Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, and in many senses the wildest. Of the islands most popular with tourists, it’s the least developed – and while Maui and Oahu appeal to those with high-end shopping travel desires, there really are no upscale chain shops (like Coach or Tiffany’s) on this westernmost of the well-traveled Hawaiian islands. What Kauai has, though, is lush old rainforests, stunning canyon hikes, and coastal cliffs to boggle the mind. For the family that likes some adventure in their travels, Kauai is the Hawaiian vacation island of choice.
Last year my family and I hiked in Waimea Canyon during our vacation in Hawaii, and were treated to views second only to the Grand Canyon. This year, we had the Wailua River in mind. Now, Wailua Falls is a very popular end point for many people seeking a nice vacation photo, likely because it’s very easy to get to; we saw this 80-foot waterfall along with a bunch of other tourists who basically got out of their cars and crossed the street. Some adventure! If adventure travel is the name of the game in Kauai, we could do better than that.
There are several kayak outfitters that operate on the Wailua River, some stopping at the Fern Grotto, others going all the way up to where the tributaries become too impenetrable. Wailua Kayak Adventures described its kayak and hike along the Wailua River to the Secret Falls as a pleasurable 5-hour easy adventure…Sounds pretty good. But guess what? That 2-mile kayak trip up Wailua River was against the current, and with one adult/one kid in our kayaks, it ended up being more effort (for the adults) than we’d expected. Following this leg of the journey, our guide led us on a hike up, up, up muddy paths along the river. He discussed some of the native plants and some species considered invasive: These latter had been brought over by Polynesian settlers in the 1400′s as food plants. He showed us a couple of ruins, mossy and overgrown, from the royal Alli’i circa 1450. And all along, there was mud, mud, mud. My kids LOVED the muddiness of this hike, and we all enjoyed the cold, cleansing water of a couple of river crossings,
Then, finally there it was, the Secret Falls — exhilarating! We all cheered. This waterfall is so hard to get to, that there were no piles of photo-taking tourists: You know, the type that jump out of their cars, snap a few photos, then drive off to the next vantage point (or Starbucks). Instead, we and other hearty travelers jumped, hooting and hollering, into the waterfall’s pool to clean off. We splashed around and ducked under the waterfall; at 120 feet, it dwarfs the more easily accessible Wailua Falls. It was a wonderful, rewarding experience.
The other hikers happily chatted on the way back down the muddy hike – yes, a few ended up slipping, but it’s a soft landing – and kayaked back together. While the Secret Falls is not literally a secret, it takes around 2 1/2 hours of active work to get there. That level of difficulty makes it feel like a truly special experience for a Hawaii vacation. It’s some adventure! We got what we were looking for, and more.