Kayaking the Wailua River to Uluwehi Falls
Uluwehi Falls kayak & hike updated 12/13/2016 with new information and photos
The Secret Falls aren’t so secret anymore. With as many kayak outfitters as there are along the Wailua River, Uluwehi Falls, also known as Secret Falls, is seldom without a crowd. These falls are only accessible by kayak and then a hike. I suppose that keeps the crowds down slightly, but it’s still a popular tour destination. I usually try to avoid guided “tourist tours” (avoid them like the plague), but every now and then concessions have to be made. And it saved me some time that I would have spent backtracking after getting lost on the trail.
The trip starts with a 2.5-mile paddle up the Wailua River. The Wailua River starts at Mount Wai’ale’ale (the wettest spot on earth) and ends 20 miles downstream on the east side of the island near Kapa’a. This was and still is a very historically significant area. It was first settled by a Tahitian priest in the 12th century and the entire region was considered royal land. The remains of seven different temples sit along the river, including a place of sacrifice and a stone bell used to announce a royal birth.
The Wailua River is wide at first and follows a highway for a short while (the King’s Highway) but soon narrows with tall foliage on the sides. A small fork, as narrow as two kayaks, splits off right to the trail. Shortly after taking this fork, you’ll see piles of colorful kayaks, all beached wherever the jungle opened up enough to allow room for a kayak. The left fork leads to Wailua Falls.
The trail hardly ever sees the light of day and is usually muddy. The first obstacle is a stream crossing. This stream is normally slow and low, but because of recent rains was high and moving fast. Fortunately, a rope was strung across the stream and was very useful as the chest-high water wanted to sweep everyone downstream.
After this crossing, the slick trail follows the stream and can be quite narrow and precarious in some places. Roots can serve as either a useful foothold or a slick obstacle if you use them incorrectly.
After a mile, you can hear the sounds of people talking and laughing, and the falls come in to view as you crest the hill.
Note: during my second trip here, our guide led us to a different spot to beach our kayaks and we bypassed this river crossing – someone was swept away and drowned in a flash flood just a few days prior.
Uluwehi Falls is 112 feet high with a pool at the bottom. The “King’s Pool” is said to be the place where royalty would go in order to change their destiny. It was also the location of hidden royal gardens, keeping the royal family fed whenever war parties burned crops on the rest of the island.
Today, tourists swim in there to have their picture taken at the bottom of the falls. My guide pointed to the rocks sticking out of the water at the base of the falls and said “do you think that people put those rocks there? Unless you want one to land on you, stay away from the base of the wall.” Good advice that I guess others didn’t get.
Despite the crowd, it’s still a nice place to eat a lunch, cool off, and take some pictures before heading back to the kayaks for the paddle back.
My first trip was at the end of the dry season and the falls were just a trickle; the falls were quite impressive in the rainy season during my second trip.
Special thanks to Nate (2010) and Kyle (2016) and the great folks at Kayak Wailua for the awesome guide and outstanding service. Look them up if you’re in the area.