.
As we set out for Koaie, just east of Lihue we got this spectacular view of Kawaikini. It looked promising and it'd been that way for three days. But would it last? Are those clouds entering the photo?

Oblivious, we started down the Kukui trail enjoying all the waterfalls, even on the usually dry west side of Waimea Canyon where we'd never seen any before. A stream flowed down the normally bone-dry Kukui Trail. The rain gods gave us a warning with a brief shower. My compadre said "Well, we knew it had to rain today."

We forded the Waimea across to Kaluahaulu Camp, keeping the pace up because of the mosquitoes. In a few hundred yards, the trail bent northeast at the confluence of Koaie Stream and the Waimea and we entered Koaie Gorge. At times, the trail climbed above the stream, giving excellent views then it'd drop down and cross ancient terraces and walls. We passed Hipalu camp, the Lonomea helipad and finally Lonomea Camp, where the trail ended. Let the adventure commence.

First Waterfall beyond Lonomea Camp in Koaie Gorge.
The first stream crossing and waterfall past Lonomea. Two days later, on our retreat, it'd turned muddy and the flow had more than tripled and was rising quick.

The scenery exceeded our wildest expectations. Every large drainage from the Alakai high above terminated in waterfalls at least two or three hundred feet high. And even though we were hiking in perfect weather, because of the waterlogged conditions, the falls were magnificent.

Often, the going was faster and easier crossing the terraces than rock hopping. But higher up, as the gorge narrowed, what appeared to be terraces were actually vegetation choked, ridges of boulders akin to lateral moraines deposited, I'd speculate, by huge debris flows. These "moraines" were almost impassible, forcing you back to the streambed.

At the time, we didn't pay much attention to the large number of dead goats rotting amongst the boulders in the stream, concentrating on holding our breaths and waving off the flies. On day three, it became obvious why there were so many deceased goats.

Usually the terraces occurred on one side, and when the canyon turned, the terraces would taper off into a wall, forcing you to cross the stream.

We climbed over or around boulders the size of condos. Around cascades and waterfalls. At beginning rock hopping was easy with good traction but as we got further into the wet zone and it started to drizzle, we slipped more often. Broke my brand new REI pole, but fortunately my pardner had two. (Unlike Waialae Gorge, which seem's to become more arid the further in, the average annual rainfall in Koaie Canyon varies from less than 40 to more than 200 at Koaie Camp.)

Ancient Terrace in Koaie Canyon.
One of the dozens of terraces that lined the lower canyon. At some point along here, I slipped and smashed chest first onto a boulder, busting the screen on my digital camera. I kept clicking away, hoping it still worked (it did) but I couldn't make an adjustments. On day two, I quickly lost interest in photography in the gloomy, increasing difficult conditions. Day Three: Forget about it.

The Root (for the roots you must grab) Trail. By all accounts, this is a treacherous, steep route dropping down from the Mohihi Waialae Trail down to Koaie Stream. Apparently it was used by the kayakers in their thrilling first ascent of Koaie Stream.

In the wet zone, the vegetation on the cliffs changed drastically. The canyon narrowed, terraces replaced by ridges. I understood how the terraces had been made. Over the eons, the canyon must have been swept by huge debris flows. The Hawaiians had taken advantage of the moraines, built their walls atop them and back filled them with soil.

As darkness approached, we reached where the vicinity of where the Root trail drops down from the Waialae Mohihi trail but couldn't spot it. Later we'd regret not having checked out the trail before. We thrashed around atop a moraine and came across an old, excellent campsite.

Close-up of a terrace wall in Koaie Gorge.
One of the many walls atop the terraces.

Day Two

During the night, we had light rain and because I'd done a sloppy job rigging my tent fly, I was disgusted to discover my sleeping bag was wet in the morning.

Narrow section of upper Koaie Gorge on Kauai.

The next morning was overcast and the now narrow canyon seemed ominous. The rocks were slippery and the going slow. The waterfalls had increased in size and we repeatedly had to cross the stream and navigate around the falls. At first, we dreamed of making Koaie Camp by noon but the going was slow. The flow had increased and the crossings were more hazardous.

Note. There are several tarps and scattered campsites around and below the Root Trail. Going up canyon, the signs decreased. The portion between Koaie Camp and the Root is probably rarely traversed.

We reached the bend where our beta indicated four closely placed falls (GPS intermittent at best). We tried to cross on the right but the route was too exposed, and the water logged conditions had loosened the rocks and softened the soil.

We studied the walls and it looked like we could go up a steep slope to the right to a bench above the falls. JR took the lead. About two thirds the way up, a rock about the size of a carry-on suitcase pulled loose, and I tumbled about thirty feet getting whacked on the head* by aforementioned rock on the way down. It was a soft landing but after a few seconds, after I checked to see everything was still working and shaking the cobwebs out, I noticed blood dripping off the end of my nose.(Few things erode my confidence like blood dripping off my nose, especially when it's running from my scalp.)

We decided to call it quits even though we'd traveled ninety percent of the way to Koaie Camp. Ninety percent of the work might remain ahead.

We passed the Root Trail terminus, knowing that trying to cut up to the Waialae Mohihi trail would introduce an entire suite of unknowns, we continued downstream as it began to rain. At dark, we found an perfect campsite.(Above Lonomea Camp, mosquitoes faded out.)

For the first time, we pitched camp in the rain but we'd anticipated having to do it from our first Alakai treks. My sixty liter dry sack and sponge helped. No big deal.

However as we lay back in our tents, the moderate rain turned heavy which was definitely a Big Deal. I knew if it continued, we'd be camped in the same spot tomorrow night.

Koaie Stream below cliffs.
Nope, this ain't some canyon in Arizona. Day One before things got gripped.

Day Three

"How high's the water, Mama?"

"Four feet high and risin'"

"Let's get the f*** outa here!"

After an excellent night's sleep (half an Ambien), I was astounded to discover that my sleeping bag had dried during the night even though we'd at least three hours of hard rain.

Fortunately the rain had stopped around ten and although the crick had risen, it'd dropped lots from early morning.

Now the crossing were much more hazardous and difficult. Finally one of us (me) screwed up big time and got carried over several cascades head first (not the recommended technique but the best I could do on short notice. As the morning progressed, my technique improved but never got to the point of ending up on the desired side of the stream.)

After the head-first adventure, I noticed excellent pain in my right ring finger which was now considerably shorter and pointing in the wrong direction. Somewhere out in right field.

I hoped it was merely dislocated and we tried to reduce it but since neither of us knew diddly, we didn't pull hard enough. (fifty pounds plus according to the Doc) Too bad, since the unreduced dislocation rendering my hand as worthless as Powell's WMD speech before the UN.

Fortunately I didn't have to worry about having to use the (borrowed) trekking pole with either hand since it'd preceded us down Koaie stream heading for Waimea. I did have the presence of mind to grab my shoe after it'd gotten pulled off in a later debacle (the lacing system having started to disintegrate.) First time I've invoked duct tape but it did the job. Duct tapes rules. (I had to struggle to remove the shoe later)

Of course, at this point it began to seriously rain. In minutes, the beautiful waterfalls above turned red as did the Koaie. If I hadn't been staring at an apparently mangled finger and calculating how long it was going to take to get to the nearest emergency room, we would have plopped down under a convenient hunter's tarp above Lonomea Camp. (It did stop raining and the flow dropped rapidly in the next few hours.)

After we'd both had several rides in the Koaie Stream Water Park, loosing the last of our poles, a water bottle, maps, pocket contents, etc. the final crossing above a ten foot waterfall was a gripper. On the other side, I had a born again feeling.

Without a pole and a useless right hand (which had taken on different shades of black), the Waimea crossing was difficult and exhausting but not life threatening. Relatively speaking of course. Traversing the ledge above the river was an adrenaline pumper.

Finally got to the E room and got my finger diagnosed as dislocated (Googled up some images of dislocated fingers. None looked as gnarly as mine.) That was over a month ago but it looks like it should come back.


Since I'm planning many more trips up and down Kauai's Canyons, "Lessons Learned" is a vital part of the adventure.

  • Knowing the Alakai doesn't prepare you for the Canyons.
  • You might get lost and starve in the Alakai. The Canyons will kill you.
  • We could have made better use of the rope, especially at the last Koaie crossing and the Waimea crossing.
  • If you spot somebody hiking on Kauai wearing a helmet, it'll likely be me.
  • Since force varies with square of the speed, perhaps we should have tried crossing in deeper spots with slower currents. On the other hand, in deeper water, more buoyancy = less weight = less traction. Deep sections were short, current could have carried us into rapids.
  • My pack stayed amazing dry with a drybag. Pack cover might have been ripped away.
  • I got scratched up by rocks and vegetation, but rainpants would have increased the water drag.
  • Should be possible to travel from Lonomea to Koaie Camp and out in a day if, as I strongly recommend, the hike is done with less than median waterflow.
But the bottom line is we should have known better than to even contemplate entering going into Waimea Canyon. And, having read this far, you know better.
It could have been worse. Much worse. Flooding in Waialae Gorge 1600 percent increase in Waialae streamflow in forty-five minutes.
A couple days later, Waialae Stream surged about 1600 percent in 45 minutes.

Should we have continued ahead and avoided the adventure of the third day. We'll know better when we do the final linkup, but frankly Day Three was an adventure that, having survived, I will relish. I learned a lot about both the Canyons of Kauai and myself.(But once is plenty. I will heed the gauges next time.)

*I had time to compose two O* F***s as I cartwheeled down. As usual, my life didn't flash in front of me. I did see stars after getting whacked. I see stars way too often.
Comments? Flames? Contact us!