Hiking in Kaua‘i’s Beautiful Koke‘e State Park

Steep cliffs covered in greenery plunge into a canyon near the edge of the island.
Enjoy breathtaking views when hiking the Nualolo Trail. Photo © Alex Schwab, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

There are about 45 miles of trails in Koke‘e State Park with a range of difficulty levels. Most of the hikes begin along Koke‘e Drive or the dirt roads that veer off of it. The trails generally fall into five categories: Na Pali Coast overlook trails, Alaka‘i Swamp trails, forest trails, canyon overlook trails, and even a few bird-watching trails. Bring good hiking shoes, lots of water, sunblock, food, and even swimwear, depending on which trail you take. Trail maps and information are provided by the staff at the Koke‘e Natural History Museum (3600 Waimea Canyon Dr. after mile marker 15, 808/335-9975, 10am-4pm daily). A basic trail map put out by the state, called Trails of Koke‘e, can be picked up at Na Pali Explorer (9643 Kaumuali‘i Hwy., 808/338-9999 or 877/335-9909) in Waimea, but much more thorough trail maps are Hawaii Nature Guide’s Koke‘e Trails map and Northwestern Recreational Map by Earthwalk Press.

The Cliff Trail

For an easy family trail take a 10-minute walk on the Cliff Trail. Located off of Halemanu Road, it’s a leisurely stroll of only a tenth of a mile and leads to a wonderful viewpoint of Waimea Canyon. From the lookout you may see some wild goats hanging out on the canyon walls. This trail also accesses the Canyon Trail.

Canyon Trail to Waipo‘o Falls in Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii. © Maria1986nyc, Dreamstime.

Waipo‘o Falls and the Canyon Trail

The semi-strenuous 1.8-mile Canyon Trail branches off Cliff Trail and leads to the upper section of the 800-foot Waipo‘o Falls before going up and along the edge of the canyon. It takes about three hours and could be done by a family, if the family is up for a challenge. Wonderful views of the canyon are offered on this popular trail, and the reward of swimming in freshwater pools makes it a choice hike. The trail goes down into a gulch and then weaves along the cliff to the Koke‘e Stream and the falls. It follows the eastern rim of the canyon. Parking is at the Pu‘u Hinahina Lookout between mile markers 13 and 14. The trailhead is at the back of the parking lot. The trail ends at the Kumuwela Lookout, where you can head back on the Canyon Trail or walk back on Kumuwela Road.

Faye Trail

At the end of Halemanu Road is the 0.1-mile Faye Trail, which crosses a wooded valley and accesses other trails in the Halemanu area. The trail brings you to an undrivable section of Faye Road, which leads left and back up to the highway not far from the Halemanu Road turnoff. Take a right at Faye Road to end up on the highway below the state park cabins.

Nature Trail

A good trail for children is the 0.1-mile Nature Trail. Starting behind the Koke‘e Natural History Museum it parallels the meadow. It’s an easy and enjoyable walk through forest and offers good examples of native vegetation. Before beginning the trail pick up a free copy of a plant guide at the museum. This trail takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Kumuwela Trail

Off of Mohihi Road is the one-mile Kumuwela Trail. This trail is somewhat strenuous but could be done by a tough family. It takes about one hour on the way in and offers lush native vegetation and fragrant flowers. It’s a good birding trail, and you can connect to the Canyon Trail at Kumuwela Road at the end of the trail.

Pu‘u Ka Ohelo Berry Flat Trail

Near park headquarters is pole #320, which marks the beginning of Camp 10-Mohihi Road. This is generally a four-wheel-drive road, but occasionally two-wheel-drive cars can make it if the weather has been really dry. Numerous trails start here and head into the forest, along ridges with canyon views and across minor streams. The roughly 1.6-mile loop called the Pu‘u Ka Ohelo Berry Flat Trail is a semi-tough trail that can be done with a family up for a challenge. The trail has a beautiful forest of sugi pine, California redwoods, Australian eucalyptus, and the valuable native koa as well as the ‘ohi‘a tree. The small, red, strawberry guava with a thick flesh and edible seeds grows here, and this is a popular spot for locals to harvest the fruit. Picking season is midsummer, so it’s important to check with park headquarters before snacking on the fruit while hiking. To access this trail, begin at the Pu‘u Ka Ohelo trailhead, near some cabins about a quarter mile up a road off Camp 10-Mohihi Road, and hike clockwise, which will take you downhill.

Po‘omau Canyon Ditch Trail

The beautiful Po‘omau Canyon Ditch Trail is less than a half mile past the Berry Flat Trail. Developed to maintain the Koke‘e irrigation ditch, this trail is less than four miles long round-trip. It’s pretty strenuous and it deserves plenty of time to be completed. This trail leads you to wonderful views of the Po‘omau Stream, lush green forests, and a great view of two waterfalls below you from a peninsula of land that extends out into the canyon. If you bring a picnic lunch you will find a grassy overlook to sit on and enjoy the views. Take Waineke Road across from the Koke‘e Museum to Mohihi Road. You will need to park well before the trailhead on Mohihi Road, a little over 1.5 miles from Highway 550. Walk about three-quarters of a mile to an unmarked trailhead on your right.

The famous Kalalau Valley to the left totally covered in clouds in Kauai, Hawaii. The path is the beginning of the Pihea Trail. © Industryandtravel, Dreamstime.

Pihea Trail and Alaka‘i Swamp Trail

Beginning at the end of Waimea Canyon Drive at the Pu‘u O Kila Overlook is the Pihea Trail, about 3.7 miles in length. It leads to the Alaka‘i Swamp Trail, about 3.5 miles long. The Pihea Peak, accessed by a very steep trail, is about 1.3 miles after the lookout. This trail runs along the back edge of the Kalalau Valley, and you will be treated to wonderful views into the valley and out to the ocean. About 1.6 miles in, a wooden boardwalk has been constructed to help keep hikers from getting extremely submerged in mud. When you hit the Alaka‘i Trail, take a left, and it’s about two miles to the end. A majestic, gorgeous, and unique trail, the Alaka‘i Swamp Trail heads down toward the Kawaikoi Stream and then up a ridge across boggy forestland to the Kilohana Overlook, the trail’s ultimate destination. When you can catch a very clear day, which can be tough, the views of the Wainiha and Hanalei Valleys are awesome.

The approximately five-million-year-old swamp is about 4,500 feet above sea level, and is one of the most distinctive experiences on the island. The surroundings up here feel like another world. Mossy trees, birds, and fog create an environment different from anywhere else. It’s a great birding trail but the views are iffy with the lingering mist and clouds of the area. The entire trail totals about eight miles, so it’s important to bring snacks, water, and energy.

Awa‘awapuhi/Nu‘alolo Loop

For a nearly day-long hike with spectacular views, explore the Awa‘awapuhi/Nu‘alolo Loop. This trail is home to some of the most fantastic views on the island, and it’s a mustdo hike if you are up for a strenuous and long hike. It’s nearly 10 miles, about 11 if you walk the paved road back to your car at the end. But, the views on this trail are picturesque and sublime. Most hikers do the full loop, beginning on the Nu‘aloalo Trail then turning right (north) about 3.2 miles in onto the Nu‘alolo Cliff Trail, which connects with the Awa‘awapuhi Trail. At the end take a left for amazing views, ending on a narrow ridge. A highlight is the thin finger of cliff where you can look down at the sea and a vibrant valley 2,500 feet below. From here you hike uphill back to the road while gaining 1,500 feet in elevation. Along the hike bright red wild berries called thimbleberries (resembling raspberries) can be snacked on, along with the sweet and sour liliko‘i, or passion fruit. The damage Hurricane ‘Iniki did to the area is still evident in the upland forest here.

There are no views until the end of the trails. Because they are on the western slopes of Koke‘e, it gets extremely sunny out here in the afternoon, so it’s a good idea to begin around 9am. It’s a tough hike. Take your time, bring plenty of water and food, and expect to spend half to a full day on the hike. Lastly, the museum parking lot is probably safer for your car than the trailhead, and down the road after you emerge from the Awa‘awapuhi trailhead back to the museum is easier than hiking up the road to your car.

Pihea trail starts in the mountains near Koke‘e State Park, Kauai, Hawaii, and the path travels to Alaka‘i Bog. A giant tree arches over the trail with ferns and moss. ©Wendy Roberts, Dreamstime.

Bird-Watching Trails

For bird-watching in Koke‘e, try the 3.5-mile Alaka‘i Swamp Trail. The 1.6-mile Kaluapuhi Trail is also a good bet for birds, as well as the 3.7-mile Pihea Trail. For a shorter birding trail, take a stroll on the Halemanu-Koke‘e Trail, which is slightly over a mile, or the one-mile-long Kumuwela Trail.

Kevin Whitton

About the Author

Avid surfer and nature-lover Kevin Whitton has traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Indonesia, and Australia. He’s volunteered as a trail guide in a private Costa Rican rain forest preserve and as a snowmobile guide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. When confronted with the choice between living in the mountains and visiting the beach, or living at the beach and visiting the mountains, Kevin refused to choose, deciding to call O’ahu home instead. Now when he waits for a wave at one of his favorite windward or North Shore surf breaks, he can gaze at the verdant mountains and revel in the best of both worlds.

Kevin is the author of the award-winning Green Hawai’i: A Guide to a Sustainable and Energy Efficient Home and A Pocket Guide to Hawai’i’s Botanical Gardens. He writes for Hawai’i’s most notable publications, is active in the island’s surf media, and is the co-founder and editor of GREEN: Hawai’i’s Sustainable Living Magazine.

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