Hawaii’s popular Wailua River closed tours on weekends

Kayaking and hiking the Wailua River, one of Kauai’s most popular adventures, is now available only on weekdays. With Sundays already restricted, the state took away Saturdays for commercial tours in November.

Kauai’s only navigable river, the Wailua River, is known for its appearances in Fantasy Island, Outbreak, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. Five-hour guided tours take groups kayaking up the river to a trailhead where visitors can hike to Uluwehi Falls.

Tour operators were given less than two weeks’ notice of the change in November and immediately lost thousands of dollars in revenue from reservations they had to cancel. One vendor estimates there will be a 17% to 20% loss going forward.

“There was no discussion. It was just shoved down our throats like we were little kids. And we are companies,” Micco Godinez told SFGATE. “There were no submissions. We could have talked and timed a bit better instead of right after COVID and just before Christmas.”

Godinez founded Kayak Kauai in 1984 with his brother Chino. The company offers kayaking and snorkeling adventures on the Wailua River and the Napali Coast. They were the first to launch the Wailua kayak tours as an adventure to a “secret” waterfall.

Since then, the competition has grown and the waterfall is no longer a secret. There are now 11 companies licensed to offer commercial kayaking activities on the Wailua River and one water ski company. The overcrowding has caused damage to the trail, disruption to archaeological sites and a sea of ​​kayaks on the water.

“When we get to the North Fork, it’s like a marina. It’s wall-to-wall kayaks, and imagine you have to figure out where to land and then the trail is overwhelmed,” Godinez said. He compares the foot traffic on the trail to Oahu‘s Diamond Head, where you have to wait for the crowds ahead or come down before you can continue.

“I think the state, I think they overdid it in issuing some permits,” he continued. “Nevertheless, the place was overloaded, so I agree with what they are trying to do. My main thing was just the delivery.”

Alan Carpenter, deputy administrator for the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of State Parks, told SFGATE that the “short-term nature is regrettable” and that they would do better in the future.

“I’ve personally seen the impact of increased commercial use, particularly when hiking to Uluwehi Falls,” said Carpenter. “I think we are in a new era exemplified by the new management paradigm at Haena State Park that prioritizes resource conservation and local access as well as mitigating the impact of overtourism on neighboring communities.”

“This was aimed at giving local residents some peace and quiet and to be able to enjoy something without the crowds on the days they can, which are mostly weekends,” Carpenter said.

As a self-proclaimed public land manager who is understaffed and overwhelmed, Carpenter knows tourism is important to the economy. But in the parks built in the 1960s and 1970s, where resources are weak, it has been difficult to adapt to higher tourism capacities.

Although the Saturday change aims to make room for locals, anyone can still go alone – even tourists. But if you’re a resident of a neighboring island or a tourist flying in for a guided tour at the weekend, you’re out of luck.

The only option now is to rent a kayak, strap it to your car and drive to the park where you can access the river and trail on your own.

DLNR informed SFGATE that kayak rentals are available on Saturdays through four kayak companies that have permits for non-guided kayak tours: Outfitters Kauai, Wailua Kayak & Canoe, Wailua Kayak Adventures, and Na Pali Outfitters.

Whether the Saturday change will help, or if visitors will instead be in a mad rush to rent their own kayaks remains to be seen.

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