The Mountains and Waterfalls of Hanalei

The mountains and waterfalls of Hanalei on Kauai in Hawaii.

Hanalei is cradled in the vast arms of three storybook mountains. Many things come together to give Hanalei such a magical sense of place, and these waterfall laden mountains set the stage. They are an impossibly dramatic curtain wrapping the town with a powerful vision of the ‘aina, the land, that strikes awe in anyone who sees it.

Nāmolokama soars almost a mile high over the south head of the valley, its sheer black and green cliffs threaded with dozens of waterfalls springing magically from the mountain top. The two sharp points of Hīhīmanu reach above broad koa canopies to top the knife-edged ridge to the east. To the west, the waterfall-laced pyramid of Māmalahoa boldly faces the ocean with the curved mouth of a stream entering the bay at its feet. Each mountain adds its own chapter to the story of Hanalei.


Nāmolokama mountain rises over 4400 feet above Hanalei just three miles from the beach. The mountain is so massive it can be hard to get a sense of scale even when tiny gnat-like helicopters drift past the cliffs. So, I put this picture together to help put it in perspective:

Nāmolokama puts the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge and Eiffel Tower in perspective.

I included my other two favorite mountains, Mt. Tamalpais near my home in Marin County and the prominence of the Matterhorn in my ancestral Switzerland…but I wish I hadn’t, because now they seem so small! Just look at the tiny Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. Wow.

Nāmolokama means variously ‘untwisted bundles’ or ‘interwoven strands’ referring to the dozens of waterfalls that cascade thousands of feet down the cliff faces.

Try counting the Nāmolokama waterfalls after a good rain. Photo Source: Koa Kahili of Garden Island Chocolate.

Notice how the waterfalls seem to pour right off the top of the mountain, especially the large central waterfall of the continuously flowing Wai’oli (‘happy water’) Stream. That impossible cascade is the most striking feature of Nāmolokama. It happens thanks to a large anvil-shaped plateau that’s tipped slightly forward and stretches almost a mile across and two miles back from the face of the mountain.

Google Earth is about the only way to see Nāmolokama’s plateau.

Since Nāmolokama is located only a few miles from the wettest spot on earth — Mount Wai’ale’ale (‘ripping water’) — the impermeable lava layers of the mountaintop plateau gather abundant Pacific rain and keep the waterfalls flowing above Hanalei. Isolated by Nāmolokama’s soaring cliffs, we can’t see the pristine plateau from below, so it looks like the magical water is flowing right out of the sky.

It’s not surprising that this mountain plays a prominent role in Hawaiian mythology, as described by Daniel Harrington in his Hawaiian Encyclopedia:

The first rainbow came to the Hawaiian Islands when the god Kāne threw a piece of kapa (tapa) barkcloth into a pool below Nāmolokama’s precipitous waterfall. This happened after Ānuenue, the goddess of rainbows (ānuenue means ‘rainbow’), hid on Kaua’i while calling to the god Kāne through her dreams.

When Kāne arrived at the Wai’oli rivermouth he met several women falsely claiming to be Ānuenue, and each woman gave him a piece of colored kapa cloth.

Finally Kāne reached the pool at the base of the waterfall where he threw all the kapa pieces into the water. There the kapa pieces joined together to form the first rainbow, and it was then that Ānuenue rose up from the water.


The razor-edged ridge buttressing Nāmolokama to the east is topped by the sharp twin peaks of Hīhīmanu (‘manta ray’) rising up 2487’ from the rich taro fields and broad Hanalei River below. The hillsides and valleys have been farmed by Hawaiians since at least the 13th century, and are rich with “canoe plants” like taro, ti and hala that the Polynesians brought with them on their epic oceanic voyages.

Hīhīmanu from the east with Nāmolokama in the background. Photo by Hawai’i Life Real Estate for one of their amazing Princeville listings.

In ancient times this abundance supported thousands of Hawaiians. Today the taro fields and surrounding national wildlife refuge are nearly empty, with mild-mannered endangered nene geese generally outnumbering the people. Only 250 people live in Hanalei Town year-round, and very few of the thousands of daily tourist visitors make the drive out to the challenging Okolehao Trail (‘moonshine’ or ‘iron bottom’ referring to the iron stills used to make it). The path requires dozens of guide ropes to sketch a steep path to a stunning vista half-way to Hīhīmanu before the mountain ridge becomes truly treacherous.

Hīhīmanu overlooking Hanalei and Hale Naninoa.


Reaching out towards the sea from Nāmolokama’s west flank is the three-mile-long Makaihuwa’a ridge, its end punctuated by the giant mountain pyramid of Māmalahoa towering 3745 feet above the beach where Waioli Stream enters Hanalei Bay. The sharp peak lacks a broad plateau to catch water and thus needs active rain to power its dozen waterfalls, but all it takes is one of the abundant small showers to stir the main thousand-foot waterfall carved into the pyramid’s northern face.

Māmalahoa rising over Hanalei Bay, etched by waterfalls.

I’m fascinated by the intertwining stories and names of Makaihuwa’a ridge and Māmalahoa mountain. They are said to be the location of the first lighthouse in the Hawaiian Islands, with a platform built halfway up the mountain by the mythical dwarvish Menehune to hold large torches to guide fishermen safely back to Hanalei each night. The literal translation of Makaihuwa’a is ‘eyes (maka) of the prow (ihu) of the canoe (wa’a),’ but some dictionaries define the word’s meaning as ‘ocean phosphorescence at night,’ which is a beautiful metaphor for light guiding fishermen home.

The name of Māmalahoa has a more complicated history. Some believe it comes from the “Kānāwai Māmalahoe” or “Law of the Splintered Paddle” which dates to 1797 during the reign of King Kamehameha I, the famed ruler who first united the islands. The story goes that Kamehameha was stung by defeat in battle near Hilo and so he set out for revenge by attacking a nearby peaceful village of commoners or or makaʻāinana (‘the people who are the face of the land”). Spotting some fishermen and their families near the shore, he leapt from his canoe and chased after them, spear in hand, only to get his leg stuck in a lava crevasse. While their families fled, two fishermen turned to face the enormous warrior king, and one of them struck him with a heavy paddle, splintering it over his head and knocking him unconscious but sparing his life.

Awakening surprised to be alive, Kamehameha drew a lesson from his humiliation, declaring it was wrong for him to attack innocent people and that instead as a good ruler he had a responsibility to protect them. Years later he called the two fishermen before him, pardoning them and awarding them land, declaring his famous law:

Oh my people,
Honor thy gods;
respect alike the rights of people both great and humble;
See to it that every elderly person, woman and child
Is free to go forth and to rest by the roadside
Without fear of harm.
Break this law, and die.

To this day, his law is enshrined in Article 9, Section 10 of Hawai’i’s state constitution, “Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety.” And soon, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will bring the story to life in his upcoming King Kamehameha movie!

So it’s a great story…but it probably has nothing to do with the name of Māmalahoa, which is an ancient name that far predates Kamehameha’s reign. More likely, the conquering and politically clever Kamehameha encouraged this re-writing of the name’s origin story to reinforce his reign.

From a historical perspective, the mountain is probably named for mythical Māmalahoa, wife of Kāne, the supreme god of Kaua’i who appeared in the earlier story of the first rainbow. The word māmalahoa is also used in ancient chants to describe a strong ‘awa or kava drink formerly used in religious ceremonies and perhaps derived from plants grown in the area.

Māmalahoa above Hanalei Pier with Makaihuwa’a ridge and Nāmolokama extending back to the left. From Wikipedia.

But I have a slightly different theory, which is that the name Māmalahoa means “striking war-club,” referring to the shark-tooth shape of the long ridge and large mountain extending out to the bay. Ironically, this interpretation is partly supported by the kaona (“hidden meaning”) of Māmalahoa according to the history of the Hilo chapter of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.

In a many-layered place like Hanalei, perhaps all these stories are true.