About Wailua Falls
From what I could tell, I recalled the opening sequence to the TV show “Fantasy Island” featured this waterfall.
It has a gorgeous double-barreled drop on the South Fork of the Wailua River with a reported height of 170ft (which is higher than the 80ft I think is widely reported in the literature).
Regardless of its height, we think of this waterfall as a drive-to waterfall and definitely worth a look.
In fact, we liked this waterfall so much that it even made our Top 10 List of Hawaiian Waterfalls.
I had read that the top of Wailua Falls is flat, with channels carved into the erosion-resistant pahoehoe lava rock from centuries of water flow, and we noticed hints of this characteristic from the sanctioned roadside lookout.
It was also said that ancestral Hawaiian male warriors tested their bravery by leaping (often to their deaths) from the top of the falls.
These days, the state of Hawaii prohibits accessing both the top and the bottom of Wailua Falls, and while I haven’t seen people scramble to the top of the falls, I have seen many others scramble to the bottom.
That said, people have died scrambling around this waterfall, and we even saw a memorial left by a mother who lost someone here on one of our visits.
What’s Up With The Bottom Of Wailua Falls?
On our first visit to Wailua Falls back in December 2006, we completely overlooked trying to reach the base of the waterfall.
Back then, the practice wasn’t sanctioned, but it also didn’t seem to be as kapu (taboo) back then.
Not surprisingly, the signage wasn’t a strong enough deterrent to stop many people from making the scramble down, including a family who posted a short write-up on this website of their experience with this falls!
Still, for the better part of 15 years, I was always left wondering what it was like down there and how bad the steep scramble was to make it.
In the time since our first visit, I learned that the state had erected fencing to try to make it even harder for people to go down to the bottom of Wailua Falls because they just don’t want you to do it.
That said, during our return visit in November 2021, I saw even more people make the scramble than I recalled seeing on our first visit.
This was despite the infrastructure and stronger language on the signs to keep people from going down there.
I suspect that the liability of slip-and-fall injuries tends to become the burden of the property owner according to the precedent of prior Hawaiian law suit cases.
Furthermore, insurance protection from such law suits are apparently prohibitively expensive.
So who knows what’s going to happen with this particular situation?
“Trail” Description of the Scramble
For the record, I did manage to follow some people down to the base of Wailua Falls on my second time coming here.
Rather than leave you in the dark on what it’s like, I figured I’ll describe my experience so you can get a better sense of the obstacles and the risk you’d be undertaking should you consider disobeying the signs.
From the far southern end of the concrete barricades marking the roadside lookout area, people climbed to the other side of that barricade where the newly-erected fencing began.
Then, they followed the chain-linked fence until there was an opening before a tree and some ripped up fencing.
To the left of the tree was the start of what turned out to be a steep (nearly vertical) scramble over very muddy and slippery roots, where choosing where to step and what to hold onto is very important.
This is the most difficult stretch of the scramble, and it’s the one where I’d imagine that if you’re not familiar with jungle conditions or the hazards of hiking in general, then this is where you can get seriously hurt or killed.
I noticed that some people have tied rope to help facilitate the descent, but they’re not sanctioned, especially since you don’t know when the rope will fail.
At the bottom of this descent, I noticed that there were more rope acting more like guides at a wider and more conventional “trail”.
From here, I continued downhill along this trail, which was moderately steep, until reaching the next dicey part near the bottom of this scramble.
At this second steep and muddy section, there was an eroded slope around a tree where people would either hold onto the roots or use a rope tied to said roots.
Although this sketchy section wasn’t as vertical as the initial part of the scramble, it was still high enough and steep enough to really cause injury with a slip-and-fall.
Finally, after this sketchy section, I then just followed the slippery and rocky terrain towards the edge of the South Fork Wailua River where Wailua Falls can be seen in all its glory.
I noticed that some people managed to scramble along the edge of the river to get all the way behind Wailua Falls, but I was content with the views across its very wide plunge pool.
It only took me about 15-20 minutes in each direction to do this scramble, but it definitely felt longer because of the hazards involved.
After having my fill of Wailua Falls’ base, I then went back up the way I came, but when I returned to the nearly vertical part of the scramble, I had noticed that the “trail” actually continued further to the left of the base of a small cliff.
Following this trail (instead of taking the nearly vertical scramble back up), I traversed a muddy ledge section before the path curved to the right and ascended back up to the state-erected fence.
That was when I noticed that there was a locked gate in the fencing right where this path ended up at, and I wondered to myself whether the state ended up making the Wailua Falls scramble more dangerous with the fencing they erected.
For if the fencing and locked gate wasn’t there, then the path to go down via the way I came back up was actually not that bad, and it would have avoided the dangerous vertical part altogether.
That’s a whole other Pandora’s box of issues to deal with, but you can see the precarious situation that landowners are in thanks to the perverse liability laws or rulings throughout Hawaii (or in the US in general for that matter).
Anyways, I then scrambled along the fence back to the concrete barricade where I then returned to the pavement and back to the parked car.
Wailua Falls resides in Wailua River State Park in the island of Kauai, Hawaii. For information or inquiries about the general area as well as current conditions, you may want to try visiting the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) website.
We’ll pick up the driving directions from the intersection of the Kuhio Hwy (Hwy 56) and the Ahukini Rd (the road linking with the Lihu’e Airport) near the Walmart in Lihu’e.
From the Walmart, we continued driving north on Kuhio Hwy (State Hwy 56) for roughly a half-mile as it descended before turning left onto the signed turnoff for Ma’alo Rd (State Hwy 583) just north of the one-mile post on the mauka or mountain side.
For further reference, this turnoff was 1.4 miles west of the Hwy 51/Hwy 56 junction along Hwy 56 or about 1.8 miles north of the Hwy 58/Hwy 50 junction by the Costco along Hwy 56.
Once on the somewhat narrow two-lane Ma’alo Rd, we then followed it to its end in about 4 miles.
Unfortunately, parking is very limited here, and people tend to make their own parking spaces in informal pullouts or even partially on the road.
Others try to wait patiently for a spot to open up. Either way, this is a popular spot so expect it to be very busy here.
For further geographical context, Lihu’e was about 8 miles (15 minutes drive) south of Kapa’a, 12 miles (20 minutes drive) north of Koloa / Po’ipu, 24 miles (over 30 minutes drive) east of Waimea, and 30 miles (about 45 minutes drive) south of Princeville.
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