Kauai is an incredible island to go hiking on. There are dense rainforests, mountains, valleys, and ocean vistas for days if you’re willing to challenge yourself a little. Some of the challenging hikes around The Garden Island are certainly not for the faint of heart, as they test your fitness level with dramatic elevation changes out and back.
Most of Kauai is essentially inaccessible save for getting there on foot, so this gives hikers a unique advantage to see some truly spectacular sights. Getting to the start of some of these hikes may require a ride via taxi or kayak. However, what awaits at the end of them are sights majestic enough to be worth the effort.
Our guide covers the best hiking trails to explore during your visit to Kauai. There are approximate distances, difficulty ratings, and the time it takes on average to complete each hike based on our personal experience. Always remember to check weather conditions when you plan to visit. The difficulty of each will depend on your level of fitness and comfort with hiking in general.
Top 11 Hikes On Kauai
1. Kalalau Trail
While the island has no shortage of strenuous hikes, this is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hikes on the north shore of Kauai. The Kalalau Trail is enough of a commitment that anything beyond the first two miles of the trail actually requires a permit and camping pass. If you’re up for a quick day trip hike, be sure to check out the Hanakapiai Trail, which makes up the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail.
Although these first two miles are relatively easy, the nine after test your abilities as you scale up to 800 feet of elevation before descending to Kalalau Beach. Along the way, you navigate steep graded hills, slippery rock in river beds, and narrow passageways. For your efforts, you’ll be treated to sights like the Na Pali Coast, Space Rock, and Crawler’s Ledge.
Before heading out, you’ll need to check with the locals or park staff to make sure the weather and trail conditions remain favorable so you don’t have to turn around and come back. When hiking the Kalalau Trail, you’re a world away from any kind of help aside from the people in your group, so its better to be safe than sorry.
- Distance: 22 miles (round trip)
- Time: 1+ days
- Difficulty: Difficult
2. Canyon Trail To Waipo’o Falls
The Canyon Trail to Waipo’o Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Koke’e State Park. It’s named for its location around the rim of Waimea Canyon, one of the most stunning natural landmarks on Kauai. This hiking trail which offers fantastic canyon views also takes you to the top of Waipo’o Falls, where two other waterfalls can be seen.
As you start out on the 3-mile-long hike, you experience minor ups and downs through the lighter forest without much overall change in elevation. Around the halfway point in the trail, it can veer off on Cliff Trail, which is a short jaunt out to an overlook sitting on the north edge of Waimea Canyon.
Continuing past the Cliff Trail for around 30 to 40 more minutes you start to encounter the beginning of the rim of the canyon as you ascend. Hike a few more minutes to reach the end of the trail upon finding a dirt path that goes down and brings you to the two beautiful waterfalls above the Waipo’o Falls.
Keep in mind that if you choose to descend down this path, you will need to backtrack up the same spot but you certainly didn’t hike all this way not to see them. These beautiful falls are worth the added effort.
You can also get an unobstructed view of Waimea Canyon by the convenient lookout point called Waimea Canyon Lookout. It’s around a 10-minute drive from the parking lot trailhead of the Waipo’o Falls Trail.
- Distance: 3.0 miles (round trip)
- Time: 2.5 to 3 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
3. Sleeping Giant Trail
The Sleeping Giant Trail offers visitors three hiking trails to explore. Depending on how much effort you’d like to put in, you can go for just the east trail, west trail, or if you’re feeling adventurous, take the full Sleeping Giant Nounou Mountain Trail.
Most of the trip along the Sleeping Giant Trail is through beautiful mountain forests, gradually sloping up through the middle of the hike to reach Nounou Mountain. We saw some stunning views of Mt. Waialeal and the Wailau River last time we hiked it.
There are a few more difficult areas to traverse, including some rock climbing but nothing a beginner-level hiker can’t handle. You’ll see others including solo hikers, families, and four-legged friends along the route, as this is a popular spot for a quick hike.
The Sleeping Giant trailhead is easily accessible and has parking on either side of the trail. Just arrive early as there are limited spaces and little street parking. It brings you close to Wailua and Kapa’a, so if you need any supplies for the day, make a quick pitstop here. In our opinion, the Kuamo’o Nounou Trail is the better option out of the three.
- Distance: 3.4 miles (round trip)
- Time: 2-4 hours
- Difficulty: Easy to Difficult
4. Kalepa Ridge Trail
The Kalepa Ridge Trail is probably our favorite trail on Kauai, and that’s saying a lot on this island of numerous beautiful trails. To us, the views on the trail are reminiscent of the movie Avatar, with steep, mist-shrouded mountains rising precipitously from the mysterious valley thousands of feet below. Others say it reminds them of the Andes Mountains and Machu Picchu.
The trail starts off spectacularly at the Kalalau Lookout, and the views only get better the farther down you hike. As you proceed down the precipitous path, different elevations bring unique vistas. At the top, green ferns blanket everything but the razor-thin path. Lower, the trail opens up to reveal weather-worn trees and epic mountain peaks. Go lower and Kauai’s famous red dirt comes into play, as well as other-worldly views all the way down the Na Pali Coast.
We hike the Kalepa Trail Ridge whenever we’re in the area. The fog was thick on this particular day, but it broke briefly for some epic views. There was a wedding at the Kalalau Lookout, and we felt bad for the bride and groom who were no doubt hoping for a clear day. They still had a beautiful ceremony from what we saw.
The trail is steep, especially at the top, but not dangerous in our opinion if you proceed cautiously. Though there are precipitous drops, the trail is just far enough back from the edge to not induce any fear.
- Distance: 1.6 miles
- Time: 1 hour
- Difficulty: Moderate
5. Mahaulepu Heritage Trail
The Mahaulepu Heritage Trail begins at Shipwreck Beach and takes you all the way to Gillins Beach (Mahaulepu Beach). Along the trail, you can listen to the clicking rocks as the waves roll in and out. There is a cliff that’s a popular jumping and diving point, although we don’t recommend jumping from it. However, it is one of our favorite places to get a beautiful view of Shipwreck Beach and look out for whales in the ocean during the winter months.
After Shipwreck Beach, the trail goes up to near the top of the cliff. Winds and waves batter Kauai’s southern shore along the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail. The elements have carved a number of unique geological features along the coast. There is a rocky cove at approximately the halfway point of the trail and there is everything from tide pools to isolated coves near the start.
After the rocky cove, there is a bit of shade before heading back up top. Most of the trail is exposed to the hot sun so prepare accordingly with protective wear and sunscreen. The trail has numerous paths as you head towards Mahaulepu Beach, but they all take you the same way. Some of us hikers refer to them as the cliffs path (along the coastline) and middle path (more shaded and along more vegetation). Each offers different perspectives.
After the cove, the trail takes you between the shoreline and the Poipu Bay Golf Course. Sea turtles can often be seen in the waters below if you observe carefully. You also come across the golf course at a certain point, so just be sure to stay on the trail and don’t walk on the course. Nearing the end of the trail, you will find a bluff covered in vegetation. The CJM Country Stables can also be seen from the trail.
The trail ends at Gillin’s Beach, although you can hike farther down the shoreline all the way to Haula Beach.
- Distance: 2 miles one way (4 miles round trip)
- Time: 1.5 – 3 hours
- Difficulty: Easy
6. Awaawapuhi Trail
If you are after a stunning view of the Na Pali Coast and are willing to spend the better part of a day hiking through forests to get to it, be sure to check out Awaawapuhi Trail. The trail is located on the west side of Kauai in Koke’e State Park and is accessible via a quick car ride through Waimea Canyon, which you should definitely stop and see along the way.
When you first arrive at the trailhead for Awaawapuhi Trail, the first couple miles of the trek out might not look like anything special at first.
You head through thick forests with the potential for a muddy trail on your way to the vistas. A gradual decline for most of the hike means the trip out is easier than the trip back, but once the terrain has leveled out, you begin to understand why this spot is so popular.
As we came out of the forest in the last mile, we began to see the jaw-dropping Na Pali Coast canyons that burst out of the ocean. This culminates at the posted end of the trail which has signs and a railing for safety.
With a few more careful, mindful steps, you reach a rocky outcrop that places you precariously over the valleys below with sheer drops on all sides. If you’re up for a longer hike, you can combine the Awaawapuhi Trail with the Nu’alolo Trail for an even more challenging hiking experience.
- Distance: 6.2 miles (round trip)
- Time: 4 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
7. Okolehao Trail
The Okolehao Trail sits just outside of Princeville and for those willing to make the trek, the hike provides an unparalleled view of Hanalei Bay and the surrounding mountain range. Although it’s only 2.5 miles to the trail’s end, most of the trail involves climbing.
The good news is that all of the uphill battles are worth it once you reach the top and see the stunning vistas in a full panorama to the north and west. The sight is what makes it one of the best hikes in Kauai.
Most of this hike is through the jungle and it isn’t until you’ve started to get close to the end that you realize how much elevation you have gained. We certainly felt it in the legs by the time we reached the top, but fortunately the return is mostly downhill.
If you’re driving in, you can find a decent little parking area that fills up quickly on busier days so arrive early and beat the possible crowds and mid-day heat.
The trailhead can be found just south of Princeville by taking the Kuhio Highway up to Ohiki Road. Not long on Ohiki Road and you’ll see signs for the trail and parking.
- Distance: 5.0 miles (round trip)
- Time: 4-5 hours
- Difficulty: Difficult
8. Alakai Swamp Trail
As a part of the deeper trail system in Koke’e State Park, you’ll find the Alakai Swamp Trail. This trail is only accessible by first hiking one of the adjoining sections of the Pihea Trail. You can get to this trail by driving to the end of Koke’e Park Road and parking at the provided trailhead area and following the signs for Pihea Trail.
About halfway through Pihea Trail, there are signs for the Alakai Swamp Trail that forks to the east. From here, continue to Kilohana Lookout, which provides an incredible view of Halelea Forest Reserve to the east and Hanalei Bay to the northeast, which is easily visible from here on clear days.
Hikers who wish to try their hand at this hike should come prepared as it is in a fairly remote spot in Kauai. Make sure to stop in Waimea on your way through to stock up on whatever you may need before making the drive up the trailhead.
Try to come out early so you can fully appreciate the drive up, too, as you’ll pass by some of the most beautiful scenery on the entire island.
- Distance: 7.0 miles (round trip)
- Time: 3 hours
- Difficulty: Difficult
9. Honopu Ridge Trail
The Honopu Ridge Trail is one of the most difficult hiking trails in Kauai because it’s no longer officially maintained by Koke’e State Park. This hasn’t stopped the locals from clearing the aggressive brush and trees to allow hikers to descend to Honopu Beach for a true island paradise feeling.
It’s a fairly short distance overall but the return trip from the bottom is all uphill and a steep incline. We drank up most of the water going back up, so ration your water for the uphill hike. Preparation and a great pair of hiking shoes as well as hiking sticks go a long way to ensure you have a good time out here.
Just so you have an idea of what you’re up against, the elevation is 1600+ feet within the 4.4 to 5-mile hike depending on when you decide to turn around.
Since the trail is not maintained or well marked, keep an eye out for obvious signs of a path and trail markers placed by fellow hikers. You will mostly see ribbons placed around trees and these were a huge help when we hiked it.
This is definitely one of the more daunting Kauai hiking trails, but the stunning views of the Na Pali Coast and Honopu Valley are worth it.
- Distance: 4.4 to 5.0 miles (round trip)
- Time: 3-5 hours
- Difficulty: Difficult
10. Hanakapiai Trail
The Hanakapiai Trail makes up the first two miles of the massive Kalalau Trail (mentioned above) and connects Ke’e Beach with Hanakapiai Beach. This north shore hike is easy to traverse and provides a decent preview of what the rest of the Kalalau Trail will be like. Although some people just hike the trail and get off it instead of completing the entire Kalalau Trail.
Since this is one of the more popular Kauai hikes, it’s well-traveled and one of the safest options on this list. Hikers get the chance to check out two separate beaches and be treated to a great view of the famous Na Pali Coast. We were able to get some scenic views and photos.
When you reach Hanakapiai Beach, you can turn around and head back or you can head inland and be two miles from Hanakapiai Waterfall. The waterfall hike is a great addition to this trail if you have the time and supplies. Read this post for more waterfalls hikes in Kauai.
- Distance: 4.0 miles (round trip)
- Time: Approx. 2-4 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
11. Kukui Trail
The Kukui Trail drops over 2,000 feet from the trailhead to the floor of Waimea Canyon over only 2.5 miles (one way). It’s for this reason that we consider it a reasonably difficult hike, however, you’ll still likely be there at the same time as other hikers and campers. It was pretty busy the last time we did it.
There are viewpoints where you can check out the canyon as you descend but most of the hike is through a dense Kukui forest. The trail ends at the base of Waimea Canyon and provides sights of the surrounding valley floor and rivers. You can also see the Waialae Falls in the distance.
Don’t underestimate the elevation change and be sure to give yourself plenty of time for the return trip from the bottom. We’ve found that the best time to hike the Kukui Trail is in the morning. The elevation change is no joke in such a short distance and you don’t want to do it when it’s too hot. Take breaks, stay hydrated, and enjoy yourself.
- Distance: 4 miles (round trip)
- Time: 3-4 hours
- Difficulty: Difficult
If you want to take your hiking experience to the next level, you should also consider booking a guided hiking tour with a local expert. A trained guide can help assess you and your group’s capabilities and determine which area might suit you and your party the best.
A guide adds the benefits of local knowledge and an added element of safety because they can make informed decisions about which hikes should be off-limits due to weather and trail conditions.
Most tours also include refreshments to keep your energy levels up for the full hike, and many of them involve other activities like kayaking and sailing. It adds more levels of fun when exploring Kauai.
Do yourself a favor and look into the many guided excursions around Kauai. It’s also an excellent way to learn background information about certain areas and learn more about the local culture. It’s something I’d highly recommend to any new traveler with a sense of adventure.