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Which Hawaiian Island is Best for Hiking?

Which Hawaiian Island is Best for Hiking?

Hawaii is an otherworldly paradise filled with a myriad of mountains, sweeping valleys and crystal blue waters. Thousands of years of volcanic activity have given rise to dramatic landscapes just waiting to be explored: and there are hundreds of hiking trails to allow you to do so.

So, which Hawaiian island is best for hiking? Both Big Island and Maui offer some of the best trails you can find, but the island of Kauai just pinches the top spot. Here, you really can find it all. Breathtaking ridges overlooking the Pacific, dense jungles and more waterfalls than you can shake a stick at. It also holds the world famous and slightly treacherous Kalalau Trail which attracts seasoned hikers from around the globe.

Here’s our 6 favorite hiking trails on the island of Kauai:

1. Kalalau Trail

The infamous Kalalau trail is hands down the best way to explore the stunning Na’Pali coastline. The main trail is an out-and-back 24 mile route, best spread over a few days. There are also a number of extra trails for you to enjoy en-route which will take you to some of the island’s best pools and waterfalls!

It is pitched as a difficult hike, and as such only recommended for experienced hikers. This is due to the large number of ascents and descents, rugged terrain and sheer drops which lead to jagged cliffs and crashing waves below. Be especially aware when crossing the trails many rivers, as flash floods are common and sadly several hikers have lost their lives as a result.

This trail operates a permit system, due to its popularity and level of difficulty. Best to book way in advance as it can quickly fill up. Alternatively, you can visit the rangers’ office from 8.30am on the day to check for any cancellations, and tt costs $20 for non-residents. Is the risk and the cost worth it? 1000 percent.

Recommended Itinerary

Day 1 – Hike the trail to Kalalau Beach (12 miles)

Day 2 – Relax at the beach and explore some other smaller trails (0-4 miles)

Day 3 – Hike back along the trail (12 miles)

Trail Stats

Location: Na’Pali coast (north)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 24 miles + optional extras

Elevation gain/loss: 10,000 ft

Difficulty: Hard

Trailhead: Ke’e beach parking lot (google map)

Parking: Available, parking lot can be very busy so be prepared for a fair walk to the trailhead.

Permits: Required. Booking and further information here.

For more detailed trail information, read this Ultimate Guide to the Kalalau Trail.

2. Hanakapiai Falls Trail

The Hanakapiai Falls Trail is one of the island’s most popular – and for good reason. It leads you towards the first section of the Kalalau Trail, before branching off and heading inland towards the impressive 300ft falls in the heart of the jungle.

This is a fairly demanding but doable day hike at 8 miles total distance, and the views are breathtaking. At one point, you have the red rock path below your feat, the crystal blue waters in the ocean below and the emerald greens of dense jungle all around – it is seriously beautiful!

The trail itself is well-marked and signposted and it would be impressive if you managed to get lost. Just pay attention to the terrain around you: prepare for a steep incline, loose footing and lots of mud – then reward yourself with an icy deep once you reach the falls!

Trail Stats

Location: North Na’Pali coast (google map)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 8 miles

Elevation gain/loss: 1,500 ft

Difficulty: Medium

Trailhead: Ke’e beach – at the very end as far as you can go

Parking: Available, parking lot can be very busy so be prepared for a fair walk to the trailhead.

Permits: Not required. Just make sure you don’t find yourself on the Kalalau Trail for which you do need a permit, and rangers are often out checking.

Related article: Hiking in Hawaii (Detailed Packing List)

3. Ho’oip’i Falls Trail

This is one of the most accessible and rewarding day hikes on the island. Prepare for lashings of mud – especially during rainy season – and giant overhanging trees with fern fronds galore. The colors and smells of this hike are what make it a continued favorite among hikers.

The trail itself is a short one at only two miles, but there are a couple of spots where you can take a break and a dip in a pool along the way – so it is worth dedicating a good few hours to enjoy it fully. The trailhead is close to amenities, just make sure to bring a good supply of water to combat the humidity.

There are some mini-falls en route which you can cliff jump from, just don’t be deceived by the pools and always check their depth and for the presence of boulders which would do you harm! The main falls aren’t the highest but they are beautiful in their own right – and were even a filming location for the 1993 Jurassic Park movie! A little added bonus to an already excellent spot…

Trail Stats

Location: Kapa’a (East)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 2 miles

Elevation: ± 200ft

Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: Just north of Kapa’a – (google map)

Parking: Available at the trailhead, ample.

Permits: Not required.

Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Trail

4. Honopu Ridge Trail

The Honopu Ridge is another fantastic way to see the best of the Na’Pali coastline, without undertaking the mega-difficult route of the Kalalau.

It is a relatively short hike at 5 miles roundtrip, but the trail is not officially maintained so you may spend a good portion of your time bushwhacking or getting lost. The initial portion of the trail is probably the trickiest, with overgrown ferns and super spiky flora at knee-level – you’ll definitely want to wear long pants and a long-sleeved tee for this otherwise you might find yourself very prickled!

The ridge is actually about 1300-2000ft below the trailhead, depending how far out onto the ridge you go, so the return is all uphill. Once you break out of the bush, however, the views are absolutely stunning. If you catch it on a clear day, you’ll have unimpinged views of the magnificent Na’Pali coastline, brilliant blue ocean and lush green forest behind you.

The trail does continue pretty far along the ridge, however most hikers choose to stop about midway before a steep descent off one of the hills, where the trail thins to just a few feet wide with incredibly sheer drops either side. If you do decide to continue, exercise extreme caution along this section.

Trail Stats

Location: Koke’e State Park (north)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 4.2 to 5 miles

Elevation gain/loss: 2,600 to 4,000 ft

Difficulty: Hard

Trailhead: just after the AwaAwapuhi Trailhead – (google map)

Parking: Nothing official but a few spots along the road near the trailhead.

Permits: Not required.

5. Waimea Canyon to Waipo’o Falls Trail

This is not your typical waterfall hike, because the end point is actually on top of the waterfall as opposed to standing at the base. Your main view will not be the cascading waterfall itself, but the view from the top as you stand at the source! The canyon is beautiful, intricately carved over thousands of years with a host of vibrant colors.

This is a relatively short and moderately-trafficked route through Waimea Canyon, which boasts some impressive red rocks, dense foliage and the ever-present smell of lush forest goodness. This canyon is known a the Grand Canyon of the Pacific – and its not hard to see why!

Keep an eye out on the drive up canyon road for a good look at Waipo’o Falls from the base. Although this is a short hike, it is a consistent favorite among hikers and tourists from all over.

Trail Stats

Location: Waimea (west)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 4 miles

Elevation gain/loss: 1,400 ft

Difficulty: Easy

Trailhead: Pu’u Hinahina parking lot.

Parking: At the trailhead, ample.

Permits: Not required.

Take a look at some impressive photos and read more about the trail here.

6. Okolehao Trail to Hihimanu Trail

The Okolehao Trail itself is a short, relatively well-maintained 2 mile trail with views out over Hanalei Bay. Where this trail excels, however, is the extension up to Hihimanu Ridge to the twin peaks which give a fantastic view out over the island.

The extended trail up the ridge can be hazardous, with thick mud, rope-climbs and steep ridges; but is totally worth it. The whole trail is 5 miles but can take a good 4-5hours given the terrain. This is the perfect trail for anyone who loves to push themselves, stay away from the crowds and be rewarded with spectacular views!

Trail Stats

Location: Waimea (west)

Trail type: Out-and-back

Distance: 5 miles

Elevation gain/loss: 4,800 ft

Difficulty: Hard

Trailhead: Okolehao trailhead bridge – (google map).

Parking: At the trailhead, ample.

Permits: Not required.

Where should I stay in Kauai for best access to hiking?

The whole island of Kauai is beautiful and each corner offers spectacular hikes. However, if you’re a serious hiker or just want the best access to a lot of varied trails, then staying as close as possible to the north shore is your best option.

There are a couple of options directly on the north shore, but the best bang-for-your-buck hotels and resorts lie on the east, are close to amenities and only an hours drive from the best hikes.

Kauai Shores Hotel pinches the top spot for me. At $200-$300 a night it is actually great value for what you get (Kauai is an expensive island!). It has all the services of a hotel but feels more like a resort, and is a stone’s throw from the beach. The staff are super helpful and can assist you in car rentals, hike planning or anything else you might need, and the rooms are modern and well thought-out.

If you’re planning a hiking trip, consider mixing up your stays in hotels and campsites to help with your budget. Check out the local advice on campgrounds and prices here.

Read more:

What Is The Scariest Hike In America?

Which National Parks are Best in Winter? Our Top 10 Picks

Top 20 Best Day Hikes in the World

The 5 Best Sunscreen Brands for Hiking and Trekking

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