Wailua Falls

Puna District / Wailua River State Park, Hawaii, USA

About Wailua Falls


Hiking Distance: roadside; about 1/2-mile to 3/4-mile round trip (to base)
Suggested Time: about 1 hour (to base)

Date first visited: 2006-12-23
Date last visited: 2021-11-18

Waterfall Latitude: 22.03449
Waterfall Longitude: -159.37844

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

Wailua Falls (not to be confused with the same named falls in Maui) is one of the most easily-accessible yet beautiful waterfalls on Kaua’i.

From what I could tell, I recalled the opening sequence to the TV show “Fantasy Island” featured this waterfall.

Wailua_Falls_001_12232006 - Wailua Falls
Wailua Falls

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.

Wailua_Falls_018_11182021 - Context of the roadside overlook for Wailua Falls at the end of the Ma'alo Road
Context of the roadside overlook for Wailua Falls at the end of the Ma’alo Road

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.

Wailua_Falls_010_11182021 - Satisfying early afternoon view of Wailua Falls with a rainbow in its mist as seen from the sanctioned roadside lookout
Satisfying early afternoon view of Wailua Falls with a rainbow in its mist as seen from the sanctioned roadside lookout

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.

Wailua_Falls_100_11182021 - Fencing and a locked gate trying to keep people from accessing the base of Wailua Falls
Fencing and a locked gate trying to keep people from accessing the base of Wailua Falls

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.

Wailua_Falls_020_11182021 - Another look at the context of the fencing and end of the concrete barricade at the far southern end of the Wailua Falls Lookout area
Another look at the context of the fencing and end of the concrete barricade at the far southern end of the Wailua Falls Lookout area

This apparent perversion of responsibilities ultimately result in places like these becoming closed to the public over time (e.g. Sacred Falls, Upper Puohokamoa Falls, Kipu Falls, and more).

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.

Wailua_Falls_021_11182021 - Context of where people scrambled back up after having gone to the base of Wailua Falls
Context of where people scrambled back up after having gone to the base of Wailua Falls

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.

Wailua_Falls_026_11182021 - Just to give you an idea of how steep and dangerous the initial vertical part of the scramble was, this woman was watching each step while holding onto roots
Just to give you an idea of how steep and dangerous the initial vertical part of the scramble was, this woman was watching each step while holding onto roots

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.

Wailua_Falls_078_11182021 - This shot is looking back at the second sketchy (i.e. muddy, slippery, and steep, especially when wet) section of the Wailua Falls scramble, which was at the end of the fairly benign 'trail'
This shot is looking back at the second sketchy (i.e. muddy, slippery, and steep, especially when wet) section of the Wailua Falls scramble, which was at the end of the fairly benign ‘trail’

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.

Wailua_Falls_054_11182021 - The view at the bottom of Wailua Falls with an early afternoon rainbow (with a hint of a secondary rainbow) showing up just above the South Fork Wailua River
The view at the bottom of Wailua Falls with an early afternoon rainbow (with a hint of a secondary rainbow) showing up just above the South Fork Wailua River

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.

Wailua_Falls_094_11182021 - Compared to the near-vertical scramble that most people ended up taking, this alternate path was way less steeper, and it led to the locked gate in the chain-linked fence
Compared to the near-vertical scramble that most people ended up taking, this alternate path was way less steeper, and it led to the locked gate in the chain-linked fence

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.

Authorities

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.

Wailua_Falls_006_11182021 - When we returned to Wailua Falls in November 2021, it was very busy at the end of the Ma'alo Road
Wailua_Falls_001_11182021 - We had parked somewhere near the far side of the state-erected fence where I noticed this sign trying to keep people from going to the bottom of Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_003_11182021 - I found it interesting that there was this gate in the middle of the fencing trying to keep people away from going to the bottom of Wailua Falls. Interestingly, I found out later that this gate would have led to the easiest way to get to the bottom of Wailua Falls as it would have bypassed the nearly vertical initial part of the scramble
Wailua_Falls_008_11182021 - The familiar partial view of Wailua Falls and early afternoon rainbow from the sanctioned roadside lookout
Wailua_Falls_023_11182021 - Initially, the descent didn't seem so bad, but soon after getting through these branches, the scramble went vertical pretty fast
Wailua_Falls_029_11182021 - Once I got down from the dangerous vertical part of the scramble, I noticed these ropes that seemed to act more as guides than something to hold onto for balance
Wailua_Falls_030_11182021 - Following the rope along the somewhat wide and benign part of the trail leading to the bottom of Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_035_11182021 - The Wailua Falls 'Trail' moderately descending further into the jungle over somewhat rocky and slippery terrain, which would be quite difficult when wet and muddy
Wailua_Falls_038_11182021 - At the end of the 'benign' part of the Wailua Falls Trail, I then encountered a second steep and sketchy descent. Even though this part wasn't as vertical as earlier on, it was still something that required a good deal of care and proper risk assessment
Wailua_Falls_079_11182021 - Another look back at the steepness of the second sketchy part of the scramble down to the base of Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_044_11182021 - Finally making it to the bottom of Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_049_11182021 - Checking out the faint double rainbow at the base of Wailua Falls in the early afternoon
Wailua_Falls_051_11182021 - Polarized look at the base of Wailua Falls. Notice the white specs in the shade behind the left plunge of the waterfall, which was actually one of the people who managed to scramble back there
Wailua_Falls_047_11182021 - Broader contextual look at the Wailua Falls, its wide plunge pool, and the rainbow to its right
Wailua_Falls_057_11182021 - Portrait view of the entirety of Wailua Falls at its base
Wailua_Falls_059_11182021 - Another look at the context of the Wailua Falls and double rainbow with some people in the shadows to the lower left of the picture for a sense of scale
Wailua_Falls_061_11182021 - Focused look at the entire double-barreled plunge of Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_067_11182021 - Semi-long-exposed shot of Wailua Falls from its base with rainbow off to the lower right
Wailua_Falls_069_11182021 - Context of someone cooling off in the Wailua River before the Wailua Falls and its faint double rainbow
Wailua_Falls_074_11182021 - One last look back at Wailua Falls as other people showed up
Wailua_Falls_060_11182021 - After having my fill of Wailua Falls from its base, it was time to head back up to the road
Wailua_Falls_080_11182021 - Going back up the lower sketchy scrambling part on my way back from Wailua Falls
Wailua_Falls_083_11182021 - Continuing to climb up the rooty and rocky 'benign' part of the Wailua Falls 'Trail' after going up the lower sketchy section
Wailua_Falls_085_11182021 - Continuing up the moderately steep 'benign' part of the Wailua Falls scramble on my way back up to the Ma'alo Road
Wailua_Falls_090_11182021 - Evaluating whether I should go back up the sketchy nearly vertical part of the Wailua Falls scramble
Wailua_Falls_091_11182021 - Instead, I followed this muddy ledge at the base of this small cliff, which actually led me to a far less vertical and much more benign trail-of-use leading back up to the locked gate in the middle of the state-erected fence barricade
Wailua_Falls_093_11182021 - Looking back at the muddy ledge that I just went through to avoid the nearly vertical part of the scramble. I suspect that if it wasn't for the fence being erected, this would have been the preferred way to go
Wailua_Falls_095_11182021 - Ascending to the backside of the locked gate in the middle of the state-erected fence. Again, had that fence not been there, then this would have been the more sane way to get down to Wailua Falls instead of the nearly vertical way that most people went
Wailua_Falls_097_11182021 - Following the fencing back to the concrete barricade
Wailua_Falls_098_11182021 - Almost back at the end of the fencing and start of the concrete barricade
Wailua_Falls_102_11182021 - Returning to our parked car where Julie and Tahia were waiting for me
Wailua_Falls_009_12232006 - Overlook of the Wailua Falls as we saw it in December 2006. Perhaps this photo depicts best of how much of a drive-to waterfall it was back then as it is now
Wailua_Falls_024_12232006 - Closer look at Wailua Falls when we first came here in late December 2006


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.

Wailua_Falls_002_iPhone_11182021 - Driving north on the Ma'alo Road (State Hwy 583) towards Wailua Falls
Driving north on the Ma’alo Road (State Hwy 583) towards Wailua Falls

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.

Wailua_Falls_002_11182021 - The parking situation at Wailua Falls at the end of the Ma'alo Road can be tense so many people try to carve out a makeshift parking space on the road's narrow shoulders
The parking situation at Wailua Falls at the end of the Ma’alo Road can be tense so many people try to carve out a makeshift parking space on the road’s narrow shoulders

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.

Find A Place To Stay



Booking.com

Right to left sweep from the roadside lookout for the falls with early afternoon rainbow


Downstream to upstream sweep from the bottom of Wailua Falls with nice arvo rainbow and some people behind the falls as well as in the river in front of me

Trip Planning Resources


Nearby Accommodations




Booking.com


Tagged with: puna, wailua river, kauai, hawaii, waterfall, fantasy island, lihue



Visitor Comments:

Got something you'd like to share or say to keep the conversation going? Feel free to leave a comment below...

Wailua Falls – Saving Other Families from the Heart Ache That her Family Experienced: February 5, 2010 3:10 pm by Jackie Winkler Class - My husband and I rented a car and drove to the end of every road we could find on four (4) Hawaiian Islands. We found a wonderful surprise on each path we took! On Kauai, we found the beautiful Wailua Falls. The dangers of actually climbing down the jagged rock face and getting to the… ...Read More

Share your thoughts about what you've read on this page

You must be logged in to submit content. Refresh this page after you have logged in.

Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

If you have a waterfall story or write-up that you'd like to share, feel free to click the button below and fill out the form...

Wailua Falls, Kauai October 8, 2008 2:04 pm by Peggy - I loved Wailua Falls. We hiked to the bottom and swam in the gigantic pool. We got such beautiful pictures of our family. The hike was not well marked and very steep. We did not take the route that people have died on. The book Kauai Revealed told us of another trail head to take.… ...Read More

Have you been to a waterfall? Submit a write-up/review and share your experiences or impressions

Review A Waterfall

Nearest Waterfalls

The Waterfaller Newsletter

The Waterfaller Newsletter is where we curate the wealth of information on the World of Waterfalls website and deliver it to you in bite-sized chunks in your email inbox. You'll also get exclusive content like...

  • Waterfall Wednesdays
  • Insider Tips
  • User-submitted Waterfall Write-up of the Month
  • and the latest news and updates both within the website as well as around the wonderful world of waterfalls


The Process of How I Earn Income Sharing My Passion Through Lived Experiences

Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.