Wailua River Kayaking and Secret Waterfall Hike in Kauai

I want to preface this by saying that this was an adventure done in mid-January.  The advantage of going on such adventures in winter is that there are very few crowds to deal with  Making reservations ahead of time for equipment rental was never necessary for me on this trip.  The downside is that I got rained on about 1/3 of the time.  Not to worry, though  – it’s nice warm Hawaiian sprinkle, and it tends to only come down for a few minutes at a time.  If you keep your electronics in a ziplock bag, it won’t slow you down at all.

So – today we ventured over to the Wailua River on Kauai’s eastern side, just south of Kapaa.  Several other blogs and guide books had recommended renting kayaks from the Kamokila Hawaiian Village.  They have a really convenient drop-in point right on the water, and it’s a short trip to several worthwhile sights nearby.  The rental shop there set us up with a basic map, paddles, life jackets, and they pushed us away from the dock with a Mahalo.  We had 8 people in our group, so they even gave us a group discount, which brought it down to $30 a person for a full-day kayak rental (2-person kayaks).

The Wailua river itself is beautiful – it’s surrounded by vegetation (often with blooming flowers), and it has a slow, wide channel.  The water is cool and refreshing, but still warm enough for swimming when it’s raining or overcast.  Coming from the Sierras, I felt a little spoiled.

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From the village drop-in, we chose to go check out the Fern Grotto and a Swimming Hole that were marked on the map.  It was a very short paddle (5 min) to the Fern Grotto, and we lashed our kayaks up to the dock there.  Large barges from downriver, including Smith’s Tropical and others, come by to use the dock every couple of hours, but we were in-between visits and had the place to ourselves.  The Fern Grotto was worth seeing;  it’s a big semi-circular cliff dripping steadily with water.  As it stays soaked all the time, there were lots of ferns, flowers and vines hanging down.  I was a little perplexed that the dock and trail network around the grotto were so developed for what seemed like a small attraction, but it made more sense when I saw a barge pull up and unload a couple dozen people as we were departing.   It was definitely was worth seeing, even if it felt a little over-developed.

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We departed the Fern Grotto and headed upstream a little further toward the “Swimming Hole” marked on our map.  The channel narrowed a bit, and it seemed obvious that the barges wouldn’t head up this far.  We also watched an older couple overturn their kayak in this section, but I’m not sure how they did it.  They seemed to be arguing beforehand, and the wife decided it would be fun to hurl her body suddenly overboard in protest.  We stopped to help, but they claimed to have things under control and were quite embarrassed, so we kept paddling a little further up to the swimming hole.

We came around the bend to a small cliff and a wide section of river, and we decided this was the right place.  There was a small sandy beach to park at, and there was a trail up to a ledge on the cliff to jump off of.  I checked the depth and it seemed to be at least 10 feet deep, so we went for it.  I discreetly put on my Speedo and cape behind some bushes to impress some other kayakers who cruised up to watch us jump.  Needless to say, they were awestruck by my milky white skin and the blinding neon yellow of my action cape.  It was probably 15 feet or so down to the water – just enough to be a little exciting.  We jumped a few times, and Katie even showed us her diving skills with a nice one-and-a-half flip.

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My disturbing impression of a bat, as viewed from below

The final step on our little kayaking adventure was to head back toward the village and take a fork in the river to the “secret” waterfall hike.  There are lots of guided tours for this, and after doing it ourselves without a guide, I can see benefits to both ways.   We headed up the river for a short distance until we spotted a bunch of kayaks pulled up onto a sandy beach.  We weren’t worried about  getting ours stolen, as all the kayaks there were pretty obviously all well-marked rentals.  From there, we had to walk upstream a short distance and cross the river, which was about waist-deep there with a rope to hold onto.  It was very slow-moving though, and we didn’t feel any risk of being whisked away by the river gods.

We lost our trail soon after that, but we figured out we had to cross the sand bar we were on, and cross the river one more time.  This part was not very well marked at all, but we found a lot of muddy footprints on the left side of the river (looking upstream).  We clambered up some roots and began heading that way.

Crossing a tributary of the Wailua River at the start of the hike

It had rained pretty heavily the previous day, and the trail was SOAKED.  I would say the consistency of the soil ranged from under-cooked chocolate cake to calf-deep chocolate pudding.  It was downright treacherous, but somehow entertaining at the same time.  I luckily had some Merrill water-shoes on, but our group members with flip-flops promptly took them off and went barefoot to plunge through the muck.

My pal Eric spackling himself with mud en route to the waterfall

My pal Eric spackling himself with mud en route to the waterfall

We had to trudge through the mud for 30 minutes or so, crossing two small creeks that fed into the Wailua River.  The trail took a hard left up a small, root-covered ridge, and we had one more small creek get across.  From there it was a short distance to the beautiful waterfall.  We found a couple of tour groups up there, and they had delicious lunches being made for them (which they would not share, despite my best attempts to trade for knock-knock jokes).   We had about 45 minutes until the kayak rental closed, so we wasted no time in jumping into the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall.  It can be dangerous to swim directly under a waterfall of course, so be careful (especially if it has been raining heavily), but it was too alluring to resist.  We swam in and let the waterfall batter our backs and shoulders for a moment before heading back down the trail.

The "Secret" Waterfall

The “Secret” Waterfall

I also thought this would be an appropriate time to bust my yellow cape out of my bag again.  Really, I haven’t found an inappropriate time for the cape yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  Plus, it was pretty dirty and needed a wash.

Mother Nature's cape washing machine

Mother Nature’s cape washing machine

We didn’t want to leave the guys at the rental shop hanging, so we did a little mud-jogging back down to the Wailua river.  We made great time on the way back down, probably because we were fully embracing the ankle-deep, peanut-buttery mud, and we were sitting in our kayaks 25 minutes after leaving the waterfall.  We made it back to the rental shop by 4:55, said Mahalo, and counted this as a truly successful day.

In the summer, I would say this is a hike that anyone of reasonable fitness can do.  In the winter, or shortly after any big rain storm, it’s pretty treacherous.  Still, it was a blast, and I would do it again in a heart beat, even with the mud.  If you have the funds for it, a guided tour could be worthwhile, and I’m sure a guide would have some useful info about the local flora and fauna.  Plus, it’s nice to not have to worry about getting lost.   Kayaking and hiking here felt like a total wilderness at times, but on the map, there are some homes just up the ridge beside the river, a stone’s throw away.   Oh well, adventure is adventure.

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