Cliff Jumping – Maui, Hawaii

Like all of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui is a mass of land born of a volcano. At its highest peak, Haleakala – the volcano from which Maui was spewed – reaches more than 10,000 feet, and stretches down below sea level, passing deep river valleys speckled with dozens of waterfalls and sandy beaches with world-class surf.

For the athletes who flock to the island, coastal Maui presents some of the most challenging and beautiful waves and coral reefs in the world. Inland, Maui’s vast terrain is a hiker’s delight. Both coast and interior offer perches and pinnacles perfect for cliff jumping, with freshwater and saltwater landings alike. During my many trips to the island, I’ve collected a few favorites, and on a recent return visit, I set myself on a mission to revisit them. Below are five top spots for taking the plunge.

Black Rock, Ka’anapali

Black Rock
Black Rock juts out from a postcard-perfect white sand beach
Level – easy

As its name partially suggests, this site is a chunk of lava poking out from a white sandy shore. Swimming out about 50 yards from the soft, sandy beach in front of the Sheraton hotel, I loop around a long spit of lava jutting out into the bay into a shallow, narrow cove on the other side. The azul water, usually very placid here on the northwest shore, remains protected from the winds and surf that pummel the coast just a few miles to the north. The water gently laps at the lava-rock that it slowly wears away. Climbing out of the water is a simple task. The lava’s not easy on the feet, but nor is it difficult to clamber up.

Reaching a good launching spot on the hotel-side of the rock, about 15 feet above the waterline, I survey the land and seascapes. It’s a typically clear day here in postcard-perfect Ka’anapali, one of Maui’s most ritzy resort areas. To the south I can see the island of Lanai and a crescent-shaped volcanic crater rim, Molokini, just visible above the sea’s surface. Landward, not even the multi-storied stucco chain resorts can ruin the view – perfect puffs of clouds cling at various levels to the parched face of the West Maui Mountains, which rise into the sky screening the jungle beyond from sight.

The jump is easy and fun, with equally pleasurable sub-aquatic views. Small tropical fish float by, unafraid of the humans to whom they’ve become so accustomed. But it’s the additional sightseeing here that puts the smile on my face. Spying on the bulging butts of unsuspecting submerged tourists, I marvel that no one can hear me snickering underwater. It occurs to me, though, as I approach shore, that my own behavior is equally ridiculous. I blush, but luckily no one notices since I too am submerged.

Puohokamoa Falls, Keanae

The author
The author, Lilliputian among Maui’s river pebbles, contemplates the perch above
Level – easy

Attractions along the recently re-paved Hana Highway aren’t so much labeled with signs and posts as they are with mile markers, and it’s number 11 that signals Puohokamoa Falls. A turnout in the road provides parking space, which tourists use to take advantage of the vistas. Few of them would guess that the smallish pond here, fed by a cool jungle waterfall, is easily deep enough for jumping.

To the left of the pond, I climb a short, soggy path up to the right, which arrives at the top of the waterfall. About 25 feet above the plunge pool, I plant my feet on a natural stone platform before leaping into the chilly fresh water below. Surrounded by lush greenery, the dank, moist smell of moss and ferns hangs heavy in the crisp air. The spot feels secluded and fresh, a reprieve from the hot sun, though the road is merely a few dozen feet away.

Climbing up, I remember that this well-shaded oasis is also home to prawns and sunken treasure. One day while here, I lost my wallet, which held a one hundred-dollar bill and a sterling silver key chain.

Puohokamoa Falls
Swimming, post-plunge, at Puohokamoa Falls
My friend and I returned later with scuba gear to search for the booty, much to the amusement of tourists who watched our performance from the covered picnic area as we entered the pool donning masks, fins, and tanks. At only 30 feet in diameter, it must have seemed ridiculously small for a dive. We never did find the sacrificed wallet in the silt, but as luck would have it, we ate a delicious meal of garlic-seared prawns that night. That’s typical Maui – throwing lemons at you one minute, lemonade the next.

Meanwhile, once off the platform, the free fall time is easily long enough to leave me wondering when, exactly, I’ll be meeting with the water. When I do, the thrill of landing in a giant puddle of water collected off a dripping cliff is always a delight. Once is never enough.

Waianapanapa State Park, Kaeleku

Waianapanapa State Park
The lava outcropping on a calm day. It sits in the middle of Pailoa Bay
Level – moderate

With lime-green shrubbery covering the landscape right down to the black rock beach, fresh water-filled caves, ocean-side lava tubes, heiau (temple) ruins, and portions of an ancient trail once used to circumambulate the island, this state park and campground is an impressive natural resource. It’s also riddled with history and lore of Hawaiian princesses, kings, lovers, and wildlife. With its astounding juxtaposition of blues, greens, and blacks, Pailoa Bay looks gentle from a distance, but being rather unprotected from the open sea, the current and surf here are deceivingly strong.

Standing on the park’s paved trail above the beach, the giant lava outcropping-jump is leering in front of me, about 200 feet offshore. This is a freestanding outcropping, meaning that I’ll have to swim for it. Not a daunting task, until I approach my entry, a short detour off the lower path, and look down into the whitewash. A lonely honu, or sea turtle, is floating weightlessly in the surf. Primitive and gentle, he reminds me that I’m a guest here. He’s living proof of how delicate the hierarchical ecosystems of this seemingly rugged world really are.

The honu, a symbol of intelligence and longevity, brings to mind my own temporality, my power to both enjoy and destroy, and the subtlety that keeps the cycle of nature in balance. He gives this already magical place an even more ethereal feel. As I sit in silence watching the creature – protected by law from human touch – I wait for him to give me a sign that it’s safe to enter his world.

Unlike the turtle, I won’t succumb to the current and follow its flow. I’ll never call this bay home. I cannot occupy the narrow, white-water spaces where he lets himself be harmlessly tossed, places where I would become scraped and bloody – shark bait. On the contrary, I’m here to thrash against the water’s tug in my attempt to reach yet another rock. Which isn’t to say that the short swim to the outcropping is an especially difficult one. In fact, I’ve chosen to hit this jump just past the sunrise, which today was a glorious glow of golden light, the calmest time of day.

Once at the outcropping, I climb up onto the craggy rock, easy to grip, but slightly difficult to master in the surf. Once on, I’m sharing space with the natives – opihi, a type of limpet, tightly suctioned to the slick rock despite the breaking waves, scuttling crabs, clearly disturbed by my presence, and several birds, for whom the outcropping is not only a hangout, but also a water closet, as evidenced by the omnipresent guano.

Waianapanapa State Park
The pinnacle apexes at 45 feet above the water; and a 360-degree view
Up top, two spots are perfect for jumping – one about 35 feet above sea level and the pinnacle, about 10 feet taller. With a 360-degree view of open ocean, green park, and black rock beach, I take some time to enjoy the view, take some deep salty breaths, then revel in the adrenaline rush that follows as I approach the choppy surf below.

Climbing back out where I first saw the turtle proves to be a bit of a chore. I struggle to climb out, gripping natural finger holds, but unable to hoist myself far enough up the overhang to get a good foot hold. I’m slipping, scraping and banging my skin on the rocks, but determined to pull myself up, knowing that the alternative is an embarrassing swim to the beach, a hundred or so yards away. At last successful, I survey my surroundings high on adrenaline, the scenery and satisfaction.

Swinging Bridges, Wailuku

Level – easy

The trail head of this short hike (about one hour each way), sits at the end of a dirt road off Waihee Valley Road, past local homes propped on cinder blocks with rusted cars and kids playing in the yards. The trail itself winds through fields of ginger along an old, out-of-use aquaduct and back and forth over a mountain river. With an occasional Suriname cherry tree (deliciously ripe in September) along the way and a far-off view of an unusual pine-lined ridge, the trail snakes through the lower east side of the West Maui Mountains.

Swinging Bridges
A hiker prepares to dive in at Swinging Bridges’ trail end in the West Maui Mountains
At the end of the main trail, it’s possible to continue following the riverbed back to two 300-foot waterfalls when the water level is low. But after crossing over two cable-suspended plank bridges (hence the trail’s moniker), and arriving at a small dam, I’ve reached my destination.

The dam creates a small, man-made waterfall in a moist, cool spot. It’s an easy jump from the 15-foot high perch above the river below. I look back further into the mountains, up the river, to catch a glimpse of the two gigantic waterfalls that are miles off in the valley. They’re deceivingly peaceful and gentle from here – up close they’re loudly pounding down with a massive amount of pressure. Even the wall of water in front of me here, tiny in comparison, roars as it dumps gallons into the river below over a 20-foot wide span. After plunging into the chilly mountain stream, swimming behind the water wall reveals its physical and romantic power.

Before leaving about half an hour later, I can see thick, grey, moist clouds rolling down into the valley behind me until the view is shrouded in a heavy veil of mist. My surroundings have suddenly been forced into a much more intimate, cool environment. The space, which seemed playful and friendly when I arrived, has achieved a level of shadowy gravitas that suggests I may not be welcome for much longer. I hit the trail enjoying the sprightly feeling of hiking with the river still clinging to my hair and clothes.

Bridge at Seven Pools, Kipahulu

Level – expert

Ohe'o Gulch
At Ohe’o Gulch in Kipahulu, a mid-century bridge acts as a launching pad into a pool 75 feet below
Once the site of an ancient Hawaiian Village, the Seven Sacred Pools are now part of Haleakala National Park, which stretches from the tip of the volcano down to sea-level in the Kipahulu rainforest. Ohe’o Gulch, the indigenous appellation for the pools that are now flooded with tourists, is spanned at road-level by a mid-century bridge. Constructed about 75 feet above the highest pool below, the bridge is one of the scariest jumps I’ve ever attempted.

I use the word “attempted” because I’ve never actually amassed enough courage (some call this commonsense) to try this pants-soiling, scary plummet. Jumpers who do have the kahones to fly from this height hold on to them tightly. The view from this high – and the closest pool is still several dozen feet above sea level – is an amazing panorama of natural forces. Mountain, river, land and sea all converge here. The thought of smacking the taut surface of the water with a disproportionate amount of my skin’s surface area is even more astonishing. Can you imagine a butt flop from this height? Talk about pants soiling. My feet remain planted.

Regardless of my own anxieties, my more fearless friends – some of them even somersaulting down – have taken on this challenge with aplomb, every one of them living, unhurt, to “talk story” about it. (None of the stories, seemingly impossible to me, involve receiving an impromptu enema.)

On this trip, the river is running low and, therefore, so are the pools. I emerge from my car and look over the edge. It’s too low for jumping. Safety first, I think, assuaging my ego. No jumping today, letting myself off the hook.

Still, as I stand here looking beyond the other visitors, prancing unsteadily around the slick pools in their impractical shoes, I’m struck by the sheer improbability of this strange locale where the sea hungrily licks at the river. I wonder how it is that several perfectly placid, terraced pools would form exactly where the river meets its thundering destiny. Why not further up into the jungle? Why right here in the unfiltered sunshine where everyone can see it?

And as I watch the river drool and the ocean lap, I realize it’s a pretty accurate metaphor for my own course, naturally following the paths of least resistance, like a leaf floating in a surface current. Without plummeting the 75 feet, I realize that like the honu and opihi and like the river and ocean, I’m already connected to this living rock.

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