Waterfalls of Kauai
That 90s girl-band who sang, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” must not have visited the Garden Isle. Here, it is nearly impossible to resist seeking out a waterfall or three. With a little adventurous spirit, some good directions and the proper footwear, you can pretty easily find yourself face-to-face with some of God’s loveliest handiwork.
Of course some Kauai waterfalls are a bit trickier to cozy up to than others because they are either hidden, treacherous to reach, or can only be accessed by a particular mode of transportation. Of the dozens and dozens (and dozens?) of waterfalls found all over the 5-million-year-old island of Kauai, here are just a tiny few that are worth the extra effort to witness. Bring a friend. Bring a camera. But most importantly, bring your eyeballs and an open heart.
You, too, will be gushing.
(Note: Since conditions are ever changing, always check maps, weather and the most up-to-date hiking instructions and conditions before embarking on any of these trips. See endnotes for helpful resources.)
1) Uluwehi Falls (aka Secret Falls)
Uluwehi means “flourishing plants” and that is just what you will find in this tropical paradise found on the East Side of Kauai. Secret Falls, which are hardly a secret anymore, are reached only by waterways and then on foot. You could either take a guided tour or rent your own kayak or canoe and journey there yourself.
Drop your vessel into the water at Wailua River State Park and start paddling upstream. The palm-lined banks of fauna with the emerald mountains rising up behind perfectly set the mood. At the obvious fork in the river, head right and keep paddling on until you come to a flat sandy bank that makes a fine kayak parking lot. The trailhead along the Wailua River begins here.
A rope-assisted crossing of a rocky thigh-high stream greets you early on and for this reason, hiking boots are not recommended — water shoes or sport sandals work best and a few intrepid adventurers even go barefoot. The foliage here is lush, the rocks covered in velvety green moss and the hike can be quite muddy and slippery. Commune with the birds, lizards, and a confetti of tiny wildflowers as you follow the trail all the way to the base of magnificent Secret Falls!
The falls drop is about 120 feet and is truly a breathtaking sight to behold as it cascades into its vast plunge pool — said to be the bathing site of Kauai’s ancient Ali’i (or “king”) of the Island. You can swim, get up close and personal with the falls or just sit and gaze upon its majesty. The rocky base offers a tranquil, almost spiritual setting. The sights and sounds of the water splashing into the pool can calm and relax your mind and create a soothing therapy for the soul. (The chicken sitting next to you may or may not be equally entranced.) (Yes, there are plenty of the ubiquitous Kauai chickens here.)
Perhaps an oxymoron, but Uluwehi Falls is one of the most popular hidden waterfalls of Kauai. In any event, this paddle-hike-rest journey through water and woods will give you a satisfying sense of connection to the island. Aloha!
2) Ho’opi’i Falls
You hear it first. A low rumbly-rushing sound that grows louder as you approach — your anticipation rising. You can almost feel the mist on your skin.
The hike starts easily enough: After parking in the Kapahi neighborhood on the East Side of the island and staying respectful of the residents, you find the tiny, often easy-to-miss trailhead off Kapahi Road. You hike through the tall grass and canopies of sun-dappled trees until arriving at the water. You head right and follow along the Kapa’a gurgling stream. You decide to press on past the first turn out to the smaller “upper” Ho’opi’i Falls in the interest of getting to the bigger “lower” falls sooner. The terrain grows steep in a couple places and is quite muddy and strewn with fallen branches and roots — some to step over and others to duck under. As you get closer, the vegetation grows denser and even greener and the trail tightens, growing rockier and more uneven. In some places, the trail is quite overgrown and hard to find but you persevere. Now, as you pass the last of the trail and the sounds of water are even louder, you enter a clearing and there it is: lower Ho’opi’i Falls in all its glory!
Truly spectacular, the wide falls wash down the rocky mountain side into a cavernous swimming hole. You take a load off to rest on the rocky edge, quietly musing upon Mother Nature at her best and feeling both happy and a sense of accomplishment. After a drink and a snack you carefully find your footing to climb to the other side of the falls to test the waters for a swim. Your friend finds a rope vine dangling from a tree and gives it a low swing, plopping into the water with a splash before popping back up with a flick of the head, laughing.
Named the “Best Hidden Gem” by The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, the Ho’opi’i Falls is rarely crowded and you might even manage to enjoy it all to yourself. Soak it up!
3) Manawaiopuna Falls (aka Jurassic Falls)
As the helicopter filled with scientists hovers down the side of the ginormous falls in the opening scene of 1993’s Jurassic Park with John Williams’ orchestral score booming along, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps this beyond-belief water formation was simply the masterwork of Hollywood CGI artists. But Jurassic Falls, aka Manawaiopuna Falls, is very real, indeed. Considered one of the Garden Isle’s most spectacular sights and one of the top waterfalls in all of the Hawaiian Island chain, the water here thunders down from a 400-foot-tall cliff cloaked in emerald foliage and into the West Side’s glorious Hanapēpē Valley. Tucked deep into private property in a highly dense and undeveloped stretch of rainforest, Manawaiopuna Falls is a rare natural gem that only a lucky few get to witness in person.
Many helicopter tour companies will fly you out here past the falls, getting close enough for photographs. Some even offer a “doors off” adventure to create even less barrier between you and the mist. However, a single tour company (Island Helicopters) was granted permission to land at the base of these falls and allow folks to get out and explore — just as the scientists did in the blockbuster film (but with fewer dinosaurs). Guests are guided along the stream to feel the power and magnificence, feel the mist on their cheeks and learn about the vegetation, geology and history here. Because only one helicopter may land at a time, the few guests on any given flight will enjoy a truly private, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The best part? It is highly unlikely that a hungry raptor or T-rex will be waiting to give chase — so relax and enjoy!
Please note: The above is meant as an overview and not as a substitute for more detailed research on duration, skill level and exact access to each of these hidden waterfalls of Kauai. Like any wild wonderland, Kauai can prove dangerous, of course. Off-the-beaten-track adventures should naturally be undertaken only after checking on current conditions. Info can be found at Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Stop by and see our Koloa Landing® concierge for more Kauai waterfalls recommendations, plus maps, local directions and rental equipment information. Please call (808) 725-2596.