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Mahaulepu Heritage Trail: What To Expect

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail: What To Expect

The Mahaulepu Heritage Trail is located on the southeast coast of Kauai. It’s near Koloa and Poipu and offers one of the most scenic hiking trails on Kauai with views of the ocean all along the way and unique landscapes like tide pools and sand dunes.

The trail is an out-and-back, easy, flat with 298 elevation gain and a 4-mile roundtrip hike. It will take you to the 2-mile stretch of Mahaulepu Beach. The white sand beach has three separate beaches: Gillins’s Beach, Kawailoa Bay, and Haula Beach.

Mahaulepu Heritage Trailhead
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail parking lot

What Is The Mahaulepu Heritage Trail Known For?

The 2-mile trail goes to Gillins’s Beach or the white house that sits on that beach, Gillins’s house. This 2-mile spot is also where the Makauwahi Cave Reserve and the Tortoise Sanctuary are located. All three of these destinations together make an enjoyable place to explore before heading back 2 miles to the parking lot. However, you can continue for 2 more miles along this coastline, the Mahaulepu Beach, and explore all 3 sections, which will make this hike an 8-mile round trip.

Tortoise Sanctuary
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail Tortoise Sanctuary

This hike can take as little as 1.5 hours, but if you want to explore the many trails that lead you below the cliff, go inside the Makauwahi cave, visit the tortoise sanctuary, or relax at Gillins’s Beach, plan on spending 3 to 4 hours or more. It’s up to you to explore everything along this trail. We included it on our list of 11 Best Hikes on Kauai for a good reason.

Gillins Beach

Where Should You Park?

The parking lot for the trail is at the end of Ainako Street right after the driveway entrance to the Grand Hyatt on Poipu Road. If the paved parking lot at the end of the road in Shipwreck Beach is full, turn around, and you’ll find parking in a dirt area or along the street near the Poipu Bay Golf Course. At the paved parking lot, you can find the only public restrooms and showers.

What Can You See On The Mahaulepu Trail?

The Mahaulepu Trail takes you to Mahaulepu Beach, which starts off right away at the Shipwreck Cliff and follows along the edge of sand dunes, lava tunes, tide pools, isolated coves, blow holes and caves cut from the strong crashing waves below and the strong coastline winds.  

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail tidepools

Along these sections, you can see fish, turtles, manta rays, and beautiful whales in the winter. The water below is the most beautiful blue you’ll ever see and so clear that the marine life and reef below are visible. 

Up on the trail, you walk through a forest of trees and bushes growing in a bent position from the strong winds and exposed lava and roots from the sand-blown area. The terrain here is like nowhere else on Kauai, and Mother Nature changes it all the time.

There are many trails, and some end where erosion starts. Don’t worry, all these trails go in the same direction, so you won’t get lost. Just follow the coastline and enjoy what you see on any of the paths. 

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail middle path

No hiking boots or trekking poles are needed. However,  I advise against flip-flops or dainty sandals since there are sharp lava and reef sections. Hiking sandals with good thick treaded soles are good, tennis shoes or ankle hiking shoes. Bring water as there is little shade, and the south/east side of Kauai is dryer and gets hot, especially after 11 a.m.

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail Hike Guide

To start the hike the Mahaulepu trailhead begins right at the end of the parking lot at Shipwreck Beach. Go to your left and see a path that follows in the trees and bushes, and just keep continuing about 200 yards.  

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail Cliff Path

You will see a narrow trail (I call it the bottom trail) cutting to your left. You can go that way, but then you’ll miss the amazing views from the cliff, so stay on the center trail that takes you gradually up to the top of the cliffs. This is the only elevation gain throughout the hike. 

It’s gradual, with no climbing and just a few rocks that are easy to walk on. Once you reach the top, take a right. This spot on the cliff is what you saw from the beach itself and is now looking back at the parking lot, the Grand Hyatt, and Poipu in the distance. If you didn’t know, the Shipwreck Cliff itself is in the 1998 movie “Six Days and Seven Nights”, where Harrison Ford and Anne Heche are being chased, and they jump off into the ocean.

Shipwreck Beach view from Cliff

After admiring Shipwreck Beach from this amazing view, head back and continue the trail. At the top, hikers can see the beautiful and powerful ocean and the many rock formations and huge waves pounding this cliff. There are trails that are easy to follow and not dangerous and head down to tide pools and beaches. Don’t turn your back to the ocean and watch your step, as the sea is crazy strong along this southern Kauai coastline. 

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail cliff path

You may want to avoid some areas of the coastal cliff trail and just take one of the sandy trails (I call them the middle trails) to be out of the strong winds and eroding rocks. Some parts have exposed roots or lava, but the ground is easy to walk on. The same middle paths take you through sections of tree-like bushes that form tunnels that grow bent that way from the strong winds.

Soon, you come to the sacred religious area. Observe the signs to stay on the trail, but admire the historic site. Once you pass this area you are going along the golf course. Stay on that trail and do not get on the fairway, and respect golfers putting or taking a shot. I wait till their shot is done to proceed for safety and not to mess up their swing. 

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail golf course
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail red dirt

After the golf course, you enter a field of trees then emerge out quickly, and see CJM horse stables on your left. Still following the trail, it turns left to Gillins’s Beach and the white house.  

You will also come to parked cars where people are fishing below or parked to visit the Makauwahi Cave Reserve. There is a sign for the caves. Feel free to follow it and look at the signs along the way that say what plants are found in the area. 

Makauwahi Cave Reserve trail sign
Makauwahi Cave Reserve

The Makauwahi Cave Reserve trail takes you above the crater where the cave is. Follow this path and it turns at a stream. You can cross the stream to the beach or continue to the cave entrance. Go inside since it’s pretty unique and consider making a $10 donation which helps maintain the area. 

You will also see a bridge, so cross it to explore Lida’s Field of Dreams full of native plants and the Tortoise sanctuary. Take the steps to walk over the fence and enjoy the grounds and the sanctuary. You can also head down to Gillins’s Beach on your right after crossing the bridge. 

Please respect the CJM horse tours along the paths in this area and along the beach. The horse path is clearly marked with signs that indicate the footpath and the horse path.

CGM Stables horseback riding on the beach

Besides watching the majestic beautiful horses, there are also many dogs on leashes, and some are from the Kauai Humane Society. They have a doggy field day program where you can take a dog out for the day. This trail is a popular one, and many bring their dogs here. Many people walking dogs will have doggy backpacks, which are filled with treats, water, and a water bowl.

The dogs wear a harness that says “Adopt Me”.  For a small donation, you can help the Kauai Humane Society and give a dog a treat with a walk, and maybe the dog will get noticed by someone who wants to adopt them. 

Hawaiian monk seal sleeping on Mahaulepu Heritage Trail
Birds on Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

Along the Mahaulepu Trail, you can see our Hawaiian Nenes and Egrets. You can also hear many shallows, finches, Red Crested Cardinals, White-tailed Tropicbirds, Shama Thrush, Mourning Doves, and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Please stay out of their nesting area where signs are posted. There may also be sleeping sea turtles and an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals sleeping, so please keep your distance if you find any.

Depending on what time of year you do the hike, there is lots of different vegetation and beautiful flowers along the path. I went when everything was very dry, so I only saw about 4 different flowers. The most common are the White Beach Naupaka, the lavender Ipomoea Sagittata, the Thunbergia Frangruas, and the Red Coral Creeper.

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail flowers

Coming back, take the same trails, whether the top, middle, or bottom trail since they all go back to Shipwreck Beach. As you pass CJM Stables, in the far distance observe the old Sugar Mill in Koloa. If it’s winter, watch for the whales up on the cliff, and if during sunset, sit back and enjoy.

Once you’re back at Shipwreck Beach, enjoy a cool dip in the ocean before getting in your car and leaving this very southern eastern unusual area of Kauai. 

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