Kauai is an outdoor adventurers’ paradise. With epic hikes, pumping surf, bustling reefs, and dining options aplenty, Hawaii’s fourth-largest island has something for everyone. Nicknamed “the Garden Island,” Kauai is one of the rainiest places on Earth and as result, is home to a tropical rainforest, cascading waterfalls, and stunning rivers at every turn. While there are countless options for places to paddle, there was one in particular that stood out: the Wailua River.
At twenty miles long, the Wailua River is Kauai’s largest navigable river and Hawaii’s third largest river. Located on the east side of the island, the river originates at Mount Wai’ale’ale and ultimately feeds two popular waterfalls: Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls.
On a trip to the Aloha State, my friend and I decided to break from the surf and take a trip down the famous Wailua River. While there are countless outfitters offering kayaking trips down the river, guided SUP trips didn’t seem to exist, which was just fine, as we preferred to go it alone.
Bringing your own board is a good option, as it will allow you to hit the river early before the throngs of kayakers set out. If you prefer to travel light, Kauai SUP is located just down the street from the river mouth and they are old pros at preparing travelers for the river. When you rent from them, you’ll be provided with a detailed map, a dry bag, and a board will be waiting for you at the launching point.
We set out from the boat ramp, which is located off Highway 560, just west of Wailua Beach. The water was still, the wind was at our backs, and the river quiet, save for the occasional wading bird or fellow paddler passing by.
The wide river meanders through the lush Hawaiian jungle, hau trees and mangroves lining the riverbanks. When you reach the two-mile mark, you’ll find the Kamokila Hawaiian Village on your right. The village was once home to King Kaumauli’I, the last reigning king of Kauai, and for $5 you can take a cultural tour of the village and enjoy the thatched-roof homes and native Hawaiian plants.
After a break at the village, you’ll quickly come to a fork in the river. Veer right and you’ll be en route to the trailhead to the “Secret Falls.” Head left and you’ll find yourself at the Fern Grotto and picturesque swimming hole. We opted to visit both.
The name Secret Falls is deceiving as the falls are one of Kauai’s most widely known secrets. That being said, navigating them alone is a cakewalk, as you’ll have plenty of company along the way, pointing you in the right direction.
At the trailhead, you’ll find a collection of kayaks and SUPs—park your board and prepare to get muddy. The trail to the falls parallels the river most of the way, with ferns, wildflowers, and towering trees lining the path. After roughly a mile, you’ll reach the 120-foot falls, complete with a swimming hole and lush jungle backdrop.
We packed a picnic lunch and took our time enjoying the scenery and cooling off in the swimming hole. When we first arrived, the falls were packed but after an hour or so, a number of the tour groups departed and we had the place mostly to ourselves.
After we’d had our fill, we retraced our steps down the path and paddled back to the fork in the river. This time we took the south fork and were immediately immersed in a stunning, tranquil setting, a nice treat after the busy falls. The wind died down after rounding the bend in the river and within minutes we found ourselves at the Fern Grotto—a lava rock cave overgrown with tropical plants. We were told that the swimming hole was just ten minutes further down and is the crown jewel of the river but unfortunately, a fallen tree prevented us from going further.
The paddle back was no walk in the park. On the way to the falls, you’re essentially doing a downwinder and as such, the way back you’re paddling upwind for two and a half miles. If you find the paddle to be too challenging, opt for a quick pickup at the Kamokila Hawaiian Village.
After a long, fun-filled day on the water we drove a little further up the highway for a view of the river and the Opaekaa Falls from above, which was definitely worth the extra effort. From there, we made our way to the town of Kapaa, where we rounded up the day with drinks and dinner at a local bar. Although the Wailua River is a major tourist destination, it is definitely one worth adding to your Kauai bucket list.