On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, you will find this distant state’s only navigable river. At 20 miles long, the Wailua River is Kauai’s largest and longest, beginning on Mount Waialeale and emptying into the Pacific Ocean on the island’s east side. With the lush tropical rainforests and beautiful waterfalls of the “Garden Island” waiting to be explored, it is not hard to see the draw of a Wailua River kayak trip.
Best Wailua kayak tours
As you can imagine, being the only navigable river out of all the Hawaiian islands means there are plenty of businesses that operate kayak tours along the Wailua. Here are some top-rated ones to check out.
Kayak Wailua offers numerous launch times Monday through Saturday, so you can depart almost any time you like, so long as it’s 1:00pm or earlier. You will be provided with a dry bag and cooler, and will depart with your guide across the street at the Wailua River Marina. From there, you will head up the river to Secret Falls, where you can enjoy a packed lunch (not provided) and swim in the pool at the bottom of the falls. This tour is perfect for beginners, including children, and prices start at $50 per person.
Ali’i Kayak’s Secret Falls Kayak/Hike tour is also perfect for families. Before heading out, your CPR and First Aid certified guide will provide a crash course on paddling techniques and water safety. Once you feel comfortable in your kayak, you’ll head a short two miles upriver and trek about 1.5 moderate-to-strenuous-miles to and from the falls. Tours start at $65 per person.
Wailua Kayak Adventures
Choose between a morning and early afternoon launch time and soak up the history of this sacred area of Kauai on your paddle to Secret Falls. Once you reach your destination, Wailua Kayak Adventures provides organic snacks at the falls to replenish your energy before taking a dip in the waterfall pool. Prices are $40 per child and $60 per adult and include dry bags and even hiking sticks to use on the walk to Secret Falls.
If time constraints aren’t your thing, check out some of these highly recommended kayak rentals in the area.
For $95 for a double kayak, you can paddle all day on the Wailua River. Kayak Kaua’i is the exclusive outfitter for Wailua River State Park. While you rent your kayak from the Wailua River Marina, it should be noted that you will be required to car mount your kayak and drive a short distance over the Wailua Bridge to launch at the state park on the other side.
Wailua River Guides
Though their main office is located in Kapa’a, you will launch your rental kayak from the Wailua River Marina. Single and tandem kayak rentals are available Monday through Sunday.
Wailua Kayak & Canoe
Located right on the Wailua River in Kapa’a, you won’t have to worry about hauling your rental kayak with this company. Wailua Kayak & Canoe offers single, tandem and even tri-kayaks for rent. Prices begin at $50 per adult and $30 per child (5 to 7 years) and includes five hours of self-guided paddle time.
Kayaking the Wailua River without a guide
With its calm waters and fairly straightforward route, the Wailua River is a great place for beginner and novice kayakers to explore on their own. Most outfitters are more than happy to provide you with a waterproof map of the river to keep you on course.
Several put-in and take-out locations are available. These include the Wailua River State Park boat ramp, the Wailua River Marina and Kamokila Hawaiian Village. The easy-going nature of the river makes it possible to depart from and return to the same location, though it should be noted that you may be paddling into the trade winds on your route back. Most paddlers only venture a few miles out to the main attractions of Secret Falls and Fern Grotto.
There are several unique safety precautions to note on the Wailua. The southern edge and middle of the river are reserved for powerboats and barges, so paddlers are strongly cautioned to paddle no farther than 25 feet away from the north bank, both coming and going. Please be aware of the wakes these boats can produce.
As mentioned, you will likely be paddling into the wind on your return trip. The trade winds can become especially strong in the afternoons, which is one reason the majority of the local kayak tours launch in the morning.
Even if it’s not raining where you are on the river, flash flooding can occur from storms on the mountains where the river originates. If the river starts becoming muddy and murky, seek higher ground immediately.
Kayak to Secret Falls
Many people launch from the Wailua River Marina or Kamokila Hawaiian Village. Again, many outfitters will be happy to provide you with a map if you’re renting one of their kayaks. If you’re short on time, the Village is closer to the falls than the marina. The falls are about a 15-minute paddle upriver from the Village, while they’re a two-mile paddle from the marina.
When you reach the fork in the river, choose the right tributary and continue paddling for a short five to 10 minutes. Even if you don’t arrive during a time of day that’s busy for guided tours, when you will see plenty of kayaks and know where to “park,” the clearing is very obvious on your right-hand side.
The trail to Secret Falls from the bank where you leave your kayak is very well-marked as well. You will cross a fairly deep stream, which may or may not have a rope to assist you at the time, along with another small cascade along the way. The hiking portion to Secret Falls is about 1.5 miles round-trip.
Kayak to Fern Grotto
Although the main attraction along the Wailua River is Secret Falls, there is another natural wonder nearby that is worth checking out while you’re in the area. Instead of taking the right fork in the river from the Wailua River Marina or Kamokila Hawaiian Village, veer left up the south fork and you will find the enchanting Fern Grotto a short ways upstream.
A former lava cave, this grotto is covered in—you guessed it—ferns, giving it a secretive feel. Nestled back in a cove surrounded by lush jungle, this attraction is easy to spot on your left-hand side.
From the Wailua River Marina, the paddle to Fern Grotto takes about four hours round-trip. You can also disembark from Wailua River State Park for a shorter trip as Fern Grotto is located within the park boundaries.
How long does it take to kayak the Wailua River?
Although you can’t technically kayak the entire river since it begins on Mount Waialeale and there is a restricted zone near Wailua Bridge (a designated swimming area past the marina where the river meets the Pacific), you can still kayak much of the river. Also, while you can technically kayak to Kaholalele Falls on the north fork of the river, it is very much rain-dependent. If the water is not high enough, you will not be able to reach it by boat as it becomes too rocky to navigate. In a nutshell, you can easily spend a half or full day on the river exploring the spectacular sights mentioned above in the accessible areas.
With its calm waters and fairly straightforward route, the Wailua River is a great place for beginner and novice kayakers to explore on their own. | Feature photo: Zane Persaud/Unsplash