Kauai, Hawaii’s northernmost island, is known for Manawaiopuna Falls (“Jurassic Park”), Waimea Canyon, the famous (and dangerous) Kalalau Trail and many other spectacular natural attractions. However, for those who want just a taste of adventure, there are also some great hikes to be found right on the outskirts of town. With a population of just over 10,000, Kapa’a, on the island’s east side, is Kauai’s “big city.” These three hikes are all conveniently located to Kapa’a and neighboring Lihue (where the airport is). They are all popular with locals and offer a sampling of what Kauai’s varied landscapes. Whether you’re looking for a good training hike for one of Kauai’s more ambitious treks or just a fun family activity that will get you back in time for the night’s luau, Ho’opi’i Falls, the Kuilau Ridge Trail and the “Sleeping Giant” all fit the bill.
TIPS FOR L.A. HIKERS
Getting to Kauai: A few nonstop flights are available from LAX to Lihue. (If you are coming from SNA, ONT, BUR or LGB, expect to have to change planes in Maui or Oahu). The flight is about 5 hours. Hawaii is 2 hours behind Los Angeles from November to March and 3 hours behind for the rest of the year as the state does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
Staying on Kauai: There are several options for lodging in Kapa’a and Lihue. For tips on finding budget accommodations in Kauai, click here. Here is a list of TripAdvisor’s top 10 rated Kapa’a hotel deals.
Weather: According to data collected at the airport, Lihue averages about 36 inches of rain per year (compared to 15 for L.A.) Expect humidity and muddy trails after rain (winter months tend to be wetter). The temperatures are usually pretty stable, typically ranging from the mid 60s to mid 80s.
Cell phone reception: Good to fair on the Sleeping Giant and Ho’opi’i Falls hikes; weak to none on the Kuilau Ridge Trail
Dogs: Bringing pets into Hawaii requires an elaborate process that must be started at least 120 days in advance. If you are unable to bring your dog from home, you can borrow a dog for the day from the Kauai Humane Society in Lihue. Exercise caution on warm days and be careful around steep cliffs.
2 miles round trip, 550 feet of elevation gain; allow 1.5 hours
There are two medium-sized waterfalls on Kapa’a Creek that are locally known as Ho’opi’i Falls. This short but challenging hike visits both of them. It offers a taste of Kauai’s jungle-like interior, requiring a fair amount of bushwhacking. Consider leaving trail ducks as some of the route can be tough to follow, especially on the way back. Keep in mind that once you reach the creek, you will never be too far from it and it will always be on your left.
From the entry point on Kapahi Road, follow the well-marked path downhill a short distance to the creek. Head right (downstream). You will likely have to negotiate fallen tree branches. Soon you will hear, then see, the first of the two waterfalls. A steep, loose path on the left heads down to the top of the waterfall, where you can sit and enjoy the scenery before continuing on toward the second one. (It is possible, but very risky to reach the bottom of this first waterfall; since you have the option of swimming below the second waterfall, it’s best to wait until then.)
Back on the trail, you continue through the woods, bushwhacking at times, to a T-junction. Head right (the left trail is a spur that leads to the water) and continue toward a Y-junction. Again stay right, this time climbing uphill and scrambling over more trees. The trail levels out and soon reaches another steep spur that takes you to the base of the second waterfall.
This is a peaceful and scenic spot with water cascading down a jumble of rocks into a wide pool. After enjoying the calm, retrace your steps back uphill and back through the woods to the parking area.
3.4 miles round trip, 750 feet of elevation gain; allow 2 hours
The Kuilau Ridge Trail offers a taste of the deeply forested scenery of Kauai’s interior, without requiring commitment to an epic, rugged trek. Though just a few miles down the road from Kapa’a, the trail is almost entirely away from the sights and sounds of civilization, except perhaps for the occasional distant tour helicopter.
From the parking area, begin heading uphill past the information board and into the woods. (Note that you will be asked to scrape your shoes/boots here on the way out, to help prevent the spread of seeds). For the first mile plus, you follow an old dirt road which tends to get muddy following rain. The trail ascends gradually but steadily, gaining about 500 feet before arriving at a clearing with picnic tables. Here you can enjoy a view of Wai’ale’ale Mountain, Kauai’s highest, to the west. The view to the south, which extends to the ocean on clear days.
After leaving the picnic area, the trail becomes a single track, gradually heading downhill and making a switchback to reach a saddle. You climb Kamoohoopulu Ridge and then drop into a thick woodland where you will hear and get a glimpse of a small waterfall. At 1.7 miles, you reach a wooden footbridge crossing over the stream; this is the end of the Kuilau Ridge Trail. It continues for another 2.75 miles as the Moalepe Trail. If you have set up a car shuttle, you can follow the Moalepe Trail to its eastern end, mainly downhill. However, the Moalepe Trail tends to be in rougher shape due to its use by horses, so the most enjoyable option is to simply retrace your steps.
4 miles round trip, 1050 feet of elevation gain; allow 2.5 hours
The elongated form of Sleeping Giant (Nounou Mountain) is easily recognizable from Kapa’a on Kauai’s east side. The mountain’s name comes from a local legend of a giant who sat down to an enormous feast and was so tired afterward that he went to sleep and never woke up. Though only 1,241 feet tall, the mountain’s prominence makes it a prime spot for excellent views, especially for those daring enough to risk venturing beyond the end of the official trail.
The summit can be approached from the north, the southwest or as described here, the east. From the parking area, follow the well marked trail up a shaded slope, climbing steadily, taking in views of Kapa’a. Just over half a mile from the start, you will have to make a tricky scramble up a washed out section of the trail, climbing up a short but nearly vertical slope (several rocks and holes in the wall can be used as hand and footholds, but extra caution is still required). You will also notice that the trail appears to continue past the “wall” but it soon degenerates.
Once you are back on the stable portion of the trail, you continue to make switchbacks up the mountain, eventually arriving at its eastern ridge. This area is more prone to muddiness following rain. Even as you slug your way up the steep and potentially wet trail, you are rewarded with views to the north, including the jagged pinnacles of the Anahola mountains and of the coastline to the east. An overlook at about 1.3 miles from the start gives you a good view of the Sleeping Giant summit itself.
Soon after, the trail from the north merges. In about another quarter mile, you reach the end of the official trail: a plateau with some picnic tables and impressive views of the coastline, both to the east and southwest (visible on clear days) and of the island’s interior peaks. This is a good spot to turn around if you are short on time or just not feeling up for what comes next.
For those with a taste for adventure, continue southwest on a narrow trail that drops off the plateau and follows a knife edge ridge with steep drops on both sides. Some climbing (hands and feet required) brings you to a saddle between Nounou’s two peaks. The better views are to be found on the southern peak (left). More fortitude is required to climb to the edge of the peak, sometimes called the “chin” of the Sleeping Giant. Those with vertigo or a fear of heights need not apply. If you aren’t intimidated by the drops on each side, you can now enjoy as dramatic a view as you are likely to find anywhere with the coastline, meadows and valleys of eastern Kauai spread out more than a thousand feet below. After enjoying the visual rewards of the hike, carefully retrace your steps back to the saddle, detouring to the north summit if you like, before returning to the official trail and getting yourself back down to the parking lot.
Text and photography copyright 2018 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.