It’s difficult to decide which Hawaiian Islands to visit first. Each one is unique and appealing in its own way. But for backpackers and climbers Kauai is the number one choice, as it has some of the most amazing hikes in the world.
From the dramatic ridges of Waimea Canyon and drop-offs of the Na’Pali Coast, to the countless waterfall hikes, Kauai is a hikers’ paradise! Every time we visit the island we discover new trails, one more beautiful and thrilling than the other.
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7 EPIC HIKES YOU SHOULD TAKE IN KAUAI
The trails listed in this post can be hiked by people of all ages, from older children, to adults and even seniors in a good physical condition. Although strenuous, these are moderately challenging hiking trails that don’t require extreme abilities, or advanced hiking experience.
1. Kalalau Trail
One of the most popular day hikes in Kauai is the first part of Kalalau Trail, from Kee Beach to Hanakapiai Beach. To hike the entire Kalalau Trail all the way to Kalalau Beach and also explore the Valley, you’ll need 3-5 days, a special permit and an excellent physical condition. That’s why most people do only the first 2 miles of this trail, to Hanakapiai Beach (4 miles round trip).
The trail goes along the shore, revealing breathtaking views of the ocean and the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast covered in lush vegetation. The first mile is a steep climb to a 400-foot elevation, but along the way are gorgeous views of the ocean, Kee Beach and the coral reef.
PRO TIP: Things have change a lot since we first hiked the Kalalau Trail. Now reservations for Parking and Park Entry are required, or you’ll be turned away. Reservations are available 30 days in advance at https://gohaena.com, so make sure you make one before you go.
Kalalau Trail crosses beaches, valleys, freshwater streams and waterfalls, and finally reaches the the Hanakapiai Valley.
The hike is moderately strenuous, climbing continuously almost till the end of the trail. For the most part the path is smooth, but there are some rocky, muddy and slippery places, even during the dry season (May through October).
The descent is relatively short, but also very slippery and rocky and can be a lot of work. To reach the Hanakapiai Beach, you’ll have to cross a stream, hiking over some big boulders. Some people find this part of the trail rather difficult, so they choose to return before hiking all the way down to the beach.
At the Hanakapiai Beach you’ll find some pit toilets (which are not exactly clean!) and a nice little cave. Behind the beach (a little to the left), you’ll see the trailhead to the Hanakapiai Falls.
2. Hanakapiai Falls Hike
I absolutely loved this hike, although I found it a little difficult in some points. However, the stunning views along the way will reward you for your effort. The hike is not very long (only 2 miles), but it’s really strenuous!
After crossing the stream, the trail continues through twisted vines, guava trees, crossing boulders and passing through bamboo forests. But at the end of the road, the stunning 300-foot Hankapiai Falls awaits you to relax and cool off in its pool, before making the trek back to Kee Beach.
The hike to Hanakapiai Falls is considered fairly difficult. Some parts of the trail are very narrow, passing over slippery rocks, but the hike can be safely done in dry weather. However, don’t attempted it in rainy weather, when the stream is deep and fast flowing and almost impossible to cross.
3. Alaka’i Swamp Trail
Alaka’i Swamp Trail is one of the wettest hikes in Waimea Canyon, but is a must-visit place on Kauai if you are a hiker. Knee-deep mud is not uncommon here when it rains and it can slow your pace considerably through the swamp.
But if the weather is good, you’ll enjoy a beautiful (although strenuous) hike across the Alaka’i Swamp through scrub, native rain forest and bogs. We absolutely loved this trail and did it twice. The second time we took my cousin from Canada along and she did fine, although she is not an experienced hiker.
The trail ends at a vista point called “Kilohana”, on the edge of Wainiha Pali. On a clear day, the views of Wainiha and Hanalei Valleys provide an unforgettable experience. The round trip is 7 miles and takes about 5:30 hours.
4. Canyon Trail to Waipo‘o Falls
One of the most popular and scenic hikes in Kauai is the Canyon Trail, which offers the best panoramic views of Waimea Canyon.
The trail branches off of the Halemanu Road and is about 3.5 – 4 mile round trip. The parking area is off Highway 550. From here you hike up on Halemanu Road for half a mile to the Canyon Trailhead which will lead to Waipo’o Falls.
The 800 foot waterfall can be seen from a number of lookout points on this trail. About halfway down the trail is the first place to stop and take pictures of the Waipo‘o, Kauai’s tallest waterfall, before continuing your hike.
One of the oldest Hawaiian legends says that the valley below the waterfall is the very place where the spirits of the recently deceased jump up to Poe, the Land of the Dead.
Continuing to the end of the Canyon Trail, you’ll reach the Kumuwela Lookout. This is another excellent place to stop and take photos of the incredible scenery ahead of you.
The falls are broken into two tiers. The first part is a short waterfall of about 25 ft. tall. Then the water continues flowing on a rocky terrain before plunging down to create the taller waterfall.
This hike will only take you to the top of the falls, but it’s really beautiful nonetheless.
5. Pihea Trail
Located in the Koke’e State Park in Kauai, Pihea Trail starts at the Pu’u o Kila overlook, skirting along the Kalalau Valley.
If you have an early start and drive straight through the canyon, you can arrive at the lookout point before the bulk of the crowd does. This is one of the most magnificent views of the Kalalau Valley, if you are lucky to see it on a clear day, with no fog or clouds.
The trail itself is easy for the most part, with some challenging parts. Luckily, we brought our trekking poles, which I strongly recommend for anybody who plans to hike in Kauai. Pihea Trail hooks up with the Alaka`i Swamp trail to get to Kilohana lookout (which is phenomenal when it’s clear).
If you don’t feel up to the challenge of hiking all the way to the Swamps, you can turn back from the crossroads with the Alaka’i Swamp trail. It took us about 2 hours roundtrip to hike the Pihea Trail.
6. Wai Koa Loop Trail
The Wai Koa Loop Trail is an easy 4.5 mile path on the beautiful North Shore of Kauai. You can access the trail at Anaina Hou Community Park in Kilauea. The hike is free but since it’s on a private property, you’ll have to stop at Anaina Hou to sign a waiver. You can pick up a map at here and also purchase water.
On the hike, you’ll pass through the Kilauea Woods and then through the Mahogany Plantation, which is largest in North America. The highlight of the hike is the Stone Dam Lookout, a lovely stone dam beautifully landscaped with tropical plants.
This is a fairly well marked and a wide trail, with arrows pointing out which way to go. The trail opens up to an impressive view of the Namahana Mountains.
Wai Koa Loop Trail is a great place for a picnic or to enjoy a swim. Walking the trail takes anywhere between 2.5 to 4 hours, depending how often you stop.
7. Kukui Trail
Kukui is an incredibly beautiful hike on Waimea Canyon’s west side, but it’s a little more difficult than other hikes in Kauai. Especially on the way up. The trailhead is roughly one mile beyond the Mile Marker 8 along Highway 550.
The 2.5-mile long trail drops about 2,000 feet to the canyon floor, traveling through a forest of Kukui and other trees. The middle section is pretty dry and exposed, and then you get back into the vegetation near the bottom.
The path can be very slippery even when it’s dry, due to the steep grade. If you don’t want to hike all the way down to the Waimea River, you can just skip the last part of the trail that goes through the forest and brush, and turn around after the first 1.5 miles. In fact this is the most beautiful part of the trail for all the different canyon views.
Tips for Hiking in Kauai
We did a lot of hikes in Kauai and simply loved the abundance of scenic trails on this island. But after years of experience, I can certainly say that almost all the trails in Kauai – be they long or short – go through uneven terrain that can be steep, slippery and muddy even in dry weather.
Hiking on Kauai can be both awe inspiring and dangerous if you don’t know what to expect. But if you come prepared, you’ll have a blast. So here are a few tips that will make your hikes easier and more pleasurable.
• Start easy and find a trail that meets your fitness level.
• Don’t hike alone, or if you do at least file a trip report. Tell someone the exact location where you plan to go, when you expect to be back and when they should worry and call for help if they don’t hear from you. Keep in mind that in most parks on the island there is no cell service.
• Go early in the day! For several reasons. One, you’re not the only one who’s trying to hike in Kauai. Two, it gets hot and humid real quick on this island. And three, the earlier you start the more you can hike.
Also pack these essentials:
• Good hiking shoes, NOT sandals, or flip-flops. If you plan to do a lot of hiking, you can even bring a pair of hiking boots that will keep your ankle steady.
• Trekking poles are essential for hiking in Kauai, where you’ll encounter a variety of terrain and many slippery slopes. I discovered the utility of the trekking poles when we were hiking in Patagonia, where the trails are also very precarious.
• A small backpack where you can carry your stuff, so that your hands are free.
• Water. Bring more water than you think you may need. Or, if you can’t carry too much, bring a water-filtration system that will allow you to fill up your bottle from the many springs you’ll encounter along the way. Staying hydrated is essential you make physical effort.
• Sunscreen & insect repellant.
• First-Aid kit. It’s a good idea to add a first aid kit to your Hawaii packing list as there is always a possibility to fall and get some minor injury.
• Hat & sunglasses, as the sun is very strong on the Hawaiian Islands.