When is a secret not a secret? The answer is that a secret is not a secret when everyone knows about it. The perfect example of this precept is Uluwehi Falls, commonly known as the “secret falls” or the “sacred falls” of Kauai. Make no mistake about it: Uluwehi Falls is stunning. At slightly over on hundred feet, it is a beautiful example of a classic bridal-veil fall. In addition to the fall itself being stunning, it is surrounded by the calm, rustling jungle of the Wailua River State Park. Although Uluwehi Falls has always been known as the “secret” falls of Kauai, the secret is out: on most days, the fall itself will always have a gaggle of people next to it, or underneath it. Despite the secret not being a secret anymore, Uluwehi Falls is a great place to visit, and should be visited by people who like to hike and kayak.
Directions: While the Uluwehi Falls are part of the Wailua Heritage Trail, it is near impossible to reach them solely on foot. Herein lies the adventure portion of how to reach the “secret” falls. The secret in this case is that visitors to the falls will have to either kayak, canoe, or take a stand up paddle board up the Wailua River to a landing, and then proceed on foot to the falls themselves. There are a variety of companies that offer guided day trips to the Falls; but budget travelers should be aware that this an adventure that can be accomplished on their own as well, as it is fairly straightforward. There are a variety of outfitters that rent watercraft at the Wailua Marina, which is the starting off point for this trip; and as the Wailua River Park is public land, there is no requirement that visitors travel with a guide. Nevertheless, for those people who need to know exactly where they are going, and would like to learn about the culture and history of the region, there are a variety of great outfitters who offer guided trips to the area, which is in part, what makes the region so popular.
For visitors who do not hire or go with a guide service, the route begins at the Wailua Marina, which is located off of Highway 56 across from Lydgate State Park. From the Marina, the route leaves the harbor, and heads two miles up the Wailua River. Although paddling two miles on a river may seem like a lot of work, let me assure you that this is the easy portion of the adventure. It is the easy portion of the adventure because the wind will be coming off of the Pacific Ocean, and will be pushing your kayak, canoe, or stand up paddleboard up river. On the return trip, the wind will be pushing against your boat, which will make it substantially harder to return. My advice for the first part of the trip? Enjoy it. Along the way, you will see the lush foliage of Kauai, and at the one mile mark, you will have a good view of Mauna Kapu to the South.
At the two mile mark, you will be confronted with the only directional decision you will have to make on the Wailua River: whether to follow a tributary to the left (South-Southwest) or a tributary to the right (North). At this point, you will want to bear right (North) along the tributary. As you head up the tributary, the jungle closes in on the river, so be sure to keep an eye out for rogue branches at head height, or beneath your boat. After about ten minutes, you will come to a bend in the tributary where a large sandy beach protrudes under several large trees. This is the spot where you will want to land; and chances are, there will be a number of boats already docked. Be sure to drag your boat far enough ashore in order that it will not drift away while you are hiking!
And now, a quick word about footwear. As you will have to paddle up the Wailua River and embark and disembark from your boat in water, you will want to either have shoes that: a) you do not care about (old sneakers); or b) some type of multi-use water shoe that you can hike and walk around in in ankle to knee deep water both at the boat landing, and along the trail. I wore tevas; which worked great. From the landing area, there is a well-delineated trail that heads into the jungle toward the falls. For me, this trail was the best part of the adventure to Uluwehi Falls.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the paddle both up and down the Wailua River; but I enjoyed the trail to the falls more. Even though it is a short trail, it felt otherworldly to me. For starters, everything along it was green. Not just green, but almost primordial green. From the moment I stepped off of my kayak, I felt like I was in another place; another time; or another world. While much of Kauai features this type of amazing jungle growth and green-ness, the area around the falls ended up being one of my favorite spots on the island. It’s worth noting that on paper, the trail to Uluwehi Falls is not that challenging: roughly three quarters of a mile one way (1.5 miles roundtrip). But, technically speaking, it is a challenging hike. The reason for this is that this is an area that receives a lot of rain and the ground is usually saturated with water, muddy, and slippery; additionally, you will have to cross several streams and a tributary of the Wailua River to get to the falls. I guarantee that during this hike, you will slip, and you will get muddy: enjoy it, as it’s a fun experience.
After crossing a series of streams, the trail heads up through the jungle, and beyond the trees are the actual falls. Chances are there will be a number of people around the falls, and in the water; but as I noticed, if you wait long enough, the area will clear, and allow you an unobstructed photo, or a chance to swim in the falls by yourself, which is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. When you’re done, head back down the trail for 1.5 miles of roundtrip hiking; and four miles of roundtrip kayaking back to Wailua Harbor.
Tips: Although you can enter the initial pool/fall at Uluwehi Falls, it is an area that may be contaminated with leptospirosis. While I would assume the risk of infection is fairly low, I am not a trained Doctor; and each party visiting should judge for themselves whether they wish to take this risk. In terms of full disclosure, I entered the pool, swam under the falls, and so did the rest of my group – and all of us were fine. However, everyone should adventure to their comfort level with full knowledge of the facts. Also, be aware that there are occasional rockfalls at the falls; and with all river/stream crossings, parties should use caution during times of rain because of the risk of flash flooding.