The loop threads its way through much of the Makawao Forest Reserve, a roughly 2,000-acre tract of state lands on the far northwestern flanks of the East Maui volcano.
This is a popular area for both hiking and mountain biking. The Kahakapao Loop is a multi-use trail, shared by both user groups; bike-only trails such as the Pineapple Express, Renegade, and Ravine trails intersect it. You need to keep an eye out for mountain bikers on the loop—they need to keep an eye out for you, too!—and must avoid straying onto one of the dedicated bike trails.
Reached from Makawao—known for its Hawaiian cowboy culture, shops, and eateries—via Makawao Avenue, Piiholo Road, and Kahakapao Road, the trailhead awaits on a gated road. East of Makawao town, turn right onto Piiholo Road. Less than a mile later, turn right onto Kahakapao Road. At the end of this road is the gate. The gate is open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM daily, so plan accordingly.
The loop proper is reached by walking along an old road. The lush and aromatic slopeside forest here is dominated by non-native trees such as Cook pine, eucalyptus, and tropical ash, though some native Hawaiian species persist in the canopy. The understory and groundcover vegetation (including plentiful ferns) is a mix of natives—tree ferns, halapepe, pilo, etc.—and non-natives such as palm grass and ginger. The loop lies just east of Kahakapao Gulch, and traverses a number of ravines itself.
Keep your ears pricked for birdsong and consider bringing along a pair of binoculars. The Kahakapao Loop Trail is a good place to hear or see some of Maui’s native forest birds, many of which have become rare indeed. Some you might observe here are the apapane with its brilliant crimson plumage and complex voice, the amakihi—a yellow-green nectar- and insect-eater—and the yellowish Maui alamahio (Maui creeper).
As virtually everywhere in the main Hawaiian Islands, non-native birds are also prominent, among them the common myna and the red-billed leiothrix.
The highland climate up here in the Makawao Forest Reserve—the trail tops out past 3,700 feet in the southern part of the loop—and the shade of the mixed overstory make the loop a nice, cool escape. Pack layers and a rain shell: This is the Upcountry, after all!
A few hours in the Makawao Forest Reserve along the Kahakapao Loop Trail offers a shady respite from beachgoing in the lowlands. While you don’t nab much in the way of long sightlines, the luxuriant depths of these benches and gulches—and the sound of a trade-wind breeze in the trees—more than make up for that. Whether you’re walking in dappled sunlight or a drifting mist, the sylvan atmosphere is pretty darn reliably lovely.
Oh, and you can bring your four-legged friend along, as long as you keep him or her leashed (and out of the way of passing cyclists)!
The Kahakapao Loop Trail, and particularly the eastern leg, can get quite muddy after wet weather. It’s probably better to avoid this hike on a rainy day.