Wailua River State Park ★★ PARK/HISTORIC SITE—Ancients called the Wailua River “the river of the great sacred spirit.” Seven temples once stood along this 20-mile river, Hawaii’s longest, fed by the some 450 inches of rain that fall annually on Waialeale at the island’s center. The entire district from the river mouth to the summit of Waialeale was once royal land, originally claimed by Puna, a Tahitian priest said to have arrived in one of the first double-hulled voyaging canoes to come to Hawaii.
Cultural highlights include the remains of four major temples; royal birthing stones, used to support female royalty in labor; a stone bell used to announce such births; and the ancient stone carvings known as petroglyphs, found on boulders near the mouth of the Wailua River when currents wash away enough sand. Many sites have Wailua Heritage Trail markers; go to www.wailuaheritagetrail.org for map and details. The Hawaii State Parks website (http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp) also has downloadable brochures on two heiau (temples) that each enclosed an acre of land: Just north of Lydgate Park, next to the mouth of the Wailua River, Hikinaakala Heiau once hosted sunrise ceremonies; its name means “rising of the sun.” Now reduced to its foundation stones, it’s part of a sacred oceanfront complex that also appears to have been a place of refuge (pu‘uhonua). Two miles up Kuamoo Road (Hwy. 580) from the main highway, Poliahu Heiau shares its name with the goddess of snow (admittedly a weather phenomenon more common to the Big Island). The 5 x 5-feet lava rock walls—attributed to menehune, and most likely erected by the 1600s—may have surrounded a luakini, used for human sacrifice. (Please don’t stand on the rock walls, enter the center of the heiau, or leave “offerings,” all of which are considered disrespectful.)
Across the road from Poliahu is an ample parking lot and sidewalk leading to the overlook of 40-foot-wide, 151-foot-tall Opaekaa Falls ★★. Named for the “rolling shrimp” that were once abundant here, this twin cascade glistens under the Makaleha ridge—but don’t be tempted to try to find a way to swim beneath it. The DANGER KEEP OUT signs and wire fencing are there because two hikers fell to their deaths from the steep, slippery hillside in 2006.
You’re allowed to wade at the base of the 100-foot Uluwehi Falls ★★, widely known as Secret Falls, but first you’ll need to paddle a kayak or canoe several miles to the narrow right fork of the Wailua River, and then hike about 30 to 45 minutes on a trail with a stream crossing. Many kayak rental companies offer guided tours here (see “Kayaking”), as does Kamokila Village.
Also part of the state park, but at the end of Maalo Road (Hwy. 583), 4 miles inland from the main highway in Kapaia, is equally scenic Wailua Falls ★. Pictured in the opening credits of Fantasy Island, this double-barreled waterfall drops at least 80 feet (some say 113) into a large pool. Go early to avoid crowds and enjoy the morning light. Note: The state has also installed fencing here to block attempts at a hazardous descent—please don’t risk your life trying to find a way around it.