I joined Pete Clines, Chris Cheng, and August Smith on an adventure up Laie Stream where we swam through a series of pools and climbed up 18 waterfalls.
The route up 18 falls was pioneered by Pete Clines in 2009. He reasoned that if he could find a way down into the gulch carved by Laie Stream that he could make his way upstream to Laie Waterfall — the well-known waterfall about half-way up the Laie Trail to the Koolau Summit — where he could easily exit the gulch. After exploring several potential routes, he found a good way down and opened up a trail that descended into the gulch.
Pete (on the right in orange) took us up the Laie Trail which is dominated by groves of ironwood trees and strawberry guava. Because Laie Stream can be quite dry with little water flow, the pools can become stagnant which make them unhealthy and unpleasant to swim in. So the best time to go is after a big rain when the pools are flushed clean and stream flow is good. But while some rain is good, too much can turn the adventure into an ordeal — so we hoped for no more rain than necessary to provide good stream flow.
The skies were overcast as we made our way up the trail and a flash flood warning was issued for the southern part of Oahu. So while we were excited to embark on this adventure I was anxious at the same time — concerned that a flash flood could possibly scour through the gulch while we were making our way up the stream.
After making our way through groves of large cook island pines and strawberry guava, we veered-off the trail and began our descent into the gulch. Since the route had not been used in a while we hacked through strawberry guava and uluhe ferns to reopen the trail to the stream.
When we reached the bottom of the gulch, we were pleased to see that the stream flow was good — an indication that the waterfalls would have lots of water and the pools would not be stagnant. We were also pleased to see that the stream was not muddy brown from run-off but was just a little milky from particulate matter suspended in the water.
Pete took the lead position with Chris following behind as we encountered tangles of hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus), an indigenous tree that thives in and along streams. Fortunately, the tangle of branches was not impenetrable and we were able to squeeze and contort ourselves up, around, and through the thicket.
When we passed through the hau tangle, I breathed a sigh of relief — it is not a good place be in a flash flood. As we made our way upstream the walls of the gulch began to close-in on both sides and soon we were forced to wade in the stream through pools carved in the rock.
The first few waterfalls where easy to negotiate — they were small and we waded up through a number of pools until we reached a deep pool carved by a waterfall about 20 feet tall.
The walls of the gulch narrowed abruptly along this deeply carved section of the stream which made the place dark and foreboding. The pool was deep and we had to swim to the base of the falls. The lack of footholds and handholds made this climb the most difficult of the day. Pete muscled his way up the slippery rock face and installed a rope which made the climb for the rest of us much easier.
Ferns thrive on the walls of the rocky gulch along several parts of the stream. I admired several native and introduced ferns as we made our way upstream over large boulders that fell into the gulch.
For much of the adventure, Pete lead the way swimming across the pools and climbing up the falls while the rest of us waited in turn. Using the slack time to take photos, I would pack my camera in a dry bag when it was my turn to swim/climb and then unpack the camera when I got out of the water — a process I would repeat over and over again until I was blue in the face from the tiresome packing/unpacking procedure.
Many of the waterfalls split themselves down several rock faces making for picturesque cascades. While most of the waterfalls provided decent footholds to climb up on, the rocks were sometimes slippery and made for a sketchy ascent.
The walls of the gulch narrowed steeply along several sections of the steam and many of the pools were surprisingly deep and long.
One of the more interesting waterfalls was where the steam had cut through dike rock that broke off in angular shards. The angular rocks created a series of steps that allowed us to easily climb up “Staircase Falls”.
When we stumbled upon the remains of a kayak in the gulch we speculated that someone must have carried this kayak all the way up to Laie Falls to paddle around the pool at the base. A big rain must have washed the kayak downstream careening it over multiple falls destroying it in the process.
One of the more challenging climbs was up a 25 foot waterfall that required us to push off opposing rock faces to climb up the rope.
The pool at this falls was quite deep and each of us fumbled around the base of the falls before finding a decent foothold on which to climb up the slippery rock face.
One of the more anxious moments was when rain began to fall and we were confronted with a 30-foot waterfall that slowed our forward progress. Fortunately, it was possible to contour around a narrow ledge and we did not have to climb up this waterfall. More importantly, the rain did not last long and no flash flood materialized.
But in order to get around the waterfall we had to contour around the narrowest of ledges that dropped-off steeply. In the photo above, August inches his way to safety along the barely 4-inch ledge. Luckily, Pete was able to install a rope that allowed us to cross over safely and we continue our way upstream.
One of the more impressive sights was a two tiered cascade with a combined height of about 30 feet which we were able to climb up along-side.
After climbing up a few small falls, we were thrilled to reach the goal of our adventure — Laie Falls! The pool at the base of Laie Falls is a popular swimming hole that is frequently visited by hikers and apparently by kayakers.
Pleased to have reached a point in the stream where we could easily exit the gulch, we relaxed alongside the pool to eat lunch and reflect on the day’s adventure. I was relieved that the weather cooperated and that we all made it through without incident.
While resting alongside the pool, low-lying clouds filled the gulch with an eerie cold mist. Taking it as a cue to leave, we put on our rain gear to conserve body heat and climbed up through moss covered ohia trees and sword ferns to reach Laie Trail.
Once we reached Laie Trail, we made quick time descending through stands of strawberry guava and groves of cook island pines. As we made our way back down, I reflected on what a great time we had dropping down into the gulch, swimming through mountain pools in the stream and climbing up 18 falls. What a great adventure!
Laie Falls, World of Waterfalls
La’ie Walking Tour: La’ie Falls Hike, BYU-Hawaii and Sites Around Laie