Where to Hike in Kauai - The 7 Best Trails
Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai acquired this nickname because it offers the most diverse range of vegetation and greenery in comparison to the other, larger Hawaiian islands. Kauai is also the oldest in the archipelago, with plenty of rock formations and terrain that were formed by significant weather and erosion thousands of years ago.
Kauai is a bucket list destination for travellers seeking to explore a variety of island landscapes. Offering rugged cliff edges paired with tropical rainforests and white sandy beaches, it’s a great destination for those seeking out a hiking holiday with plenty of scenery to remember. The hotels on the island even have height restrictions on the number of storeys they can build, in order not to spoil the beautiful views that Kauai has to offer.
Brimming with more hiking trails than any of the other Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has plenty to offer for those looking for a trekking trip. If you’ve been planning an active trip to the island, we’ve put together a list of the best places to hike in Kauai, so keep reading to find out more!
This impressive trail is the first of our recommendations for the best hikes in Kauai. Ascending from a 4,120 feet elevation and ending at the lookout at around 2,500 feet, this is one trail in Kauai that is not to be missed.
Known for its tranquility, the Awa’awapuhi Trail is the perfect hike for a peaceful stroll as it can be done as a longer loop, or can be shortened by backtracking to the Nualolo junction, continuing along the Nualolo cliff trail and ending back at Kokee State Park.
The Awa’awapuhi Trail is around 3.2 miles each way. Starting in the thick green rainforest, you will not be disappointed with the number of plants and wildlife on view as you walk. Each step of this hike has something different to offer, ranging from dense jungle filled with birds to sweeping valleys and rugged cliff edges.
After about a mile and a half, the forest begins to dissipate, bringing the Napali Coast into full view. The hike is a constant downhill walk from the trailhead right up to the grassy clearings, so at this point you can take in the beauty of the Awa’awapuhi valley. At around the 3-mile mark, you start to approach the junction for the Nualolo cliff trail, allowing for magnificent views and a great picnic area.
The difficulty of the Awa’awapuhi Trail is moderate, so you must wear appropriate footwear. It is also important to bear in mind that it is not recommended to go beyond the railings alongside the path on the trail, as there are significant drops on both sides in some places.
Makawehi Lithified Cliffs Trail
Situated on Kauai’s South Shore is the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs Trail. If you are looking to be impressed by the sheer beauty of Kauai, this hike offers just that.
Located next to Shipwreck Beach, the Makawehi Lithified Trail is a great hike in Kauai for those looking to explore the island further. When the sea levels drop, the cliffs are exposed, revealing ancient limestone cliffs that have been formed over millions of years that are known as Makawehi.
The cliffs are located on Kauai's South Shore, at the east end of Shipwreck Beach. It’s a great place to come if you’re visiting Kauai with your family, as children can spend a happy few hours scouring the beach for fossils.
This Kauai hike doesn’t only offer the chance to adventure on the island, but it also displays the rich history that Kauai provides. As fish and other organisms die, they fall on top of the sediment layers, which are then covered over the years by new layers, forming many fossils that can be spotted in the scenery that surrounds this route.
Offering stunning scenery, impressive historic cliffs, sandy beaches and fossil discovery, this hike has it all.
Sleeping Giant Trail (Nounou Mountain)
The Sleeping Giant is an iconic landmark that acquired its name from a local legend that says a giant attended a feast, ate too much and needed to take a nap, and then never woke up! The Sleeping Giant Trail is one of the three Nounou Mountain Trails that make for great hiking when in Kauai.
The hike takes around 2 hours to complete, and when arriving at the lookout point from the mountain's peak, you will be greeted with amazing views across Kapaa, Waipouli, Kalepa Ridge and Wailua Bay. Ascending through densely forested mountains, and immersing yourself in the natural beauty that Kauai has to offer is an incredible way to spend a day on the island.
The ascending stroll ends at the picnic shelter on the ‘chest’ of the Sleeping Giant, at Nonou Forest Reserve, offering the chance to rest your legs and refuel at the end of the walk. Being one of the less difficult, shorter hikes on the list, this trail is great for a family day out. Climb on the sleeping giant, but be sure not to wake him!
Kuilau Ridge Trail
The Kuilau Ridge Trail is an exhilarating hike in Kauai. With many species of plants and wildlife throughout the hike, it’s a great way to admire all of the beauty that Kauai is home to.
Just a 15-minute car ride from Wailua, the Kuilau Ridge hike is easy for all travelers to access. You will find this hike in the Keahua Arboretum on Kuamo’o Road, set on the East side of Wailua.
Kuilau Ridge provides magnificent views of Makaleha Mountain, as well as a great hiking route through the Hawaiian rainforest. Surrounded by valleys, views of Mount Waialeale, a crossing over the Opaekaa Stream and awe-inspiring vistas, this is one hike in Kauai you don’t want to miss!
While on the Kuilau Ridge Trail, you have the option to connect to the Moalepe Trail, which means you can tailor this hike to suit you, making it as long or as short as you like. At around the one-mile point, why not stop in the grassy field bordering the Ohia Forest to relax and enjoy a picnic.
Taking around 2 hours to complete, the Kuilau Ridge Trail is about 2.25 miles each way and a relatively easy hike. The Kauila Ridge area is also a popular destination for many other activities, including horseback riding, and mountain biking.
If you’re looking for a longer hike full of panoramic views, dramatic valleys, waterfalls, sea caves and incredible vistas, then the 11-mile trek on the Kalalau Trail is the one for you!
You will start your hike at Ke’e Beach and follow the trail along the rugged Napali Coast all the way to Kalalau Beach. While on the Kalalau Trail, you can hike up to Hanakapiai and Hanakapiai Falls, although you will need a permit if you plan on going past this point.
Kalalau Trail is located in a wilderness park that was closed in 2018 because of flooding and then reopened in June 2019. In order to preserve the landscape after the same, you are required to purchase a pass to hike in this area, which is restricted to 900 visitors per day.
Spanning 5 valleys and only dropping to sea level at the beaches of Hanakapiai and Kalalau, this hike offers the chance to have a true adventure. Allow yourself to soak up your quiet surroundings as you tune into the music of the island as you walk, and enjoy accessing a part of the coast that is only explored by a small percentage of Kauai’s visitors each year.
Pihea & Alakai Swamp Trail
This impressive hike in Kauai will truly spoil you, combining two of the best hiking trails that the island has to offer. The hike starts at the end of Waimea Canyon Drive at the Pu’u o Kila Lookout and ends at the Kilohana Overlook.
At around 8 miles long, taking roughly 4-5 hours, this is one of the more difficult hikes on this list. With an elevation gain of around 1920 feet, you can mix up your scenery with dramatic coastlines as well as a boardwalk swamp trail.
When on the hike, the Pihea Trail cuts across the Alakai Swamp Trail and continues to the Kilohana Lookout. With board walks from the car park, it makes for steady ground underfoot.
The hike offers a feeling of tranquility as your surroundings are peaceful and quiet. Allow yourself to be taken aback by the views of the Kalalau Valley and the interesting rock formations that are presented along the Pihea Trail.
Okolehao Ridge Trail
The Okolehao Ridge Trail on the north shore of Kauai is a fantastic hiking route if you're looking for a relatively short walk with some seriously outstanding views. Climbing 1,250 feet throughout the hike, you begin in Hanalei and trek uphill until you're overlooking the entire area, so it's a physically demanding but very rewarding walk.
There are two key viewpoints on this route, the first about a mile into the hike and the second around another mile in. From these two spots, you will be able to see almost all of Hanalei Valley, including the bay, the pier and the river. On clear days, you may even be able to spot Kilauea Lighthouse from the top of the trail.
The very last portion of the hike gets very steep and the path is quite narrow, so less experienced hikers may need to turn back around before this point. The short length of this trail makes it a great choice if you're just looking to get active for a couple of hours, and you're sheltered by the jungle for the majority of the trail so can keep relatively cool on days when the sun is out.
Things to Remember
- Purchasing a permit for trails like Kalalau can be tricky, so make sure that you leave enough time before your trip if your heart is set on exploring specific parts of the island. You can find more information here.
- The weather in Kauai is known for being unpredictable, with sudden, heavy rain showers pretty common throughout the year. Even if the weather looks clear when you set off, remember to pack suitable wet weather clothing in case you get caught in a shower, and ensure that your hiking footwear can cope with slippery surfaces
- Avoid crossing brown streams or streams that have rising water when you're out on a hike. Flash flooding gets a lot of travelers in trouble each year, so follow the local slogan and “When in doubt, wait it out”!
- Remember to be respectful of your environment when you're exploring Kauai's hiking trails. The island is famous for its scenery and greenery because it has been left undamaged and allowed to thrive, and a lot of effort is put into ensuring it stays this way
When planning a hiking trip to Kauai, you’ll be spoiled for options with the range of different trails on offer! The island is known for its outstanding scenery, and there’s no better way to appreciate this than by exploring the terrain on foot. With trails to suit all abilities and a range of habitats to be explored, you will be sure to find whatever it is you’re searching for when hiking in Kauai.
If you’re planning a hiking trip to Kauai and are searching for the perfect accommodation option, get in touch with Pure Kauai to view the range of vacation rentals we offer across the island.