The best way to experience the aina—the land—on Kauai is to step off the beach and hike into the remote interior. You'll find waterfalls so tall you'll strain your neck looking, pools of crystal-cool water for swimming, tropical forests teeming with plant life, and ocean vistas that will make you wish you could stay forever.
For your safety wear sturdy shoes—preferably water-resistant ones. All hiking trails on Kauai are free, so far. There's a development plan in the works that will turn the Waimea Canyon and Kokee state parks into admission-charging destinations. Whatever it may be, it will be worth it.
Hanalei-OkolehaoTrail.Okolehao basically translates to "moonshine" in Hawaiian. This trail follows the Hihimanu Ridge, which was established in the days of Prohibition, when this backyard liquor was distilled from the roots of ti plants. The 2-mile hike climbs 1,200 feet and offers a 360-degree view of Hanalei Bay and Waioli Valley. Your ascent begins at the China Ditch off the Hanalei River. Follow the trail through a lightly forested grove, at the Y take the first right, and then take the next left up a steep embankment. From here the trail is well marked. Most of the climb is lined with hala, ti, wild orchid, and eucalyptus. You'll get your first of many ocean views at mile marker 1. Follow Ohiki Rd. (north of the Hanalei Bridge) 5 miles to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service parking area. Directly across the street is a small bridge that marks the trailhead, Hanalei, HI, 96714.
Ho opii Falls. Tucked among the winding roads and grassy pastures of Kapahi, 3 mi inland from Kapaa town, is an easy hike to two waterfalls. A 10-minute walk will deliver you to the creek. Follow it around to see the first set of falls. The more impressive second falls are a mere 25 minutes away. The swimming hole alone is worth the journey. Just climb the rooted path next to the first falls and turn left on the trail above. Turn left on the very next trail to descend back into the canyon and follow the leafy path that zigzags along the creek. The falls and the swimming hole will lie below. On the north end of Kapaa, ¼ mi past the last lookout, is a small side road called Kawaihau. Follow the road up 3 mi, then turn right on Kapahi Rd. into a residential neighborhood. Kapahi Rd. dead-ends near the trailhead. Look for the yellow gate on your left, Kapaa, HI, 96746.
Kalalau Trail. Of all the hikes on the island, Kalalau Trail is by far the most famous and in many regards the most strenuous. A moderate hiker can handle the 2-mile trek to Hanakapiai Beach, and for the seasoned outdoorsman, the additional 2 miles up to the falls is manageable. But be prepared to rock-hop along a creek and ford waters that can get waist high during the rain. Round-trip to Hanakapiai Falls is 8 miles. This steep and often muddy trail is best approached with a walking stick. If there has been any steady rain, waiting for drier days would provide a more enjoyable trek. The narrow trail will deliver one startling ocean view after another along a path that is alternately shady and sunny. Wear hiking shoes or sandals, and bring drinking water since the creeks on the trail are not potable. Plenty of food is always encouraged on a strenuous hike such as this one. If your plan is to venture the full 11 miles into Kalalau, you need to acquire a camping permit, which can be acquired either online or at the State Building in Lihue for $20 per person per night. It is advisable that you secure a permit well in advance of your trip. Drive north past Hanalei to end of road. Trailhead is directly across from Kee Beach, HI, 96714. www.kalalautrail.com.
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail. This trail offers the novice hiker an accessible way to appreciate the rugged southern coast of Kauai. A cross-country course wends its way along the water, high above the ocean, through a lava field and past a sacred heiau (stone structure). Walk all the way to Mahaulepu, 2 mi north for a two-hour round-trip. Drive north on Poipu Rd., turn right at Poipu Bay Golf Course sign. The street name is Ainako, but the sign is hard to see. Drive down to beach and park in lot, HI, 96756. www.hikemahaulepu.org.
Sleeping Giant Trail. An easy and easily accessible trail practically in the heart of Kapaa, the Sleeping Giant Trail—or simply Sleeping Giant—gains 1,000 feet over 2 mi. We prefer an early-morning—say, sunrise—hike, with sparkling blue-water vistas, up the east-side trailhead. At the top you can see a grassy grove with a picnic table. Experienced hikers may want to go a step farther, all the way to the giant's nose and chin, which offer 360-degree views of the island. It is a local favorite with many east-siders meeting here to exercise. Haleilio Rd., off Rte. 56, Wailua, HI, 96766.
Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks. This park contains a 50-mi network of hiking trails of varying difficulty that take you through acres of native forests, across the highest-elevation swamp in the world, to the river at the base of the canyon, and onto pinnacles of land sticking their necks out over Napali Coast. All hikers should register at Kokee Natural History Museum, where you can find trail maps, current trail information, and specific directions.
The Kukui Trail descends 2½ mi and 2,200 feet into Waimea Canyon to the edge of the Waimea River—it's a steep climb. The Awaawapuhi Trail, with 1,600 feet of elevation gains and losses over 3¼ mi, feels more gentle than the Kukui Trail, but it offers its own huffing-and-puffing sections in its descent along a spiny ridge to a perch overlooking the ocean.
The 3½-mi Alakai Swamp Trail is accessed via the Pihea Trail or a four-wheel-drive road. There's one strenuous valley section, but otherwise it's a pretty level trail—once you access it. This trail is a bird-watcher's delight and includes a painterly view of Wainiha and Hanalei valleys at the trail's end. The trail traverses the purported highest-elevation swamp in the world on a boardwalk so as not to disturb the fragile plant- and wildlife. It is typically the coolest of the hikes due to the tree canopies, elevation and cloud coverage.
The Canyon Trail offers much in its short trek: spectacular vistas of the canyon and the only dependable waterfall in Waimea Canyon. The easy 2-mi hike can be cut in half if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you were outfitted with a headlamp, this would be a great hike at sunset as the sun's light sets the canyon walls ablaze in color. Kokee Natural History Museum, 3600 Kokee Rd., Kekaha, HI, 96752. PHONE: 808/335-9975 for trail conditions.
Equipment and Tours
Kauai Nature Tours. Father and son scientists started this hiking tour business. As such, their emphasis is on education and the environment. If you're interested in flora, fauna, volcanology, geology, oceanography, and the like, this is the company for you. They offer daylong hikes along coastal areas, beaches, and in the mountains. If you have a desire to see a specific location, just ask. They will do custom hikes to spots they don't normally hit if there is interest. Hikes range from easy to strenuous and rates range from $125 to $150. Transportation is often provided from your hotel. 5162 Lawai Rd., Koloa, HI, 96756. PHONE: 808/742-8305 or 888/233-8365. www.kauainaturetours.com.
Princeville Ranch Adventures. This 4-mi hike traverses Princeville Ranch, crossing through a rain forest and to a five-tier waterfall for lunch and swimming. Moderately strenuous hiking is required. Fee is $129. Rte. 56, between mile markers 27 and 28, Princeville, HI, 96722. PHONE: 808/826-7669 or 888/955-7669. www.adventureskauai.com.