Garden Isle Glories: Five Top Hikes on Kauai

Kauai, the Garden Isle, is arguably the best of the Hawaiian Islands for hiking. It packs a simply astonishing amount of grand-scale scenery into a modest 550 or so square miles. That scenery includes some globally outstanding landscapes, including Waimea Canyon, the NaPali Coast, and the rain-socked roof of Mount Wealeale.

It’s not easy selecting the best hikes on Kauai, given the caliber and variety of the trails. But the following five definitely show off just how amazing hoofing it can be on the Garden Isle!

Awaawapuhi Trail

-Round-Trip Length: 6.2 miles

-Difficulty Level: Difficult

Nab a stunner of a view of Kauai’s mindboggling NaPali Coast from the Awaawapuhi Trail, which heads at a parking lot along Highway 550 in Kokee State Park. Beginning in highland forest set above 4,000 feet, the trail descends northwestward along a ridge spur. The tread can be tricky, laced with tree roots and invariably mucky in places if there’s been any recent rainfall. 

The Awaawapuhi Trail breaks out of forest and shrubland to reach the big payoff: a grassy vantage overlooking the cliff-walled valleys of Awaawapuhi and Nualolo, plunging to the Pacific. Here’s a spot for one of the most scenery-dazzled picnics you’ll ever enjoy, with the wild NaPali Coast as your backdrop! 

You’ll definitely want to fuel up, because the trek back up to the trailhead from the overlook involves more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain—the toughest part of the hike. 

If you’d prefer not to cover the same ground twice—and have the endurance to slog more than nine miles—you can make an awesome Kokee State Park loop by combining the Awaawapuhi Trail with the Nualolo Trail to the west, with the Nualolo Cliff Trail the connector. This circuit serves up additional eye-popping NaPali looks, though you’ll either have to walk about 1.5 miles along the road to get back to your car at the Awaawapuhi trailhead or arrange a shuttle.

Pihea/Alakai Swamp Trails 

Photo Credit: @thatishowwetravel

-Round-Trip Length: 8 miles

-Difficulty Level: Difficult

Combining the Pihea and Alakai Swamp trails gives you a singular sense of Kauai’s scenic grandeur and ecological uniqueness. Depending on weather conditions, you’ve got the chance for stunning views of two of the island’s defining landmarks: the roadless, pinnacled NaPali Coast and the rampart of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest places in the world. 

The Pihea Trail kicks off at road’s end in Kokee State Park: Puu o Kila Lookout. This overlook has one of Kauai’s most impressive panoramas, stretching from Waialeale down to the yawning Kalalau Valley of the NaPali Coast. Clouds, though, often obscure the vistas. (Even a mist-wrapped Puu o Kila Lookout is pretty darn cool, though.)

Follow the Pihea along the Kalalau rim, savoring the NaPali prospects all the way to Pihea Vista. From here, you’ll trek onward to the junction with the Alakai Swamp Trail, two miles from Puu o Kila. Hang a left here to descend into the magical Alakai Swamp, a mosaic of high-elevation bog and jungle blanketing the plateau below Waialeale’s western shoulders. Much of the trail proceeds by a boardwalk through this soggy, lush, bird-filled backcountry. Two miles from the junction, you’ll reach Kilohana Lookout.

This is another overlook that’s often cloud-wrapped. If it’s clear, though, you’ll get to goggle at the grand drainage of the Wainiha Valley and the blue gouge of Hanalei Bay in the distance.

Parts of this route, particularly the Pihea Trail, involve a very rutted and eroded tread that’s often slick. Watch your footing and proceed carefully in these stretches. There’s also some up-and-down that adds up, although there aren’t any long sustained climbs in this flattish landscape.

Cliff/Canyon Trails

View of the Canyon at the Waimea Canyon Lookout

-Round-Trip Length: Approx. 4 miles

-Difficulty: Easy/Moderate

The Alakai Swamp’s plentiful waters partly drain out through one of the true natural wonders of the Hawaiian Islands: Waimea Canyon. This colorful, waterfall-streaked chasm is more than 2,500 feet deep and about 2.5 miles across at its widest points. It’s often called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” (a tag often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, who never clapped eyes on the place). 

There are many fine footpaths into the Waimea Canyon, but for a beginner-friendly overview, it’s hard to beat the Cliff and Canyon trails. You can reach this linked trail system from a couple of access points, but for a first-time visit we suggest the parking area between mile markers 14 and 15. From here, the hike begins on the dirt Halemanu Road. You soon reach the split-off for the Cliff Viewpoint, a short, easy walk to a great prospect over Waimea Canyon. 

Those short on time or more physically limited can head back to the parking area after taking in the Cliff Viewpoint, but for more scenery and adventure swing east on the Canyon Trail. This route passes the head of 800-foot Waipoo Falls (indeed, it’s sometimes called the “Waipoo Falls Trail”), though you don’t actually get much of a view given you’re above the plunge. Some turnaround at the head of the falls, where there’s a lush pool, but you can also continue onward to the Kumawela Lookout, another knockout canyon vantage.

Nounou East Trail/Sleeping Giant

-Round-Trip Length: 3.6 miles

-Difficulty Level: Moderate

Three different trails access the scenic heights of Nounou Mountain, aka the Sleeping Giant, a distinctive, isolated ridge overlooking the Wailua River and the Coconut Coast. The “Sleeping Giant” name comes from the ridge’s resemblance to a titanic being snoozing away. The Nounou East Trail is arguably the best way to summit this well-known height, given it makes a direct beeline while serving up continual ocean views.

Starting from a parking area along the Haleilio Road that offers a view of the Giant’s great head, the Nounou East Trail strikes steadily upslope. Some forest stands offer shade, but much of the path is more exposed. Wear sun protection and bring plenty of water!

There are some moderately tricky traverses of cliffy outcrops, though nothing too demanding. Keep in mind that, as with many trails on Kauai, the path may be muddy and slick after rains; best to tackle this during a dry spell.

You’ll eventually reach the convergence of the three Sleeping Giant trails, with covered picnic shelters nearby. Heading south from here brings you to multiple vantages right on top of the Giant. The views along the trail’s climb and from the summit crest are fabulous, taking in the Wailua lowlands, Kapaa, the Makaleha, and Hoary Head mountains, and—if the clouds aren’t hanging over it—Waialeale. 

Kalalau Trail

-Round-Trip Length: 22 miles

-Difficulty Level: Difficult

There’s no more famous footpath on Kauai than the Kalalau Trail, which is legitimately world-renowned. It’s the only land access into the heart of the NaPali Coast. The legendary NaPali turns the island’s northwestern shore into a ravishingly beautiful, completely roadless masterpiece of high sea cliffs, sharp ridges, and remote, Edenic valleys. 

But the Kalalau Trail is notoriously difficult, and sometimes dangerous—especially after rains when its muddy tread and flashy stream crossings can be hazardous indeed. This is for fit, experienced hikers only. To hike the full length of the Kalalau, you need a permit to camp overnight at Kalalau Beach.

The trail begins at the end of the road on Kauai’s northern coast, embarking from the vicinity of Kee Beach in Haena State Park. Day hikers often trek out to Hanakapiai Beach and/or Hanakapiai Falls; backpackers with permits proceed beyond.

After the Hanakapiai, the Kalalau Trail rounds several more gorgeous NaPali valleys—Hoolulu, Waiakuakua, and Hanakoa—before reaching the Kalalau Valley and its beach. Here the NaPali Coast reaches its scenic zenith, with towering cathedral cliffs overlooking the wild surf.

Kauai’s World-Class Hiking

We’ve left off a lot of other stunning Garden Isle hikes: the Kukui Trail dropping all the way down to the floor of Waimea Canyon, the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs Trail showing off some striking limestone formations along the southern coast—we could go on! But that just means you’ve got plenty more adventures to enjoy after falling head-over-heels for Kauai’s natural splendor along any one of the above treks.