Hiking to Makaleha Falls

With my mom at Great Grandpa’s in Bamboo, NC.

Born in northeastern Maryland, the eldest son of emigrants from western North Carolina, trekking came naturally to me. Before I started school, many days were spent in the woods and on farms surrounding our house, as well as playing in and hiking along the nearby creeks. By the time I started first grade, I knew the names of every living thing in those woods and creeks. Since we often visited my parents birthplaces, I learned a great deal from short hikes over portions of the Appalachian Trail, and at 14 years of age, ran up the U.S. Forest Service Road to the lookout tower on Fisher’s Peak (3,580 feet/1,091 meters).

Years later, I also hiked the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, half of the Wildwood Trail in Portland, Oregon, and a short stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail near Mount Hood. As a volunteer at the Hoyt Arboretum, southern terminus of the Wildwood Trail, I learned the flora and fauna while conducting tours on weekends, and by helping with trail maintenance and eradication of invasive species.

Since retiring to the Garden Isle, I have enjoyed many hikes, and look forward to many, many more. To date, the hike along (and in) the stream to Makaleha Falls is the most spectacular I’ve experienced, and the name of the mountains, the falls and stream,  maka·leha – to gaze in wonder, ranks it among the most aptly named features on the island. The stream itself derives from three springs, two atop a western ridge and one to the north near Poohaku Pili (2,592 feet/790 meters).

Lantana hedge and triple waterfalls
Falls viewed over the hedge in the western ridge

Hiking to the lower tier of these two- and three-tiered waterfalls is difficult because the trail, such as it is, is user maintained—as you get nearer to the falls the trail becomes vague or as Andrew Doughty says in The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, “wretched.” Prepare yourself to rock hop and at least get your feet wet—I hike in running shoes, some hike in water shoes, and still others wear some seriously expensive boots. This hike begins in the ruts of the perimeter road around two private water tanks at the end of Kahuna Road. Follow the road around two sides where it breaks to the right. Less than a quarter mile in, the road ends and the fun begins where the bunny path dumps you in the stream, just below the remnants of a washed out concrete dam. Cross the stream here into a lush bamboo grove.

rocks in a stream
First crossing below a washed-out dam
bamboo grove
Entering the bamboo groves

The inviting trail immediately to the right also dumps you in the stream and you could rock hop your way up and back onto the embankment, but that’s a bit dicey as well as being a little more treacherous on the trek out. It’s better to take the scenic route dead ahead, which turns right and up a steep embankment away from the stream and deeper into the groves. Although the trail is narrow it offers some spectacular views and eventually brings you back down to the stream. This way also tends to be a little drier than the “shortcut” (more than once, I recalled that the easy way out usually leads back in).

Orchids, fern, bamboo
Orchids nestled among the bamboo
steep path through bamboo groves
Returning to the path by the stream.

The path along the left stream bank is undulating, but more open than the bunny trail through the bamboo groves. Eventually, this too dumped me in the stream, across from a little island in the stream. I rock hopped my way to the island, but couldn’t tell which way to go the first time—the trail leads off both ways—and the crossing to the right looked easier. Now I know to ignore that because it too leads both upstream and downstream and is an absolutely horrid route, which forced me to cross the stream in deeper water, only to discover the nice trail that I should have taken to the left of the island.

Imagine my surprise when even the good trail ended in the stream. So, after crossing, I entered an enduring maze of Hau Trees (hibiscus tillaceus), some of which I went over and some were easier to go under. This is a common experience on the best trails here because these invasive, viny trees are everywhere. Ultimately, this mossy path eased into, wait for it, bamboo groves! Shortly afterward, it dumped me in the stream, where I easily hopped into the bamboo groves on the other side, and that was the last of the distinguishable trail.

three forks of Makaleha Stream
Convergence of streams and end of trail

First, I rock hopped my way upstream to the right in search of the two-tiered waterfall. Because the trail is nondescript from the convergence of the streams, I simply did my best to read which side of the stream yielded the longest passage, followed by an easy way to crossover to the other side, and discovered a few more recently etched trails around otherwise impassable portions of the stream. The longest of paths was the last one on the right which again, started in a bamboo grove, then passed through a small banana grove before returning to the stream below the falls.

sunlit gorge
Narrow gorge to the north falls
two-tiered waterfall
Spectacular! Well worth the wait.

After thoroughly taking in this rushing miracle, I hurried down stream over the rocks and paths to find the falls from the south and middle fork. While hopping upstream didn’t require many crossings, there was yet another island to traverse, yet there were no paths skirting obstacles. The further upstream I went, the more difficult the course until I eventually had to duck down an unlikely side stream which proved to be the way to go.

impassible boulders upstream
Here, I ducked down a stream on my left.
tall waterfall
Rushing Splendor

12 thoughts on “Hiking to Makaleha Falls

  1. Jim and I went for a walk our first morning on Kauai last January that turned into a trek ha ha. We were looking for the way down to Queen’s Bath. There is an easy way off of a side street, or the adventurous way down a “path” behind some condos. A resident pointed out the path to us, probably hoping to lose a couple of tourists in there ha ha, but we made it down with only one set of soaked sneakers (Jim’s!).

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    1. No, not really. My greatest fear was not getting to see the falls, which was the outcome of my first two attempts. On my first attempt, I only made it as far as the first island in the stream, chiefly because I only gave myself two hours for what is a four hour hike for most people. For me, four hours was only enough time to make it the convergence of the streams. Nearly one month after my first attempt, I made it in 7 hours.

      Nevertheless, younger people make it in much less time.


  2. What a wonderful first post! I love hiking and hearing your description and seeing the pictures makes me feel like I’m there. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just gorgeous! The bamboo section looks so peaceful and the waterfalls are spectacular. Thanks for sharing


  4. Love the pictures. With my sense of direction I would get lost rather quickly. Do they have search and rescue teams over there? Not too long ago we had 3 people who got lost when they went canoeing at a county park. They wound up spending the night out in the swamp, lots of mosquito bites. Sheriff’s office eventually found them the next day.


    1. Thank you. Many people lack a sense of direction, but the best advice my dad ever gave me was, “If you’re lost in the woods and you come to a river or stream, go downstream because you will always find civilization somewhere downstream.” That’s as true here as it is in the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Cascades, or the Alps. (Oh those poor people overnighting in the swamp in a canoe.)


  5. My husband and I will be there in a couple months. We’re staying at a place on Kahuna Rd and plan to make this hike at least twice. Great post and pics detailing the hike! Just one question….is the last waterfall what you find if you take the left-most stream at the fork where there are three streams converging? TIA for your help!


    1. Yes, I believe the left (or south) and middle streams converge before they get down to the falls I photographed. By the way, congratulations on choosing a place to stay because you won’t need to drive at all to make this hike. Also see Andrew Doughty’s “The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook” for more detailed directions.


    1. Thank you. As we are in the rainy season now, the falls are spectacular (most days they’re clearly visible from our house). However… 1) All of the green obstacles are much taller; 2) Makaleha Stream is rushing, so crossings are more hazardous; 3) Heavy flooding in recent years has rearranged many of the boulders in and near the stream and so altered the landscape that it’s hardly recognizable.

      That said, the first crossing remains just downstream from an old washed out dam, and when you cross into that bamboo forest head upstream and the next crossing is still to an island in the stream. Continue upstream and off the left side of the island where you’ll find the trail again. Beyond that nothing is all that familiar except there being no shortage of Hau Trees “bent” on impeding you.

      Oh, almost forgot, the mud; plenty of it.


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