Washed Out

A neighbor and fellow explorer of mine told me about a practically unknown waterfall that he visited recently. It turns out that I had spotted it on Google Earth already, and he confirmed that it was nearly as tall and impressive as Wailua Falls.

It’s called Kaholalele Falls, and it’s practically in our backyard on the north fork of the Wailua River (actually, if you look at the houses nearby in Google Earth below, it is literally in someone else’s back yard). In fact, Wailua Falls and Kaholalele are both just within the Wailua River State Park, on the South Fork and North Fork of the Wailua River, respectively. Here is the view in Google Earth, with my GPS track (click here to open my track in your Google Earth):

So I had been pushing my friend to take me there, but I should know better than to push my luck with the weather. The Wednesday before Christmas was the only free day before my vacation to the mainland, so we went despite a night of moderate rain (only 1/2 an inch at my house). I did consult the online data for the Wailua North Fork stream gauge, and I saw a moderate peak starting to subside. Unfortunately, I did not take into account the fact that the early morning rain had not peaked yet, which you can see on this graph I downloaded later:

Source: USGS

And so, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. On top of the weather, we were trying out a new access (I didn’t say trail) that someone had told my friend about. Before I continue, a little reminder:

WARNING: hiking off-trail and crossing rivers are dangerous activities. Unmaintained use-trails have many hazards including but not limited to: eye-level sticks, slippery mud, drop-offs concealed by vegetation, and rotten wood that looks like a hand or foothold. Rivers can flood quickly to trap you on the other side. Never cross high water (above your thighs), you can be swept away and trapped underwater by rocks or logs. Fresh water, especially flood waters, can carry leptospirosis, a fatal parasite, so do not enter water with open wounds. Waterfalls sometimes carry rocks with fatal consequences. Exercise caution and proceed at your own risk.

The access to the river from the rim of the valley is down a steep gully on the west side of Puu Pilo, the little peak with a water tank in the Wailua Homesteads. Here is the view up from the cul-de-sac, right next to a property that is being developed.
First we slogged through a thick forest of guava…
…then we slid down a steep muddy gully, trying to find a way through the tangle of hau trunks.
We did see trail markers most of the way, but as usual, never rely on them.
We pushed through the dense growth on the riverbank only to find the river running high and full of brown water. With anyone else, I would’ve turned around, but these guys were half-way across the river by the time I had time to think about it.
Once on the other side, we could see from the streambed up to the water tank at the top of the hill (just behind a tree in this photo).

We walked up the other river bank a ways, but in these parts, the river cuts through some vertical cliff. So we waded on some submerged rocks at the foot of the cliff. Then we needed to swim. Before taking the plunge, I took this last photo and hung my backpack on an aerial root. That’s where the GPS track stops in the Google Earth image above.

We climbed back up on some rocks, around another corner and then started wading again. As it got deeper and we tried to swim again, we realized we were on the outside curve of the river, and the current was too strong against us. Progress was just gettting more and more difficult as the river got narrower and stronger closer to the falls, and so we turned back, having gone barely half of the distance along the river. We floated with the current back to my pack and managed to cross the river without falling in.

Here I am, happy to have trudged through the mud, swam up a river, and turned around with out seeing the falls. Climbing up the steep muddy hill was even more difficult than going down, and you have to watch out for the glass and other sharp trash buried in the mud of the ravine. At one point, I was almost caged in by the branches of a hau tree, but most of the time, those branches were crucial to pulling ourselves up—but do watch out for dead and rotten branches that will make you fall.

Printed from: http://great-hikes.com/blog/washed-out/.
© 2020.


  1. Mike says:

    Nice description of a relatively unknown trail, Andy. Thank you. It’s not clear to me, though (my fault) as to what finally stopped you. Not a criticism by any means…but I was trying to visualize. Maybe this is it? I think that you were trying to get to the falls to view from the top…and you were able to finally get across the river, but the “trail” from that point was actually IN the river, with the bluffs on your access side preventing you from traversing on land…but once IN the river the current was too strong…but I’m confused…wouldn’t you be floating WITH the current on your way TO the falls overlook? (in one of your last paragraphs you mention that once abandoning the goal you floated BACK to where the packs were stashed and to the river crossing point. Maybe I’m just confused.

    P.S. As much as I like visiting Kauai and it’s hiking and your descriptions (which are excellent by the way) descriptions such as these make me appreciate the relatively “clean” (no mud, jungle, etc) wonderful canyonland and alpine mountain hiking in my home state of UT even more. Of course, it’s in the 30’s here now and 70’s in Kauai as usual…., so for that I’m envious. Different strokes I guess.

  2. Mike says:

    Edit: Never mind…I think I figured it out….I opened up the google earth, zoomed, and saw that you were pushing upstream to get to the falls from the bottom. So, it must have been the river current, as per your description of the flow in the graph.

  3. Andy Parx says:

    Actually it’s mis labled- it’s Koholalele, the jumping whale in Mary Kewena Pukui’s place name book

  4. CalActive says:

    Great description, thanks!

  5. Matt says:

    Great writing! Today I just found a “path” on state land right next to the Hindu Temple. Unfortunately, it does go to the top of the falls, but it ends at a huge, overgrown cliff. I didn’t try my luck. Maybe we should hack down those bushes until we can view the falls (or until the State puts up more Keep Out signs).

  6. James says:

    I made it to the falls in October of 2019 using approximately the same route you have here. The descent is completely overgrown with guava and hau. I followed pig trails when possible. Some ropes remain at the base but it’s basically a .25 mile crawl/climb through hau down the slope to the river. After that it’s wading/climbing or swimming up the river until you reach the falls. I scraped my shin while climbing along the cliffs (which is the alternative to swimming) and contracted leptospirosis. I was in the hospital for 3 days and I missed my opportunity to backpack Kalalau. Although the waterfall is one of Kauai’s best, I do not recommend this hike unless someone clears the trail or finds a better way down.

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