Rainbow Falls: Two Hawaiian Natural Wonders At Once
What could make the sight of an 80-foot-high waterfall cascading out of a curtain of lush green jungle into a pool of turquoise water even more eye-popping?
What if there was a rainbow forming out of the mist churned up by the crashing water? To catch a glimpse of precisely this spectacle, groups of locals and visitors alike show up at the viewing platform of Rainbow Falls within the 16-acre Wailuku River State Park outside of Hilo in the early morning. They scope out the best spots to catch the full panorama of waterfall, lava cave, misty pool and surrounding towering trees, dressed against the cold early dawn damp that comes with the higher elevation. Some locals will say 10am on a clear morning is the ideal time, when streaks of sunlight finally breach the tops of the jungle and start to mingle with the waterfall’s endless cloud of mist.
Rainbows form at this intersection, starting from the surface of the water and arcing upward toward the top of the falls. In periods of less rainfall – when the Wailuku River is lower and isn’t sending as much water crashing down – the pool below is calmer and reflects the rainbow on its surface, creating an even more stunning optical illusion. Big Island photographers love this place for all these possibilities, and even casual vacationers shooting on cellphones have managed to catch Rainbow Falls in these ideal conditions, making for truly one-of-a-kind pictures. Tourist guidebooks and hiking blogs will often feature photos of the iconic waterfall complete with rainbow to really show its appeal.
The eons of cascading water have carved out a teardrop-shaped gorge that’s narrow at the foot of the falls and broadens as the waters in the turquoise pool turn into river again and continue their flow to the ocean. Giant, broad-leafed trees line the rim of the gorge, some of them easily taller than the waterfall itself.
To the left of the gorge is a wall of green jungle comprised mainly of an ancient Banyan tree. Banyans are long-lived relatives of the fig, famous for their aerial prop roots that shoot from the ground and spread out into mind-boggling forests of tangled tree trunks. They are hands down one of the most awe-inspiring trees in the world, and rank among the largest. This specimen next to the falls is arguably the largest and most intricate Banyan on the island that’s publicly and easily accessible, so paying it a visit while sightseeing in Wailuku Park is a must for tree lovers.
Beneath and behind Rainbow Falls is a giant cave cut out of the black lava rock which is barely illuminated throughout the day, usually obscured by the rising mist and constant shadow. In ancient Hawaiian mythology, this cave was thought to be the home of Hina, a female deity known as the Goddess of the Moon. In fact, “mahina” – the Hawaiian word for moon – is derived from her name. She’s perhaps best known, however, as the mother of the legendary Hawaiian hero, Maui.
Two magnificent, towering mango trees help shade the waterfall’s viewing platform and adjacent picnic area. There’s a finely mowed lawn of green grass that wraps around the mango tree, and is bordered by a manicured hedge of colorful ornamental ginger, creeping giant-leaf Monstera vines and broad-leafed shrubs. On the opposite side of the parking lot from the viewing area is a clean but basic restroom with some surrounding reader boards offering information about the local history and mythology of the area.
At only 80-feet-high, Rainbow Falls pales in comparison to other behemoths on the Big Island, though, like the 422-foot Akaka Falls found along the Hamakua Coast, or the stunning 1,200-foot Hi’ilawe Waterfall seen from many places within Waipio Valley. But what it lacks in height, it makes up for in majesty: the sight of two iconically Hawaiian natural wonders – waterfalls and rainbows – together in one spot.
How To Get There:
From downtown Hilo, take Wainuenue Avenue up the hill heading toward Hilo Medical Center. Keep right at the fork, which has an arrow for Rainbow Falls. Less than half a mile past the fork, turn right onto Rainbow Drive and continue for roughly one mile until a large parking lot appears on the right ride of the narrow road. The waterfall’s viewing platform can be easily seen from the parking lot, and during periods of normal rainfall the crashing water can be heard immediately upon stepping out of the car.
To the left of the falls is a short trail that winds along the cliffside and takes hikers near the top of the falls for a better view. As of mid-2022, this trail has been closed to hikers due to hazards along the route and a recent drowning death in the river. This is closure isn’t likely to be permanent, so those interested in the hike who are confident they can do it safely should check signs in the area or ask a local.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The Wailuku River area is where 25 percent of the drowning death in the State of Hawaii occur. As a general rule, it’s perfectly safe to go sightseeing in the park to spots like Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots, but it’s not smart to try and swim along the river: there are simply so many better, safer swimming spots around Hilo; primarily: the beach!
Boiling Pots: A Place of Legends
Further upstream from Rainbow Falls is a line of uniquely eroded lava formations – craters in the riverbed at descending heights that empty into one another as the river flows. During rainy reason, when the Wailuku River is running fast and high, these “pots” will fill up completely with water, and the thrashing water bubbling from pot to pot will make the features appear “boiling”.
This spectacle can be seen from Boiling Pots Lookout, which is a scaled-down version of the Rainbow Falls viewing area, where the bubbling lava cauldrons can be seen just below. To the left, looking further upstream, visitors can sometimes see Pe’epe’e Falls (pronounced “peh-eh-peh-eh”), a series of still more, smaller waterfalls that grow and disappear with recent rainfall.
Just like Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots in steeped in myth. A very well-known legend tells of a vengeful lizard called Mo’o who tried to drown Hina, the Moon Goddess, by flooding her cave beneath the falls. Mo’o was thwarted, and Hina’s son Maui chased the beast to the line of lava pools upstream where Mo’o hid. Maui eventually called on Pele – the Volcano Goddess – for help, who gave the hero red hot lava stones to throw in the river. The heat made the pools boil, driving Mo’o away for good and earning the place its name.
How To Get There:
The lava rock formations of Boiling Pots are situated roughly 1.5 miles upstream from Rainbow Falls in a separate section of Wailuku River State Park. From the parking lot for the falls, continue uphill