People across the world are lured to Hana if for nothing else than its wealth of waterfalls.
The Road to Hana—a spellbindingly gorgeous highway that takes travelers over more than 50 bridges and around 600 curves—boasts over 18 waterfalls within a mere 54 miles.
Some waterfalls require some serious trekking to discover; others—like Upper Waikani Falls—seem generously positioned for visitors who are keen on soaking up Hana’s beauty.
Located just beyond Mile Marker 19 on the mauka—or mountain side—of Hana Highway, Upper Waikani Falls is often referred to as Three Bears, thanks to the three separate but parallel falls of differing lengths—with the third and smallest being the “baby bear” falls on the right.
But don’t let the idea of a baby bear waterfall fool you: Upper Waikani Falls cascades from a height of seventy feet to Wailua Nui Stream down below, its splash alone compelling drivers from around the globe to stop and snap a pic—and leading to its designation as one of the most popular waterfalls in the Hawaiian Islands.
Most visitors, however, choose to view Upper Waikani Falls from the comfort of their cars or the lip of the bridge above it, in large part because of the dearth of parking. Should you be up for an adventure, don’t let the tightly packed cars fool you—approximately a tenth of a mile ahead, you’ll find additional spaces to pull in. Tread carefully as you walk towards the bridge—the Road to Hana is narrow by nature, and slims near these falls. AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: Don't park if it blocks through traffic.
Underneath the bridge on the makai—or ocean side—of Hana Highway, you’ll find a moderate trail that will lead to the fall’s crystalline waters. The steep start is admittedly a touch of a challenge—with the southwest side being your best bet—but the path levels off for easy hiking (with just a touch of some rock scrambling). Meander as you wish—the jungle here is nothing short of lush and seductive. While the surplus of water and the area’s surrounding foliage is largely dependent on rainfall and irrigation matters, the fertile greenery will doubtlessly enchant no matter the time of year.
Part of the foliage that surrounds the falls is red torch ginger—a glossy-petaled perennial that’s prevalent throughout Hawaii. As with most of Hana’s natural wonders, this brand of ginger seems otherworldly, with some stems stretching up to fifteen feet towards the sky. Ti, croton, and ferns, including the native hapu’u—a historically significant, velvety plant that was commercially used in the 1800s to stuff pillows—grow in great abundance throughout as well. Indeed, this is impressive territory on an already impressive, even magnificent road—so magnificent, in fact, that Bill Clinton named Hana Highway a Millennium Legacy Trail in 2000.
Consider the area surrounding Upper Waikani Falls a huge contributing factor to the President’s decision: The photogenic falls rest in the Wailua Valley—an island region often tossed into the Hana bag but a distinct section of East Maui that possesses a rich history all its own.
Small but thriving with flora and fauna, the area is an ahupua’a—an ancient form of land division that often runs from mountain crest to shoreline. This particular ahupua’a once boasted taro, or kalo, which served as a chief staple for Hawaiians (and can be found today in poi), as well as culturally-critical fish and plant life. So revered was this tiny territory, in fact, that it was left undisturbed in one of the darkest battles Hana saw before Maui was united. Rumor has it that it was also here that Captain Cook anchored Resolution on his second voyage to the “Sandwich Islands.”
Today, the region remains largely untouched, with much of its acreage showcasing the profusion of tropical forest for which Hana is famous. And it’s no wonder the spot is so verdant: Wailua Valley receives between 100 and 300 inches of rainfall per year, rendering it one of the wettest places on the island and dramatically altering Upper Waikani Falls in the damper seasons. Then, those three bears converge to form a deluge of epic proportions, and give rise to its translation from Hawaiian as “roaring water.”
At the base of the pool, you’ll find a number of both small and large boulders—the perfect place to stash your stuff while you swim and the ideal spot to stretch out in the sun. As with all bodies of water throughout Hawaii, step with caution and swim with care—moss may put you at risk of slipping, while flash floods hit the region.
Happen to be visiting during winter? Chances are the falls will be shrouded in a misty rain. Before bemoaning its cloaking qualities, consider its roots in Hawaiian mythology: According to local legend, the demigod Maui was the first soul to discover the beauty of Hana, and became so enamored with its splendor that he named his daughter—Noenoe Ua Kea O Hana—after the area’s delicate rain. Relish it, and then plunge under the water at the falls. The temperature may be low, but the rush you’ll feel will most certainly be high.
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