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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

2 women die in fall from cliff on Kaua'i

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

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The state Na Ala Hele trail system: www.hawaiitrails.org

Some Web sites recommending the unmarked 'Opaeka'a Falls trail:

  • "Opaekaa Falls conceals a terrific hidden hike. ... Getting down to the falls is tricky. ... The reward at the bottom of the hill is a beautiful, private view of the Opaekaa Falls and lush surrounding jungle." — www.bestplacesyhawaii.com

  • "Most people don't know there is a way down to the bottom of the falls, probably because it is pure wilderness on state land. ... Don't blame the state if you find the going difficult." — www.hawaiianstyletravel.com

  • "Definitely find a way to view the stunning Opaekaa Falls. ... The path descends a hill that is steep and slippery, so you'll want to hold on to tree branches along the way." — www.ssqq.com

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    LIHU'E, Kaua'i —Two California women died yesterday after falling from a cliff while hiking on an unmarked but well-publicized trail near 'Opaeka'a Falls in Wailua.

    Kaua'i Fire Department officials said the women fell 250 to 300 feet to the bottom of the cliff. They were found about 35 feet from the waterfall by two other hikers, who called authorities about 1 p.m. The circumstances of the incident were not clear yesterday, and it was not known whether anyone witnessed the fall.

    Preliminary indications suggested the victims, who were not immediately identified, had hiked out on a path that is not an authorized state trail, but which is actively promoted on recreational activity Web sites. The area is under the control of the Division of State Parks through its Wailua River State Park.

    "It's clear that anything that may look like a trail around 'Opaeka'a is not a state-sanctioned trail," said Craig Koga, head of the state's Na Ala Hele Trail and Access System on Kaua'i.

    The state has a small parking lot and restrooms, with viewing areas behind railings, providing classic views of the roadside 'Opaeka'a waterfall. The fall has a straight drop from the upper 'Opaeka'a Stream to the lower, about a mile before the stream flows into the Wailua River.

    Police closed the parking lot at the 'Opaeka'a Falls lookout while the bodies were recovered, and reopened it about 5 p.m.

    There is no state trail from the lookout on Kuamo'o Road to either the top or the bottom of the scenic waterfall, and state officials have posted warning signs at the viewing area after previous accidents there. But some visitors arrive armed with information about "secret" trails, which they find in some of the guidebooks and Web sites promoting hikes that are off the beaten track.

    While most Web sites simply recommend the view from the park, a few describe the way to the bottom of the waterfall, generally terming the hike difficult but worthwhile. One calls it a "terrific hidden hike."

    Sierra Club Hawai'i chapter head Jeff Mikulina said remote, isolated, unmaintained trails to spectacular sites are alluring but often dangerous.

    "This is a tragic lesson to stay on marked trails, for your own safety and the protection of the environment," he said. "What looks like a hiking trail might be nothing but a pig trail."

    Kaua'i hiker Rayne Regush said she has seen people pulling their cars to the side of the road and pulling on hiking boots near the 'Opaeka'a Lookout. She has wondered what they were doing.

    "We're really concerned about people that don't have the full story when they head into the wilderness," said Bob Masuda, deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which operates state parks.

    "Our trails are clearly marked with signs, and when they are damaged, our people immediately install signs to indicate that," but unmarked trails are not inspected and not repaired, he said. As a result, when conditions are dangerous, visitors receive no notice, he said.

    Masuda said he is very concerned about visitors being led on to dangerous trails by printed or electronic guides.

    "Clearly, when people make such recommendations, they should make them in consultation with people knowledgeable in the field," he said.

    Last week, a 25-year-old Chicago man died after jumping off Kipu Falls, which is reached via a trail that is unmarked and on private property, but which also appears in guidebooks and Web travel guides.

    Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.