The river’s journey begins on the slopes of Mount Waialeale, a dormant crater that stands as a testament to the fiery beginnings of Kauai’s eden-like beauty. At 5,243 feet high, Waialeale (Hawaiian for “rippling waters”) is considered one of the rainiest spots on earth. Its height, conical shape and position in the island chain create the trifecta of weather conditions for abundant rainfall.
From the summit, the river travels nearly 10 miles down the southeast face emptying out its liquid cargo in two popular and easily accessible waterfalls: the 80-foot Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls. Opaekaa means “rolling shrimp,” many of which were once plentiful in the stream. But the journey doesn’t end there.
The winding flow of water makes its way along 11 miles of thick, verdant foliage. Its lushness is attributed to the river’s tendency to overflow its banks depositing nutrient-rich sediments along the river’s edge. Rich soil, coupled with the ancient Hawaiian’s acumen for horticulture, made the region a natural breadbasket. Tributaries carry the river inland allowing for the construction of fishponds. And while shallow waters restrict travel by larger boats, a handful of vendors offer kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals.
The power and presence of the river was not lost on the ancient Hawaiians. Its significance was marked by the construction of seven heiau (temples) along the river. The first, Kaawako heiau, is located atop the mountain. From the mountain to the sea, where it empties out, Wailua River is a valuable cultural link to Hawaii’s ancient past.
Did you know?
RECREATION HOTSPOT- Wailua River is the state’s only navigable river by boats larger than kayaks. It’s popular with kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders and waterskiers.
HISTORICAL SITES- Along the waterway are several points of interest of historical and cultural significance that include Halokila Hawaiian Village.
FERN GROTTO- It’s a beautiful amphitheater-like, lava rock grotto covered with tropical ferns growing upside down from the roof. Access is only via the river.
WAILUA FALLS- Located right along the roadside, the tiered 80-foot Wailua Falls is easy for anyone to enjoy. Stop by in the morning and you might just see a rainbow.