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 35 trails in Kauai’s state parks and forestry reserves, check out Na Ala Hele Trail & Access System (http://hawaiitrails.ehawaii.gov; 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 ample drinking water; stream water is unsafe to drink due to the risk of leptospirosis.
For guided hikes, Micco Godinez of Kayak Kauai (www.kayakkauai.com; 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 (with shuttles from the Wailua River Marina) through Waimea Canyon to Waipoo Falls ($126) and through Kokee to dazzling overlooks of Napali via the Nualolo or Awaawapuhi trails ($126). In Kapaa, they lead clients up Nounou, or Sleeping Giant ($81), and Kuilau Ridge ($85), Departing from Poipu Beach Park, naturalists with Kauai Nature Tours (www.kauainaturetours.com; 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 $155 to $185 adults and $135 to $155 for children 7 to 12, including lunch.
The Kauai chapter of the Sierra Club (http://sierraclubkauai.org) 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. Listings on the online “outings calendar” 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 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 trail head for the challenging Powerline Trail, an unmaintained path that follows electric lines all the way to Princeville’s Kapaka Street, on the mauka side of Kuhio Highway; 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 the mountain known as Sleeping Giant (which does look like a giant lying down); 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 Haleilio Road in Kapaa; 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 Hanakapiai Beach; the permits often sell out up to a year in advance (see “Camping & Cabins”).
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 a half-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, heading inland from Kuhio Hwy.; take an immediate left just past the Hanalei Bridge and look for the parking lot on the left and the trailhead across a small bridge to the right. Be sure to brake for nene (geese).
If you don’t mind paying for the privilege, Princeville Ranch Adventures (www.princevilleranch.com; 808/826-7669) leads guided hikes on private land along the five tiers of Kalihiwai Falls. The 4.5-hour tour ($129) involves 3 hours of hiking, a 500-foot ascent to a point with sweeping North Shore views, a scramble down a 10-foot rock wall, and swimming below an 80-foot cascade; it’s open to ages 5 and up.
At the end of Keoneloa (Shipwrecks) 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, Makauwahi Cave Reserve, 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, and then—if the landowner permits it—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; 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. The trail head is just past mile marker 17 on Kokee Road at a clearing on the left. Note: After extensive work to repair erosion, the 2-mile Nualolo Cliff Trail once again connects the Awaawapuhi Trail with the even more strenuous 8-mile Nualolo Trail.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.
Waterfall adventure: rappelling
Gain a unique perspective of two hidden waterfalls—by walking down them. Technically, you’re rappelling on the 30- and 60-foot cataracts, with help from guide Charlie Cobb-Adams of Island Adventures (www.islandadventureskauai.com; 808/246-6333). A Native Hawaiian nicknamed “Hawaiian Dundee,” Cobb-Adams leads a practice session on a 25-foot wall before a 15-minute hike near the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge to the otherwise off-limits falls. The 5.5-hour tour ($179 per person) departs from Lihue at 8:30am Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. A more family-friendly, 4.5-hour tour with kayaking instead of rappelling (but including a swim in a waterfall pool) departs at 8:30am Tuesday and 11am Friday ($112 adults, $89 children ages 6 to 12.) Both tours include cultural insights and a deli lunch.
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.