Hiking in Kauai: 7 short trails for first-timers

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Kauai offers impressive scenery: the famous Nā Pali Coastline, Waimea Canyon (aka the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), along with breathtaking mountains, beaches, countless waterfalls, and unique rock structures. Only 10% of Kauai is accessible by car, leaving the rest of the island to be explored on foot, by air or by sea. I explored the island by all means and found hiking to be my favorite activity. In fact, 70% of Kauai is accessible by foot, giving you plenty of opportunities to take in the views at your own speed. Not to mention you don’t have to worry about smudges on windows, middle seats with people blocking your views or being limited by time. In addition, hiking is one of the most affordable ways to sightsee the island. In this article I share my top 7 short trails for hiking in Kauai that should make your list on your first trip. You don’t have to be an experienced hiker to enjoy these trails, just a little adventurous.

1. Kalepa Ridge Trail

Distance: 1.9 miles

Elevation gain: 610 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Location: Kōkeʻe State Park at Kalalau Lookout

Fee: $10 fee to park your vehicle at the trailhead of Kōkeʻe State Park and an additional $5 per person

Note: the fee is to visit Kōkeʻe State Park and it covers an entire day. You can hike as many trails and visit as many overlooks as you like.

If you don’t get a permit or day pass to Kalalau Trail, consider Kalepa Ridge Trail. This was my favorite trail because the path along the ridge top provides spectacular views of the Nā Pali Coast all the way along the trail. You will also have opportunities to encounter wildlife, although remember to never approach. I spotted a goat with a couple young ones and took pictures with my telephoto lens so the goats appear closer than they really were.

Beware that this is an unauthorized and unmaintained trail so hike at your own risk. The trail starts at Kalalau Lookout behind the fence. I recommend downloading a map from the All Trails app for directions. Kalepa Ridge Trail might not be for everyone, especially people afraid of heights, as you are literally hiking along the ridge of a mountain. Take your time and walk by the fence at times when you don’t feel safe. The trail is mostly uncovered and dry and can be dusty and slippery.

Nā Pali Coast views when hiking Kalepa Ridge Trail in Kauai
Mountain goat

2. Pihea Vista Trail

Distance: 2.3 miles

Elevation gain: 465 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Location: Kōkeʻe State Park at Pu’u O Kila Lookout

Fee: $10 fee to park your vehicle at the trailhead of Kōkeʻe State Park and an additional $5 per person

Pihea Vista Trail is another short trail with spectacular views of the Nā Pali Coast, though from a different angle. I recommend both trails as they both have stunning views, but compared to Kalepa Ridge Trail, Pihea Vista Trail is easier to hike and more secure. You just pass Pu’u O Kila Lookout and keep going. The start of the trail is easy to walk but as you’re gaining elevation there might be spots where you need to either use hiking poles or hands. The first part of the trail offers the best views, as there is less vegetation in the way. Philea Vista trail is partly shaded, so be aware it does get muddy at times.

Views when hiking Pihea Vista Trail in Kauai
Views when hiking Pihea Vista Trail in Kauai

3. Waipo’o Falls via Pu’u Hinanhina and Canyon Trail

Distance: 2.8 miles

Elevation gain: 1,167 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Location: Kōkeʻe State Park at Pu’u Hinanhina Lookout

Fee: $10 fee to park your vehicle at the trailhead of Kōkeʻe State Park and an additional $5 per person

If you’d like to take a closer look at Waimea Canyon, also called the Grand Canyon of Hawaii or Grand Canyon of the Pacific, consider Waipo’o Falls via Pu’u Hinahina and Canyon Trail. Waipo’o Falls are right at the heart of Waimea Canyon. This tiered waterfall is best visible from the road or a helicopter, but the trail will take you right to the top of the waterfall.

The trail starts at Pu’u Hinanhina lookout, which is a perfect spot to take a view of Waimea Canyon before hitting the trail. You will find the trail on the other side of the parking lot. It mostly follows a shaded area and can get dusty when dry or slippery when wet. You won’t get the views of the canyon until you get to the end of the trail, but it does connect to a cliff trail that is only 0.1 of a mile long and leads to a viewpoint.

Waimea Canyon views from Waipo’o Falls via Pu’u Hinanhina and Canyon Trail
Waimea Canyon views from Waipo’o Falls via Pu’u Hinanhina and Canyon Trail

4. Kalalau Trail (first 2 miles)

Distance: 4.4 miles

Elevation gain: 525 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Location: Hāʻena State Park

Fee: $35 to enter by shuttle or $10 per vehicle per timeslot and an additional $5 entry pass for each person in the car

Kalalau Trail is the most popular trail on the island. This 22-mile out-and-back trail is rated as hard and requires a permit. However, you can hike the first 2 miles without a permit. Those first 2 miles feature several overlooks where you can see the famous Nā Pali Coastline and also offer you the chance to cool down at Hanakāpīʻai Beach before going back.

If 4 miles aren’t enough for you, add an additional 4 miles and hike to Hanakāpīʻai Falls. According to the official Kalalau website, both trails are 4 miles long. In fact, they’re 9.1 miles all together. The trail to the waterfall is completely shaded and follows a stream that you will have to cross multiple times. Once you reach your destination you will have a chance to swim in the water. You will have to cross several streams to get to the waterfall, and be aware that both trails get muddy.

Nā Pali Coast in Kauai from Kalalau Trail

Day Pass to Hāʻena State Park

To hike the first 2 miles of Kalalau Trail along with Hanakāpīʻai Falls, you will first need to make a day pass reservation to Hāʻena State Park. A day pass will give you access to the following:

  • The first 2 miles of Kalalau Trail to Hanakāpīʻai Beach and back
  • Additional 2 miles to Hanakāpīʻai Falls and back
  • Ke’e Beach

If you’re not traveling with a local with a valid Hawaiian ID, your only options to enter the park are via a car or shuttle. The number of spots is limited per day. You can purchase car passes from 30 days prior to a day before your visit. However, I would get them as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. Car passes sell out quickly as they become available at midnight Hawaiian time. There are three parking timeslots; morning, afternoon, and evening. If you want to stay at the park all day, you will need to book all three.

I recommend a shuttle pass as they are easy to get and it give you the most flexibility. The first shuttle leaves at 7:30 am and the last one at 7 pm. For current hours and reservations, visit goahaena.com. There is a designated parking lot where you can leave your car to get in a shuttle.

Ke’e Beach from Kalalau Trail in Kauai

5. Queen’s Bath Trail

Distance: 0.8 miles

Elevation gain: 98 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Location: Princeville

Fee: Free

Queen’s Bath is a sinkhole surrounded by rocks. It is constantly refilled with water and is considered dangerous when waves are high and it’s advised not to come near the sinkhole nor swim at these times. You will find Queen’s Bath on north shore of Kauai, near Princeville. The trail to Queen’s Bath might be one of the shortest hikes I’ve done but it’s also one of the muddiest! I recommend sturdy boots or water shoes, especially if you plan to swim in Queen’s Bath. Trekking poles will also come handy. Otherwise, make sure to hold onto trees and roots as it gets very slippery.

You will find a trailhead and a designated parking lot in the nearby residential area. Note that the trailhead has limited parking and you’re not allowed to wait in your car. Arrive either in the morning or late afternoon to secure a parking spot. If you’re staying in one of the nearby neighborhoods, you might be able to walk.

Hiking to Queen's Bath in Kauai

6. Wailua Falls Trail

Distance: 0.6 miles

Elevation gain: 85 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Location: Wailua River State Park

Fee: Free

Wailua Falls should make everyone’s Kauai list. Even though most people just stop at the overlook, you can hike all the way to the bottom. Hike at your own risk since this is an unauthorized trail. To get to the trail, park at the main parking lot by the overlook. You will find the start of the trail behind a fence. It is only a short hike down the slope but the path is muddy and slippery. Fortunately, there are ropes that you can hold onto. Once at the bottom of the waterfall you can refresh yourself in its waters. Don’t get to close to the waterfall as the current is strong. If you’re interested, you can explore behind the falls or cross the river.

Wailua Falls in Kauai

7. Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Distance: 3.7 miles

Elevation gain: 318 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Location: Shipwrecks Beach

Fee: Free

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is a seaside trail located on the south of the island. It takes you from Shipwrecks Beach on Keoneloa Bay to Mahaulepu Beach near Kawailoa Bay. The trail passes over rugged sea cliffs and lava formations showcasing native plants, mountain views in the distance, and, if you’re lucky, wildlife including endangered monk seals and sea turtles. Towards the end of the trail there is also a cave that you can tour, though bear in mind it does not open until 10 am. The trail is mostly uncovered so bring plenty of water and sun protection with you.

Coastal view from Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail in Kauai
Mountain view from Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail in Kauai

What to bring with you when hiking in Kauai

It rains daily in Kauai and trails tend to get muddy, especially if they are in shaded areas. It is also very humid, though the cool ocean breezes help with this. So you should be prepared for mud and also to work up a sweat in the humid weather. Kauai features a lot of out-and-back trails that require a descent going down and climb on the way back. Below are some hiking essentials to bring with you on your next Kauai trip.

Things to wear when hiking in Kauai

  • Hiking boots. Bring sturdy hiking boots with a good grip. You will hike slippery trails.
  • Wool socks. I always opt for merino wool for breathability and blister prevention.
  • Mid layer or jacket. If you plan to hike for sunrise or sunset, bring an extra layer. Otherwise, a t-shirt and shorts will be sufficient. I always choose merino wool t-shirts for breathability and odor resistance. Since you always get a breeze from the ocean, mornings and evenings can be chilly. Opt for something light like a fleece.
  • Microspikes. Technically, microspikes are used for winter hikes in snow but due to the muddy and slippery conditions on Kauai, they become very useful. Even dry trails can be very slippery, and microspikes can prevent you from sliding down. Spikes can be worn with both boots and sneakers. Make sure you get the right size for your shoe type.
  • Trekking poles. If you don’t want to hold onto the rocks, roots, or trees, bring trekking poles with you. Trails can get steep at times.
  • Rain gear. Kauai is a landscape shaped by water, from the oceans to the almost daily rainfall. Be prepared for wet weather, especially around mountains. Make sure you have some sort of a rain protection with you such as waterproof boots and a rain jacket or a poncho.
  • Sun protection. Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Most of the trails move between shade and sun, so bring sun protection to avoid sunburn.
  • Day backpack or a hip pack. Grab a day backpack for all your essentials. Pick one with chest and hip straps for added comfort. For shorter hikes and overlooks, consider a smaller hip pack.

Things to pack for hiking in Kauai

  • Water. Bring more water than you think you’ll need. I found myself more thirsty than hungry when hiking in Kauai. The air is very hot and humid, especially on sunny days, and you’ll need to make sure you stay hydrated.
  • Food. Always have some snacks with you for an energy boost. You will not find any food in Hāʻena State Park, but there is Kōkeʻe Lodge in Kōkeʻe State Park that is a great place to grab a coffee or a bite to eat after a hike.
  • Map and compass. There is no signal in any of the parks. I recommend downloading the maps.me app for offline navigation and the All Trails app for trail information. Alternatively, you can bring a paper map and a compass. There is only one road that leads through Waimea and Kōkeʻe State Parks and overlooks are well marked.
  • Satellite communicator. I always like to have a satellite communicator with me, especially when hiking solo. You will not find signal while in the park, except for some overlooks. Even though all trails mentioned in this article are popular, satellite communication is the most reliable option to be able to call help when needed and let your loved ones know where you are.
  • Camera and batteries. Bring camera and extra batteries to capture all your memories in the breathtaking Kauai scenery.
  • Wet Wipes. After hiking through the mud and dirt, it’s nice to be able to wash your hands!
  • Headlamp. A headlamp will come handy, especially if you are planning on hiking close to sunset/sunrise.


Kauai offers stunning scenery and plenty of hiking opportunities. Take the time to explore and take in the views on one of these 7 short hiking trails. These trails only scratch the surface of what Kauai has to offer, there are many more hiking trails to explore that do not require a permit. I’d love to go back and do more hiking in Kauai. If you’re planning a trip to Kauai, you might also enjoy my Kauai guide. Let me know your favorite trails in the comments. Happy hiking!

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