Set right about midway along Kauai’s Coconut Coast (east shore), Wailua Beach features a dramatic clash: outflow from the Wailua River vs. the breaking Pacific surf.
Running northward from the mouth of the Wailua—Hawaii’s only navigable river—as a subtle, roughly half-mile crescent, Wailua Beach is accessed from a parking lot just north of the river bridge. The more-popular Lydgate Beach Park lies to the south on the other side of the river mouth. Wailua Beach is often uncrowded, though more often than not you’ll see surfers, bodyboarders, and kite surfers playing in the breakers.
This is typically a breezy beach: This is the windward coast of Kauai, after all! The prevailing trade winds help drive the inshore ocean currents that erode the fringing reef backing much of this stretch of seashore. Sediments eroded from the reef have been deposited to form calcareous beaches—that is, beaches composed of minute skeletal fragments of coralline algae, molluscs, and other marine life.
Wailua Beach is a good example. It’s part of a miles-long belt of calcareous sands stretching between Nukolii and Kapaa beaches.
Along with the sand itself, you’ll likely find quite a bit of driftwood to negotiate as you stroll Wailua Beach. Not really a surprise, given the river mouth here. The meeting of the Wailua River’s reddish freshwater flow and the surf makes for a cool show in and of itself. A sandbar built by the nearshore ocean currents is regularly carved through by the river.
For a variety of reasons, this beach isn’t really a swimming beach. Not to say that some folks don’t go wading and soaking here when conditions are calm, but conditions really aren’t calm very often.
There’s a break in the fringing reef offshore here, and the surf can be rough—especially in winter. Hefty shore breaks and the regular occurrence of rip currents off Wailua Beach make a dip here a risky proposition. (Frank Sinatra famously got caught in a rip current off Wailua Beach in 1964 while filming None But the Brave.) There aren’t any lifeguards at Wailua Beach, to boot.
Besides the treacherous surf and currents, snorkeling isn’t recommended at Wailua Beach on account the water’s often murky thanks to outflow from the river.
But even if you aren’t getting in the water, it’s a treat to watch the surfers and bodyboarders ride the waves. And, of course, if you’re of the surfing persuasion, you may be doing some wave-riding here yourself. Just practice caution and know your abilities.
Although you can hear the highway on Wailua Beach, you can’t see it, and as we’ve said you’ll usually find plenty of elbow room on the sands. If you want better (and lifeguarded) swimming and more facilities, steer your way south to Lydgate Beach Park. But Wailua Beach is worth checking out to explore more of the river mouth, to watch the surfing, and generally beat the crowds.
When water levels are low, petroglyphs – or prehistoric rock carvings – can be seen on rocks in the Wailua River mouth.