While visiting the Big Island of Hawaii, I really wanted to visit a few waterfalls, but we were staying on the Kohala coast at the Hilton Waikoloa Village and there aren’t waterfalls in that part of the island. Bummer. Luckily we had time for a day trip across the island to Hilo, where there are many waterfalls, including Rainbow Falls, Pe’epe’e Falls, and Wai’ale Falls in the Wailuku River State Park.
We woke up early, ate a fantastic breakfast at the Waikoloa Village Big Island Breakfast Buffet, and hit the road for the long drive across the island, with plans to visit Rainbow Falls first. As we were nearing Hilo, it began to rain. And I’m not talking a little, light rain… I’m talking a torrential downpour. I was so thankful that Brian packed ponchos for all of us! Or at least I would have been thankful if he had remembered to put them in the rental car!
When we arrived at Rainbow Falls and it was still raining, we had a family discussion in the rental car. We could try to track down some umbrellas or ponchos (but who knows how long that would take) or we could just get wet and explore in the rain, making the weather part of our adventure too. Of course, the kids were excited to explore in the rain and thought getting soaked was totally fun.
Rainbow Falls At Wailuku River State Park
Wailuku River State Park in Hilo, Hawaii has three main attractions: Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots fed by Pe’epe’e Falls, which all sit on the on the Wailuku River.
- Rainbow Falls, a majestic 80 foot waterfall that plunges off the cliffs in front of a cave, is known for the colorful rainbows that appear in the mist
- Boiling Pots is a succession of pools whose waters roll and bubble making it appear like it’s boiling.
- Pe’epe’e Falls plunges 60-80 feet into a plunge pool that is surrounded by lava rocks believed to date back to the eruptions of the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes.
In the Hawaiian language, Rainbow Falls is called Waianuenue, which means rainbow water in Hawaiian. The gorgeous Big Island waterfall plunges 80 feet over a cliff in front of a cave and depending on the weather and water flow, can reach a width of 100 feet.
There is a large, wide viewing platform that provides majestic views of Rainbow Falls and the perfect place to snap a few photos.
If you visit this waterfall in the morning and the sun is out, you’ll see why this stunning waterfall is one of Hawaii’s most beautiful waterfalls — incredible rainbows form in the mist of the plunging water. By visiting in the morning, you’ll also be rewarded with very thin crowds! Because Rainbow Falls is easily accessible and right off the road, and because it’s a stop for almost all waterfall tour buses, it gets very busy and very crowded with tourists who want to take selfies in front of the falls.
Once you’ve taken in the views of Rainbow Falls from the viewing platform, follow the trail to the left of the platform up a few dozen rock stairs to a lookout at the top of the falls. It’s a very short walk/hike that is well worth the effort. From the top, you can look over the top of the falls into the plunge pool, see the Wailuku River tumbling downstream around rocks and over the cliff, and then see the river continue to flow out of the plunge pool.
After we snapped a few photos in the rain on the viewing platform, we headed up the stairs to the top of the falls. Because everything was wet, the steps were a bit slippery (and they’re uneven), so if you need it, there are metal hand rails. We grabbed a quick peek over the top of the falls, which I didn’t think was as cool as the actual falls, and then it started to rain even harder!
We took refuge in the lush tropical vegetation, under some giant trees, and found a trail. We were staying semi-dry under the tree canopy, so we decided to follow the trail and do some exploring while waiting for a break in the rain. Carter saw the banyan jungle before we did and started running. Natalie quickly followed, both of them shouting in awe.
The trail led us to a small open area surrounded by the weirdest trees we have ever seen, with one enormous tree in the center that you could go inside! We weren’t sure if we were looking at hundreds of small trees that had clumped together, or one large tree. But as we looked closer, we realized that what we thought were tree trunks were actually roots growing from the branches of the tree down to the ground, and then across the ground to connect to other trees.
Giant Banyan Trees At Rainbow Falls
These amazing trees are called Banyan trees, and the larger they are with hundreds of vertical roots around it, the older the tree is.
Birds disperse the seeds of banyans. When the seeds fall on the branches and stems of other trees and germinate, they grow roots down toward the ground. Over time, the aerial roots grow into grow into thick woody trunks, which, with age, can become indistinguishable from the main trunk. Banyan trees are also called strangler figs because eventually the mesh of roots growing around the host tree strangles it, and the tree dies and decomposes. The banyan then becomes a columnar tree with a hollow central core. Old trees also can spread out laterally using these prop roots to cover a wide area.
We were standing in a banyan jungle above Rainbow Falls — what a fantastic surprise! We actually spent more time playing in and exploring the Banyan Trees than we did standing on the platform looking at Rainbow Falls!
Rainbow Falls And The Hawaiian Goddess Hina
Legend has it that the Hawaiian goddess Hina, goddess of the moon, dwells in the lava cave behind the curtain of Rainbow Falls. Hina is the mother Maui, another demigod in Hawaiian mythology who is best known for lassoing the sun so that he could help his mother dry cloth.
Maui also helped save his mother after a giant lizard named Mo’o Kuna hurled a boulder over the cliff, blocking the entrance to Hina’s cave. Cold water began to rush in as Hina slept. Maui used his club to split the giant rock in two, freeing his mother. The two parts of the great boulder, known as Lonoka’eho, are now overgrown with tropical plants but remain as a reminder of Maui’s strength.
Know Before You Go
- Rainbow Falls in the Wailuku River State Park is located at 2-198 Rainbow Drive, Hilo, Hawaii 96720 off Waiānuenue Avenue just outside downtown Hilo.
- The Rainbow Falls waterfall, along with the Boiling Pots and Pe’epe’e Falls, and Wai’ale Falls are all part of the Hawai’i State Parks and they are free to visit and enjoy.
- Restrooms are available.
- Wailuku River State Park opens at sunrise and closes at dusk.
- The flow of The Big Island’s Rainbow Falls varies dramatically based on recent rainfall and fluctuates from a single stream of water and a wide, heavy, plunging cascade.
- Checking out this waterfall doesn’t require a hike. It can be seen from a viewing platform next to the parking lot and is easily accessible. This also makes it a great stop for tour buses however, so it does get really crowded.
- Be sure you make time to follow the short trail and stone steps to the top of Rainbow Falls for a different view of the falls and plunge pool, a view upstream of the Wailuku River, and access to incredible, giant Banyan trees — if you have kids, they are going to go nuts over the trees!
- Swimming along the Wailuku River can be done at your own risk. The area accounts for almost a quarter of the deaths in Hawaii each year due to flash floods, and unmaintained trails. Climbing down to the water is not advised.
- Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be kept on leash.