The 5 Top Hawaii Hiking Adventures: Hawaii’s Most Outrageous Trails

Marwa Grimes

Hawaii adventure hiking is a treat most visitors simply don’t experience – they are coming to relax on the beach, enjoy higher amenity levels, and only do short walks (e.g., from their vehicles or taking a stroll down the beach). There is another “side” to Hawaii, though – and that is adventure sports in these beautiful natural surroundings. One of the oldest axioms about adventure insists that you must be out of your “comfort level” for true adventure to occur! So, some of the Top 5 hikes listed here are quite difficult, and might take even the most avid backpacker out of their comfort zone – but they will be able to attest to incredible parts of Hawai’i that few see.

Because the islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, have a unique history, and are quite large in areal extent – the terrain is exotic, exhilarating, and often unique even to an experienced world hiker. The hiking conditions can be strange and dangerous – from actively eroding windward cliff trails in a green Tahiti-like jungle – to active lava conditions on the Big Island where you can get close to a “river of lava”. So…. from the thousands of hikes to choose, which are the five best in terms of inspiration, sheer outrageousness, beauty, and adventure? One author’s opinion, who is a 30 year veteran of Hawaii hiking adventures, is shown below.

Number 5: Alakai Swamp Trail. Waimea Canyon in western Kaua’i is often called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. As you drive up the dramatic highway that runs up its side, it does appear quite similar to the Grand Canyon – with sculpted, reddish canyon walls and waterfalls sprinkled here and there. Its dimensions are much smaller, but the resemblance is real. The upper part of the canyon adds to the canyon’s strangeness, in that, there is a large plateau within the canyon that does not drain down canyon. It is a 4-5 million year old collapsed crater, and because of the “drainage problem” it hosts unusual plants and topography in an isolated high swamp. While you are hiking amidst incredible, unique plants and scenery, you can see Mount Wailaelae, which is often cited by climatologists as the rainiest patch of land on planet earth (on its windward flank). The beauty, unique lifeforms, and unusual characteristics of Alakai Swamp area make it a world class destination. Length: 8.0 miles Difficulty: Mild to Intermediate Elevation Change: approx. 50 meters

Number 4: Haleakala Crater to the Pacific Ocean. Maui’s most famous hike starts in the eerie and very inspirational mountain top crater, called Haleakala. It is full of cinder cones, and old lava flows. Many visitors do go up for the inspirational sunrise here – but very few consider hiking all the way down to the ocean! It is one wild hike with over 10,000 feet of elevation change. The good news it is all downhill, but those with bad knees best not attempt it. With twists and turns of the trail up and down the mountainside, hikers are treated to indescribable views of places like the Koolau Gap, and all the while with vistas down to the Pacific Ocean shoreline. Some experts have rated this as high as one of the top 5 hikes in the United States. The vistas, remoteness, elevation change, and varied tropic landscapes merit it! Length: 22 miles (one way) Difficulty: Very Difficult Elevation Change: +10,000 feet (but all downhill)

Number 3: Peak of Mauna Loa, The Big Island of Hawai’i is over twice as large as the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined. It hosts 2 mountains over 13,600 feet above sea level. Both of these – Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea – are broad and diverse – with verdant rain forests on the windward side and literally deserts on the leeward side. You can drive to an incredible array of astronomical observatories at the top of Mauna Kea, but there are only arduous hikes to the top of Mauna Loa (and Mauna Loa volcano is classified as still very “active” by geologists). There are actually three trails to the top of Mauna Loa – so I maintain if you take the shortest route it is still plenty difficult! Because of the high altitude, even this shorter route is difficult at 12 miles. There is a cabin at the crater peak, though, which has bunks, blankets, and often even water (must check with NPS rangers). Length: 12 miles Difficulty: Extreme Elevation Change: 1000 meters

Number 2: Kalalau Trail The Na Pali Coast is often referred to as the world’s most beautiful place in the world’s most beautiful islands! The world-famous Kalalau Trail starts and ends on the Na Pali Coast. It starts where the road ends on the north coast of Kaua’i, and then is 17 miles to Kalalau Valley. The trail follows the Na Pali cliffs at various altitudes – sometimes right at ocean level, and sometimes up to 1000 feet above the ocean. Within the first 20 minutes the vistas are as fine as any in the world. The valley at the end was inhabited by several thousand Polynesians before the arrival of Europeans. It is filled with old fruit trees, vegetable patches, wild goats, wild pigs, and even coffee trees, Length: 22 miles Difficulty: Hard Elevation Change: 300 meters

Number 1: Big Island Active Lava Hike Hiking close to red hot lava can be dangerous, but it can also be one of the most adventurous experiences of one’s lifetime. As of 2011, active red hot lava can exude from several ever-changing locales on the Big Island. Thirty miles from Hilo, Kilauea Caldera has a smaller crater inset within it called Halemaumau Crater. It has been boiling for several years now, but the national park only allows you to see it from afar (about 1 kilometer), and therefore you don’t actually see lava. During the day you see billowing smoke and during the night you can see red hot glow emanating from the lava lake that is out of site and usually hundreds of feet below the rim. More active and accessible lava flows, some that you can walk up to, have been in various locales many times on the eastern half of the island over the past 100 years. If you go when there is an accessible active flow, and you can get to it – you can walk as close as you dare (watch out for burning your eye lashes). Other times there are active flows or craters as far as a 6 mile, wilderness hike – and many visitors over the years have ended up lost. Length: 100 yards to 12 miles Difficulty: Mild-Extreme Elevation Change: 0-200 meters

The Logistics: Where to base camp and getting supplies is not easy or straightforward to the first time visitor for each of these adventure locales. There are of course many options, and it is difficult to not believe it can only be done for a small fortune for the first or second time visitor. However, for Alakai Swamp on Kauai at the YWCA’s Camp Sloggett, you can rent a room, rent a bed, or camp right in Kokee State Park. Camp Sloggett is within throwing distance of some of the most mesmerizing day-hikes on the planet. It is best to get most all supplies in Lihue, although Waimea town at the base of the canyon does have some small stores. For the extensive hike on Maui from its tallest peak (Haleakala) down to the ocean, you need to backpack the entire trip. You can get a taxi, shuttle, or friend to shuttle – or hitch-hiking with backpacks to trailheads is quite accepted on the islands. And for the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s north shore, there is another hostel only one mile before the trailhead operated by the YMCA (on the beach side of the highway in Haena Beach 5 miles past Hanalei). It is only basic beds or camping, but it is right on an incredible beach! For the two hikes on the Big Island there is actually an inexpensive Volcano Hawaii hotel centrally located there. I recommend you base camp on The Big Island in Volcano Village (within 1 mile of the only national park entrance) because you can organize for two of the five most outrageous hikes in Hawaii basing yourself here! National park personnel and some locales can advise you on conditions and permits. Then, if I were you, I would fly over to Kauai and do two more… since it is the only other island with two of these five fabulous hikes.

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