Set northwest of Kapaa in the Kealia Forest Reserve of east-central Kauai’s highlands, the Makaleha hike wends its way up the jungly valley of the Makaleha Stream. The main path is clearly discernible in some stretches, less so in others. Side trails and dead-ends abound. The trick is sticking as close to the stream as possible, which should get you to your destination.
You’ll be crossing the stream multiple times and sometimes walking up it, and also negotiating boulders, tangles of branches and tree roots, and blowdowns. Supportive, grippy footwear—sturdy hiking boots, ideally—is a must. A trekking pole could come in real handy, though there are stretches where you’ll likely need both hands to climb or clamber.
A highlight of the trail is a passage through an ethereal bamboo forest. More awesome yet are the upstream views of the Makaleha Mountains’ steep cliffs strung with waterfall streamers. One of these prospects awaits at the confluence of the Makaleha Stream and a major tributary entering on the left.
There, continue upstream to the right to reach Makaleha Falls: a double-tiered waterfall surging down through a gorge chute. There’s a swimming hole here in the plunge pool.
There are some really important things to keep in mind on the Makaleha hike. First of all, give yourself plenty of time to tackle it. The mileage is just why of three miles out-and-back, but many hikers end up covering a lot more ground because they go astray from the most direct route. That’s easy to do, and you should expect to get turned around more than once where the path is unclear.
Again, keeping near the stream should prevent you from getting fully lost, but you may not always know the best way upriver. Expect to spend three or four hours at a minimum doing this trek; some will take longer yet.
Also, keep an eye on the weather and the river level. Heavy rains can cause the flashy Makaleha Stream and its tributaries to rise quickly, and more than a few day hikers have found themselves stranded by raging waters and forced to overnight out there. If you see the stream rising or getting muddy, if heavy rain hits, or if it looks like it’s pouring up in the high country, the best bet is to turn around.
For those who can handle the bushwhacking and route-finding, the hike up Makaleha Stream offers a wonderful taste of backcountry Kauai—and countless jungle and whitewater photo ops!
-Biting insects can be an issue along the Makaleha Stream, so consider bringing some bug juice along.
-Where should you park? Parking can be found: here at the water tanks.
-Take wilderness essentials with you in your daypack, including a first-aid kit and warm layers. Remember: There’s at least a chance you’re going to be stuck up the Makaleha longer than expected if the stream levels quickly rise.
-At the double-decker waterfall, you may see people climbing up the rocks or cliff-jumping, but both activities are risky, to say the least.