Sure everyone talks about Kauai’s Kalalau Trail as a hiker’s dream, and for good reason. But the most accessible and diverse place to strap your boots on and explore is Kokee State Park, on Kauai’s southwest side.
Getting There: Gas up, then grab food and drink before you take Highway 550 (also known as Waimea Canyon Drive) inland from Waimea Town. Since you are heading to Kaua’i’s most interesting geological region (Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park), you’ll want to make sure that conditions are ideal for your plans–that means no rain in the forecast for hikers, and those wanting those magazine worthy photos of Kalalau will want to head up here as early as possible. This very windy road weaves through a dazzling number of native trees, including koa and ohia.
Views Along the Way: Waimea Canyon State Park starts about 6 miles from Waimea. You’ll get your best views of the 13-mile long, 2500-feet deep gaping hole lovingly dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain at mile marker 10’s lookout.
Unique from the Grand Canyon of Arizona, this four million-year old lava rock offers Christmas-like color schemes, with the plentiful Waipoo Falls spilling over the green and red horizontal cliffs. As the road continues inland, there are overlooks offering jaw-dropping views of the canyon every mile or so.
Hikers can descend into the canyon on a variety of trails—though be sure to head up here early and bring plenty of hydration. At mile marker 9 the Iliau Nature Loop is a quick path with excellent views. For something more strenuous, the 5 mile round trip Kukui Trail forks off of Iliau Nature Loop, descending 2000 feet into the canyon. Before heading out, grab a handy trail map from the visitor center at Koke’e State Park’s Koke’e Museum.
Photographers should bypass a hike in the morning, and instead continue onto Koke’e Road if it is clear. You’ll bypass Koke’e State Park’s Koke’e Museum for the moment to reach Kalalau Overlook, at mile marker 18. This illusive view spot often gets fogged in before noon. Below the Na Pali cliffs yawn into an array of blue, green, brown, and red that cannot be matched anywhere else. This vista might just be your screensaver forever.
There’s a peaceful four-mile round trip hike to Pu’u o Kila Lookout (or you may drive on Koke’e Road until it ends to reach the lookout). Pu’u o Kila Lookout is where you can find Pihea Trail, which offers a steep and slippery mile walk to Pihea Lookout (this is where the birders get all giddy—some of the earth’s last honeycreepers can be found here).
From here, athletic birders should continue for 1.5 miles to Alaka‘i Swamp (if you have a 4WD you can access this trail off Camp 10-Mohihi Road—just before Koke’e Museum). The construction of the wooden boardwalk has made the muddy walk more accessible for the masses to view some of the remaining native Kaua‘i birds and trees. However, even with the wooden walkway, thigh-high deep mud is not uncommon here. Wear sturdy shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Understand that this bridge helps and hurts, by displacing native fragile plants, but by also protecting the ground from invasive seeds and feet. Try to clean the bottoms of your shoes before heading out onto the trail.
After you get that awesome photo head back to Koke‘e Natural History Museum, a 60-year-old nonprofit museum, has an interesting exhibit showcasing native birds and plants, an intense exhibit focusing on weather patterns on the island, including a visual display about Hurricane ‘Iniki, and artifacts of ancient Hawaiian culture, which if you haven’t made it to the Kaua‘i Museum, will be an interesting glimpse into how native Hawaiians used to cook, hunt, and create art. The museum staff is very knowledgeable about the park. You can get detailed trail maps here, which I recommend for those planning longer hikes. Plus they have an extensive book and craft shop. The nonprofit hand of the organization also works to reduce the impact of invasive plant and animal species in this fragile environment.
Tent campers with a state park permit can set up shop across the meadow from the museum, where you’ll find picnic tables and toilets. Koke’e Lodge serves forgettable food and drinks that you will appreciate after a long hike.
For more information on camping and eating in the area, order a copy of Backroads and Byways of Hawaii.