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  1. Hawaii
  2. Kauai
  3. Discover the Wailua River and the surrounding area on foot and by canoe
Sandrine
Written by Sandrine Updated on 28/03/20

The Wailua River is one of the few navigable rivers in Hawaii. Easily accessible, it is located in the heart of a tropical and humid ecosystem east of the small island of Kauai, near Kapaa. A unique opportunity to enjoy an atypical day on and off the water.

The Wailua river originates in the peaks of the center of the island, more exactly at 1700 meters above sea level, at Mount Waialeale. Dozens of small streams tumble down the steep ridges and join the main river, gradually swelling the river. About 3 kilometres before its mouth, the river forms a large "Y", joining two already wide rivers. It is this area that is the most interesting to discover. Then, the river peacefully finishes its course in the ocean, after crossing the city that bears its name.

Canoeing on the Wailua river
Canoeing on the Wailua River!

The area around the Wailua river is lush green, bordered by lush and imposing vegetation. There are some beautiful waterfalls and a few hiking trails in a luxuriant jungle. A large part of the area is protected in the Wailua River State Park, which is free of charge.

Most of the points of interest we will discuss in this article are accessible on foot from the road, but to discover the others, you will need to take a small boat (paddle or canoe) that will allow you to navigate the calm waters of the Wailua River and reach the sights that are inaccessible from the road. Supervised excursions are also organized in the area.

1Points of interest on the Wailua River accessible from the road

Let's start with the points of interest located around the Wailua River and accessible by road.

The Wailua falls

This is the most famous waterfall in Kauai and you can see why! Majestic, easy to access and plunging into a turquoise pool of water, it didn't take much to make it awe-inspiring!

The 26.5-metre jet splits in two from the top of the waterfall, but if it has rained a lot in the past few days, it is possible that the waterfall is just one big waterfall or that the water is muddy, which makes the waterfall a little less charming.

The Wailua falls - Wailua River State Park
The Wailua falls are great! In good weather you can see a rainbow in the morning.

The beautiful waterfall is accessible from highway 583, which leads directly to it. The road ends in a small parking lot with a few spaces just in front of the lookout. The waterfall is very visible from the road.

Note that the site is very popular. There is therefore a good chance that the car park is full. In this case, you will have no choice but to be patient while waiting for a space to become available.
If you come in the morning, you might be lucky enough to see a small rainbow above the waterfall. Finally, beware of mosquitoes, which may be quite numerous if it has rained recently.

The Opaeka'a falls

Located a few hundred metres from highway 580, the Opaeka'a falls are visible from a lookout that has been set up in the immediate vicinity of the highway. A large parking lot is available.

From here you will have a view of the waterfall which is located about 300 meters away, in the middle of the trees. The water runs down a rock face and falls into a basin that is not visible from the viewpoint.

Opaeka'a falls - Wailua River State Park
The Opaeka'a falls photographed from the drone.

A trail, the Hidden Trail, leads to the waterfall but it is not recommended to venture there, as many people have lost their lives on this path.

The belvedere remains the only safe way to observe the waterfall from a distance, which loses some of its interest.

Finally, a little anecdote for the road: Opaeka refers to "shrimp" in Hawaiian because they were abundant in the river at the time.

The Poliahu Heaiau

Just before arriving at the Opeaka falls lookout, don't miss a stop to take a look at the ruins of the Poliahu Heiau, an ancient temple dedicated to the god of war, Kū, of which only the outer structure remains.

Access is easy from a small parking lot on the left side of the road and explanatory signs give information in English on the origins of the temple and its design.

Poliahu Heiau
View of the Poliahu Heiau.

From the car park, there is also a lookout with an interesting view of the Wailua River.

View of the Wailua River from the Poliahu Heiau
View of the Wailua River from the Poliahu Heiau

The Kamokila Hawaiian village

The Kamokila Hawaiian village is located at the end of a steep unpaved road that descends to the river. The place is quite charming, lined with palm trees in the heart of dense vegetation.

It is an old traditional Hawaiian village whose huts have been faithfully reconstructed. Today transformed into an open-air museum, the village allows you to immerse yourself in the way of life of the first inhabitants of Hawaii. We discover how the men and women of the time lived, as well as their different rites and traditions.

Hut at Kamokila Hawaiian Village - Wailua River State Park
A reconstructed hut.
Interior of a hut Kamokila Hawaiian village
Interior fitted out as a hut.

Many fruit trees and plants also grow in the village, allowing us to learn a little more about the use of these plants, which were used both as building materials and for food.

Banana Tree - Kamokila Hawaiian Village - Wailua River State Park
Young bananas.
Breadfruit - Kamokila Hawaiian village - Wailua River State Park
Breadfruit tree.

A small laminated document, in English only, is given to us at the entrance. It gives information on the different living areas and plants. The entrance of the village is not free if you do not rent a canoe: 5$ and 3$ for children under 12 years old.

Canoe rentals and excursions from Kamokila Hawaiian village

The Kamokila Hawaiian village also offers canoe rentals or trips on the Wailua River to reach the sites mentioned just below (otherwise inaccessible). We believe this is the best place to rent your canoe or kayak if you want to go on your own adventure. The village is located in close proximity to the points of interest (so you won't have to navigate the rather uninteresting stretch between the village and the town of Wailua) and it is here that the rental price is the cheapest.

Count 35$ per person for the rental of a canoe-kayak for the day and 30$ for children under 12 years old (price to which must be added taxes of about 1$). A canoe-kayak can carry up to 3 people.

The model we had was recent and in good condition. A large waterproof bag is provided free of charge. Rental is by the day, but the whole trip on the water can be done in 3 to 4 hours.

For more information about the village, canoe rental and other excursions, you can visit the Kamokila Hawaiian village.

2The sites accessible while navigating on the Wailua River

The sites below are only accessible by boat, paddle or canoe. Several organizations offer rentals or excursions from Wailua or Kamokila Hawaiian village. If you prefer to choose a supervised tour, we recommend that you choose one that departs from Wailua (town) at 7:00 a.m. to avoid the crowds.

The Secret falls (Uluwehi falls)

Round trip of 3,5km - 1h30 to 2h00 - Easy

Secret falls - Wailua River State Park
We're finally at the waterfall!

The Secret falls, also called Uluwehi falls, are well hidden! You have to row and walk to find them, but the little expedition will be worth it. Count 1h30 to 2h00 to make the round trip to the waterfall knowing that a canoe or paddle is mandatory to do this semi-aquatic hike (orange line on the map at the bottom of the article).

The walk to the waterfall is very pleasant and allows you to discover a very humid and luxuriant jungle. The proximity to the river brings freshness all along the route and the swimming at the waterfall is the perfect end to this escapade! We enjoyed it very much! Our only regret was to find so many people at the foot of the Secret Falls, given the access conditions.

Note that the trail can be extremely slippery and muddy if it rained a lot the previous days. Please be careful!

Detailed information about this hike and its itinerary is available in our dedicated article: Aquatic hike to the Secret falls of Kauai (Uluwehi falls)

Fern Grotto

Fern Grotto is a famous place on the island. It is a small cavity at the bottom of a kind of natural amphitheatre.

Fern Grotto - Wailua River State Park
View of the Fern Grotto from the belvedere.

It can only be reached by water. You can discover the place quite quickly. A short path leads to a lookout just in front of the cave (don't expect to enter the cave, it can only be seen from a distance). Then the path comes back to the pier via a small loop in the middle of flowers and banana trees and passes in front of a small waterfall.

Flowers - Wailua River State Park
A pretty flower crossed on the path to Fern Grotto.

This place has an important place in Hawaiian culture because the cave was once sacred. People came here to worship and make offerings to the god of agriculture and fertility, Lono. Until the 1950s, access to the cave was reserved exclusively for the Hawaiian royalty!

For more than fifty years now, it has been accessible by boat. Convertible boat tours are organized from Wailua, all with music (the cave is famous for its acoustics). Count 20$ per person to discover the cave. Otherwise, you can come for free with your canoe or kayak, taking care to disembark to the right of the landing stage.

Our advice: Don't expect an exceptional cave! We were a bit surprised by the size of the cave. The small loop can be visited very quickly (about 10 minutes on the spot). That's why we don't recommend paying 20$ to get there. It seems to us more judicious to rent a canoe for the day to get to the site.

Swimming hole

Swimming hole is a small promontory from which you can dive into the river. Here the bottom is deep enough, which allows you to jump safely (although the water is murky and you can't see the bottom)!

Since we couldn't see anything, I relied on the advice of the guy at the kayak rental counter, and jumped. It's OK, I can confirm it, the place is very deep, I didn't even touch the mud :)

Swimming hole - Wailua River State Park
I'm really proud of how I look when I jump ;)

To reach the promontory, you will have to walk a few dozen metres on a dirt path, then cross a fairly steep stretch of rock. Finally, you can reach the top of the rock and jump into the water.

3Hiking in the Wailua River Area

The Wailua River area is home to 2 very reputable hikes, in addition to the Secret Falls hike mentioned earlier. Although these hikes are not directly linked to the river, they deserve to appear here because their starting point is very close to the Wailua River.

The Kuilau Ridge Trail

Round trip of 5.8 km - 1h30 - Easy

The Kuilau Ridge Trail is a quick and easy hike that brings you closer to the lush heart of Kauai by gradually ascending through the undergrowth to reach the top of a ridge (pink line on the map at the bottom of the article). It starts north of the Wailua River and continues almost to the end of highway 280. The hike is a round trip of 5.8km with the only difficulty being a bit of mud that may bother you on the trail.

For more information on the route of this hike, see our dedicated article: Kuilau Ridge Trail: Kuilau Ridge Trail: an easy hike close to the heart of Kauai.

Small wooden bridge at the end of the Kuilau Ridge trail
The small wooden bridge marking the end of the Kuilau Ridge Trail.

Hikes to the top of Sleeping Giant ( Nounou Mountain)

Round trip from 2.4 to 4.8 km depending on the chosen itinerary - 2h30 to 3h00 - Medium

The Sleeping Giant is the name given to a ridge area near Kapa'a in Kauai, as its shape is said to be similar to a sleeping giant on its back. It is also called Nounou Mountain. 

There are 3 hiking trails to reach the summit of the Nounou Mountain or Sleeping Giant which culminates at nearly 378 meters and offers a superb 360° view of the surroundings.

  • A 1.8 mile (2.8 km) east side trail: the Nounou East Trail on Haleilio Road
  • A 3 mile (4.8 km) south side trail: the Kuamo'o Trail in front of Melia Street on Highway 580
  • A 1.5 mile (2.4 km) west side trail: the Nanny West Trail at the end of Lokelani Road

We experienced the Nounou East Trail in October 2019 which is the hike that offers the most beautiful views during the ascent (blue line on the map at the bottom of the article). You can find the complete itinerary in our dedicated article: Nounou East Trail: The Sleeping Giant Hike.

Last meters of the Sleeping Giant trail
Path joining the Nose Lookout from the Chin Lookout.

That closes our article on the Wailua River area. If you have had the opportunity to explore the area, do not hesitate to leave us your impression or feedback as a comment!

To continue
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