If Kauai wasn’t known as the Garden Isle, it should be called the Hiking Trail Isle (although this wouldn’t be as catchy). There is a wealth of incredible trails weaving through the landscape, allowing you to appreciate the stunning Island from many different perspectives. Not to mention getting some pretty decent exercise and fresh air to boot!
With so many easily accessible hikes, for all levels of ability, there is no excuse not to put down that iPad, grab your hiking boots, and hit the trail!
In this post I’ll talk about three different hikes which we’ve really enjoyed doing (perhaps “enjoyed” isn’t the right word for my night time trek back on the Kalalau Trail in the rain… but more on that later 😳). Read on for my recommendations..
Wai Koa Loop Trail
Starting point: Anaina Hou Community Park
This is a fun hike which starts at the Anaina House Community Park, you can read about here
There’s also a really cool 18-hole mini golf course which you can do before or after the trail. The course weaves through the botanical gardens, with various information signs describing the botanical and cultural history of the islands and settlers. Well worth a peruse while you’re waiting your turn! All the proceeds from the golf and shop etc support their mission and services (see above)
Back to the trail….
Before setting off, you’ll need to go to the desk in the gift shop area to sign a waiver (as the hike is on private property), then you’re good to go. The first part of the hike winds up hill through the trees and into the Kilauea Forest.. not too steep but just to be aware it’s not a completely flat route. Then into the mahogany planation itself. Row upon row of straight, evenly spaced trees reminds you that this is very much a man-made woodland. These mahogany trees are endangered in their native areas of Central and South America – but happily seem to be doing well here!
The trail then takes you out to open grassland, with some fantastic views of the Namahana Mountains. There’s a sign which points out the mountain ranges you should be able to see from here (I’m not sure I ever decided which one was supposed to look like a stingray!).
The half way point of the trail takes you to the historic Stone Dam (built in the 1880’s to support the Kilauea Sugarcane Plantation), via a downhill path to the right. It’s very impressive when you turn a corner and suddenly see this incredible dam, set in a lush green landscape. Another hidden gem! There were some local women bathing in the water past the dam, but there are signs warning against this, as the water could be contaminated. It doesn’t look very inviting for a swim to me..
When you’ve finished taking pictures and exploring, head back to the grassland and continue straight along the common ground back to the “junction”. Then take the same path back through the mahogany trees and the forest to arrive at Anaina Hou.
There was a lot more to this hike than I expected from reading about it online. It’s a good length and the dam area is really impressive. It also take you through some very different terrain and environments in a relatively short space of time. I definitely recommend this and the mini golf for a fun afternoon on the island!
The Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain), East Trail
Distance: 4 miles round trip
Starting point: Top of Haleilo Road near the water pump station (NB: this is where the East Trail starts. There are three different trails which vary in difficulty)
So called because the ridge of the mountain (if you squint a bit!) resembles the profile of a giant in repose. One of the Hawaiian legends is that the giant was apparently tricked by villagers into eating sleep-inducing rocks hidden in fish and poi. And he still hasn’t woken up. I still feel like that after the trip back to the Netherlands from Hawaii!
We were able to park right next to the trail head, and it didn’t actually seem that busy, given it was the peak Christmas season.
The East Trail of the Giant is the least steep, but has the most elevation gain. It’s hard work in some parts, but completely do-able for anyone of a reasonable fitness level. There are a couple of bits where you need to scramble up a rocky section to continue.
The trail up the mountain is easy to follow and affords incredible views of the East shore of the island. I am not good with heights (large sweeping expanses etc), but there was only one spot where I wavered, and that was actually on my way back down. Just to be aware if you’re bad with heights there are a couple of tricky spots, but the views are worth it!
Our guide book warned us of a trail after the 1/2 mile stake, which veers off to the left of the main trail, and would apparently be one of the more dangerous detours if you took a wrong turn! I thought the trail was well signed, but admittedly, I also have a good navigator with me. If I was on my own I’d probably end up on the side of the mountain 😐
The official trail ends when you finally climb to the flat area with a covered picnic table, with stunning views across the Wailua Valley and beyond. It’s a perfect place to take some photos and have some refreshments before the descent back.
It’s important to note that while the official trail ends as pictured above, there is another path which continues (precariously) up to the giant’s “face”, across the neck, where the views are apparently spectacular. If you research other travel sites/blogs and guidebooks, there are mixed views on it.
For me, it was a no-brainer to stay at the picnic area because of my fear of heights and cliffs. However, we saw other hikers happily taking the narrow path further up (and encouraging us to do so). Some people advise only doing this part if you are very brave/foolish or have very good insurance! Some advise not to risk it at all. It’s an incredibly narrow path with huge drops of 100s of feet either side. So I’ll leave that one up to you!
Hanakapiai Trail (part of the Kalalau Trail)
Distance: 4 mile round trip
Starting point: Where the road ends (Hwy 560) @ Kee Beach (there should be a parking spot if you’re lucky and/or it’s later in the afternoon).
The Kalalau Trail is apparently the most famous in Hawaii, and runs the 11 miles to Kalalau Beach. The first part of it, which is an incredible hike in itself, ends at Hanakapiai beach.
Let me start by saying that this hike is not easy – and there are parts which can be very slippery and where you really have to watch your footing – which are worse if it’s raining. The trail is set high up into the cliff, so there are obviously long drops down on one side. In the daylight it’s mostly OK, but just be aware if you have problems with heights like me 🙋. As before, the spectacular views make it worth the challenge!
I actually didn’t even realise how high and how sheer the drop offs were until I saw the trail from afar in a helicopter! (you can read about my Jack Harter helicopter trip here).
The first mile is mostly uphill, with some slippery sections where you have to take it slowly. We saw another hiker (coming back towards us) lose his footing, slide downhill and fall backwards, almost over the edge of the trail – which could have been a lot worse than it was!
The second mile to the beach is mostly downhill, involving some steep paths, and a couple of stream crossings. It takes around 1.5 hours to get down to the beach if you’re going at a steady pace.
Of course the steep downhill sections mean some tough uphill sections on the way back!
We started the hike late afternoon/early evening in order to get some beautiful sunset views – and, just as with the last time we did this hike, we weren’t disappointed.
We probably left it a little too late in the day, as for the last quarter of the hike, we were in twilight, and then mostly darkness…then it started raining.. (note to self: this is not the ideal time to be on slippery trails along a cliff). With some trepidation on my part (i.e. being petrified and clinging onto the cliff wall while trying not to slip or tread on any frogs), a headlight, and my very calm hiking companion, we made it back to tell the tale.
If you only have time to do one hike while on Kauai – this is the one. And if you’re very adventurous and have more time, the full Kalalau trail must be awesome. Perhaps I’ll attempt that on a future trip, so stay tuned…
Some final notes on hiking Kauai:
- It’s a good idea to have a couple of hikes in mind that you might want to do on more overcast days, when its not ideal beach weather. We try and alternate beach and hikes, or hike later in the day, when the trails will be quieter and cooler
- Always have enough water with you, and a couple of snacks. Even the shorter hikes take a lot longer than you think due to elevation and challenging paths. You will sweat a lot!
- While some people choose to hike in trainers (or bare feet!), I would recommend always having proper hiking boots and hiking trousers/t-shirts. You’ll be more comfortable and have better footing.
Please note: as of January 2019, the entire Kalalau Trail remains closed, due to damaging flooding and landslides in 2018. Please check the official Kalalau Trail website for updates.
I hope this post has inspired you to get out there and do some great hikes if you’re lucky enough to find yourself on Kauai.
I’ll be trying other trails on future trips – in the meantime I’d love to hear from any of you who have done these or other hikes, and any recommendations you have.
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Safe travels and Mahalo!