Kauai is known as The Garden Isle, and for good reason. The circular island’s dormant central volcano, Mount Waialeale, is the rainiest place on earth. Look inland, and you will likely see the towering mountain shrouded in clouds at any time of year. And that constant rain creates hundreds of waterfalls that cascade down the crater’s walls before carving different paths to the sea. Mount Waialeale receives so much rain that Kauai has the only navigable rivers in all of Hawaii.
Add moisture to Kauai’s tropical heat and you have the recipe for life. Every inch of Kauai is alive, verdant and lush. It’s the kind of place where fruit grows wild in such abundance that you’ll be able to pick an avocado, star fruit, mango, guava, passion fruit and more during your Kauai vacation.
The Garden Isle’s lush landscape is cut by streams, rivers and beautiful waterfalls that all pour out of the island’s central volcanic crater. The waterfalls are endless on Kauai. They cover steep mountainsides, roll down red dirt roadsides and they roar into the depths ofWaimea Canyon. They are so abundant that you’ll find “shower” waterfalls on the island’s more remote hiking trails.
There are so many waterfalls on Kauai that it’s difficult to narrow down the best five. In fact, if you sneeze on your drive up to the north shore, then you’ll likely miss a few roadside waterfalls falls along the way. But, after careful determination, these are the best five waterfalls on The Garden Isle.
This double-barrelled cascade is right off the roadside just 15 minutes north of Lihue Airport, and stopping by the falls should be the first to-do on your itinerary. In fact, you should pop by the falls before you check-in at your hotel. It will whet your appetite for things to come.
Drive into Lihue City from the airport to turn right onto Route 583. Drive north along 583 for about 10 minutes and you’ll run into the falls. It’s well signposted and there is plenty of parking.
You’ll find the roadside strip of parking on the south side of the falls. From here, you’re at the level of the falls with a view 173 feet down to the base and its dramatically deep pool. On a windy day, moisture from the falls creates a cooling mist that blows into the parking lot area. It’s this cooling mist that creates Hawaii’s beautiful and abundant rainbows.
The river that feeds the falls splits in two at the top to create two distinct cascades into the pool below. You might notice this dramatic scene as the opening credits for the 1980’s show Fantasy Island. You might also notice a few tourists swimming at the base of the falls in a shaded cove.
Hiking down to the base of the falls is discouraged and there is no official path, but you can find the unofficial path by following the short fence at the parking lot away from the falls. The short fence will turn into a tall wire fence, so jump over the short fence just before it increases in height.
Continue to walk away from the falls. You can even hold onto the tall wire fence for support on this dangerous and slippery trail. After about 150 feet, you’ll find a steep trail down to the river below. This trail is made up entirely of Kauai’s killer red dirt. It is extremely slippery when wet and compacted, and the trail is bound to be wet, compacted and slippery as tourists trek out of the waterfall’s valley. This dirt can be as slippery as lake ice, so only take the trail down to the falls if you’re confident in your fitness and dexterity.
There are a few ropes installed into the steep valley wall for your support. Go slow, use the ropes and you’ll eventually end up on the valley floor. Now you’ll have to make the rocky hike over to the base of the falls where you can feel the power of the 173-foot cascade.
This 1,600-foot waterfall is truly one of Kauai’s gems, but you’ll have to earn its beauty. This massive waterfall is fueled by Hanakapiai Stream which flows through Hanakapiai Valley and pours out into the ocean at Hanakapiai Beach. And you can find the beach, stream, valley and falls on the first leg of the vaunted Kalalau Valley Trail.
You’ll find the trailhead at the very end of the road north on Ke’e Beach, and the drive to the trailhead is nearly as beautiful as the towering falls itself. The Kuhio Highway switchbacks on a cliffside to bring you down to Hanalei Town where you’ll run into the first of many one-lane bridges. The road then meanders through town, hugs Hanalei Bay, clings to ocean cliffs and takes you over many of Kauai’s rivers. You’ll pass taro fields, dry caves, irrigation canals and waterfall covered mountains to emerge from the rainforest at Ke’e Beach.
Parking for the beach and the trailhead is extremely limited. You should get here early in the morning to secure a spot and to beat the sun. The eight-mile roundtrip hike takes you into a narrow canyon where it can get dark before the sun officially sets. And you don’t want to be hiking on the cathedral cliffs of the Na Pali Coast after dark.
There is overflow parking down the road near a farm. It’s a dirt lot on the north side of the road that can be rather bumpy and washed out. Do not park on the road in between these two lots as you are almost guaranteed to get an expensive ticket, and you won’t be able to fly back to Kauai to defend your parking decision in traffic court.
The trailhead is well signposted in Ke’e Beach’s small parking lot. It’s a brown sign with yellow writing that says “Kalalau Trail,” and there’s often a local selling ice-cold coconuts out of the back of a pickup truck right next to the sign. The trail starts on rock stairs that begin to climb up out of the rainforest.
You are now on the Na Pali Coast’s northernmost cathedral cliff. The picturesque Na Pali Coast features a series of cathedral cliffs that reach out into the ocean like the talons of an island-sized dragon, and the trail you’re on -- TheKalalau Trail -- goes up and over each of these cliffs for 11 miles to Kalalau Valley. Fortunately, you’ll only be traversing this first cliff.
The trail climbs for about a mile. You’ll break out of the rainforest to views of Ke’e Beach below before you hit the Na Pali Coast Viewpoint. Well, the viewpoint will actually hit you. Hard. You’ll be gobsmacked with views down Hawaii’s most dramatic coast, and you can count out each of the cathedral cliffs to the horizon. Get your camera ready.
You’ll then descend the other side of the cliff to Hanakapiai Beach. The water is impossibly blue, the sand a brilliant white and its framed between two cliffs. Do not be tempted to swim, but feel free to explore the beach’s caves and curious cairns.
At the beach, the trail turns inland before it splits. The Kalalau Trail continues up the next cliff while you’ll be headed inland. The trail from the beach to the waterfall is slippery, sometimes narrow and occasionally dangerous, but you’re halfway there. Hike into Hanakapiai Valley only if you’re moderately fit and have good, solid footwear.
You’ll hug Hanakapiai stream, walk through bamboo forests, under the canopy of rainforest and hug cliff sides to get to the 1,600-footfalls, but it is well worth the effort. The forest will break to treat you to a towering view, and you can’t even see the whole falls from the pool below. The pool offers up a cold, refreshing swim at the end of a long hike, and you can even swim underneath the waterfall to sit on a natural bench. Just be prepared for the intense sting of the cascading water.
Some say that Mark Twain dubbed Waimea Canyon “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” It’s as beautiful as it is shocking. Who would have thought that such a mighty canyon would be hiding in such a small Pacific island?
Waipoo Falls is much more accessible than Hanakapiai, and, at 800 feet, the falls are nearly as beautiful. And you should set aside an entire day to enjoy the falls, Waimea Canyon and the breathtaking Kalalau Lookout which you’ll find deep in the heart of the west side of the island.
Simply take Kuhio Highway south out of Lihue. It will eventually turn west as you notice the landscape dramatically changing around you. The rainforest will give way to dry open plains and Kona coffee fields before the road slows down as it enters Waimea Town.
You’re looking to turn right onto Waimea Canyon Drive, or Route 550. You’ll find it just after the Big Save Market in town. The road will slowly ascend through town before opening up to switchbacks carved into a steep hill. Get your camera ready because there are viewpoints galore from this point forward.
The first viewpoint shows you Waimea Town with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. It’s beautiful but there is so much more to see. Eventually, the town will disappear as a red dirt waterfall emerges on your left. Again, it’s beautiful but there’s much more beauty to be found up the road.
Waimea Canyon will slowly emerge on your right-hand side. Soon, you’ll be driving through fields of yellow ginger in the small town of Kokee. This small town, which is nothing more than a few cabins, tent sites, a restaurant, and a small museum, sits at 3,600 feet of elevation. It can actually get a bit nippy up here, so check the weather before venturing up the hill.
Choose any one of the official and unofficial Waimea Canyon lookout points to catch a glimpse of the 800-foot Waipoo Falls. The official viewpoints are marked by signs and have parking lots while unofficial viewpoints are on the side of the road. Literally. The right-hand side of the road can sometimes be the edge of the canyon wall.
The falls are absolutely breathtaking. The cascade of white water sits against the purples, oranges, reds, and greens in a dramatic landscape that defies reality. The canyon is so beautiful, especially on a sunny day, that you’ll swear it’s not real. But it is real, and you can hike down into the canyon to see the waterfall up close.
The trailhead can be found between mile markers 14 and 15. You’ll descend into the canyon, meander through rainforests and walk on cliff edges before you reach the top of the falls. Then it’s time to savor the view upwards towards the canyon rim. It’s a 3.6-mile round-trip hike that is safe and fun for the whole family. Just remember that the hard part is the hike out of the canyon after you’ve savored all the beauty.
Kauai looks like the land before the time at this beautiful waterfall. Dramatic hills covered in tropical flowers rise out of riverbanks into the misty air while Opaekaa Falls pours out of the lush green hillside. And that’s the beauty of these falls -- you don’t know exactly where all that water is coming from. It looks like the rainforest is bleeding.
The name Opaekaa is an ancient Hawaiian word that roughly translates to “rolling shrimp.” Don’t be spooked, but the freshwater rivers of Kauai are full of freshwater shrimp. You’ll be swimming with the little guys if you choose to take a dip at the base of any of Kauai’s wonderful waterfalls.
This cascade is as easily accessible. Simply drive up the Kuhio Highway north towards the town of Kapaa. Turn left onto Route 580 just after the Wailua River, and you can’t miss the river because you cross its flowing water on a bridge. The road will ascend a hillside to bring you to a well-signposted parking lot. Just open your car door and you’re at the viewpoint.
No trail that takes you to the falls, so you’ll just have to enjoy the view from afar. But the view is not just of the falls. You get sweeping views down the Wailua River and out to the Pacific Ocean. On most days, you’ll see a flurry of activity below you in the river as kayakers head out to Secret Falls.
There are a few companies that run kayak tours down the Wailua River to Secret Falls. They operate every day except for Sundays when the river is open to speed boats. But you can be bold, rent a kayak and get to the falls yourself by following these directions.
And don’t be afraid to rent a kayak. Rental companies in Kapaa can strap the kayak to the roof of an economy rental car, and it’s no problem for two people to dismount and mount the boat. Once it’s secured to your vehicle, drive to the Wailua River on the Kuhio Highway.
There’s a well-signposted marina on the south side of the river. This site is usually reserved for kayak tour companies, so you’ll have to find the other boat ramp on the north side of the river. There are a small parking lot and a gentle dirt slope into the water where you can dunk your kayak.
Paddle upriver staying on the right side as the flow of kayak traffic works like you’re driving a car. Avoid the orange buoys about a quarter-mile down the river while enjoying the scenery. Mangrove-like roots reach out into the navigable river which has been carved by rainwater from Mount Waialeale. Slowly, rainforest-covered hills rise around you as hibiscus blooms, which open and die in a single day, float past you on the water. It’s a magnificent scene.
The river will soon fork. Stay right to paddle down a narrow waterway. The trees will encroach your space as the river goes under the rainforest canopy before opening up on a rocky beach. You’ll see metal signs and the start of the Secret Falls trail. Feel free to pull your boat up onto the beach and leave your gear for the hike.
The trail is made of Kauai red dirt and it meanders through dense rainforest. This dirt is extremely slippery when wet, but there are no cliff edges on this hike. Just make sure to wear shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, and don’t try to tip-toe around any puddles. Walk straight through them or you’ll increase your chances of a fall.
The trail will quickly open to a field covered in blue and red flowers. You’ll be stunned for a minute. It’s just a mile to the falls, but the rainforest seems to get denser as you walk. You’ll pass the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian village before reaching a hill. Over the hill, you’ll find the falls, so get your camera ready.
The scene is magnificent. The falls have carved a bowl into the lush rainforest to forge a picturesque pool. The water cascades out of the jungle at a clear height above, and locals have placed rocks to dam up the stream into small pools. One of the pools features a cairn covered in beautiful flowers that greets visitors entering the pool.
Unlike all the other falls on this list, Secret Falls pours under the canopy of trees. Perhaps that’s why they call it Secret. You won’t have any direct sunlight under the falls, so the water might be a little brisk even after the hike. But the pool is refreshing and inviting. Just make sure to wear water shoes to protect your feet against its rocky bottom.
There is a collection of rocks directly underneath the cascade where you can sit and enjoy the massage of falling water. The waterfall here is not that tall, so the cascade doesn’t sting very much.
Unfortunately, you’ll likely be sharing this beautiful scene with lots of tourists. The tours are fed lunch at the falls, so it’s best to swim when the tour group sits on the hill to eat. Otherwise, you’ll be taking turns to sit under the waterfall, and it’ll be difficult to snap a picture without strangers in the background.
If you drink Wailua Wheat Passion Fruit Beer from Kona Brewing Company then you might recognize Secret Falls. The waterfall’s image, featuring a beautiful lei-wearing woman, is printed on the bottle.e before you re-enter the forest. The trail will then take you over a rocky stream which can be rather powerful, but there’s a rope installed to help you across. Do not attempt to cross the stream if the water is high or the current seems powerful.