Horseback Ride Through 300 Acres of Tropical Wilderness at this North Kauaʻi Ranch
The picturesque Silver Falls Ranch is nestled inside an ancient volcanic caldera.
(As of March 2022, the ranch is permanently closed.)
Gray clouds overhead, some drizzle on my skin and a pristine mountain range ahead of me. I feel like I’ve stepped into another world.
In reality, I’m only 4 miles from the center of Kīlauea town on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. I’m with my husband, meandering on horseback through 300 acres of tropical wilderness. The horse I’m riding, Miwacon, a small Appaloosa with dark brown spots, tries to steal a bite of grass as we walk by some shrubs. Our guide, Juan Gomez, tells us the trail is like “an open salad bar” for the horses: They can have a quick bite, he says, but then it’s back to work.
Silver Falls Ranch began horseback riding tours in 1994. The ranch is popular, with 9,500 visitors during a typical year. Donna Hunt, the ranch’s business manager, says many people are drawn to the ranch’s natural swimming hole and waterfall, where guests can swim and enjoy a picnic lunch nearby.
But my husband and I want to see as much of the ranch as we can, so we opt for a private Hawaiian Discovery Ride, a 90-minute adventure entirely on horseback. (The ranch also offers group rides and can accommodate riders as young as 5.) We start the tour at 3:30 p.m. with a quick safety and riding orientation before hitting the trail. We spend the first 20 minutes riding our mounts through the ranch’s botanical garden, which has several hundred plants and spans about 80 acres.
Hunt says the garden is one of the good things that came out of Hurricane ‘Iniki, a Category 4 storm that ravaged the island in 1992. The strong winds and rain ripped up the ranch’s vegetation, which made it easier to create the garden.
We pause at the ranch’s namesake waterfall, Silver Falls, to take some pictures. The 20-foot waterfall gently empties into a natural swimming hole. “Silver Falls” comes from the silver sheen of the falling water when the sun shines on it. We move on after a few minutes, leaving behind the manicured grass of the garden for natural wildland.
The 300-acre ranch is nestled in an ancient caldera that helped create Kaua‘i. As our horses take us deeper inland and toward the ranch’s perimeter, the hard red dirt turns into soggy gray volcanic soil. White bamboo orchids with purple tongues line our path.
Gomez tells us where to direct our horses, so they don’t step in deep mud or walk too close to trees. He also tells us to shift our weight forward or backward in the saddle to help our horses go up and down gentle inclines.
We’re required to keep our horses at least 8 feet apart, which makes the ride a perfect social distancing activity. Masks are only required before we mount the horses and at the end after we dismount.
Gomez is riding Hekili, a large brown horse who drags his feet as he walks over rocks and mud. It’s Hekili’s first day back at work from an extended vacation, Gomez says. The ranch’s motto is “Happy Horses, Tropical Trails,” so its 40 horses regularly get weekslong breaks to roam and graze on fresh grass. Hekili, however, is just back from a three-month break while the ranch
was closed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Our walk on the trail is serene; aside from Gomez’s voice and the horses’ hooves, the only sounds are chirping birds and wind blowing through the trees. Gomez shouts or claps every so often to scare away pheasants that might be hiding in the bush. The horses don’t mind wild pigs, he says, but the pheasants tend to jump out and startle them.
Gomez has worked at Silver Falls for four years and is a wealth of knowledge about the plants, birds and ducks that we pass. “You have everything you need to make a canoe,” he says, gesturing to nearby koa and hala trees. The ranch sits about 350 feet above sea level. “The koa for the canoe. The ‘ōhi‘a for the paddle. The hala for the sail.”
Ahead of us is picturesque Mount Namahana, which translates into “the twins,” but we can also faintly see the peaks of Hīhīmanu, Māmalahoa and Nāmolokama, which frame the island’s iconic Hanalei Bay.
Gomez takes us around the ranch’s perimeter, though, to be honest, it’s hard to keep track of where we are. The ranch has about a dozen trails that weave throughout the property, and guides might take different ones depending on the weather conditions or if they’re leading a private tour in which guests can ride at a faster pace. I have riding experience, so my husband and I were able to trot and canter the horses (think of them as the horse equivalent of a slow and fast jog)—which was a highlight of the private ride.
We cover about 4 or 5 miles during our 90-minute tour, and my legs are tired as we near the end. Trotting on a horse is quite a workout!
Our horses pick up the pace once they know we’re headed back toward the barn, and once there I look down and see that mine still has a few pieces of grass in her mouth from her earlier bites. It makes me smile to see how content she is—and I feel the same way. For those 90 minutes on horseback, the stress and worries of the rest of the world faded away.
Noelle Fujii-Oride is a Kaua‘i-based writer who covers stories on education, travel, clean energy and business.
Silver Falls Ranch Hawaiian Discovery Ride
Daily tour at 3:30 p.m. 90-minute ride. Cost is $104 per rider, $159 for private riders and $214 for private child riders. A 9 a.m. ride is sometimes available. The ranch also offers a two-hour waterfall ride (Silver Falls Ride) and a three-hour waterfall and picnic ride (Tropical Trail Adventure). 2888 Kamo‘okoa Road, Kīlauea. (808) 828-6718, silverfallsranch.com.