Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

The Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail: Easy 4.2-Mile Walk Along Southeast Kauai’s Lovely Oceanfront
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

The roughly four-mile (round-trip) Mahaulepu Heritage Trail is one of the treasures of the Garden Isle. This easy oceanfront hike in southeastern Kauai offers an excellent chance to see whales, sea turtles, and other marine life, plus opportunities to explore a couple of beautiful beaches, intriguing rock formations, and the biggest limestone cave in the Hawaiian Islands.

- The Local Expert Team

About 2.1 miles one-way, the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail links Shipwreck Beach (also called Keoneloa Beach) on Keoneloa Bay with far-flung Mahaulepu Beach to the northeast. There’s a small parking lot for Shipwreck, though be aware that, given the beach’s popularity with surfers, it sometimes fills up.

This is an easy hike open to a wide range of ability levels, with only a few hundred feet of overall elevation change along its length. The Heritage Trail actually encompasses two occasionally intersecting routes. The main one is the path directly along the bluffs, dunes, and sands of the oceanfront. There’s also an inland trail that offers a bit more shade and proceeds somewhat more directly. It’s not a bad choice for the return hike.

The main, oceanfront path is very sun-exposed, so be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat. You’ll also want to bring along plenty of water to stay properly hydrated.

An early scenic highlight of the trail near Shipwreck Beach is the weathered limestone bluffs of the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs. These represent lime-rich sand dunes that solidified into stone over the past 125,000 or so years. Besides providing striking, wave-battered scenery, the Lithified Cliffs include many fossils. It’s not unusual to see brave (perhaps foolhardy) souls cliff-jumping along this rocky shore.

Keep an eye seaward as you hike along. It’s common to spot sea turtles along the Mahaulepu Coast, not to mention humpback whales during the winter. You’ll also pass tidepools worth spending some time appreciating up-close. 

In the middle section of the trail, you’ll pass a marked Native Hawaiian religious shrine or heiau. 

Mahaulepu Beach is a beautiful endpoint for the trail, stretching toward Kamala Point and Kawailoa Bay. The surf is pretty rough here usually—this is a big-time windsurfing spot—so only strong, experienced swimmers should consider a dip here. That said, it’s a lovely place to stroll and relax. The craggy lava spine of Haupu Ridge makes a handsome backdrop.

Many hiking the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail tack on a visit to the Makauwahi Cave, situated close to Mahaulepu Beach. This is the biggest limestone cave in the Hawaiian archipelago and includes the remarkable Makauwahi Sinkhole, where the cave ceiling collapsed. Another spectacular repository of fossils as well as artifacts, the cave is open for free guided tours (with a recommended donation) daily. 

The Makauwahi Cave Reserve grounds—part of the Grove Farm Company’s land—also harbor impressive native-plant restorations, including lovely specimens of native Pritchardia palms. Even if you don’t tour the cave, you can walk the trail along the rim of the sinkhole.

It may not make as many postcards and wall calendars as Waimea Canyon, the NaPali, or Hanalei Bay, but the Mahaulepu Coast is another genuine Kauai gem. And the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail is just about the best way to experience it!

Insider Tips:
-The only restrooms along the trail are at Shipwreck Beach. Mahaulepu Beach lacks facilities of any kind.
-The endangered Hawaiian monk seal sometimes hauls out at Mahaulepu Beach. Count yourself lucky if you see one—but don’t approach or otherwise disturb these marine mammals.