The Nu’alolo Trail in Kokee State Park is an out-and-back 7.5 round trip hike that we rate moderate to hard, depending on the trail’s condition. It can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending if the path is wet or dry. This trail starts shaded at 3800 feet of elevation, and the 3.75-mile hike ends at an elevation of 2200 feet in all sun.
I always start my hikes around 8 a.m., and I just did this hike at the beginning of September. It was 60 degrees at 6 a.m., so wear something warm to take off if you plan on doing it during this time. It’s possible to combine the Nu’alolo Trail with the Awa’awapuhi Trail and hike both as they intersect at a certain point but this will already add to the length and time of a difficult trail.
We’ve heard time and time again from other hikers who have done both at the same time that ultimately if they had to do it again, they would only choose one.
At the end of the hiking trail, you get a stunning view of the Na Pali Coast and the Nu’alolo valleys. You can see the Nu’alolo Cliff if you choose to do the Nu’alolo Cliff Trail around the 3-mile mark into this one. The Nu’alolo Trail is not a beginner-level hike and there are other hikes in Kauai that are easier, so you should already have some experience hiking if you want to try it.
Nu’alolo Trail Stats
- Length: 7.5 round trip (3.75 one way)
- Difficulty: Hard
- Estimated Time: 4-6 hours
- Elevation: From 3800 to 2200 feet
The Nu’alolo trailhead parking lot is at the 15-mile marker off Hwy 550/Waimea Canyon Drive. Take Hwy 50 to Hwy 550 and head up to Koke’e for 15 miles. The parking lot will be on your left just as you pass “The Cabins at Koke’e”.
If the parking lot is full, just head to the Koke’e Lodge/campground. There is plenty of parking there and a public restroom. You will also pass three other places with public restrooms as you drive up Koke’e. The first is at the Waimea Canyon lookout on your right, the Puu ka Pele picnic grounds on your left, and the Pu’u Hinahina on your right.
Nu’alolo Trail Hike
The Nu’alolo trail changes its terrain and surroundings about six times. Each changing section is so beautiful in its own way, and you’ll love the different species of life in each section. The hike ends with epic views of Nu’alolo Valley, Niihau, and the Napali coast.
The hiking trail starts where marked. It goes uphill right away and takes you into a dense field of towering trees on each side of the course. These trees are mostly Eucalyptus and Guava trees with green, red, or yellow fruits.
Take notice: the fallen Guava that is broken open on the trail can be slippery. The path is wide and maintained at the beginning and does flatten out after the first incline at the start. There are tree roots to watch out for as well. If the path is wet, these tree roots can become slippery.
I recommend quality and waterproof hiking shoes for the many terrain changes and challenges. I don’t use trekking poles, but it’s a good piece of hiking gear to help anyone with knee issues, to balance on slippery terrain, or bushwhacking.
For the first 1.25 miles, the Nu’alolo Trail goes up and down, and in those down sections, it can be very slippery on the rocks. You should try to grab onto tree branches to aid in the downhill parts, which helps in stepping over roots and holes. You can hear the sound of different birds, like Finches, the Shama Thrush, and our famous Hawaiian feral chickens.
There are wild pigs in this area, but it’s doubtful you will see one as they tend to run away from people before you even notice them. However, you can see signs of them as they dig holes along the sides of the trail. You can also see the fenced area that protects Hawaii’s native and rare plants from these pigs that dig and destroy them.
The next area you come across to is a section of overgrown, tall Hawaiian yellow ginger plants. If the flowers are blooming, you’ll smell their fragrance for the whole section. The yellow flowers are absolutely beautiful. The plants themselves have big green leaves that shade the path. These leaves in the morning are wet with dew, so expect to get a little wet passing the area.
The trail gets very muddy when it rains due to the leaves blocking the sunshine. It’s a flat section, but there are a few rocks and branches to watch out for. My advice is to look down where you step and just power through the overgrown plants.
Once you’re out of the yellow ginger field, you come through a section of tall Buffalo grass and then a short but dry field of overgrown Lantana flowers in yellow, pink, orange, or the beautiful mix called Confetti. As pretty as these are, their branches have stickers.
Continue to power through, and the hike becomes flat and smooth with thorns and a few spider webs. I almost walked into the Spinyback Orb Weaver spider, completely harmless but so odd looking you’d think poisonous.
The Nu’alolo Trail is marked with mileage signs along the way, so it’s kinda of nice knowing how far you’ve gone or need to go. Funny, as I was walking back from the end the people I passed by were always asking, “How much further?” or “Is it worth it?” and I can certainly attest to the fact that, yes it’s worth it!
Between 1.25 to 2 miles, the path becomes shaded again and actually turns into a dense rainforest. You come across a few fallen trees that are easy to step over or get around. There are plenty of moss-covered tree logs and many different wild mushrooms.
I found the Anemone Stinkhorn and the Fly Alaric yellow mushrooms on the sides of the trail and different fungus on trees like the Chicken of the Woods and the Orange bracket cup fungus. Once you come to a field of Fern and Fiddlehead Fern, you’ll be almost out of the rainforest.
Near the 2-mile sign is a split and a piece of wood. Use the step on your right and continue that way. During this mile, the trail has some ditches to maneuver and loose red dirt. Watch out for slipperiness, and notice that it’s gutted from lots of rain and has some steep downhill sections. Use your hands or get on your bottom for better control.
The section also starts giving a few views of Niihau on your left, the valley on your right, and the Napali Coast straight ahead. There are pine trees in this area and Acacia Koa trees, both of which drop leaves that make things slippery during the downhill portion. Proceed with caution.
You can see the sign that points to the Nu’alolo Cliff Trail in .75 miles, follow it to your left. The hike heads back into trees and gutted sections of hard red dirt once again.
End of Nu’alolo Trail
Finally, you will hit the open section and see the rail in the distance at the end with the bluest water ever and the valley on the right. You can stop at the rail or walk to the plateau to finally end the hike.
Chances are there will be many boats below you on the water, and helicopters flying above you and off on your side as they tour the valley. Look down, and you can see a beach and a beautiful reef below the surface. Look to the left to see Ni’ihau Island and Ke’e Beach to your right (the Northshore) far in the distance.
If the sky is cloud-free, the view will be remarkable, and if you’re hiking this in the winter to early spring, watch for whales in the blue waters of the Napali Coast.
Enjoy your break and drink a lot of water, and carb up. The hike back to the parking lot is all uphill and hopefully not too hot. Remember, you start off at a high elevation of 3800 feet and the end is near 2200 feet, so you will have an elevation gain of 1600+ feet going up.
You will be mostly shaded going back, but this will be quite the workout for your quads and glutes. Trekking poles can help, but most importantly, step heel to toe to engage your glutes and hamstrings, which are the bigger and stronger muscles.
Hikers will want to avoid engaging their calf muscles by being on their toes only since this will just lead to soreness, Charlie horses, and no remaining strength for the 3.75 miles to the top.
Remember what I said about the Nu’alolo Trail being worth it? I bet you will agree once you’re in your car and talking about it the next day and for the rest of your vacation. This epic hike with fantastic scenery is one of the best ones on Kauai that doesn’t need a permit to do as the Kalalau Trail does. I recommend you attempt the Awa’awapuhi Trail as well at least on another day.
Here are some other trails in Kokee’e State Park:
Written by: Debra Bowyer