Kayak Wailua

Kayak Wailua: Easy, All-Ages Explorations of Hawaii’s Only Major Navigable River
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

Paddle the only major navigable river in Hawaii with Kayak Wailua, which combines easy (and lovely) on-the-water touring with a hike to one of Kauai’s most magical waterfalls. Completely beginner-friendly, a paddle with Kayak Wailua eases you into the deep rhythm of the Garden Island.

- The HawaiianIslands.com Local Expert Team

The Wailua River, which partly drains the great cliffs of Mount Wailaleale—one of the wettest places on Earth—is a mighty special stream. It’s the only major navigable river in the Hawaiian Islands, for one thing, and also a liquid highway straight into Kauai’s transcendent beauty.

Kayak Wailua gives you the opportunity to experience that beauty while riding this gentle flow, part of the genuine bloodstream of Kauai. This family-run and operated business offers guided tours up this wonderful drainage, an experience open to just about anybody given the gentleness of the waters.

“Launched” (so to speak) in 1997 as a kayak-rental outfit and expanding into guided tours five years later, Kayak Wailua runs extended, all-ages sightseeing tours that include both on- and off-the-water components.

The paddling, which goes down in single, tandem, and triple kayaks depending on your party, is easy; the greatest challenge comes not from the mild river itself, but from the wind. If you’ve never kayaked before, fear not: Kayak Wailua’s trips are very much beginner-friendly, with clear instruction given at the outset and a mighty forgiving flow in general. 

While making your way in utter tranquility up the Wailua, reflect upon the rich cultural history of this basin, deeply important to Native Hawaiians. The name “Wailua,” by the way, translates to “two waters”: inspired by the confluence of the Wailua and its important tributary, the Opaekea Stream.

If you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of the great Mount Wailaleale itself, though this island-crowning peak—the eroded remnant of the shield volcano that built Kauai—is customarily cloaked in cloud. A globally outstanding rain hotspot, Wailaleale boasts a steep eastern face and gentle shoulders to the west, dropping to the magnificently soggy Alakai Swamp.

The 4.5- to 5-hour outings led by Kayak Wailua include not only the lush loveliness of the Wailua’s riverbanks but also a half-hour hike out to Secret Falls, definitely a spectacular spot. 

Kayak Wailua sets itself apart by offering its customers a changing room and showers—shampoo available free of charge—for rinsing off after your adventure.

The typical group size for a Kayak Wailua tour is two to a dozen paddlers, but the outfitter can make special arrangements for larger private parties. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ll sometimes run into rain on your river trip, but unless it’s an all-out torrential downpour, the company usually doesn’t cancel its tours on account of precipitation. (The typical light rainfall can actually feel really pleasant while paddling your way upriver.)

However many you’re paddling with, this is a great chance to experience firsthand the rare opportunity of “river-running” in Hawaii, the freshwaters of which mostly take the form of plunging, unnavigable whitewater. 

Insider Tip:
Bring along insect repellant—not for the kayaking itself, but for the hike to Secret Falls, which can be “enhanced” by the attentive presence of mosquitoes.