Hiking on Kauai is both challenging and rewarding. Kauai’s lush beauty is due to the amount of rainfall the island gets each year. This amount of rainfall causes rapid growth of plants and vines and muddy slippery trails. That is part of the challenge. The rewards are awesome vistas and lush tropical greenery that are not seen by many people. (Highway lookouts are great but only offer so much of a view).
When hiking on Kauai,the trails are too numerous to mention each one, so I have decided to only list sixteen of the trails that many people consider to be the best. Most of the trails are located in Koke’e State Park. If you are hiking on Kauai and taking a Koke’e State Park trail, I suggest stopping in the Koke’e State Park store and buy an inexpensive trail guide. You don’t want to get lost while on your vacation.
1. The Kalalau Trail
When hiking on Kauai, the Kalalau Trail is the “Granddaddy of hiking trails”. This is one of the most beautiful but difficult trails in Kauai. The eleven mile trek on way (22 miles round-trip) cannot be done in one day. Most people take three to five days for this journey into paradise. If you choose to do this entire hike, permits are required. The Kalalau Trail was originally constructed in the late 1800’s and portions were rebuilt in the 1930’s. This trail is the only land access to the Na’pali coast and the valleys that lie beneath the Na’pali cliffs. You will hike through numerous valleys, waterfalls, sea caves and most of all the most beautiful vistas you will probably ever see. The trailhead starts near the end of the road at Ke’e beach and ends at Kalalau beach. This is the trail where the movie “A Perfect Getaway” was filmed.
2. Hanakapi’ai Trail
This trail is also the beginning of the Kalalau Trail. This portion of the trail is two miles one way. The trail crosses a river and ends at Hanakapi’ai beach. Along the trail, there is a fork that takes you another two miles inland to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Hanakapi’ai Falls is a very nice side trip if you are not already too tired. The trailhead begins at Ke’e Beach and ends at Hanakapi’ai Beach. The moderate to difficult hike is four miles roundtrip, or eight miles roundtrip if you include the side trip to the falls. This trail is just the beginning of the Kalalau Trail but is offers fantastic vistas of the Na'Pali Coast and beautiful ocean views along the way. A nice “taste of the much longer and difficult Kalalau Trail.
3. Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
For an easy hike when hiking on Kauai, check this one out. This is an easy two mile hike along the ancient coastline on the southern shores of Kauai. This is a great coastal hike that starts at shipwreck beach in front of The Grand Hyatt and continues along the shoreline to Maha’ulepu Beach. Along the way you will pass fascinating sand dunes, petroglyphs, rugged sea cliffs, secluded coves, tide pools, native plants and sculpted lava formations. There are a lot of great photo opportunities on this beautiful ocean hike. Remember this is on the south side of the island and the sun gets really hot there. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
4. Makaleha Falls Trail
If you are hiking on Kauai and want to see a waterfall, this trail is a waterfall trail on the eastern side of the island. The trail is about 3 miles roundtrip and can be difficult. You must cross the stream a few times and at times you must walk in the stream. The trail disappears and then reappears from time to time. The trail continues as you meander through thick lush vegetation on the way to the falls. As you near the falls, the views are jaw dropping. This hike is tough but the rewards (views) are very awesome. You should park at the end of Kahuna Rd. After you pass the water tank the trailhead begins. The trail follows along the stream and is not marked very well. Some people choose to walk right in the stream for that reason. If you are on the trail and no longer hear the stream, you are probably off course. Take plenty of water, good shoes and mosquito repellant when hiking on Kauai.
5. Kuilau Trail
For impressive views when hiking on Kauai, try Kuilau Trail. This trail begins near Wailua's Keahua Arboretum at the center of the island. You can find parking toward the end of kuamo'o road. This old road turned trail gently guides you up 760 feet to a glorious view of the Makaleha Mountains. At the beginning of the path you'll catch glimpses of Kawaikini and Mt. Wai’ale’ale, the wettest place on earth, to the west. The Makaleha Mountains are to the north. There are lots of native plants and trees such as guava and the Hala tree. At roughly the one mile point is an excellent spot to take a break. This grassy plateau with impressive views offers a picnic table and a forest of ohia trees which often produce a bright red blooms. The panoramas extend west across the lush hillsides of shrubs, vines and trees, and beautiful valleys and Mount Wai’ale’ale. The trail picks up to the east and descends slightly into a narrow, twisting ridge with lush, tropical greenery. After a quick ascent you'll be treated to a lovely view of Nounou Mountain (Sleeping Giant). Further down the trail you will come to a wooden footbridge which crosses the Opaeka'a Stream. A junction lies up ahead and you need to take the left fork into a grouping of eucalyptuses and ferns. Just ahead is a beautiful view of Kapehua'ala, the highest peak of the Makaleha Mountains.
6. Nounou Trail
When hiking on Kauai, you may want to see the Sleeping Giant up close. The Nounou Mountain (Sleeping Giant) Trail is actually two trails, the east trail and the west trail. Both start in Wailua and provide a path for exploration within the Nounou Forest Reserve, leading hikers all the way up to the top of the "Sleeping Giant."
The Nounou Trail-East is a 1.75 mile hike (one way) that starts off of Halelilio Road in Wailua. This is a very clearly marked trail that climbs 1,000 feet above sea level and treats hikers to gorgeous views of the coastal areas of Kapa’a, Makahela Mountain, and Mt. Wai’ale’ale. The east trail is the most direct way to the top of Sleeping Giant. Trail-goers will take part in a moderately strenuous ascent through groves of guava trees, wild liliko’i (or passion fruit, vines, and bushy lantana. The trail can be muddy and steep as you traverse the volcanic rocks. The east trail meets up with the west 1.5 miles inland. The Nounou Trail-West is a little shorter and climbs a bit faster than the eastern trail. This trail starts off at Kumalu Rd. Hikers choosing this route will find themselves tucked in the forest for a majority of the hike, passing through a large grove of Norfolk Pines on their way to the top. Just as you enter the Norfolk Pine forest, you will come to a fork with the Kuamo'o Trail. Here is where you will turn left and continue your ascent. The view from the top is amazing and arguably the best place for a picnic on the whole island.
7. Awa’awapuhi Trail
This trail is located in Koke’e State Park. The trailhead starts at the parking area at mile marker 17. The trail is downhill but considered difficult due to the incline on the way back up. You will descend from 4120 feet to 2500 feet. The trail can become muddy if there has been recent rainfall. This trail is not lush and green like others. There are native crub brush and a few varieties of flowering plants and ferns. This hike is taken for the views at the end of the trail. The views from the pali (cliff) are majestic and cannot be explained. 2500 feet below are the lush green Nu’alolo Valley, Awa’awapuhi Valley and the Pacific Ocean. The view of the Cathedral like jagged Na’Pali cliffs are awe inspiring. Wildlife seen on this hike include a variety of birds, chickens, mountain goats, and you can occasionally spot a wild boar.
8. Alakai Swamp Trail
When hiking on Kauai, consider a swamp trail. This hike begins about one quarter mile north of the Na’Pali Kona Forest Reserve entrance in Koke’e State Park. The trail is 3.5 miles and has an elevation gain of 329 feet. This trail is considered difficult. This hike takes you through misty bogs in the rainforest heading toward the ultimate goal, Kilohana Lookout, on the edge of Wainiha Pali, 4000 feet above the ocean. If you are lucky and it is a clear day, your view will include Wainiha and Hanalei Valleys. The view of Hanalei Valley is unforgettable. Look closely and you can see Hanalei Bay, Kilauea lighthouse and dozens of waterfalls throughout the pali. Part of this trail through the bog areas are now a boardwalk. The boardwalk still becomes wet, muddy and slippery, so please be careful.
9. Kukui Trail
When hiking on Kauai, why not hike down Waimea Canyon. This is another Koke’e State Park trail on Waimea Canyon’s west side. The Trail is difficult and drops 2,000 feet to the canyon floor. The hike is about two miles of switchbacks to the canyon floor. You will get views of distant valleys, the Waialae Falls plunging over distant cliffs and the Waimea Canyon to the east. You will hike through forests of kukui trees, silk oaks, ohia trees, koa trees and lantana. Passion vines grow throughout the trees. This is a great hike to the bottom, but you may not want to climb 2 miles back up. If you can arrange for a ride, you can follow the Waimea river to the ocean and walk to Waimea town and get picked up there. If you choose to go part way, there is a great lookout at the one mile marker.
10. Pihea Trail
This is another trail in the Koke’e State Park. The trail starts at Pu’u O Kila Lookout at the end of highway 550. This trail intersects with the Alikai Swamp Trail. When you reach the Pihea Overlook, you will be at the highest point on the rim of the Kalalau Valley. Views down the 4,000 foot mossy cliffs into the ocean and views of the lush Kalalau Valley are awesome. The trail follows along a stream and can get slippery. There are areas where the trail has some boardwalks through the muddy areas.
11. Honopu Ridge Trail
This trail is 5 miles roundtrip. It is a very difficult trail due to the fact that it hasn’t been maintained since hurricane Iniki. The trailhead starts about one quarter mile before the Kalalau lookout. This trail is divided into three parts. The first section is a dense forested area with very little views due to the tree cover. The second part offers spectacular panoramic views of the valleys below. If you take this trail, it is easy to follow the wrong forks in the trail. Look for pink and orange ribbons along the trail left by other hikers to guide the way. The third section of the trail is not recommended due to the fact the ridge is only 2-3 feet wide in areas with sheer dropoffs on either side. This hike will give you incredible views of Honopu Valley and portions of Na’Pali coastline. Wear long pants because the brush and ferns can really hurt your legs.
12. Canyon Trail
There is nothing better when hiking on Kauai than to hike to a waterfall. Another Koke’e State Park Trail, but this one leads to a waterfall. Drive up Koke’e Road to the Pu’u Hina lookout, a quarter mile past the lookout is a dirt road that leads to the Waipo’o Falls Trailhead. This is a relatively easy trail that winds it’s way through a jungle that is not clearly marked. You will reach a descending ridge that stretches deep into the canyon. At the end of the ridge take a left and keep walking through the lush jungle to Waipo’o Falls. Go ahead, take a dip in the pool below the falls, you deserve it. Make sure to bring your camera for some great waterfall pictures as well as wild orchids and torch ginger you will see along the trail.
13. Nualolo Trail
This is another trail in the Koke’e State Park that is a 3.8 mile difficult trail with a 1566 foot elevation gain. To find the trailhead, park at the Koke’e Natural History Museum and walk south a few yards to the trailhead. As you begin your hike you will ascend amoung Koa trees and Guava trees. After about two miles of hiking through the rainforest, you will reach a drier climate with different vegetation (low lying scrub brush). Just past the 3 mile marker the trail intersects with the Nualolo Cliff Trail. If you are lucky and it is a clear day, you will get a magnificent view of the islands of Ni’ihau and Lehua. Continue on to the Nu'alolo Vista Point where the view of Nu’alolo Valley is awesome. You can continue back the way you cam or take the Nu’alolo Cliff Trail for a roundtrip loop of 9.8 miles.
14. Nu’alolo Cliff Trail
This Koke’e State Park Trail is a 2.1 mile moderate hike with a 780 foot elevation gain. To reach this trailhead, you must meet it from the Awa’apuhi Trail at the 3 mile point or from the Nu’alolo Trail at the 3.25 mile point. For the experienced hiker this is one of the most breathtaking and at times heart pounding hikes in Kauai. The trail reaches the “cliff portion” for about a quarter of a mile. This is the area where at points you will be hiking right at the edge fo a sheer cliff. Although this area is passable, EXTREME CAUTION must be taken by only truly experienced hikers. The views along this trail of the Valleys, canyons and ocean below are magnificent. RECOMMENDED ONLY TO EXPERIENCED HIKERS.
15. Kalepa Ridge Trail
This trail is not an official trail and there are also bike riders and motorcycle riders on the trail. This hike will take you along the ridge between Honopu Valley and Kalalau Valley. The views are incredible. The entire trail is 6 miles roundtrip and a moderate hike. To reach this trail, take highway 56 toward Lihue, about a half mile from a stoplight you will turn right onto Hulei Road. Follow Hulei Road to the crossroad, turn onto the crossroad and follow it one half mile to the trailhead. This trail gets very hot and the trail has lots of forks, so it is hard to know which one is the correct trail. I suggest only taking this trail with a guide.
16. Lydgate Beach Bike Path
When hiking on Kauai don't forget the kids. I listed this hike (walk) for the families that want to take the kids on a hike. This is a very easy 2.5 mile path at Lydgate Beach Park that is a perfect hike for the whole family. The path is paved and is used for walking, biking and skating. This path circles Lydgate Beach Park and follows along the beach heading north. At the end of the park it turns back around. There are some really nice ocean views on a great family walk.
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