- Wear your life jackets while you’re on the river.
- Keep to the north shoreline.
- Depending on your pace, and how many photos you take, give yourself three to five hours to paddle the Wailua River to Uluwehi Falls and back.
- Wear sunscreen and water shoes and bring a hat, water and snacks.
In Hawaii, kayaking on the ocean is fun, if not sometimes challenging. You are on the open-sea, after all. But on Kauai, there’s an only-on-the-Garden-Island experience for kayak-seeking adventurers: The Wailua River.
The Wailua River is Hawaii’s only navigable stream. The river is 20-miles long and starts from the top of the 5,148-foot Mount Waialeale. The river is the source of several towering waterfalls, such as Opaekaa, Wailua and Uluwehi Falls and interweaves through emerald green landscapes, including the former heiau, or temples of Hawaiians.
Wailua River is unlike most of its Mainland counterparts in that it doesn’t have any rapids. In fact, it’s usually calm and gentle flowing, making it the perfect body of water for kayaking or stand up paddling.
My husband and I opt for kayaking and book our Kauai kayak adventure online before arriving on island. We wanted to paddle two miles up the river and hike to Uluwehi Falls, aka Secret Falls. After renting our car, we head to Kapaa on Kauai’s east side and pull into the parking area for Wailua Kayak Adventures. The cozy kayak rental business is family owned and operated. We check in, pay for our daylong rental and get assistance strapping our red double kayak to the top of the car. (The kayak rental comes with two life jackets, one dry bag, kayak seats, paddles, a map of the river and equipment to secure the kayak to your car. Most kayak rental companies in the area also offer tours.)
After loading everything in the car, we drive two miles to the Wailua River State Park small boat harbor. Launching the kayak is easy. It’s literally get in and go. We are off and paddling down the river!
I sit in the front with my husband behind me, our drybag nestled in the rear. We find our paddling rhythm and hug the north shoreline (the right side on the way up and the left side on the way down). Kayakers and stand-up-paddlers share the river with boaters, so be sure not to paddle in the middle of the river.
There are other couples, families and solo adventurers also on the river, as well as the occasional tour boat, but the wide river doesn’t feel crowded. The olive green water is serene, almost glasslike in places. We paddle alongside the state park, past verdant forests and even houses.
Roughly 45-minutes in, we come to a fork in the river. We keep to the right and the wide mouth starts narrowing. We know we’ve made it to the start of the Uluwehi Falls trail when we see a row of rainbow hued kayaks lining the river’s small beach to the right. We find a spot for ours and after securing it on land we start the 1/2-mile hike (one way).
Uluwehi Falls is more commonly known as Secret Falls, but given that it’s so popular with paddlers and tour groups, it’s no longer much of a secret! Still, it’s a short and sweet hike that ends with a 100-foot waterfall. (Note: This trail gets muddy during Kauai’s rainy months.)
We follow the trail upstream and come across a rope to cross the stream. If the water is too high, don’t cross. Since, it’s summer, and there hasn’t been much rainfall, we’re able to easily cross. We listen to the stream and the chirping birds as we continue. Before we know it, we’re at the falls.
Where to Rent Kayaks
Wailua Kayak Adventures
(Where we rented our double kayak)
Wailua Kayak & Canoe
Uluwehi Falls may not be as fast-flowing and impressive as other Kauai waterfalls, but it’s still a beautiful spot, and it only takes 20 minutes to get there. The pool is favorite watering hole of locals and visitors, and a great place to take your end-of-the- hike selfie. After taking photos and eating a snack, we make the 20-minute trek back to our kayak.
We take our time paddling back down- stream to the small boat harbor, enjoying the views of the water in the late afternoon light. Kayaking and a hike in one day? It’s all possible on the Wailua River.