In a nutshell: Pipiwai Trail is a treasure of the National Park System that passes through diverse scenery and culminates at the base of an absolutely spectacular waterfall.
Minuses: You’ll be sharing the trail with lots of other folks.
Sound-bite: [insert hollow percussive sounds of bamboo striking one another]
Taking into account the easy accessibility, the Pipiwai Trail offers, hands-down, the all-around best of East Maui’s most dramatic stream and waterfall hikes.
This idyllic 1.8 mile trail unfolds alongside a string of (many more than seven) pools and waterfalls framed by the lush green diversity of the lush tropical rainforest. The dramatic diversity then suddenly morphs into the zen-oneness of an immense bamboo forest. Once released from the bamboo, you’re dropped at the very base of a towering sheer-cliff waterfall worthy of a slow-motion Imax fly-by.
The only thing missing from this hike is solitude; because of the easy National Park access, and the half-million visitors per-year to the much more famous pools below, you definitely won’t have this one all to yourself.
The trail is safe, well maintained, and the steeper grade during the first half mile or so is really the only part that is less than easy if you’ve not been off the couch in a while. The NPS has even built a boardwalk to span the muddy sections and have been adding more stone steps in the steeper grade areas in the past couple years – oooh the luxury!
The trail is just mauka the Hana Hwy at Haleakala National Park Kipahulu (Seven Sacred Pools.) and you should give yourself at least a couple hours if you plan to enjoy yourself, add another hour if you stop a lot and/or aren’t a regular walker/hiker.
The trail begins just across the road from the parking lot, and you don’t have to walk very far (just over a half mile) before you come to the first set of large and impressive waterfalls: the Falls at Makahiku. These mighty thundering falls will probably be more than enough waterfall for most. Plunging almost 200′ over a verdant cliff covered with bamboo, prehistoric-looking ferns and Tarzan-worthy jungle vines melting into the postcard-perfect Hawaiian rainforest valley below – the scene is breathtaking. If you’re not fit enough to continue another mile (the hike back is all downhill, so we won’t count that!) you’ll probably be satisfied with these falls as your end-point. But if you’re capable, we want you to know better: this is just an appetizer to ready you for the much more impressive journey to come.
Tip: Take all warning signs seriously. Flash-flooding, rock falls and cliff/bridge jumping have taken several lives, and many natural dangers occur suddenly without warning.
Side Trip: “Infinity Pool”
As you continue, you’ll notice a side path with signs and a recently erected fence barring you from heading in that direction. The National Park Service has blocked this path as yet another casualty of a popular guidebook that doesn’t properly educate visitors as to the dangers in the places it sends them.
This is the absolutely stunning precipice of Makahiku waterfall, a sheer lava-rock cliff face that drops almost 200′ into the valley below. Yes, it is an absolutely gorgeous spot – but certainly not a safe place for every tourist regardless of age and physical condition.
If you want to go here now, you’re going to have to squeeze under or around the fence wherever other trespassers before you have bent it back. Keep in mind that your doing so is against the National Park Service’s prohibition – which could potentially carry a court date and quite significant fines. That said, being cited and fined are unlikely, but you’d certainly better be sure that you fully understand your abilities, the physical risks and the current conditions.
During normal conditions, the water flows over only the far side; the near side of this pool has taller, thick rock lip that will keep anyone with sense enough to stay on the pool-side from a one-way date with gravity. From inside the pool you will observe why the guidebook name makes sense – views from the pool emulate that of a resort-style Infinity pool and are jaw-dropping (to say the least) as the deep blue of the ocean appears to meet the edge of the pool.
Once out of the pool, if you’re an off-trail kind of hiker who hasn’t had enough off-trail, you can continue your side-trip upstream along the streambed (be ready to do some swimming and climbing) and check out some more worthy pools and waterfalls.
Back On The Trail
Back on the Pipiwai Trail, you’ll pass though a gate and come to another highlight – a gigantic banyan tree – with a footprint the size of a decent-sized house! Over years, a banyan’s aerial prop roots form into new trunks of their own, expanding continually outward. Looking at this tree in front of you, with new trunks sprouted out along the far-reaching branches, ever further from their source, you can see why Hinduism considers the banyan the symbol of eternal life. If you’re a tree climber (or you have some in-tow like I usually do) you’ll be spending more than a couple minutes here.
Past the Banyan, another side-trail will present itself (hint: the Park Service has placed a TRAIL arrow here pointing away from it (and toward the main trail.) This side trail soon takes you to a view of cave, pool & waterfall combination that my words (or photography) have not yet been able to do justice. It is definitely a value at the price of a few extra steps.
Continuing along the trail you’ll notice the scenery changing to bamboo. It is a pretty quick change, starting around the time you cross two bridges. Believe it or not, the same
nuts brave folks you saw jumping from the bridge at the highway sometimes come up here to get their adrenaline fix. There are only a few choice people I’d advise to attempt jumping here (and it isn’t because they’re skilled jumpers!)
The bamboo will become thicker, and the ambiance and hollow percussive sounds of bamboo striking one another, will begin to transport you to an Asian nether-world. (This is also where the boardwalk comes in and save you from having your shoes sucked off by thick mud.) Various implementations of stone steps, all appearing to date from different periods in ancient pre-history, augment the scene to where running across some Sleestacks hunting dinosaur eggs wouldn’t look out of place in the least.
As the trail continues winding, if you pay careful attention the bamboo will begin to thin and trees will start coming back. It is right at this point that a grove of mountain apple trees can be found (if you know what you’re looking for.) If you’re lucky enough to be here in summer, you’re in for a refreshing treat. Mountain apples are oddly attached to the trees on which they grow. Instead of being on a stem that terminates from a minor branch, like most fruit, mountain apples grow on a small stem directly out of the main branches (and even the trunk) of the `ohi`a `ai tree. (Yeah, you can call it a mountain apple tree!) It definitely looks Dr. Seus-ish to the uninitiated.
Just so you know what to look for – they don’t call ’em mountain apples for nothing – they’re (mostly) red and are shaped like a cross between an apple and a pear. Riper (to the point where the skin begins to crack and become damaged) is better. (more info: Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii)
Just a bit further and some rock-hopping over a usually tame stream, and this scenery-packed hike culminates at the base of sheer 400′ cliffs, with spectacular Waimoku Falls quite literally falling to Earth right in front of you. In fact, when you’ve reached the end, you’re smack at the base of the falls, and can walk right up and stand under them. This author (and a Park Service sign a safe distance from the falls) suggest you seriously consider how all the countless boulders you’re standing in front of got there. That said, there is nothing other than your sensibility to enforce keeping your distance, and you’ll certainly observe plenty of people ignoring the sign.
Even at a safe distance you’ll be cooled and refreshed by the mist and wind created by the falling water. Once you’ve cooled down and are ready to continue, you reverse the path from where you came. Easier (downhill) but just as rewarding with a new angle from which to view the scenery.
Key Info: (for trailhead @ HNP Kipahulu.)
Mile Marker: #42 (Hana Hwy aka Hwy 31 – *After Hana markers go back down)
GPS Coordinates: 20.661458,-156.045299
Facilities: National Park Rangers, Information Facility, Camping (no permit req’d), grills, picnic tables and toilets. (No potable water.)
Fee: $15 – NPS Info: http://www.nps.gov/hale/planyourvisit/kipahulu.htm
View Pipiwai Trail & Waimoku Falls in a larger map