Hiking on Kauai

Kalalau Trail, Kauai
Kalalau Trail, Kauai. Credit: Michael Utech/Getty Images

Adventurous types of visitors are fining their way to the island of Kauai to experience more physically demanding and exciting types of activities including hiking.

Already known by repeat visitors for its excellent hiking opportunities, today many first time visitors are making their way to Kauai with a primary goal to experience some of the island's excellent hikes.

Guide or No Guide?

Too many hikers feel that they don't need the expertise of an experienced guide to fully "experience" a hike. Too many times a year, island authorities have to go out searching for some of these hikers. Not all of those hikers have a happy ending to their day.

Hiking is an adventurous aspect of Kauai eco-tourism, and no less so when you go with a guide. A guide doesn't walk and climb for you; a guide gives your journey a context in history, geology, botany, biology, and local lore of Kauai, and in this way enhances your understanding of the island. The guide is there to make sure that the group makes the right decisions, including whether to go on or turn back if bad weather sets in.

The best of the hiking tours encourage participants to meld with the environment, whether the tours are in the remote mountain parks or at the shoreline, conducted one-on-one or with a small group. Guide or no guide? I think the answer is clear.

While there is no end of trails to explore on Kauai, there are four areas of particular note: the Na Pali Coast (after the road ends at Ke‘e Beach on the north shore), Koke'e State Park (past Waimea Canyon, at the other end of the road) and the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail and the 10-mile Koloa Heritage Trail, both on the island's south shore.

Let's take a look at each of these.

Na Pali Coast Hike to Hanakapi'ai Beach

The Na Pali Coast hike begins at the end of the road on the north shore, near Ke'e Beach. If you're a moderate to seasoned hiker, you can follow the first leg of the ancient Kalalau Trail to magnificent Hanakapi'ai Beach, two miles from the trail-head. This trail is said to date back over 1,000 years. The initial ascent at Ke'e Beach is steep and rocky. If it is raining or has recently rained it can be very slippery. Hikers need to wear proper shoes, bring a walking stick and plenty of water.

Hanakapi'ai Beach is gorgeous to behold but treacherous, and inland is a 300-foot waterfall. The trail, with sections that can narrow to under a foot wide, has vistas looking out over 1,000-foot drops to the ocean. It is magnificent but not easy and gets tougher as it continues the rest of the 11 miles into Kalalau Valley.

Permits are required to go beyond Hanakapi'ai Beach and can be obtained from the Division of State Parks in Lihu'e.

Napali Coast Hike - Kalalau Trail

While Hanakapi'ai is usually manageable as a self-guided hike, the longer Kalalau trail is usually an overnight expedition, for advanced hikers only, and is best attempted with a local outfitter.

As you walk along this coastline, you will have wild, rugged cliffs on one side, extending sharply upward, and on the other, a scalloped edge of land that includes sea caves and lava arches, desolate coves and sparkling beaches.

In the winter and early spring, you can often see whales in the coastal waters, and in the summer there may be hardy kayakers, making their own island pilgrimage with a local outfitter.

Koke'e State Park and Waimea Canyon

Koke'e State Park, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, is a hiker's paradise - a misty forest crisscrossed by more than forty miles of footpaths for all hiking levels. The 20-square-mile highland bog known as Alaka'i Swamp is home to the state's only native land mammal, the hoary bat, and features a boardwalk throughout for comfortable hiking, as well as to protect the rare plants.

If you’re a less-seasoned hiker, there’s a walk you can take to Waimea Canyon's spectacular Waipo'o Falls through red torch gingers and yellow orchids. The trails of Koke'e and Waimea Canyon are in the same region, yet differ markedly in nature, the former being lush highland forest and the latter an arid landscape of purple and red canyons.

The Koke'e Museum, operated by the non-profit Hui o Laka, is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day of the year, and with a knowledgeable staff and volunteers, is available to assist park visitors with information on trail and weather conditions.

Maha'ulepu and Koloa Heritage Trails

Kauai's southern coastline includes the popular Po'ipu Beach and an archaeologically and culturally rich stretch of often rugged and rocky shoreline from Keoneloa Bay (also known as Shipwreck's) to Kawailoa Bay, known as the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail.

Along this trail hikers will pass the Heiau Ho'oulu i'a ("fishing temple") and the Makauwahi Sinkhole. There are also sixty-seven documented petroglyphs - many of which are often covered by sand. However, north of the beach is a large petroglyph boulder containing two cup-like carvings at the top. Paleo-ecological and archaeological excavations of the sinkhole have put its age at 10,000 years and have revealed the remains of some 45 species of bird life. A reforestation program is now in place to replant indigenous species and help bring back this environment to its pre-human condition.

The trail-head of the Maha'ulepu trail, four miles round-trip, is one of 14 markers on the Koloa Heritage Trail, which winds in and out of Koloa village and its historically rich plantation sites: 13th-century lava rock walls, churches and Buddhist temples, and Koloa Landing, at one time the third-largest whaling port in Hawaii.

More Information on Hiking Hawaii

For more information on hiking in Hawaii, check out our feature on the Top 10 Hawaii Hiking Books. There are three series of books that offer excellent guides to hiking in Hawaii - the Trailblazer series by Jerry and Janine Sprout, the Day Hikes series by Robert Stone and Hawaii Trails series written by Kathy Morey.