Explore the Garden Island on Foot: A Kauai Hiking Guide for the First Time Visitor

Red sand trail with green vegetation along it and views of the Pacific

There’s a reason they call Kauai the garden island. The landscape is almost mocking in its beauty, the roads windy and the cliffs high. The volcanic eruptions that carved this island into the earth left it jagged. The edges rough. When I walked them, though, I did not feel afraid. Each turn led me to a new sight, something to revel and appreciate.

I spent 8 days in this almost mythical place and was either on the water boating along the Na Pali coast, munching my way through the surprisingly undiscussed food scene, or driving down dirt roads looking for trails.

The hiking in Kauai is some of the best I’ve ever done. It is diverse and challenging, with the scenery transforming between rain forests and cliff edges within a few hundred feet.

This is a Kuai hiking guide for the first time visitor. It includes the trails you just can’t miss. These are the hikes that will give you gorgeous views of the island, tend to be easier to access and, mostly, are not full day treks. This is a collaboration with other travel bloggers to ensure we provide the best possible information to plan your hiking in Kauai.

Resources for Planning your Hiking in Kauai:

Department of Land & Natural Resources: Hiking in Kauai 

All the information you need to hike the Kalua Trail

See all of the Kauai State Parks

Visit The Kōkeʻe Museum – a great spot to stop off and chat with staff if
you’re not sure where to hike in Waimea Canyon or Ko’Kee State Parks

A full rundown of The Secret Falls hike and a recommended operator

Tips for Hiking in Kauai:

  • Go early in the day! For several reasons. One, you’re not the only one who’s trying to hike in Kauai. Two, it gets hot and humid real quick on this island. And three, the earlier you start the more you can pack in.
  • Check for trail openings and closings before you go. 
  • There is no cell service in much of the island’s parks. Be prepared to totally disconnect.
  • 4WD is not necessary but it’s helpful to get to a lot of the island’s better beaches and trails. Oh, and don’t try to drive through the sand unless you have cash on you to ask a local to tow you out afterwards.
Woman standing in front of ridges while hiking in Kauai Hawaii
Towering thousands of feet off the ground.

Awa’awapui Trail, Ko’Kee State Park

Contribution by us! Miles Less Traveled

Mileage: 6.2 (round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult for steepness, uneven terrain, and loose Earth. 
Directions: Take highway 550 from Wamea Town towards the Kaluala lookout. The parking lot is on the left hand side near the 17 mile marker. The road is windy and slow. Plus, the views are great, take your time!

The Awa’awapui Trail is the one that they tell you to do. I descended for miles through foreign plant life and mud that sucked my boots in to the ankle, squelching when I bent my knee to remove them. At the end of the trail the trees simply stop, and there is nothing but open space. 

Pre-dating this recommendation, folks would stop and say, “are you scared of heights?” And the truth is that I’m not, not really anyway. I can go up high buildings, I went skydiving, and I don’t really think about walking up to a cliff.

As it turns out, though, this was a bit of a different animal. I may not be scared of heights, but I learned I’m slightly terrified of 2000 ft cliffs that drop off from either side of what suddenly becomes a narrow dirt pathway with signposts alerting you to the “crumbling Earth.”

This was my favorite activity in all of Kauai, however, so even if you’re not into walking out to the point, the views are one hundred percent worth it. And, if you don’t choose to venture past the official end of the trail–which I don’t recommend you do–the trail feels pretty safe. It is really steep, however. 3 miles uphill for a return is not an easy hike, and should not be taken lightly especially in high heat and humidity.

Details of the Awa’awapui Trail

  • The trail is forested most of the time and at the time of day I went–7AM–it was shady.. The first 1-2 miles is covered rainforest, the last mile is a bit more exposed with shorter trees. After the first mile you get glimpses of the Pacific from to time, but most of the views are at the end.
  • When I got there at 730 I was the only one there. By the time I left roughly 4 hours later, the lot was overfilled with cars. On the way down I didn’t see another person, it was just me and the birdsongs. On the way back, there were plenty of people.
  • The vista at the end has the reputation of being one of the best views on the island. There are fences for the vista where you can stop at the end. Or it’s a muddy slide down to a small patch of flat land with crazy views and 2000 ft cliffs on either side. This is not an official part of the trail, use at your own risk. 
  • The views are insane: rugged green peaks, waterfalls coming off of cliffs, and so much of the Pacific. You are above the helicopter tours winding around the peaks. I had the view completely to myself until right about when I was leaving.
  • Plan for extra time to hang out and enjoy the views. It took me less than 2 hours out, I chilled for about 30/40 min, and then less than 2 hours back. With the stop it took me almost exactly 4 hours. 
  • The trail gets very muddy in the rainforest portions. 
  • Remember that going down feels much easier than coming back up. If you continue past where the trail officially ends onto the cliff face this becomes significantly more difficult and can be dangerous. This part of Kauai is remote, do not attempt if you are inexperienced hiking here.
Woman standing at the edge of the sand looking out at the sea from above
A stroll along the Kauai coast.

Mahaulepu Coastal Trail & Cave, Poipu

Contribution by us! Miles Less Traveled

Mileage: 4 miles (round trip)
Difficulty: Easy
Directions: You can get to this trail a few ways:
1. Take Poipu Rd down towards the coast until it ends and turns into a dirt road. When the road splits, bear right to park closer to Gilligan’s beach and park on the side of the road adjacent to the horse ranch. Walk down the road to get on the trail. Once there, go right for the trail or left for the cave and beach. 
2. RECOMMENDED* Take Poipu Rd down towards the coast until it ends and turns into a dirt road, same as before but this time bear left to start at the cave. This is the beginning of the trail. There is a gravel parking lot at the end of the road. Walk across the bridge for the cave entrance or turn left after bridge to catch the beginning of the trail. 
3. The other option is to park in the official parking lot near Shipwreck beach.

After a day of boating along the coast, watching dolphins circle the raft I was in, I was sun-kissed and tired. I almost went back to the hotel for a nap. But a quick pep talk later–you’ll sleep when you’re home, you never know if you’ll make it back to Hawaii–and I was rambling down a dirt road to the Mahaulepu Trail. 

I loved this hike. It may not be the most famous or especially challenging, but it’s absolutely gorgeous. It feels like a stroll down the coast, except instead of my more local NJ shore I was walking along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. I saw some people, but not many. 

I started near Gilligan’s beach which was pretty deserted when I went around 3 PM. The water didn’t look great for swimming but the forest comes up to the sand with views of green cliffs behind it. It’s nice, but not worth going out of your way for the beach alone. The best part was the relative emptiness of it, perfect if you’re looking for a quieter place to watch the waves.

Shipwreck beach on the other end is a much nicer beach but as such it’s more crowded, though nothing compared to the ones near Poipu. It makes for a great swim break in the middle of the hike.

Details of the Mahaulepu trail:

  • Starting at the Mahaulepu cave. This is the largest limestone cave in Hawaii. It was closed when I went in the later afternoon but you can still walk around it. If you want to catch it head to the trail between 10a-2pm when the cave is open.
  • The trail alternates between sand and red clay. It’s easy, but it can be rocky and there are parts with a steep drop off. The trail is surrounded by mostly flat land, though, so you never need to walk close to the edge if you don’t want to.
  • Almost the entire way out and back you have beautiful views of the Pacific but especially the ends close to the beaches. If you didn’t want to hike the whole thing, park at either Gilligan’s or Shipwreck and walk until you feel like turning back and you’ll get the best of it.
  • The trail took about 2 hours round trip with me stopping frequently to take pictures.
  • There are lots of little offshoots, I wandered many of them, but all of them seemed to lead back to the main trail or a viewpoint. If you get confused on any of the side paths just head back towards the water and you’ll find the main trail again or follow the coast until you see it.
  • In the middle, it runs along a golf course. It’s weird and was the only part of the hike that I didn’t like. Also, someone hit a ball that came really close to me. The people were screaming and freaking out, not ideal for how beautiful it was and the potential to chill on the hike.
  • While I saw people on the trail it wasn’t crazy busy. 
  • I saw quite a few sea turtles in the sea below me while I was walking.
View of Pacific and mountains in kauai through the trees from above
The views don’t get better than this.

Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai beach, Hāʻena State Park

Written by Sue Cockell from Sue Where? Why? What?. You can follow Sue on her Pinterest account.

Mileage: 2 miles (rountrip) *Note the trail extends to 22 miles, this is just a portion of it.
Difficulty: Easy
Directions: Take the Kuhio Highway to the Hāʻena State Park parking lot. The trailhead is right off of the lot.

While staying in Hanalei Bay, I was told by tourist information that I categorically must hike the Kalalau Trail during my visit. How could I refuse? I started early, aiming to complete the 2 miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach and back, maybe further if I could.

The walk was stunning as I made my way along the coastline with the characteristic lush green cliffs plunging into the sea beneath.

After 2 hours walking a well-trodden path, Hanakapi’ai Beach was within reach. It was still early so only a couple of people had beat me there, which gave me the confidence to cross the small river, my last obstacle. The beach was covered in rock piles which made for amazing photos as the waves crashed behind. There were signs en route showing a tally of how many people were killed by the unseen currents. Needless to say, I wasn’t tempted to swim!

From here, you can continue on the path for another 2 miles to the Hanakapi’ai Falls. However, as a solo hiker, with my feet getting stuck in the mud on each step, I decided to just walk slowly back and really soak up the beauty of the Na’Pali Coast.

Details of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai beach

  • After being closed much of this past year (2018 into 2019), the trail has reopened. There is now a visitor limit to enter the park, advanced reservations are required.
  • The first .5 mi of the trail has some of the best views you can get of the Na’Pali coast on land. Take your time here and soak them up!
  • The beach is lovely and white sand, but drownings occur here regularly. It’s more of a sunbathing spot, don’t go in the water.
  • If you continue on to the waterfalls, it becomes an 8-mile hike that is considerably more difficult. Plan your timing and gear accordingly. In addition, it is not recommended to do this portion in bad weather conditions.
layered brown and green colors on Waimea Canyon in Kauai
May I introduce, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

The Canyon Trail, Waimea Canyon

Written by Natasha Lequepeys who has an excellent Kauai itinerary on her blog, And then I met Yoko. You can follow Natasha on her Instagram account.

Mileage: 4 miles (roundtrip)
Difficulty: Moderate
Directions: Take highway 550 to the Waipo`o Falls Parking Lot.

The Waimea Canyon is shockingly under-hyped. Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”–by Mark Twain, supposedly–this has a tiny portion of the crowds of the Arizona one. The geological layering gives it a stacked look of varying hues of browns and greens, making it resemble something like those brightly colored bottles of layered sand you used to see at craft fairs.

Throw in towering waterfalls, vibrant red, sandy trails, and you have an idea of Waimea Canyon’s other-worldly beauty.

The Canyon Trail is a moderate hike into Waimea Canyon which takes you to open vistas and a secluded waterfall. On Google maps it’s labeled “The Waipo`o Falls Trail” which is rather deceiving since you don’t actually see Waipo’o Falls. However, you do get views of the canyon itself as you go down.

Details of the Canyon Trail at  Waimea Canyon

  • To get there you’ll park at the Waipo`o Falls Parking Lot. If you have a 4X4 you can drive to a second parking further down the dirt path but note that your car rental likely doesn’t cover damage from off-roading. 
  • The start of the trail is fairly easy. You’ll eventually arrive at a fork in the path. Heading right will take you a short distance (about 15 minutes) to the Cliff View Point. This offers a panoramic view of the canyon. 
  • Once you’ve seen this you can head back to the fork and continue on the trail heading left to “Canyon Trail”. After about 20 minutes you’ll hit another large opening. If you’ve got a camera, take it out and shoot the expansive landscape.
  • If you continue beyond this point you’ll eventually hit a small waterfall and stream. This is a great place to relax and maybe get refreshed before heading back to explore Kauai. 
Two woman crossing river hiking to Sacred Falls Kauai
One of the river crossings to the Secret Falls

The Secret Falls, Wailua River

Contribution by us! Miles Less Traveled
Mileage: 5 miles roundtrip kayak, 1 mile hike
Difficulty: Easy hike with 3 river crossings. Moderate paddle to get to the start of the hike.
Directions: This depends on your tour operator, there are meeting points along the river. There is a launch that we used which seems to also be open to the public if you have your own kayak. Take the Kuhio Highway and turn left on the road adjacent to the river before you cross it if you’re driving from the South. At the end of the road there is a parking lot and kayak launch. 

I had a gorgeous, magical afternoon on this hike with my friends. We used Wailua Kayak Adventure upon a recommendation from a local bartender and were not disappointed. The company is family-owned and operated, keeps the tours to small group sizes, and has one of the most lovely tour guides I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. 

Regardless of how you go, it’s worth it to get on the water in Wailua River. This is the only freshwater stream on the island that you can paddle in. It’s a short trip up to the trail start and a fun walk through the forest to get to the falls. If you want a more comprehensive guide to this we have a full post on hiking to the secret falls here.

Details of The Secret Falls Kayaking and Hiking Trip:

  • This starts with a 2.5 mile paddle upstream to the trailhead. This can get hot, there’s no coverage on the river.
  • There’s a little beach at the trailhead to leave your kayak for the hike. You’ll see many others parked there.
  • The trail is muddy but easy enough. It is quite crowded between tour groups and others visiting the falls.
  • There are multiple river crossings, none of which are particularly challenging.
  • The falls are absolutely spectacular! You can swim right up to them. Kiss the wall behind it for blessings.

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Alicia is a freelance writer, bartender, and the MLT wife! She loves running, beaches, and tiny animals.

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