Wed, Apr 19, 2006
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The Blue Hole is the name given to the impressive canyon found on the east side of Waialeale. It is very popular with the helicopter tours, often called the Waialeale crater. But it isn't a crater at all, though the resemblence to one cannot be denied - nearly vertical walls surround the innermost canyon on three sides, rising more than 3,000ft to the ancient volcano's highest point along one edge. More than a dozen thin waterfalls continuously course their way down the cliffsides, falling over 1,000ft at a time in several leaps. Steep as they are, near-constant rainfall keeps the walls of the canyon a deep green with ferns and other water-hungry varieties growing from every crack and crevasse in the rock. Exactly what was at the center of this Hole wasn't known, at least to me. The information that was posted on Summitpost was intriguing, but the poster hadn't been to the center himself. Another person had added comments, but had also failed to reach the center. It was reported that a large, blue pool with very cool water could be found upon reaching the innermost point. I decided this would be a good adventure to test both my 4x4 driving and my Hawaiian cross-country skills.
The weather today was typical Kauai fare - overcast, turning to drizzles. The cloud layer started at about 3,000ft, so I was never able to get the full view up the canyon walls. It would have been pretty unusual if I had. It had rained some the night before, so the ground was a bit muddy and all the flora was wet. Still, I was able to spend the entire day in a cotton T-shirt even though I got soaked, thanks to the tropical weather. Actually, the temperatures (~60F) reminded me more of summer in the Pacific NW and Alaska than of steamy jungles. I wasn't going to complain - this was excellent for hiking and bushwhacking.
My driving skills weren't taxed all that much. My Ulitimate Kauai Guidbook had an excellent set of directions for getting to the trailhead even though it doesn't actually describe a hike to the Blue Hole at all. Instead it describes a Jungle Hike that follows a ditch (that's Hawaiian for "irrigation channel") in a different direction, but utilizing the same starting point. After lots of fun with creek crossings and a modest amount of mud, I parked the car at 7:30a and headed out. I had intended to follow the north side of the stream on use trails as described, but in a very short time I found myself distracted by use trails heading up and away from the stream. Though warned against following these, I imagined that the local hunters might know a trick or two that the Summitpost description didn't, and I happily followed the best of the numerous tracks one could find in the jungle here. I lost track of the stream as my track wound its way up the hillside, and as the track wore thin, colored tape appeared to guide the way. Sort of. As I found out over the next half hour, the hunters (looking for feral pigs) must have tagged the routes through here, but they didn't have any better idea where they were going than myself. All the tracks eventually run out at some point, none going very high as I'd hoped (my secret wish was to find a lost route to the ancient East Ridge of Waialeale, but nothing came remotely close to the steeper walls of the ridge). Time to cut my losses. Rather than backtrack down the hillside, I decided to cut my own path through the forest in a southern direction to intercept the stream as high as I could. It was a bold path I forged through ferns well over my head, up and down steep hillsides over incredibly dense vegetation. Though progress was quite slow, I eventually deposited myself streamside, muddy and wet, but still intact with all my fingers and toes.
From this point on I never let the stream get out of earshot, and rarely out of sight. Use trails on the right side bypassed the biggest obstacles in the stream, but mostly I rock-hopped along the northern edge of the stream. By 9:45a I came to a waterfall in the stream, which I found to be the junction of three streams. Two of them cascaded down in waterfalls, while a third came out of a narrow canyon to the southwest. This was the waterfall/pool described in the Summitpost description, about 2 miles from the trailhead, but only about 2/3 of the way to the end of the canyon. I climbed the steep bank on the right and followed the rightmost stream uphill. There were no more use trails or evidence of other adventurers, but the going wasn't all that tough. I thrashed and plodded my way (boots completely soaked by this time) for almost an hour until I reached the end of the stream and ran into the unclimbable wall. A waterfall dropped down about 300ft from above, landing on a pile of talus and rockfall that had accumulated at the bottom. I took a few pictures of the dead end (this was not the correct canyon), then headed back to the waterfall/pool.
I next tried to hike up the leftmost stream (the one not resulting in a waterfall), but didn't get very far. About 50 yards up I got a look around the bend in the narrow canyon and found an impassable series of cascades coming down from higher up. I looked about the sides of the canyons, but all looked like horrendous bushwhacking to me. Back to the waterfall. I paused here for half an hour to take a refreshing but brisk bath in the pool. The water temperature was probably about 50F or possibly a few degrees higher. Helicopters droned above at very regular intervals, rarely allowing more than five minutes to pass in quiet. Sometime there were two hovering above, one waiting its turn while the other made the quick dash to the innermost part of the canyon before departing. While I was putting my clothes back on I pondered the route a bit more. Clearly I knew that others had gotten further, and they made no mention of horrendous bushwhacking. I eyed the short wall between the south and middle streams and guessed that if there was a trail, it ought to go up between those two streams. I decided to investigate.
My hunch paid off. After ascending a hint of trail steeply over a spicy section with exposure, I surmounted the waterfall section and was promptly rewarded with a pink ribbon tagging the route. Not visible from below, this ribbon was the start of a regular series of tags that leads almost to the end of the canyon. Over the next hour I followed it upwards, mostly on the left side of the middle stream, sometimes in the stream, and eventually leading up to the end of the canyon where the middle stream petered out and a dry streambed remained. I followed tags that lead up the dry streambed where it originates on a ridge between the middle and southern stream drainages. The south stream was indeed the main stream leading to the inner canyon, but it could not be followed directly as I'd found back at the pool. I followed more tags down to another small stream (another branch of the south stream) where they abruptly ended. Making the logical deduction, I followed this creek upstream where the ribbons eventually resumed. And a good thing, too. Where this subsidiarly stream turns southward it can be seen to be coming out of a narrow gorge that appears impassable. Ribbons lead along the left side of the stream, several hundred feet above the stream level (and quite airy, too!) to bypass this gorge. The ribbons eventually lead back to the stream and then to its origin on yet another ridge between this middle canyon and the final canyon in the innermost bowels.
On this ridge I got my first view of the impressive walls that close in on the inner canyon, and a large, cavernous hole that lies behind several waterfalls dropping over 1,000ft from above. The ribbons ended, but it was not difficult to manage the final quarter mile by following along the westernmost part of the canyon where I was up against the eastern wall of Waialeale. Rockfall had piled up over the eons and had not yet broken down into rich Kauai soil, so the plants here were stunted and easily negotiated. By 1:30p I had climbed to the opening of the large hole and was able to just climb behind the fall line of the falls when I came across the end. All the walls are wet and somewhat slick, and what might otherwise be a class 3-4 climb to the inner cavern a few hundred feet higher was merely a deathfall waiting to happen. I could go no further. I took a few poor pictures from behind the waterfalls before heading back, leaving a small cairn to mark my progress.
Retracing my steps back the same way, it took just about 3hrs to return to the car. With about 2hrs of route-finding errors and my short swim, I was out for just about 9hrs total. I was nearly soaked through by this time as drizzle had combined with the streams and wet flora to do me in. It was good to get out of the wet clothes and into some dry one I had stashed in the car. Though dense, I had not found the thick jungles of Kauai impenetrable. This was a good sign and boded well for the bushwhacking sessions I had planned for Kawaikini in a few days...
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