Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hawai'i's Akaka Falls - Beautiful and Accessible

The 422-foot (129 meter) tall Akaka Falls on Hawaii's Big Island may be the State's most iconic, a single spectacular drop into a steep, bowl-shaped gorge, in steaming jungle that lushly evokes primeval paradise.

The entire kid-friendly loop trail (0.4 mile or .64 Km) to Akaka Falls and back to the parking lot takes less than an hour, most of which will be spent observing magnificent Akaka or the smaller Kahūnā Falls. You're sure to think, "I know I've seen this in a movie," and then wonder which one. The word akaka means 'split' or 'crack' in the Hawaiian language, and the falls indeed seem to plunge into a spectacular rift in the earth. The geological explanation is a steep fault and differential stream erosion rates of a'a basalt flows and softer volcanic ash undercut by Kolekole Stream.

Or you can believe the philandering akua (god) Akaka tripped and fell while rushing to get home from a tryst before his wife discovered his absence, falling to his death upon the grave of a cousin he'd earlier condemned. Evidently the local deities were fairly perishable.

Anywhere else, cascading Kahūnā Falls would be a showstopper; here she's the homely poor relation. It's best to walk the loop path counter-clockwise from the parking area to see Kahūnā first.

The area around nearby Hilo is one of the rainiest on earth, and there are many times when mist above the falls' base is crowned with a rainbow. The tourist who tarries too long admiring Akaka will soon be covered in moss like the rocks. The path is paved over its length, probably due to the high risk of erosion otherwise. But there are several stairs at switchbacks, so the park is not wheelchair or stroller accessible. However, there is a distant view of the falls from the parking area.

View of Akaka Falls from the parking area

Be prepared for some of the most rainforest-y tropical rainforest you'll see anywhere. The densely verdant gorge surrounding Kolekole Stream is the jungle I always imagined since boyhood, inspired by Sunday-morning reruns of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies. Some non-native banana plants and stands of bamboo amidst the native orchids and draping ferns don't detract too much from the illusion of prehistoric verdure.

Orbicular spider webs, some huge, stretch over the path and along its length, glistening after a rain or in the morning dew, but otherwise transparent. There are so many, one can only imagine some nervous park service intern has the unfortunate job of clearing the path with their face every morning.

Lot parking is $5 for each vehicle, which includes all the passengers' entry fees. Alternatively, there is ample room for free roadside parking just outside the main entrance, but then there is a charge of $1 per visitor (residents are free). Apparently, the only way to pay less than $5 is for a family to park outside the main entrance and have fewer than three kids. It's kind of a Hawai'i Division of State Parks tax on cars, or families that have exceeded the replacement fertility rate.

Parking is at the end of Akaka Falls Road (Hwy. 220), 3.6 miles SW of Homomū, approximately an 11-mile (18 km) drive north from Hilo on Mamalahoa Highway (19). On a clear day, travellers heading north from Hilo should have good views of Mauna Kea to the left, crowned with snow and the Keck Observatory.

We visited Akaka Falls in February, 2015.