The Road Less Traveled Hiking on Kaua`i
The island called Kaua`i — also known as “the Garden Isle” — holds the distinction of being the oldest of all the Hawaiian Islands, estimated to have been formed some five million years ago, give or take a million. That’s important. Why? Because of its age, Kaua`i boasts valleys, mountains and cliffs that aren’t found on most other islands. And compared to O`ahu and Maui, Kaua`i has escaped the brunt of the tourist crunch and retains much of its unspoiled, pristine beauty.
All of that adds up to one thing: Kaua`i is the perfect island for adventurers and hikers alike. Hundreds of trails crisscross the landscape, and outdoors lovers can explore rain forests, swamps, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, ridges and peaks that rise up into the clouds. While an exhaustive list of all Kaua`i’s hiking trails is virtually impossible, here are some of the best and most popular ones on the island.
Why save the best for last? This is considered the hike on Kaua`i. It’s an 11-mile trek along the spectacular Nāpali coastline. Most hikers only do the first two miles, from Ke`e Beach to Hanakāpī`ai. A permit is required to go farther, and the hike becomes more strenuous. In those two miles, however, the views of the sea and Nāpali coast are positively breathtaking. Experienced hikers tackle the entire trail and can spend a maximum of five days, camping in designated areas along the route.
This hike is a long descent — a total of about 2,500 feet in elevation — from Koke`e State Park to a grassy clearing overlooking Nu`alolo and Awa`awapuhi valleys. The 6.2-mile round-trip hike takes three to four hours and boasts some of the most spectacular views of any hike in Hawai`i. The dramatic drop-offs on both sides of the Awa`awapuhi ridge as well as the views of the Nāpali Coast are unforgettable. Keep an eye out for mountain goats clinging to the cliffs as well. If you do one hike on Kaua`i’s west side, this should be it.
One of the best hikes on the North Shore, Okolehao Trail is a five-mile out-and-back hike that offers magnificent views of Hanalei Bay, Hanalei Valley, Mount Makana (also known as “Bali Hai”), Kīlauea Lighthouse and the Nāpali Coast. Along the way, you’ll see some of Kaua`i’s beautiful native flora, including the Hawaiian Ti, wild orchids and the laua`e fern. The way out is uphill — a total rise in elevation of 1,250 feet — so the bench at the top is a welcome respite before you head back. Bring a good hiking stick and some insect repellent, and you’ll enjoy every step of the way.
Hanakāpī`ai Falls Trail
Many hikers who take this trail go only as far as Hanakāpī`ai Beach, but those who then head toward the interior along the Hanakāpī`ai Stream and hike another two miles in (an eight-mile round trip) are rewarded with a view of the impressive 300-foot Hanakāpī`ai Waterfall in the depths of the jungle. It’s classic Hawai`i, just like you’ve seen in pictures.
Otherwise known as the Nounou Mountain Trail, this hike is so named because the ridge formation resembles a gigantic person lying on his back. This trail has an elevation climb of about 1,000 feet, and at the top — the giant’s “head” — you’ll be rewarded with a view of the entire east side of the island, the ocean and a look toward Wai’ale’ale as well. It’s a three-mile round trip; get an early start before it gets too hot.
This two-mile out-and-back trail takes a couple of hours and is one of the easier hikes on Kaua`i. Since the trail is already at elevation, you’ll be treated to scenic views almost immediately. At about the one-mile point, you can take in sweeping views of verdant valleys, Mount Wai’ale’ale and the Makaleha Mountain Range.
Waipo`o Falls Trail
There are many waterfall trails on Kaua`i, but the Waipo`o Falls Trail passes the breathtaking beauty of Waimea Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. The out-and-back trail can be done in about two hours. Although you won’t get the classic head-on view of the waterfalls — the trail actually takes you to the top of the falls — the canyon views are out of this world. The patterns, colors and textures of the rock formations in the 10-mile long, 3,000-foot-deep canyon are as photo-worthy as anything in Hawai`i.
Hiking on Kaua`i isn’t like taking a stroll in your neighborhood park. Much of the island is still wilderness, and although the trails are generally well marked, help may be a long way away if you get into trouble. Taking some simple precautions can make your hike worry-free and something you’ll remember — for all the right reasons — for years to come.
• Have a hiking plan. Always tell someone where you’ll be hiking (name and location of the trail) and when you plan to return.
• Bring plenty of water. Running out of water is the most common mistake made by inexperienced hikers. The simple fact is, you’ll drink much more than you do when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV. Don’t underestimate. Bring about a quart of water for each hour you’ll be on the trail. Instead of waiting until you’re parched and then drinking half the bottle, drink small amounts often. Purify your water if you refill from natural sources.
• Stay energized. Bring high-energy, salty snacks such as nuts, dried fruit, crackers, cereal bars and raisins. And don’t eat everything on the way out. You’ll still need a good reserve of energy on the return trip.
• Dress properly. Wear footwear that fully protects your feet and is already broken in. Dress in layers, wear a hat and sunglasses and use sunscreen.
Yes, Kaua`i has some of the most spectacular beaches in the tropics. So go and enjoy them. Sunbathe, swim, snorkel and build a sandcastle. But there is so much to explore and discover away from the beaches on Kaua`i’s many hiking trails. Tear yourself away, grab a good hiking stick and trek into the Hawaiian wilderness. A mai tai will be waiting when you return. We promise.