Pihea Trail to Alaka’i Swamp

Pihea Trail to Alakai Swamp: Northwestern Kauai Wildness on Display
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

The Pihea Trail to the Alakai Swamp in northwestern Kauai provides some of the island’s most memorable scenery, from the stunning sea cliffs of the NaPali Coast to the mysterious depths of the tangled Alakai Swamp. This strenuous eight-mile trek shows off just how wild and unique the Garden Isle truly is.

- The HawaiianIslands.com Local Expert Team

The Pihea Trail begins in Kokee State Park at the Puu o Kilu Lookout. Clouds often veil or partly veil this amazing panorama, but when conditions are clear you can look from Mount Waialeale out to the Kalalau Valley of the NaPali Coast. The NaPali is the grand, pinnacled roadless northwestern edge of Kauai, and a top-down view of it is absolutely magical. Waialeale, meanwhile, is perhaps the wettest spot on the planet: This volcanic crest milks some 430 inches of annual rainfall out of the trade winds.

The two miles of the Pihea Trail trace the rim of the Kalalau Valley’s headwall, so the scenery keeps coming. After another overlook at Pihea Vista, the Pihea Trail drops down to a bench and heads south to the junction with the Alakai Swamp Trail. 

The Alakai Swamp is perhaps Kauai’s most mysterious region. It’s not really a true “swamp,” which is a continuous wetland dominated by trees or shrubs. It’s more a mosaic of low jungle ridges cut by bogs and ravines. The Alakai covers a gently sloping high ground northwest of the Waialeale peak called the Olokele Plateau. This is basically the northwestern shoulder of Mount Waialeale, part of the wet green roof of the Garden Isle.

We already mentioned how much rain the Waialeale crest gets. The Alakai Swamp, which gets its own several hundred inches of annual precipitation, soaks up a lot of that Waialeale runoff. All that water, plus the poor drainage of the Olokele Plateau, explains the muckiness and lushness of the Alakai Swamp. The Alakai drains to the sea via Waimea Canyon.

The Alakai Swamp Trail strikes across this boggy jungle, with boardwalk sections saving your boots from the worst of the quagmire. Stunted ohia trees rise above a tangled understory rich in ferns and vines. Whether it’s mist-shrouded or sunshiny, the Alakai Swamp is gorgeous and luxuriant.

In clear weather, the Alakai Swamp’s end at Kilohana Lookout gives you far-reaching sightlines over Kauai’s north shore. From here, cloud-free vistas stretch over the Wainiha Valley to Hanalei Bay.

Altogether, hiking to Kilohana Lookout from the Pihea trailhead sees you covering about 1,920 feet of elevation gain. There aren’t major climbs or descents, just a lot of up-and-down going. Dirt sections of trail readily turn to mud during and after rains. Some eroded sections of the trail create the most treacherous footing in those conditions. Be prepared to get a big dirty tackling this trek.

Wear sun protection and drink plenty of water. Bug protection may be helpful depending on current conditions.

From bird’s-eye views of the NaPali Coast valleys to the cloud forest of the Alakai, the Pihea Trail/Alakai Swamp Trail combo provides a fantastic look at Kauai at its wildest. 

Insider Tips:
-Here is a GPS navigation to the Puu O Kila Lookout: here.
-Stick to the trail! It’s notoriously easy to get lost in the Alakai Swamp. Given the often cloudy, rainy weather and the trackless nature of the jungle, search-and-rescue can be a tall order.