Kauai’s Wailua River is a special place. The only navigable river in the state, the Wailua was once the home of ancient Hawaiian royalty. Today it is an adventurer’s playground, snaking through waterfalls, a lava rock grotto and lush jungle forests. The river itself is wide and tranquil, which makes for ideal terrain for stand-up paddleboarders of all experience levels. And with Kauai SUP’s expert arsenal of stand-up paddleboard rentals, you’ll be gliding the river way in style. We recommend getting an early start so you’ll have ample time to enjoy the Wailua and the exciting destinations along its riverbanks.
For the smoothest start to your adventure, we recommend pulling your car up to the boat ramp so that you can easily unload your gear onto the grassy knoll just to the east (left) of the ramp. Then you can park your vehicle in a stall. Be sure that you have with you all of the essentials for a successful day on the river: Food, water, sunscreen, bug repellent, a leash, a dry bag and your Kauai SUP waterproof river map. If you plan to hike to Secret Falls, you may also want to bring hiking shoes in tow. Once you seal your dry bag shut and attach the leash to the board and your ankle, it’s time to get on the water. CAUTION: Do not walk into the water via the boat ramp, which is very jagged and slippery. Instead, we recommend that you walk down to the water’s edge and enter the river from the spit of sand to the west (right) of the ramp. This makes for a safe and easy launch.
When navigating downstream, it’s important that you stay within 25 feet of the north river bank (the same side as the boat ramp), so as to keep a safe distance away from the boats that frequently travel through the middle of the river. When you reach a destination that you’d like to explore on foot, you will need to park your board. We recommend that you tie the leash to a branch or root and then leave your board floating in water as you exit the river. Alternately, you can lift the board up onto the riverbank.
As you approach the two-mile mark, just before the fork in the river, you will come across Kamokila Hawaiian Village. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Kamokila offers cultural tours of an authentic model Hawaiian village, complete with thatched-roof homes and many of the native plants on which early Hawaiians survived. On most days, there is a food truck at the village where you can purchase a bite to eat, a cold beverage or even a fresh coconut! Remember to bring $5 in cash ($3 for children) if you would like to take the tour of this four-acre property where King Kaumauli’i, the last reigning king of Kauai, once dwelled.
Upon departing the village on your paddleboard, you will immediately arrive at a fork in the river. The north fork (on the right) will take you to the trail head to Secret Falls. The south fork (on the left) will take you to the Fern Grotto and Kauai SUP’s favorite Wailua River destination: The Swimming Hole. Depending on your stamina, it is possible to visit all of these sites, or pick and choose one or two. Keep in mind that the return paddle will be more difficult because you will be fighting the wind. Don’t deplete all your energy trying to see every site along the river.
Once you have found parking for your paddleboard, you are ready for the hike to Secret Falls, a 120-foot waterfall set in a tranquil, jungle-like landscape. The hike is a flat and relatively easy one-mile jaunt along a beautiful stream. If you find yourself uncertain as your traverse the trail, simply follow one of the many kayak tour groups coming and going to the falls. Depending on the trail conditions, it will take about 30 minutes until you arrive at the waterfall. You’ll know that you’re almost there when you arrive at a fork in the trail. Both directions will take you to the falls; however, if you don’t mind making a few stream crossings, we highly recommend that you opt for the right or lower route, which follows the stream and brings you to several spectacular photo ops, such as King and Queen’s Bath. When you reach the falls, take time to enjoy a swim and a streamside picnic — but be sure to conserve some time and energy for other adventures along the river and the return paddle back to the marina.
Should you choose to explore the south (left) fork in the river, you will find yourself in a more quiet and peaceful environment due to the fact that none of the guided kayak tours traverse the south fork. Yet it’s here that you will find the Fern Grotto — a romantic lava rock cave that’s overgrown with gorgeous greenery. There are boat tours that frequent this spot, but if the dock is empty you’ll have the grotto all to yourself! Park your board at the sign that reads, “kayak parking,” and tie your leash onto one of the exposed tree roots. There is a paved walkway that will bring you to the grotto in less than two minutes. Prepare to be awestruck!
At Kauai SUP, we consider The Swimming Hole the crown jewel of the river. If you only visit one spot, make it this one. From the Fern Grotto, The Swimming Hole is located about a 10-minute paddle upstream through a low jungle canopy that opens into a sunny sliver of paradise. Here you can bask in the sunshine or jump off your board and enjoy a dip in the water. You can also get off your board and climb a 15-foot cliff that’s safe for jumping. CAUTION: Before you jump, be sure to check that the coast is clear of shallow boulders and other jumpers. If the coast is clear, then bombs away!
On your return journey, you will be paddling against the wind. It will be the most difficult leg of your adventure, so be sure to conserve enough energy for an enjoyable glide back to the boat ramp. To make for an easier, more leisurely paddle, remember that you can always kneel or sit down on your board as you paddle back toward the rivermouth.
Upon returning to the boat ramp, we ask that you please clean your board by using the river water and your hands to remove any mud or debris that might have affixed itself to your board over the course of your adventure. Remember that the boat ramp itself can be jagged and slippery, so it’s best to disembark onto the grassy knoll beside the ramp. Then you can drive your vehicle to the ramp and load up your gear.
Don’t feel obligated to visit every destination along the river. It makes for a long and strenuous day, even for the experienced paddler. We recommend choosing one or two sites to visit in addition to all of the jaw-dropping scenery you will enjoy as you navigate your paddleboard. Most importantly, stay safe, be respectful of the Wailua’s natural beauty and have fun!