Year-round, even when the winter surf is up, Hanalei River remains gentle and placid for those who want to safely explore Kauai’s waterways. The palm tree-lined river forms on the slopes of Mount Waialeale—one the wettest spots on earth—and edges up against Hanalei town, where there are numerous surf shops with stand-up paddleboards (SUP) available for rent, and lets out into crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay. Most paddling on the river is confined to the lower mile that winds along the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge and the small-scale farms where more than half of Hawaii’s taro is grown before emptying into the bay. Gliding along Hanalei’s shock green taro fields and waterfall-drenched mountain peaks, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time to Old Hawaii.
Hanalei River is Hawaii’s only American Heritage River, a recognition that rewards the local community’s ongoing efforts to protect the 16-mile river’s environmental, economic, cultural and historic value. The river plays an important role in irrigating the taro crops that carpet much of Hanalei. It’s also a beautiful, prime location for both experienced and beginner paddlers. Lessons and guided tours are offered by several local companies, such as Kayak Hanalei, Hanalei Surf School and Hawaiian Surfing Adventures, all with storefronts in Hanalei town or at the river mouth. You can also rent equipment and explore the river at your own pace.
Paddlers typically begin their adventure in the shallow waters where the river meets the bay, which means you’ll be fighting the current during the first leg of your journey. You’ll paddle under the historic, one-lane Hanalei Bridge that is the only passageway in and out of Hanalei town and the farthest reaches of Kauai’s north shore. Along the way, you’ll encounter trees full of coconuts, a river bank teeming with hibiscus flowers, threatened and endangered wildlife, such as the nene, or Hawaiian goose, and a deep sense of solitude that comes from spending time surrounded by nature. There are no sounds of modernity here, only bird songs and the distant roar of the surf.
Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the most effective core strengthening water workouts. It’s also an ancient Hawaiian sport. The earliest Polynesian surfboards were large and wooden. As such, it was common for surfers to stand upright on the board while using a large paddle to propel themselves out into the waves. In the late-1930s, Duke Kahanamoku, one of the forefathers of modern Hawaiian surfing, famously surfed the waves of Waikiki on an SUP. While it takes strength and balance to master the art of stand-up paddleboarding, it’s not difficult to grasp the basics of the sport in a single afternoon. For those weary of falling off of the board into the water, keep in mind that it’s possible to paddle while seated, virtually eliminating the risk of getting wet. When you decide to turn back toward the bay, the river will help push you toward the ocean, making for an easier paddle.
Most of the river is unshaded, so it’s wise to wear a protective hat and sunscreen. Budget about two hours for your paddling adventure, which may take longer or shorter depending on how deep into the island’s interior you decide to go.