Many of the Garden Isle’s most stunning natural wonders aren’t accessible by road. You’ll need a helicopter or a boat, or, for the best way to smell the wild hibiscus, a good pair of hiking boots.
West Kauai: Dramatic Coastlines
Kalalau Trail: The Na Pali Coast features dramatic cliff faces, mysterious sea caves, roaring waterfalls, quiet coves, and gorgeous vistas in every direction. And only 3% of it is accessible by car. One of the most popular and challenging hikes on Kauai is the 22-mile out-and-back Kalalau Trail, which takes you over this remote coastline starting at Ke’e Beach. If you intend to complete the entire route, plan for three days of exertion, and two days of exploration. You will need to be well-outfitted and prepared before you start (trekking poles are a big help), and make sure someone knows where you’ll be.
For day hikers, a popular shorter option is the trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapiai Beach (4 miles roundtrip), or beyond it to Hanakapiai Falls (14 miles roundtrip). If you’re aiming for the falls, plan 4-6 hours for the journey. The landscape may look familiar to you as it has been a popular filming location for Hollywood blockbusters such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Expect the difficulty to increase based on the rainfall, as mud will make the trail slippery, but the amazing view is worth it! These trails are the most popular in the area, so expect to see plenty of other hikers.
Pro Tip: Make sure you arrive at Ke’e Beach early if you want a parking space.
East Kauai: Waterfalls Aplenty
Makaleha Falls: Experienced hikers will love a more “native” experience hiking to Makaleha Falls in East Kauai. Lush vegetation follows the secluded trail as you cross the stream multiple times, past a swimming hole and picnic spot, and on to three breathtaking falls. (Hike another ½ mile to see yet another waterfall.) More like an obstacle course than a trail, you should expect to get dirty and wet, climb over slippery rocks and trees, and check off all your adrenaline boxes in one day.
The trail is only 2.6 miles out and back, but since it’s actually a hunters’ route up the valley, and not a strictly maintained trail, you need to know what you’re doing. Inexperienced hikers could easily get lost in the route’s many crossings of the river, and you’ll likely need to bush-whack your way through from time to time. If you’re feeling adventurous, the Makaleha Mountains do not disappoint. When in doubt, just follow the rocks and the river, and it should only take 2-3 hours to complete.
The trail begins at the end of Kahuna Road north of Kapaa. Get a map or download the trail on your (waterproof!) phone before starting. About 1.5 miles in, where the stream forks, head to the right to find the falls and a swimming hole. Among experienced hikers, Makeleha Falls falls into the “lifetime favorites” category.
Pro Tip: There are no markers to show you the way, so navigation skills, stamina, and a sense of adventure will serve you well.
North Kauai: Lighthouse Loop
Kilauea Lighthouse: The lighthouse is the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. It’s an excellent place to stop with the family to get some local history and explore the nearby Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Between November and March, you might see migrating whales and dolphins in the distance (binoculars are available in the Visitor’s Center for free). The hike to the lighthouse is kid- and even wheelchair- friendly, covering a distance of only 0.4 miles. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, though it may be a bit crowded depending on the season. Allow at least 30 minutes to enjoy your time here, and aim for a Tuesday-Saturday visit, as the Refuge is closed on weekends.
After you’ve toured the Lighthouse peninsula, plan a stop at Kauapea “Secret” Beach, only a short ways down the road. The lightly trafficked trail is short but rather steep and travels down to one of the most amazing beaches you may ever see in Hawaii. The beach is not great for swimming, as the water has a big break and the currents can be strong. Be aware that the lighthouse side is clothing optional, but there are no resort crowds to fight, and the idyllic setting includes soft sand, lava formations, palm trees, sea cliffs, and a small waterfall. Go at low tide so you can explore the tide pools (some you can even swim in!), and see if the Hawaiian Gods don’t whisper a few “secrets” in your ears as you listen to the frigate birds cry.
Pro Tip: The refuge is only open Tuesday-Saturday so plan your visit accordingly.
South Kauai: Challenging Canyon
Waimea Canyon: Another must-hike trail for your list is in “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, otherwise known as Waimea Canyon. Beautiful multicolored rocks, cascading waterfalls, and a dramatic landscape covered in lush rain forest will dazzle your eyes, while the 3,500 foot deep canyon will challenge your heart.
One of the best ways to capture the scenery is the Canyon Trail, which branches off the Cliff Trail. This 3.2 mile round trip hike takes 2-3 hours to enjoy, with the thrilling Waipo’o Falls at the halfway point. It’s a moderate hike that begins at the Halemanu-Koke’e Trailhead in Koke’e State Park (. The views from the rim are stunning, but be careful as there is nothing separating you from a 1500 ft plunge. This is the most breathtaking hike in the Waimea Canyon.
Pro Tip: You may need a four-wheel drive to get to the trailhead if the road is muddy; don’t expect to get there in a rental sedan!
Kauai Hiking Tips: Know Before You Go
It should go without saying that hikers will need sturdy shoes with good tread, and a supply of water and snacks. If you can arrange to bring a small pack to carry these items and perhaps a jacket, you’ll have what you need to be comfortable on the day trails. If your chosen hike has a great swimming hole or picnic spot, plan to bring what you’ll need to enjoy the day and the sights, and don’t forget your camera! Multi-day hikers should contact a ranger or trail guide to get professional suggestions regarding gear, supplies, weather, route conditions, and good camping sites.
The main thing to be aware of on Kauai’s trails is rainfall. Check with local authorities before beginning your trek to learn about current trail conditions so you can avoid slippery rocks and muddy swamps. You might consider investing in a pair of felt-bottom river shoes (called tabis by the locals) if you intend to hike through wet conditions. If rain should fall in the higher elevations while you are on the trail, you should seriously think about heading back or waiting it out, as tranquil rivers can quickly become uncrossable. Rain can also encourage mosquitos, so be prepared with your favorite repellent and long sleeves.