Hiking Kauai: Awa’awapuhi Trail

Last Updated on April 18, 2017 by Janet Frost

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Kauai: The Garden Isle

Kauai, the Garden Isle, is my favorite Hawaiian island.  It was the first place in Hawaii that I ever visited and it was my late father’s favorite place on earth, so it is a nostalgic place for me.  There are iconic beaches, lush jungle, formidable mountains, cascading waterfalls and breathtaking vistas.  Kauai is the fourth largest Hawaiian island covering just over 560 square miles. Of all the Hawaiian islands I have visited I find Kauai to consistently provide a small island town feel.  Tourism has certainly laid its hand on the island, but it has not completely taken it over like the islands of Oahu or Maui.  Scuba diving and hiking in the sunny paradise is our usual itinerary. The glorious marine life in the Hawaiian waters is for another post.  Today I want to talk about hiking Kauai.

Hiking Kauai

There were some negotiations regarding length of the trail that took place among the group. Our travel companions are always up for any kind of a  crazy dive, but hikes require a little more persuasion.  So, the wives carefully selected a trail that we thought would be a manageable length and sold it to the husbands.  We would tackle the Awa’awapuhi Trail. Much of hiking in Hawaii involves descending out and ascending back.   Diving philosophy always calls for starting against current so that the return journey, when you are tired and lower on air, is the easier leg.  But because of the volcanic origins, the islands are interior peaks dropping down to the ocean and there is no avoiding this energy-busting reversal.

Awa’awapuhi Trail

This trail starts in Kokee State Park at 4100 ft of elevation and winds its way through heavy jungle down to 2,500 feet. The end of the trail provides rim views down into the Nualolo and Awa’awapuhi valleys.  These valleys are part of the amazing folds of earth known as the Na’Pali coast.

The Hawaiian Tourism website, Go Hawaii ,  declares:

“The Napali Coast nourishes the soul.”

The Awa’awapuhi Trail can be hiked as an out and back or as a loop (add 5 miles) returning along the Nualolo Trail.  Several years ago Tom and I had attempted the Nualolo portion of the trail, but I was only 3 months post knee surgery and it proved too much for me.  That day had been sunny and dry but the Nualolo Trail had many steep drops that showed signs of previous wash outs.  I did not trust the stability of my knee so we did not make it to the overlook that year. Now I was healthy and really wanted to get to that overlook.  In our research it looked like Awa’awapuhi trail would be more direct and provided  better trailhead parking.

Waimea Canyon Drive

The drive to Kokee State Park is nothing short of spectacular.  You pass through Waimea Canyon State Park, Puu Ka Pele and Na Pali-Kona Forests. Waimea Canyon Drive starts its ascent out of the historic village of Waimea providing photo ops at every mile marker.  There are a number of popular hiking trails along the way. This scenic drive is a must-do for everyone visiting the island, with or without hiking Kauai.

Hiking Kauai
Sunset on Waimea Canyon

Hiking Kauai

Hawaii islands offer a myriad of micro-climates.  The weather extremes are especially significant when hiking on the islands.  The ocean, mountains and trade winds all whirling around these small islands require hikers to be ready for any temperature or weather.  Waimea Canyon Drive carries you through hot arid regions with unrelenting sun, densely overgrown rain forests and windy cold mountain tops. The closer we got to the Awa’awapuhi Trailhead the darker and more ominous the sky became. This should have been a sufficient clue to us that the trail might be tough.

Hiking Kauai, the wettest place on earth

Rainbows are one good thing about rain

We found the parking and sat for a bit hoping that the rain would let up.  In spite of the male grumbling, we talked everyone into ignoring the rain and start the hike.  After all “we won’t melt and the dense canopy will  shield us from the worst of the rain.”

Rain clouds feed the hundreds of waterfalls

It turns out that the actual raindrops falling on us were the least of our problems.  The Na Pali region is the wettest area in the world and we soon discovered what all that wet can do to a downhill hiking trail. Think mud wrestling on a luge track.

Hiking Kauai
Mud wrestling on a luge track

Our Keens quickly filled with mud and added to the slippery journey.  Our companions pretty well ruined their hiking boots in all that mud.  Walking sticks would have definitely helped. To add insult to injury, when we finally pushed through to the rim, the rainy overcast skies totally dampened the glory of the views into the valley and coast.

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Remember that descent out and ascent back issue? The trip back to the car was grueling. We thought a small consolation was that uphill would be a little less slippery. Unfortunately, the difference between slipperiness down and slipperiness back up was not discernible. Add to all this fun the fact that the women had misjudged the actual trail distance and it was 6.4 miles rather than our promised 5 miles.  I cannot share here the extent of profanity and grumbling that took place over the next 3 hours.   We finally piled back into the car miserable and unpleasant!

Lessons Learned

I believe that every experience in life is a learning opportunity. Hiking is a recent addition to our travels and unfortunately it is heavily laden with lots of “learning opportunities”.  Let me share the lessons learned on this hike.
Equipment: We have invested in better hiking equipment.  Upon our return, we immediately bought walking poles and better hiking boots.
Stamina: I had to own responsibility for overestimating our physical stamina.  This is a lesson I seem to relearn frequently.  The difference between 5 miles and 6.4 is significant when every step is torture.
Preparation: Do the research and be prepared for the climate and the trail conditions.
Conditioning: Hiking requires constant physical conditioning throughout the year, not just for the 3-5 hours of a special hike.  This includes keeping backs, knees and feet healthy.

Finally, I don’t want to discourage you from hiking Kauai or from the Awa’awapuhi Trail specifically.  Kauai is truly a paradise and the hiking is worth the effort.  Just remember that a tropical paradise is likely to be humid, hot and wet.

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