For travelers like us who seek out unique experiences outdoors, the journey to swim under the iconic Secret Falls in Kauai is definitely a huge part of what makes this half-day activity so much fun. From paddling two miles up a river to sliding around on a muddy trail, this amazing Hawaii adventure will have you feeling like a genuine explorer!
Plus, there’s something special about knowing only visitors willing to take on the river and hike get to see this gem of a place since it is only accessible by the waterway. It really is an amazing experience we highly recommend to anyone who is able to take it on!
As residents of Honolulu over on the island of Oahu, we are always looking for epic day trip ideas for island hopping. On this trip, we knew we wanted to get back over to Kauai to enjoy some time in nature. When I saw that we could pair kayaking up the Wailua River with a waterfall hike, I was instantly sold. However, the low price of a double kayak rental for this 5-hour adventure (under $150!) really sealed the deal.
Our trip was planned for a Monday which worked out perfectly since we realized after some research that tour operators are not allowed to rent out kayaks on the Wailua River on weekends. This time is for the river to rest and the restrictions were put into place due to overtourism. (Read more about this here.)
The more time we spend in Hawaii, the more we understand the importance of limiting the effects of tourism on the land and its people. However, these popular places are still super busy even with the limitations, so keep that in mind!
Our Self-Guided Wailua River Kayaking Trip
There are tours available from multiple local operators that will guide you up the Wailua River and go with you on the hike to Secret Falls. This is ideal for anyone nervous about the trip or who wants to learn more about the area. Although we enjoy some interesting facts, we usually prefer going at our own pace and always try to beat the tourists to our destination.
We went with Wailua Kayak & Canoe for our rental and they have two options for pickup times Monday through Friday: 7:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Since we were flying in at 7:15 a.m., we called to let them know we’d be picking up a little later. They warned us that this would likely limit our time at the falls and we were okay with that to make this day trip plan work!
Luckily, our Southwest flight was early (a miracle, right?) and we were able to get on the water right before the 7:45 a.m. tour group. It helped that the Lihue Airport is only about 15 minutes from where the tour check-in was.
One of the reasons we chose Wailua Kayak & Canoe is because they are close enough to the river to not need to transport the kayak by car. They have a smart process setup where they give you a two-wheel kayak trolley to take down to the Wailua River State Park boat ramp. Then there is a little dropoff nearby where you leave it until you get back and roll it over to return it. It’s a short walk and very easy!
Even though we were paddling quickly to get in front of as many people as possible, it didn’t stop us from taking in the rainforest-lined river and the lovely weather we were blessed with. We even got a little sprinkle of rain just as we were getting a little winded – so much good fortune!
The two-mile route kayaking up Wailua River is VERY easy to follow and the team goes over it with you before you take off on your adventure to Secret Falls. Plus, it is unlikely you’ll be alone out there on the river, so you can always just follow another group or ask for help.
Fun Fact: The Wailua River is Kauai’s largest navigable river and is about 20 miles long in total, starting in the mountains. It has also made appearances in Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.
The Hike to Secret Falls in Kauai
I’m a sucker for any outdoor experience that lets me experience a variety of terrain. So, I was instantly in love with the journey to Secret Falls in Kauai simply because it involved paddling and hiking. But the hike itself through a lush tropical rainforest jungle is an adventure in its own right.
Once we pulled our kayak up on land at the start of the hike to the iconic waterfall, I could feel my excitement build with every step. I knew my shoulders would be super sore the next day from so much paddling, but it would be so worth it!
The hike to Secret Falls in Kauai is only one mile. However, the trail includes sections of slippery mud, tall grass towering over your head, stream crossings, and you even get to scramble up a rocky hill toward the end. However, much of the trail is a great boardwalk that has a non-slip coating that worked very well! It is just narrow, so harder to navigate with people passing by.
You’ll know you are close to Secret Falls when you reach a small stream crossing in front of a little waterfall. This is followed by an area where you’ll need to scramble and climb up a little rocky, muddy hill. However, shortly after this spot you’ll get your first glimpse of the falls through the trees!
Important Note: This is definitely a stunning hike, but there are also many ways you could take a tumble. From stumbling over slippery rocks in the streams to falling off the side of the boardwalk or busting it due to mud. If it has been raining, expect way more mud and way more chances of slipping.
We highly recommend good water shoes to navigate the varied terrain. Flip flops (aka slippers or slides) are a no-go. And you will definitely destroy any sneakers not meant to get wet!
Swimming in Secret Falls!!!
Confession: I wasn’t sure I was actually going to swim under the waterfall. I thought maybe just taking in the views would be enough because being wet for the walk back sounded a little annoying. I don’t know where that occasional voice in my head comes from or who she is, but I’m so glad the gushing water of Secret Falls totally drowned her out!
Once I saw Secret Falls I knew I’d regret it forever if I didn’t take a dip!
I was thankful for my water shoes as I made my way out to the cool freshwater pool lined with large stones. Buddy was by my side with a big smile as we let the rush of the falls pour over us. I’m not sure if it was the cold water or the “oh my gosh, we’re actually under a waterfall!” feeling, but we were joy-filled and invigorated by the experience.
Many people sat along the edges and had picnics before heading back to complete the mile hike to the kayaks and two-mile paddle back up the river. We didn’t linger for too long outside of the water because we knew tour groups would be along very soon, but we spent a long moment taking in the beauty and savoring it.
When we tell people we live in Hawaii, I’m pretty sure they imagine we’re out doing things like swimming under waterfalls daily. Alas, not so much. Even here, “real life” takes over and the to-do lists pile up. Getting to take a day to put all that aside and just enjoy this beautiful place was so very needed and appreciated. It was a good reminder that we should prioritize enjoying our amazing home state even more!
About Secret Falls in Kauai
Of course, Kauai’s Secret Falls is no longer a secret thanks to the internet and social media.
The water dropping down from Secret Falls in Kauai is falling about 120 feet, so it is a beautiful sight to take in – from afar and underneath! Just be careful of your step in the pool and watch out for potential falling rocks. Legend has it that some Hawaii kings would bathe in the cool waters of the pool below. It certainly feels fit for royalty!
Secret Falls is also known locally as Uluwehi Falls, which means “flourishing plants.” This is a fitting name for a waterfall on the Garden Isle. Kauai is known for some amazing waterfalls and nature hikes; this option definitely combines many of the reasons we love this island!
Important Notes for Visiting Secret Falls
If you are planning to do a self-guided or guided tour up Wailua River to Secret Falls, keep these notes in mind:
- This activity is not recommended if you are pregnant or have had recent surgeries or problems with your knees, hips, back, or shoulders. It is not accessible and has challenging sections.
- You could easily go over the allotted time if you are not paying attention or need to go at a slower pace on the paddle and hike. Most places will have a late return fee that can get pretty pricey.
- Many tour operators also offer stand-up paddleboards, but we read these can be extra challenging in high wind. We also liked that going with a double kayak offered some savings, and having four arms paddling got us there pretty quickly!
- Remember, you are going three miles away from help. We don’t suggest you do this activity if you worry you aren’t physically able to take it on or have a health issue that could be problematic in this environment. We passed a helicopter landing area that is used for emergency rescues, but you probably don’t want to get that bill!
- Be sure to bring plenty of water as well as drinks and snacks since you will be away for at least four to five hours.
FAQ for Kayaking Wailua River & Hiking to Secret Falls in Kauai
What should I wear to paddle and hike to Secret Falls?
We recommend wearing a bathing suit and cover-up since there is nowhere to change. Having good shoes to hike in that are meant to be worn in water is key to preventing slipping or ruining your non-water shoes.
Is Kauai’s Secret Falls busy?
Yes, Secret Falls in Kauai gets very busy because it is a tourist destination. Even though it is only open on weekdays, it will likely still be crowded.
If you want to avoid crowds, go as early as possible. When we were leaving, there were dozens of kayaks on the river bank and we passed multiple large groups headed to the falls. Our experience was lovely, but may not have been so great had we been sharing Secret Falls with 100 other people!
How long is the hike to Secret Falls in Kauai?
The hike to Secret Falls in Kauai is only one mile; however, the trail is rocky and muddy with challenging areas. You also have to get there by the Wailua River, usually by kayaking or paddleboarding.
How many miles do you have to paddle on the Wailua River to get to Secret Falls in Kauai?
The paddle to Secret Falls in Kauai on the Wailua River is two miles out and then you also have to paddle back since there are no pickups out there.
Is the Wailua River kayak and hike to Secret falls near the airport?
Yes, Lihue Airport is just a short drive from the check-in for the kayak rental and tour companies near Wailua River State Park.
Is kayaking the Wailua River worth it?
Yes, if you are kayaking the Wailua River to do the hike to Secret Falls, we definitely think it is worth it. The Wailua River on its own is a relaxing place to paddle, but isn’t quite as exciting on its own.
Are there restrooms or facilities at Secret Falls?
No, there are no restrooms on the trail to Secret Falls or along the Wailua River after you leave the entry area at Wailua River State Park.
How hard is it to hike to Secret Falls Kauai?
At one mile, the hike to Secret Falls in Kauai is not very long; however, it is challenging. The varying landscape, often muddy conditions, and need to wade through streams makes this hike not a great fit for some people with physical limitations.
How much does it cost to visit Secret Falls by kayak?
A kayak rental costs about $60-$150 depending on which company you go with and if you get a single, double, or triple kayak. Our double kayak rental with Wailua Kayak & Canoe was only $125 for the entire five-hour rental period. A tour is about $120 per person.
Where is a convenient place to stay near the Wailua River?
Since Kauai is a popular tourist destination, there are tons of accommodation options. Check here for options closest to the river entry and exit for this paddling and hiking adventure to Secret Falls! For anyone who also uses an annual Hilton room credit through their American Express Hilton Honors card, there is a nice Hilton Garden Inn in this area as well.
How long is the paddle and hike to Secret Falls?
The entire journey to and from Secret Falls took us about four hours. We paddled quickly up the Wailua River to make sure we had plenty of time to enjoy the falls and get our kayak rental back in time. It took us about 45 minutes to roll our kayak down to the river and paddle to the river bank where we parked the kayak for the Secret Falls hike. The hike took us about an hour and a half both ways including time at the falls to enjoy the water. On the way back, we took our time and it was about an hour.
We hope you enjoy this journey as much as we did! For more tips for visiting Kauai, read this article with our other favorite activities.