As beautiful as Kauai’s drive-up beaches and waterfalls are, some of the island’s most arresting sights aren’t reachable by the road: You’ve got to hoof it. Highlights are listed below; for descriptions of the 34 trails in Kauai’s state parks and forestry reserves, check out Na Ala Hele Trail & Access System (http://hawaiitrails.ehawaii.gov; tel. 808/274-3433).
Note: When heavy rains fall on Kauai, normally placid rivers and streams overflow, causing flash floods on some roads and trails. Check the weather forecast, especially November through March, and avoid dry streambeds, which flood quickly. Always bring more drinking water than you think you need, too. Stream water is unsafe to drink, due to the risk of leptospirosis.
Among the guides, Micco Godinez of Kayak Kauai (www.kayakkauai.com; tel. 888/596-3853 or 808/826-9844) is just as expert on land as he is at sea. He and his savvy guides lead regular trips to Waipoo Falls through Kokee/Waimea Canyon ($126), Napali’s Hanakapiai Beach ($126) and Hanakapiai Falls ($168), Kapaa’s Sleeping Giant ($81), and the Awaawapuhi/Nualolo loop trail ($231) that starts in Kokee and leads to dazzling overlooks of Napali. Naturalists with Kauai Nature Adventures (www.kauainaturetours.com; tel. 888/233-8365 or 808/742-8305) lead a similar variety of day hikes, focusing on Kauai’s unique geology, environment, and culture; they’re $135 to $165 adults and $100 to $135 for children 7 to 12, including lunch.
The Kauai chapter of the Sierra Club (http://hawaii.sierraclub.org/kauai) offers four to seven different guided hikes around the island each month, varying from easy 2-milers to 7-mile-plus treks for serious hikers only; they may include service work such as beach cleanups and trail clearing. Online listings include descriptions and local phone contacts; requested donation per hike is $5 adults and $1 for children under 18 and Sierra Club members.
The dappled green wooded ridges of the Lihue-Koloa and Nounou (Sleeping Giant) forest reserves provide the best hiking opportunities here. From Kuamoo Road (Hwy. 580) past Opaekaa Falls, you can park at the trailhead for the easy, 2-mile Kuamoo Trail, which connects with the steeper, 1.5-mile Nounou West Trail; both have picnic shelters. Stay on Kuamoo Road till just before the Keahua Arboretum to pick up the scenic, 2.1-mile Kuilau Trail, often used by horses, which can be linked with the more rugged, 2.5-mile Moalepe Trail, ending at the top of Olohena Road in Kapaa. In the arboretum, you’ll find the trailhead for the challenging Powerline Trail, an unmaintained path that follows electric lines all the way to Princeville’s Kapaka Street, on the mountain side of the Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56); avoid if it’s been raining (the mud can suck your sneakers off, or worse.). A steady climb, but worth the vista at the top, is the 2-mile Nounou East Trail, which takes you 960 feet up a mountain known as Sleeping Giant (that really does look like a giant resting on his back); the trail ends at a picnic shelter on his “chest,” and connects with the west leg about 1.5 miles in. The east trailhead, which has parking, is on Kapaa’s Haleilio Road; turn inland just past mile marker 6 on Kuhio Highway and head 1 1/4 miles uphill.
Traversing Kauai’s amazingly beautiful Napali Coast, the 11-mile (one-way) Kalalau Trail is the definition of breathtaking: Not only is the scenery magnificent, but even serious hikers will huff and puff over its extremely strenuous up-and-down route, made even trickier to negotiate by winter rains. It’s on every serious hiker’s bucket list, and a destination for seemingly every young backpacking bohemian on the island. That’s one reason a camping permit ($20 per night; http://camping.ehawaii.gov) is required for those heading beyond the 2-mile mark of Hanakapiai Beach; the permits often sell out up to a year in advance .
People in good but not great physical shape can still tackle the 2-mile stretch from the trail head at Kee Beach to Hanakapiai, which starts with a mile-long climb; the reward of Napali vistas starts about .5 mile in. You’ll see the occasional barefoot local surfer on the first 2 miles, but wear sturdy shoes (preferably hiking boots) and a hat, and carry plenty of water. The trail can be very narrow and slippery in places; don’t bring children who might need to be carried. At Hanakapiai Beach, sandy in summer and mostly rocks in winter, strong currents have swept more than 80 visitors to their deaths over the years; best just to admire the view. Those able to rock-hop can clamber another 2 miles inland to the 120-foot Hanakapiai Falls, but only when it has not been raining heavily. Allow 3 to 4 hours for the round-trip trek to the beach, and 7 to 8 hours with the falls added in.
Nearly as beautiful, but much less demanding and much less crowded, is the 2.5-mile Okolehao Trail in Hanalei, which climbs 1,232 feet to a ridge overlooking Hanalei Bay and the verdant valley. It starts at a marked parking area off Ohiki Road, inland from Highway 560, just past the Hanalei Bridge.
At the end of Shipwrecks (Keoneloa) Beach, in front of the Grand Hyatt Kauai, the limestone headland of Makawehi Point marks the start of the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail (www.hikemahaulepu.org), an easy coastal walk—after the first few minutes uphill—along lithified sand dunes, pinnacles, craggy coves, and ancient Hawaiian rock structures. Inland lie the green swath of Poipu Bay Golf Course and the Haupu summit. Keep a safe distance from the fragile edges of cliffs, and give the green sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian monk seals a wide berth, too. It’s 1.5 miles to the overlook of Mahaulepu (Gillin’s) Beach, but you can keep on another 2 miles to windy Haula Beach.
Some of Hawaii’s best hikes are found among the 45 miles of maintained trails in Kokee State Park, 4,345 acres of rainforest with striking views of the Napali Coast from up to 4,000 feet above, and the drier but no less dazzling Waimea Canyon State Park. Pick up a trail map and tips at the Kokee Museum (www.kokee.org; tel. 808/335-9975), which also describes a number of trails in the two parks on its website.
The best way to experience the bold colors and stark formations of Waimea Canyon is on the Canyon Trail, which starts after a .8-mile forested walk down and up unpaved Halemanu Road, off Kokee Road (Hwy. 550) between mile markers 14 and 15. From there it’s another mile to a small waterfall pool, lined with yellow ginger, that lies above the main cascade of 800-foot Waipoo Falls; you won’t be able to see the latter, but you can hear it, and gaze far across the canyon to try to spot the lookout points you passed on the way up. On the way back, check out the short spur called the Cliff Trail for more vistas. (Note: Families can hike this trail, but be mindful of the steep dropoffs.)
Two more challenging hikes beckon in dry conditions. The 6.2-mile round-trip Awaawapuhi Trail takes at least 3 hours—1 hour down, 2 hours coming back up, depending on your fitness level—but it offers a jaw-dropping overlook for two Napali valleys, Awaawapuhi (named for the wild ginger blossom) and Nualolo. Usually well-maintained, it drops about 1,600 feet through native forests to a thin precipice with a guardrail at the overlook. (Note: The Nualolo Cliff Trail that connects with the even more strenuous 8-mile Nualolo Trail was closed at press time due to significant erosion.) The trail head is just past mile marker 17 on Kokee Road, at a clearing on the left.
Slippery mud can make the Pihea Trail impassable, but when the red clay is firm beneath your feet, it’s another must-do for fit hikers. Starting at the end of the Puu O Kila Lookout at the end of Kokee Road (Hwy. 550), the trail provides fantastic views of Kalalau Valley and the distant ocean before turning into a boardwalk through a bog that connects with the Alakai Swamp Trail, which you’ll want to follow to its end at the Kilohana Overlook; if it’s not socked in with fog, you’ll have an impressive view of Wainiha Valley and the North Shore. The Pihea-Alakai Swamp round-trip route is 8.6 miles; allow at least 4 hours, and be prepared for drizzle or rain.
Camping & Cabins
Kauai offers tent camping in six county-run beach parks and, for extremely hardy and self-sufficient types, several state-managed, backcountry areas of the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon. Tents and simple cabins are also available in the cooler elevations of Kokee State Park and remote Polihale State Park; I can’t recommend camping in the latter, due to its rugged conditions and increased potential for crime.
All camping requires permits, which must be purchased in advance, and camping in vehicles is not allowed.
County campsites, often busy with local families on weekends, close one day each week for maintenance. The most recommended for visitors, both for scenery and relative safety, are at Haena, Hanalei Blackpot, Anini, and Lydgate beach parks. Go to www.kauai.gov, click on “Visiting,” and then “Camping Information,” for schedules and downloadable mail-in permit applications. Permits cost $3 per adult (free for children 17 and under, with adult), except for Lydgate, which is $25 per site. On island, visit the Department of Parks and Recreation permits office (tel. 808/241-4463) in the Piikoi Building, 4444 Rice St., Lihue (across from the post office), between 8:15am and 4pm weekdays; the county website also has details on satellite permit offices with more limited hours.
For camping in state parks and forest reserves, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (http://camping.ehawaii.gov; tel. 808/274-3444) prefers to issue online permits; its office in Lihue, 3060 Eiwa St., Suite 306, is also open 8am to 3:30pm weekdays. Napali Coast State Wilderness Park allows camping at two sites along the 11-mile Kalalau Trail—Hanakoa Valley, 6 miles in, and Kalalau Valley, at trail’s end—for a maximum of 5 nights (no more than 1 consecutive night at Hanakoa). Camping is also permitted at Milolii, for a maximum of 3 nights; it’s reached only by kayak or authorized boats mid-May through early September. Although there’s no drinking water, trash must be packed out, and composting toilets are not always in good repair, permits ($20 per night) often sell out a year in advance. (Note: Due to frequent overstays, rangers conduct periodic permit checks here, so make sure you have yours on hand.)
Permits for primitive campsites in eight backcountry areas of Waimea Canyon and nearby wilderness preserves cost $18 per night, with a 5-night maximum; see http://camping.ehawaii.gov for detailed descriptions.
In Kokee State Park, which gets quite chilly on winter nights, Kokee Lodge (www.thelodgeatkokee.net; tel. 808/335-6061) offers 12 rustic cabins ($74–$94 a night) that sleep up to six and should be reserved 3 to 6 months in advance; ask for a newer, two-bedroom unit, such as quiet No. 12. Kokee Lodge also manages the nearby state campgrounds ($18 per night; see above for permits). Less than a mile away, down a dirt road, the YWCA of Kauai’s Camp Sloggett (www.campingkauai.com; tel. 808/245-5959) allows tent camping in its large forest clearing for $15 per tent per night, with toilets and hot showers available; there’s also a four-person cottage ($120–$135). Groups may rent its bunkhouse ($160–$120) or lodge ($200–$225), both of which sleep up to 15.
If you don’t want to lug all your gear to and from Kauai, Just Live (www.ziplinetourskauai.com; tel. 808/482-1295) sells and rents top brands of tents, camping stoves, sleep sacks, and more at its storefront in the Anchor Cove Shopping Center, 3416 Rice St., Lihue. Kayak Kauai (www.kayakkauai.com; tel. 888/596-3853 or 808/826-9844) offers rentals, supplies, and even car and bag storage at its Wailua River Marina shop, 3-5971 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.