It’s estimated that 90 percent of Kauai is inaccessible by road, which makes hiking a great (and only, in some cases) way to see firsthand the island’s lush interior and restricted coastline. From easy historic trails to strenuous, obstacle-laden treks, Kauai has them all. Pack your camera, lace up your shoes and set out on one of these five worthy hiking expeditions.
The famous hike on the island is the Kalalau Trail, which takes trekkers along Kauai’s stunning Na Pali Coast, an oft-photographed stretch of thousand-foot cliffs that’s only accessible to boaters and hikers. The strenuous 11-mile trail on the island’s north shore starts at Keʻe Beach and extends to Kalalau Valley, with postcard vistas and thick jungle along the way. Most people camp at least one night along the trail before returning. Day tripping is possible, too, and hikers often go the first two miles — the easiest part of the trail — to Hanakapi’ai Beach, then return. The more difficult terrain comes beyond Hanakapi’ai on trails that are regularly muddy and slick thanks to the frequent rainfall. The path also crosses some small streams and hovers over steep drops, but the rewards are sublime. If you plan to hike beyond the first two miles or camp, a permit is required and can be obtained through the Hawaii State Parks Division.
Alakai Swamp Trail
North of Waimea Canyon on Kauai’s west side is Koke’e State Park, situated on a plateau 4,200 feet above sea level. The park swirls with hiking trails for all levels. Check out the Alaka’i Swamp Trail. You’ll trudge on dirt paths, across a stream and on boardwalks through a boggy rainforest as you head into Alaka’i Swamp, the world’s highest swampland (it’s drenched by Kauai’s persistent precipitation). The Alaka’i Swamp Trail is 3.5 miles, one way, from Camp Sloggett to the Kilohana overlook, and makes for excellent bird watching and flora and fauna searching. If the coast is clear, literally, you’ll have amazing views from the lookout, too.
Fun for the entire family, the easy-to-hike but not-so-easy-to-pronounce Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is a scenic two-mile stretch of undeveloped yet accessible coastline on the south shore near Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. The journey (beginning at Shipwreck Beach) begs you to stop and soak in the sun, relax in the sand dunes and tide pools, run through tall grass and kiawe trees and admire the views of brilliantly hued turquoise water and tucked-away beaches from rocky cliffs. The name Maha’ulepu is a nod to a legendary battle that occurred in the 1300s when a Big Island ruler attempted, unsuccessfully, to take over Kauai via Maha’ulepu Bay. Despite a small trek along the Hyatt’s golf course, the idyllic coastline hasn’t been conquered by too much commercialism and much remains as picture perfect as it has been for centuries.
The 2.5-mile Kukui Trail will take you into Waimea Canyon, a popular tourist site and that looks like a smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. You will be treated to views of the red rock walls, an occasional intrepid goat or two and Waialae Falls tucked into a crevice in the distance. The trail drops 2,000 feet into the canyon and winds back up, or you could follow the Waimea River at the bottom of the canyon back to Waimea town and the ocean. The Kukui Trail starts along highway 550, just beyond the eight-mile marker. Camping in the canyon is by permit only.
Nounou Kuamoo Trail
Because the mountain resembles the profile of a giant asleep on its back, the Nounou Kuamoo Trail is a popular hike well known by its more whimsical moniker, Sleeping Giant Trail. To find it, start at the Nounou West Trail, found along Kamalu Road in the town of Kapa’a between mile markers two and three. The trail is about fives mile round trip. Ascend a mostly shaded path through groves of pines, and after about a quarter mile, meet up with the Nounou Kuamoo Trail. Continue to climb for sweeping views of the Wailua River Valley, Kauai’s interior and the coastline.
Photos courtesy of Kimberley Lovato