Alakai Wilderness Preserve

The Alakai Wilderness Preserve: The Remote Heart of Kauai's Alakai Swamp
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

Hawaii’s only state wilderness preserve, the Alakai is Kauai at its wildest. This rain-socked, bog-scattered jungle up on the backside of Mount Waialeale provides precious refuge for rare native birds and plants while offering adventurous hiking and camping within its remote acreage and that of surrounding public lands. 

- The Local Expert Team

One of the wildest places on the Garden Isle, the 9,000-acre Alakai Wilderness Preserve protects a large expanse of the so-called Alakai Swamp, among the most legendary realms in the entire Hawaiian Islands. Not necessarily suited to your “average” Kauai visitor, the Wilderness Preserve draws experienced hikers into its remote, globally unique backcountry.

We said the Alakai Swamp was “so-called”—why? Well, “swamp” is a bit of a misnomer, at least if you take the word at its stricter ecological definition of a forested wetland. The Alakai Swamp is actually a high-elevation, jungly wet forest whose “swampiest” bits are numerous bogs. It has structural and climatic elements of a tropical cloud forest, being frequently mist-hidden and host to stunted trees and a tangled understory.

This boggy jungle occupies the Olokele Plateau (sometimes simply called the Alakai Plateau), a basaltic highland on the western flanks of Kaui’s high point: the Mount Waialeale escarpment.

Mount Waialeale is famously among the wettest—arguably the wettest, known for average rainfall in excess of 400 inches. All that rain comes from moist trade winds unloading on the summit zone after a run-up on the steep eastern side. The broad Olokele Plateau on the leeward side of Waialeale is thought to have once been a fair amount drier thanks to the rainshadow of Kauai’s original shield volcano. But that volcano slumped on its eastern side, forming the Waialeale scarp and exposing the Olokele to the heavy rainfall of the trades. Hence the big-time sogginess of the Alakai Swamp.

This place isn’t exactly flat, though. The Alakai is full of little ridges separated by ravines and gullies. Combine that up-and-downness with the dense jungle vegetation and numerous bogs, plus the regular rains and cloaking mists (moe) that often sock in the plateau, and it’s no surprise the Alakai is a notoriously hard place to travel through.

Its relative inaccessibility has made the Alakai Swamp a precious treasure-trove of native Kauai ecology. It’s an essential stronghold for many forest birds, including the kamao, akikiki, and puaiohi, which have lost ground elsewhere on the island. And the wet forests of the Alakai Wilderness Preserve are less impacted by exotic (non-native) vegetation than much of Kauai. 

The Alakai Wilderness Preserve—the only state wilderness preserve in Hawaii—is bordered by the Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve and part of a large mosaic of public land that also includes the more developed Kokee and Waimea Canyon state parks. Access to the Wilderness Preserve comes via the rough, often muddy Mohihi-Camp 10 Road and the Mohihi-Waialae Trail (or just Mohihi Trail). 

That Mohihi Trail is the primary route into the mostly trackless Wilderness Preserve. Hunters are the main users—non-native pigs are the sought-after quarry in the Alakai Swamp—but hikers comfortable with a remote, lightly maintained path can have a rich backcountry experience on it. 

About four miles in lies the Koaie Stream Gauge campsite, with additional primitive camping at the trail’s end (11 or so miles from the start) at the Waialae Cabin. The Kawaikoi and Sugi Grove camps on the Mohihi-Camp 10 Road offer sites very near the Wilderness Preserve boundary.

If you want a more beginner-friendly taste of the Alakai, consider the Pihea and Alakai Swamp trails in the Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve. But those falling for the lush, misty, mysterious backcountry of this high jungle may, with the right preparation, explore further in the mostly undeveloped Alakai Wilderness Preserve.

Insider Tips:
-Off-trail travel in the Alakai is notoriously challenging and potentially risky. Many people have gotten utterly lost up here, and bad weather frequently hampers search-and-rescue efforts. Stick to established routes and always pack wilderness essentials—plus lots of rain gear!
-Be aware you may encounter hunters in the Alakai Wilderness Preserve, and possibly free-roaming, unaccompanied hunting dogs.