The best hiking on Hawaii's Garden Island: Kaua'i

Latest posts by Alicja (see all)

Recently we’ve been fortunate enough to get to travel to Kaua’i, the lovely Garden Island of Hawai’i. 

Kaua’i is special because of the large amount of hiking trails on the island. The other islands definitely have some good hiking trails, such as the Mauna Kea hike on Big Island, but hikes are not concentrated in other islands like they are in Kaua’i. 

Kaua’i has been on the list to visit for years, unfortunate timing meant the trip was just days after the big flooding that hit the island last month. It rained almost 50 inches in 24 hours up by Hanalei, in Northern Kaua’i. That’s so much rain that the actual rain meter broke, and accurate readings weren’t available until days after the event.

Out of all the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i is the best known for it’s hiking. It has the most hiking trails out of any of those islands. In fact, it’s one of the top islands for hiking, especially if you enjoy hiking in the tropics. 

Kaua’i is a tourist oriented island and was well organized and things were still running on the island, despite the flooding. Surprisingly, things were mostly quite smooth from a tourist perspective, and only a few businesses were closed. The island showed great resiliency after this flood. The damage in Hanalei was fairly extensive, with several homes on the beach buckling under the saturated ground. The road east of Hanalei was closed, cutting off access to the North side of the island, including the Na Pali trail.

Most areas will have some developed hiking trails. The crown jewel is the Kalalau trail on the Na Pali coast.

Our favourite area for hiking is definitely Koke’e State park and Waimea canyon and Koke’e park area, it’s drier, sunnier and it’s high elevation means it’s cooler. There is also a park headquarters located at 15 miles up the Koke’e Road, and a store where you can get food and coffee. There are also cabins and a campground you can stay at overnight. 

Top hikes in Kaua’i 

1. The Kalalau Trail

napali-coast kalalau trail life outdoors kauai

This the flagship, the crown jewel of the island. It’s so busy, that camping permits fill up months in advance. However, you can hike part of this 11 mile one way trail without a permit, as a permit is only required for camping. The total distance is 22 miles, and it’s an out and back trail, so you hike out the same way you came in. The round trip includes about 5000 feet (1500m) of elevation gain, significant considering you’re carrying an overnight pack. The trail can be done by beginner hikers, but can be tricky in spots due to some mild exposure. The views are stunning.

The campground at Kalalau includes composting toilets and a waterfall for fresh water. Of course, treat all water before drinking (for example, try the Katadyn or Lifestraw system). 

Unfortunately, because it was closed, we don’t have personal experience with this trail. However, the popularity of the trail speaks for itself, as well as many satisfied hikers and friends we know have done the trail several times over the years, and highly recommend it.  Book early to guarantee a camping spot, sites fill up months in advance.  You can book online by filling out a form. Please note, after the April 2018 floods, the trail is closed indefinitely due to flood damage. Check the website for updates as to when the trail will be opening again.

2. Canyon trail to Waipo’o Falls

The trail to Waipoo falls is seriously scenic.

This one is located in Koke’e State Park.  It’s a moderate hike that heads down to a stunning view of Waipo’o falls. This is a popular hike and always filled with people.  It’s short at only 4 miles round trip (6.4 km). It’s an upside down hike that starts with a descent, and finishes with a climb back up. This trail showcases incredible views and you’ll even see helicopters grazing the valley regularly. To get here, park at the Pu’u Hinahina between mile markers 13 and 14.

3. Awa’awapuhi Trail

awa'awapuhi trail hiking kauai life outdoors

The Awa’awapuhi trail offers the most stunning views known to man (and woman)!

This is a fairly strenuous hike, also in Koke’e, at 6.5 miles round trip with about 1500 foot elevation loss (and gain to get back up) and much like the one above (and many hikes in Waimea canyon) starts with a descent and ends with a climb.  This trail doesn’t have much for views on the way there, but the end you get rewarded in the most incredible way. The view is absolutely stunning and very dramatic. Here, tropical ocean colours mix with the multi-colored red, brown and orange steep canyon walls. The lookout is exposed and narrow, so take care if you venture out on the ridge at the end. To get here, park at mile 17 on the Koke’e Road. 

For the ultimate adventure, combine this trail with the Nu’alolo trail, described below. 

4. Nu’alolo Trail

nu'alolo trail hiking kauai lifeoutdoors

Views from the Nu’alolo trail.

This trail, 7.6 miles round trip,  is on the other side of the valley from the Awa’awapuhi trail. It takes you to the other side of the valley. The two trails are connected by the Nu’alolo Cliffs trail. 

This trail will take you down a variety of forest, from lush to dry to an exciting viewpoint at the end. To get there, park on the left just before the park headquarters at mile 15. 

The ultimate day hike is combining the Awa’awapuhi trail with the Nu’alolo trail. It’s recommended that you go down the Nu’alolo trail and up the Awa’awapuhi. If you do this hike, make sure to start early in the morning, as it takes most of the day to complete the circuit. If it’s raining in Koke’e, it’s best of avoid the Nu’alolo trail as it gets quite muddy. Going up or down this steep trail when it’s muddy is not much fun. The circuit is awesome, and highly recommended!

5. Pihea Trail

pihea trail hiking kauai life outdoors

Hiking in the clouds on the Pihea trail, located at the end of the Koke’e road.

If you’re short on time, this is in the one trail in the area you should do. Only 2 miles round trip, it’s located at the end of Waimea canyon drive at the Pu’u o Kila lookout, it’s nice and high, so it’s typically refreshingly cool here. It’s at the end of the Koke’e park road. You can rewarded by views almost as soon as you step out of your car. The views are everywhere along the way. The end of the trail goes to Pihea Vista lookout. The views are not any better from this Vista, so you don’t have to go there for the views. The trail up there (the very last section) is steep, muddy and covered in slippery tree roots – extremely muddy in spots – so be prepared to get your shoes wet!

Bonus: you can also hike the Alaka’i Swamp trail from here which goes through some pretty fantastic forest and scenery. Most of it is on a boardwalk but there are plenty of wet and muddy sections here. It’s 8 miles round trip.

6. Hanalei ‘Okolehao Trail

The very lush ridge of the ‘Okolehao trail on the North shore.

This one is located on the North Shore, close to the town of Hanalei. It’s a lush and beautiful hike with some amazing views of Hanalei and the tropical jungle. Most of the hike is on a ridge, and it’s 4 miles round trip. Close to the end, the trail gets quite bushy in spots, though the trail itself is nicely packed down. Follow it to the plateau, with excellent views in all directions, including the Wai’ale’ale crater. 

To get there, drive by Princeville and turn left after you cross the Hanalei bridge at the bottom. The parking lot is 0.7 miles up the road on your left.

7. Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain)

sleeping giant hiking kauai life outdoors

The very top of the Sleeping Giant with ocean views.

One of the best East shore hikes is the Sleeping Giant mountain. Because of it’s low starting elevation, it’s nice to start this one early to beat the heat. It’s also very popular, and if you go early, you’ll enjoy the trail to yourself. Around noon it’s very hot already and the parking lot fills up with people, something you’ll want to avoid. 

Nearly the whole hike has great views, the only problem is some very deep muddy sections at the start of the trail. You can follow the hike to the end past the picnic tables for a vista in all directions. It’s not particularly difficult but there is a short scrambling section to get back up to the ridge. It’s awesome! If you do it to the end it’s 5 miles round trip, to the picnic tables it’s a bit less. 

Looking for what you need to hike in Kaua’i? Stay tuned for more information about hiking on Kaua’i.

Have you ever been hiking in Kaua’i? Comment here.