Kaua'i, Hawaii

Kaua'i: The Garden Isle, home of lush waterfalls, sheer cliffs, and 460" of rain a year. Kaua'i is the place for exploration, and despite being a popular tourist destination, you'll find landscapes that will fill you with wonder and calm your soul.

Here's a photo guide to popular, not-so-popular, family-friendly, and challenging hikes! And I added a hike to my top-3 hikes of all time!

Clouds rolling into Kalalau Lookout, Kauai [above: Clouds rolling into Kalalau Lookout]

Geography

Kaua'i is directly to the West of Oahu and the largest Hawaiian island North-Westward. It's known for the Na Pali coast, where lush green cliffs drop precipitously 2000ft to the ocean. Waimea Canyon, or the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, was the filming location for Jurassic Park.

Weather

Hawaii in general has a wetter season November through April. You can hit weather storms that last a full week, but usually you'll get downpours that open up to some sunny skies in the afternoons. Storms often roll through the islands, bringing strong winds, but Hawaii's great in that you can't die of exposure...almost anywhere. Thin fleece and windbreaker and you're set!

Temps in January were in the mid-70s to low 80s during the day and 60s at night. Summers will add about 10 degrees of warmth. Kaua'i has peaks over 5000ft, which stayed in the low 60s on the hottest days we were there--great for starting a hike with a thin layer and then stripping to a t-shirt. Skies were hazy with clouds, which can be awesome for photography (or heinous to remove the haze).

Waimea Canyon [above: Waimea Canyon]

Winter Activities

If water's your thing, winter limits sports. The surf is usually big--10ft to 15ft (Hawaiian scale). Some outfitters will do kayak trips up the Wailua River to Secret Falls in the winter, though storms and flash floods can cancel trips. No outfitters do kayaking tours on the Na Pali coast in the winter.

There's many protected coves from the surf for families and some are SUP-able. Everything else--horeseback riding, hiking, day cruises, shopping, zip lines--are open! And winter's the only time you can see the yearly humpback whale migration on ships.

I'm strongly against helicopter tours anytime of year--there was a helicopter crash on the news at least once a year when I was living in Hawaii. Just a quick Google search for crashes in 2016 yielded 4 separate incidents. Hawaii has strong tradewind gusts and sheer cliffs, and military aircraft aren't exempt from accidents, either.

Kauai chickens [above: Meet your neighbors. Wild chickens and roosters abound. After Hurricane Iniki in 1992, farm and fighting chickens got loose and have taken over. They're everywhere.]

Where to Stay

You can't go wrong on where to stay. Everything is within 1.5 hours of each other, making day trips easy. In general:

  • Poipu (South): The driest with many rental villas. Great for kids.
  • Kapa'a (East): Next driest and a larger city with a lot of shopping.
  • Princeville, Hanalei (North): Wettest, resort land.

Maha'ulepu Beach Trail: lazy afternoon stroll

  • Length: 4mi round-trip
  • Elevation gain: virtually 0
  • Location: Poipu, South shore
  • AllTrails (I highly recommend downloading their app to find the start and view a live map. I found their summary distance / elevation very different from Strava.)
  • Family-friendly: totally!

The Maha'ulepu Trail starts at the Hyatt golf course on the South Shore and follows the coastline until you hit Shipwreck Beach. At the end is Makauwahi Cave Reserve, which is a 0.5mi interpretive trail you can add on through a cave, Hawaiian flora, and tortoises.

Start of the Mahaulepu Beach Trail [above: Start of the Maha'ulepu Beach Trail]

Heiau Hoouluia on Mahaulepu Beach Trail [above: Walking through the remains of a heiau, or Hawaiian temple. It's thought to be where fish were offered to a god of the sea for good fishing.]

Canyon Trail: Bang for your buck

  • Length: 2.7mi round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 1400ft
  • Location: Koke'e and Waimea State Parks (West side)
  • AllTrails
  • Family-friendly: yes

You've got to head to Koke'e and Waimea State Parks when you're in Kauai to see Waimea Canyon and the famous valleys overlooking the Na Pali coast. They're on the West side and accessible only from the southern Poipu area. There's many, many paved and unpaved lookouts along the 30mi scenic drive and tons of hikes. Start early and leisurely stop along the road!

Here's a great resource for the hikes in the state parks. You'll be heading up to 5,000ft elevation, so a light jacket and windbreaker will help to hold out the blustery 60 degrees!

On to the Canyon Trail: The trailhead starts at the Pu'u Hinahina lookout, mile marker 13 in the park. On a clear day, you can also see Ni'ihau from the parking area. It's one of the most popular hikes in the park--it's accessible, easily done in an afternoon, and gives jaw-dropping views into the canyon side (many other hikes go out toward the coast).

Kauai Canyon Trail to Waipo'o Falls hike [above: Hike starts out in the cool forest.]

Kauai Canyon Trail to Waipo'o Falls hike [above: Lookout right above Waipio'o Falls. Note the hike actually takes you to the top of the falls, so you can't actually see it.]

Kauai Canyon Trail to Waipo'o Falls hike [above: Looking straight down the canyon onto helicopters.]

Ho'opi'i Falls: Family fun to picnic falls

  • Length: 2mi round-trip
  • Elevation gain: virtually 0; a few easy, long hills
  • Location: East side, Kapa'a
  • Details
  • Family-friendly: totally!

If you're on the East side, you can knock off the Wailua Falls overlook and take a casual walk with a picnic lunch to Ho'opi'i Falls. The hike starts in a residential area, wanders through thick forest, meanders along a stream, and crosses through private property until you get to the falls. Please respect the neighborhood and trail so it remains accessible!

Kauai Hoopii Falls hike [above: hiking through lush forest]

Kauai Hoopii Falls hike [above: picnic spot overlooking Ho'opi'i Falls]

Awa’awapuhi Trail: epic cliff views

  • Length: 6mi round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 1800ft (all down then up)
  • Location: Koke'e and Waimea State Parks (West side)
  • AllTrails
  • Family-friendly: with caveats (see below)

We wanted to do a couple more epic, less-traveled hikes on the Na Pali coast. There's a few hikes that take you, literally, to the edge of the stunning cliffs that form the famous valleys and cliffs of the Kauai coast. You'll have these views burned into your memory for life.

A quick web search on these hikes results in warnings of death and dangerous conditions, which alarmed us at first. But they're totally fine with common sense: don't go after a huge downpour, don't go past your comfort zone, and don't take selfies on the edge of the cliff.

Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: The first 3 miles are downhill through lush forest. You'll be hiking up the 1800ft all on the way back!] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: Around mile 3, trail opens to the coast] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: Guard post at end at 3.25mi] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: View from guardpost. You can go on that ridge at your own comfort level!] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: I'll call this "section 1" of the ridge. Fine with kids in hand or dogs on leash. It's 30-40ft wide and sloping.] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: "Section 2" is narrower, about 10ft across, and great to stop for lunch. There's precipitous drops on either side but it's wide enough to feel comfortable. Probably not ok with young kids.] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: "Section 3" is 3ft wide with immediate 2,000ft plunges. We didn't go that far.] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: Right view across Awa'awapuhi valley. So steep! Almost a perfectly vertical ridge!] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: Right view looking straight down into Awa'awapuhi valley] Kauai Awaawapuhi Trail hike [above: Left view into Nuaolo Valley]

Here's an even better play-by-play of the hike that convinced us it's safe and a must-do! It's also much less crowded than any of the other hikes. Note there's also an 11mi loop version that traverses down one cliff, across a connector, and up this hike, but the connector (Nualolo Cliff Trail) is currently (Jan 2017) washed out and closed.

Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi'ai Falls: top 3 hikes ever!

  • Length: 8.5mi round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 1800ft
  • Location: Hanalei (North side)
  • AllTrails
  • Family-friendly: with caveats (see below)

This trail along the Na Pali coast is in my top 3 hikes of all time (the other two are in Bryce Canyon and the Redwoods). The Awa’awapuhi Trail offers more jaw-dropping views at the edge of the earth, but the Kalalau trail is more varied and more enjoyable altogether as a hike in itself.

The Na Pali coast is only accessible via the Kalalau trail or by ocean--there's no roads. You can hike the first 2mi without a backcountry permit (you can do the full 22mi hike in 3 days). The 2mi hugs the coast, and at the end, you can opt to head straight inland for 2mi to Hanakapi'ai Falls. You're exposed on the coast, hiking into a rainforest, stream jumping, hiking into a bamboo forest, and then you end at a 300-ft waterfall.

There's never a dull moment.

The biggest downside is this hike is very popular, especially the first 2mi. It'll take forever to pass tourists wearing loafers. You'll want to get to the parking lot by at least 9am, especially in the summer--there's overflow parking 1/4mi away, and that fills up early as well.

Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: First 2mi hugs the coast. You'll see the ground littered with Hala plant seeds that Hawaiians used for paintbrushes and Kukui nuts, the brown/black nuts in leis.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Snaking into the valley] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: End of the first 2mi. First stream crossing at Hanakapi'ai beach. Assume your feet are going to get wet and just wade it. There's an outhouse at the beach.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Heading inland to Hanakapi'ai Falls. Crowds halve.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: There's 4 stream crossings. Be careful or wade them, and be smart about going back if it's flooding. Reports of it being dangerous are a bit overrated. Just use common sense. We saw a lot of stupid tourist sense.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: You gonna get muddy. Oh well.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Can be slippery. That's a 20ft plunge on the left. It's flatter close to the edge and safer than trying to walk the slippery slope on the right.] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: 300ft waterfall into a wade pool!] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Picnic lunch and swimming!] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Heading out is as interesting as seeing it the first time going in!] Kauai Kalalau Trail hike [above: Weather totally changed on the way out!]

Best Beta

I'll leave you with the best beta you'll get when in Hawaii: in the morning, when you head out for your adventures, stop at a local market or grocery store and pick up spam musubis for lunch. Perfect to keep in the heat and sweet, salty deliciousness later!

Here's a map of the hike trailheads and best non-traditional margarita at Kalapaki Joe's on the South shore (li hing lilikoi)!