Barring strong public opinion, Opaeka‘a Falls to remain off-limits

WAILUA — Blocked by a steel fence since two women tragically fell to their deaths last month, access to the bottom of Opaeka‘a Falls is likely to remain closed unless there is strong public support for it to become a state-maintained trail.

“It’s not part of our formal trail system,” state Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman Peter Young said yesterday. “It was not developed or maintained as a state trail.”

Young said he plans to talk to leaders in the DLNR’s Parks Division, which maintains all state trails, to explore the possibility of adopting the Opaeka‘a trail.

“I’m willing to start a discussion about whether a trail should be developed there, and how it should be developed and where it should be developed,” Young said.

Technically never open, the Opaeka‘a Falls trailhead starts around Mile Marker 2 on Kuamo‘o Road in the Wailua Homesteads. Long a popular destination for adventurous hikers looking for seclusion off the beaten path and out of view of the popular falls lookout downriver, access to Opaeka‘a was limited to guidebook entries and word of mouth.

The state has had a sign posted at the trailhead saying “Danger Keep Out — Hazardous Conditions,” which was often ignored.

Then, on Dec. 19, Elizabeth Brem, 35, of Encinitas, Calif., and her cousin, Paula Ramirez, 29, of Columbia, fell some 300 feet to their deaths after following what officials called a “false trail” to the right.

Ever since then, the state put up a fence to keep people out.

“We’ve had signs posted in the past and they continue to be up,” Young said. “As we’ve seen, it’s a dangerous area. We want people to heed the signs. We want to keep people safe.”

Young said violating the blockade is a petty misdemeanor and could result in a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail.

Residents and visitors who want to engage the DLNR in a discussion to officially open the trail under state maintenance can write to dlnr@hawaii.gov, Young said.

If the state makes the trail part of its official system, it could be safe, Young said, “but right now it’s not.”

While some residents have bemoaned the loss of access, others expressed support of the state’s plan.

“If they make it a state trail, it would be very clearly marked,” said Judy Dalton of the local Sierra Club.

Dalton said she was reluctant to voice an official opinion on behalf of the Sierra Club, which strongly encourages access to nature, but safety comes first.

“The last thing we want to do is close any trial for any reason, but in this instance, just for the safety of people, until it is clearly marked, it would be safer for hikers to not to go down there,” she said.

• Ford Gunter, associate editor, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or fgunter@kauaipubco.com.

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