A beginner’s guide to hiking the island
My feet simultaneously sunk and slid, my weight too much for the tree branch to which I clung. Cursing my 4-year old hiking boots that lost their traction long ago, I watched as my right foot slid even further down the trail. I knew that if my left foot didn’t follow, I’d be performing a downhill split that promised to be neither graceful nor attractive.
Mud was everywhere. It had attached itself to tree roots, covered rocks and lurked underneath every fern. I knew about the “red dirt” in Kauai, but I conveniently missed the section on the suction cup mud traps in the guidebooks.
Kauai is famous for being a hiker’s paradise. A small island comprised mainly of beaches, forests, mountains and trails – it is home to epic backpacking and day trips. It is also home to the wettest place on earth, Mount Wai`ale`ale. The mountain receives more than 400 inches of rain each year, while other portions of the island average anywhere from 5 to 45 inches.
Unfortunately, I was sliding down a trail on the west side of the island, where the average rainfall is the lowest. At that point it didn’t look like my boots would survive the rest of the trip.
Hiking on what is known as the Garden Isle is a unique way to witness the landscapes that have long captivated visitors. From the famous sapphire blue waters of the Na Pali Coast to the dry clay of the Waimea Canyon, taking to the trails allows time for solitude and reflection that isn’t always possible on a catamaran with 15 other people.
As a novice in Kauai and with only a few days to hike, I planned to cover as much of the island I could by foot. It turned out that the mud that I got stuck in more than once at Koke`e State Park was just the beginning of the fun.
A Color Guide to Hiking in Kauai
There are more than two dozen highlighted hikes on the island and many more that haven’t been publicized on web sites or in hiking books. Here are three different hikes that will expose you to a variety of environments and give you a snapshot of what this beautiful island has to offer.
If Green is Your Thing
You don’t have to wander far in Kauai to find yourself in a tropical rain forest. The east and north sides of the island are full of lush, rich mountains and landscapes.
On a misty, windy, humid day we made our way to the KuilauRidge Trail a few miles inland from the town of Wailau. An accessibly viewed waterfall, Opaeka`aFalls, is highlighted by a viewpoint off Kuamo`o Road on the way to the trail head.
Parking in the lot for the ridge trail, we were immediately greeted by a one-legged, disheveled chicken acting as a guard to the trail head – he was taking his duties seriously to prevent hikers from making their way to the trail. Fortunately, we had two working legs and darted to the gate to avert a run-in with the trail’s protector.
The muted sky stood in sharp contrast to the bright green ferns and plants lining the trail along with the mountains on the horizon. We caught a few fleeting views of Mt. Wai`ale`ale through the heavy clouds as we rounded the wide trail.
|First mile marker|
At the one-mile marker we came upon a grassy plateau with a shelter and picnic tables, which provided a respite from the rain. The 360-degree view of rolling hills against the neighboring Makaleha Mountain range was our backdrop. The humid air was as sticky as I was sweaty and I welcomed the chance to peel off my backpack if only for just a minute or two.
Continuing along the trail, we wound down around the plateau into the lush interior of the island. The distant mountains were shrouded by a heavy layer of mist and fog and we walked through the giant Ti plants in a dream-like state. The wind was blowing so that the leaves of the bright yellow and green plants were clapping for us as we moved past.
|Along the Kuilau Trail|
The Kuilau trail ended after a mile and a half at the foot
that begins the Moalepe trail. The bridge and subsequent trail were muddy and
rutted out from horses, making the hike less pleasurable than the cushion of
the earlier trail.
After messing with the puddles, we turned around to head back through the village of Ti plants and the sights of the Sleeping Giant Mountain ridge.
The Kuilau trail is an easy hike that only gains 760 feet in elevation over the course of the mile and a half to the bridge. It was a great choice for a semi-rainy afternoon, made even better because the rain enhanced the rich colors of the trees and plants.
If Blue is More Your Groove
There are an abundance of ocean views on the island, but none as good as the ones from the hike along the Na Pali Coast. We got an early start on the famous KalalauTrail due to its proximity to our rental house and were met in the parking lot by a much friendlier pack of chickens, foreshadowing what would be one fantastic day. The Kalalau Trail is 11 miles one-way and is the most written about backpacking trip on the island. A permit is required to camp overnight and hike past the two-mile marker. Permit-less day hikers swarm the first two miles of the trail, making their way along the Na Pali Coast down to Hanakapi`ai Beach.
The rugged cliffs and dramatic ocean views of the Na Pali Coast are for Kauai what Times Square is to New York City. Tourists and locals alike play along the coast on foot, kayak, catamaran or helicopter, reveling in the striking contrast of cooper cliffs, calypso blue waters and electric green flora.
It was a rocky start up the trail and I could only imagine what a slippery ascent it would be if we were caught in a Kauai rainstorm. The trail was wider than I expected and not hanging off the cliff like so many had warned on Internet forums.
|The beach and the views|
The first lookout was a half mile in and is the only point where there are views of the original starting point at Ke`e Beach and the sight of the upcoming coast. Winding up and around, we made it to 500 feet, the highest point on the two-mile trail. Looking ahead was the money shot. My camera couldn’t take pictures fast enough and I was awe-struck. Hanakapai`ai Beach was below, marking the gateway to the rest of the Na Pali Coast. Invigorated by the fresh ocean air and enamored by the banana cream sand below, I wanted to start running down the red dirt trail to make it to the beach faster.
The first major stream met the trail right before the beach at the two-mile mark. It was the largest crossing we forded on the entire hike, and nervous about rock jumping, I ripped off my hiking boots and splashed over to the other side. The winter hadn’t set in yet so there was plenty of room to roam around on the beach.
|Entrance to Hanakapi`ai Beach|
Most hikers stop at the beach and turn around to make the climb back to the parking lot. Adventurous hikers continue another two miles inland to the 300-foot Hanakapi`aiFalls. A permit isn’t needed to hike along this additional off-shoot trail.
This part of the hike proved much more difficult than the first two miles. The trail was muddy, rocky and narrow. A forest of 20-foot tall bamboo opened up to additional stream crossings and we forded seven more before we reached the falls. The trail wasn’t marked in most places and after the first mile it became more difficult to tell which direction we should head. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan had attached ribbons to trees marking the spots where we should cross the stream and continue onward.
We caught glimpses of the towering falls through the last quarter mile and we reached the falls in the late morning as the sun was just beginning to peak into the valley. The falls towered above, creating a dark, majestic pool at their base.
The hike was an out-and-back so we knew what was ahead. The ribbons kept us on the right track and fording the steams were now an opportunity to take off my socks and shoes to soak my tired feet. I was amazed by the hikers I saw in sandals. My feet were pounded by the rocks and I was wearing sturdy hiking boots.
We crossed the last stream at the beach and began the steep climb back out of the valley. The last two miles turned out to be the hardest. The sun was beating down on the red dirt trail and I could feel the sweat and sunscreen moving down my face as we made the 500-foot gain in the first mile. Backpackers were lugging their sacks at a turtle’s pace and I could barely catch them.
On the return, the views are better from behind so I took more pictures to both document this amazing hike, but also to have an excuse to catch my breath. My feet moved slowly down the final rocky hillside and when I saw throngs of tourists headed to Hanakapi`ai Beach in the early afternoon, I was grateful my climbing was over.
The Kalalau Trail is moderate to strenuous depending on how far you hike. The total elevation gain out and back to the beach is 1,060-feet; add on another 760-feet if you’re going to the falls. This hike is best done on a dry day. Rain will make the trail more precarious and much less enjoyable and force you to pay more attention to your footing than the splendor of the Na Pali Coast.
If Brown Doesn’t Get You Down
My slip and slide mud adventure was on the Nu`alolo Trail in Koke`e State Park. The park sits just above Waimea Canyon on the west side of the island. Kauai is incredibly diverse and nothing showcases it more than driving around the island coming into the town of Waimea. You leave behind the lush green landscapes of the north shore, drive through the resort and beach area in the south shore and enter red dirt territory. If the clay colored “Red Dirt” shirts hanging outside the gift shops don’t give it away then the dust flying around your car will surely let you know you’ve arrived.
Waimea Canyon is a rainbow of colors from the red dirt to the dusty brown hills, to the green trees dotting the landscape. There are multiple look-outs along Waimea Canyon Drive for visitors to take in the grandeur of the 10-mile long, 1-mile wide and 3,600 foot deep gorge. The canyon is large, but pales in comparison to the Grand Canyon which clocks in at 227-miles long, 18-miles wide and averages more than 5,000 feet in depth.
There are many hikes in this area and some which go down into the canyon. We chose to continue heading north to Koke`e State Park with plans on an 11-mile round trip hike.
That distance was quickly condensed after meeting our first mud slide less than a half mile in. The trail is heavily shaded producing deep mud ruts. Much of the first mile was downhill, which made the mud even trickier to contend with.
The Nu`alolo Trail starts in deep forest, wanders through fern meadows, then meanders through slim red rock ruts before opening up to wide angle views of the Na Pali Coast. The brown, squishy mud was worth enduring for the prized views. On this trail, you can reach the Lolo Vista Point on the very edge of the ridge. We chose to have a picnic then make our way back up to the parking area rather than continuing on the loop. If you do the entire loop hike you would take two additional trails (Nu`alolo to Awa-`awapuni to Nu`alolo Cliffs trail) to meet the road a mile and half above the lodge at Koke`e.
|Coming out of the red dirt ruts|
Hiking back through the ruts, meadow and then muddy hillside, we found ourselves back at the visitor center and gift shop at Koke`e. Basking in the sun was a pack of chickens happy to share their park with the picnic-goers, hikers and restaurant patrons.
The Nu`alolo Trail is moderate to strenuous depending how much far you hike and how muddy the trail may be. Try to watch the weather to see how much it has rained in that area. If the trail is too muddy, head back down the road for some of the hikes into the canyon.
Kauai is rocky, muddy and spectacular. The ruggedness is a small price to pay for the inspiring lookouts, lush landscapes and heart-pumping workouts.
If you go...
The vast array of trails provides endless opportunity regardless of where you stay. If you plan to hike, do your research before arriving in Kauai so you can spend more time walking your way through the island as opposed to searching through it in guidebooks. Bring your trail shoes, a backpack and plenty of water – the more prepared you are, the better you’ll weather whatever obstacles the trails (or chickens) may present.