Making the Most of Hiking in Hawaii

By:  Angela Britten, Development Director

As a self-described outdoor enthusiast one of my favorite activities is to hit the trails. I have experienced a variety of challenging and beautiful trails while hiking and backpacking all over Hawaii and met a number of interesting people along the way. I have come to know that there are a few different types of hikers you’ll meet. Some prefer interesting geological, or botanical characteristics, scenic vistas, or cooling waterfalls; others prefer challenging hikes with long mileage, difficult, vertical terrain, or narrow ridgelines. And then, there are those who prefer “famous” hikes with characteristics or reputations that make for good social media posts. Often these adventure-seekers aren’t always properly prepared for the challenges of the trail and find themselves in precarious, illegal, damaging, and sometimes deadly, situations. The State has seen an increase in the latter type of hiker in recent years. Department of Health records find that there were 28 hiking related deaths* from (2012-2016). 10 of those deaths occurred on the island of Oahu and about 1/3 statewide were visitors. In the same period, there were 257 emergency room visits and hospitalizations, including 38 in 2016 alone**. While these statistics are sobering, we can confidently continue to hike, knowing that many of these incidents may have been preventable.

In Hawaii the terrain is often steep, slippery or crumbly, so it’s especially important that you prepare and assess yourself, your gear, the weather and trail conditions each time you attempt a hike. You can find safety tips in a number of guidebooks and websites authored by responsible and experienced hikers.

The Hawaiian Trail & Mountain Club has public and members-only hikes nearly every Saturday and Sunday on Oahu, and hosts workdays to clear and maintain trails. Safety is one of their main priorities while on the trail and knowing this makes hiking far more fun and relaxing. Learn more about hiking safety on HTMC’s site. The Sierra Club of Hawaii also hosts regular hikes all over the State.

Here are some safety tips to remember:

1)      Always hike with a buddy (or a club)

2)      Let someone know where you will be going and when you expect to be back

3)      Wear appropriate clothing and hiking shoes (sun protection, warmth, visibility, etc.)

4)      Bring enough water

And possibly the most important tip:

5)      Know your capabilities

Hike approved trails

Another way to ensure your hiking experience is safe, fun and relaxing is by sticking to approved trails. Na Ala Hele (NAH) administered by the Division of Forestry and Wildlife is the Department of Land and Natural Resources Trail Access System. Created in 1988, to protect prehistorically used trails on private lands threatened by development, NAH is an invaluable resource to hikers that provides clear, detailed information on hikes that have been maintained for public access. They are responsible for a large number of trails on all islands, so there are more than enough to keep you trekking for a long time. Find information about hiking safety on NAH’s website

My favorite day hikes

There are quite a few hikes that are rewarding for hikers of all skill-levels that I highly recommend. Each island has its own unique character and hiking experiences will differ widely from place to place. Here are some of my favorite day hikes:

Hawaii Island: Pololu Valley, Kapaau: 2.5 miles, roundtrip

In Kapaau, just past Hawi, at the end of Highway 270 you will find the Pololu Valley outlook offering views of Hawaii Island’s Kohala coastline. A switchback trail that can oftentimes be slippery, gives way rather quickly to the forested valley floor. Here, you can choose to go no further and simply enjoy the beautiful lava rock Pololu beach or, venture on into the valley. The trail ends at a wooden bench overlooking Honokane Nui valley and part of Hookane Iki valley.

Kauai: Awaawapuhi Trail, Waimea State Park: 6.2 miles, roundtrip

A well-traveled trail that has become even more popular as of late due to seemingly death-defying images posted on social media, begins at a parking lot and descends moderately through forested areas. The first mile of the trail offers signage identifying some of the native plants found here. It ends abruptly on the ridge top at 2,500’ elevation where you are rewarded by expansive views of Na Pali’s famed vertical cathedral-like valleys. You can enjoy these views without considerable risk by remaining behind the barrier at the end of the trail. This trail is worthwhile specifically because of the awe-inspiring beauty at the end.

Maui: Waihee Ridge Trail, Waihee: 5 miles, roundtrip

This well-maintained trail climbs the windward slope of west Maui offering fantastic views of Waihee Gorge and Makamakaole Gulch. The trailhead is located on a cattle ranch at approximately 1,000’ elevation. By the end of the hike you will have climbed an additional 1,563’ and will be rewarded with panoramic views of Wailuku, Central Maui, Kahakuloa slopes, and Mount Eke. Rest stops have been provided via benches and scenic outlooks along the way, making this trail enjoyable for a leisurely hike. An added benefit to this trail: you will have a birds-eye view of HILT’s Waihee Coastal Dunes & Wetlands Refuge.

Oahu: Maunawili Trail, Kaneohe: 10 miles

Not to be confused with the Maunawili Falls trail, this hike also on the windward side of Oahu! I have hiked this particular trail dozens of times and have yet to tire of the expansive views of the Koolau mountain range, Olomana, the windward coastline and offshore islands it provides. This hike will take you from the trailhead at the scenic outlook at the hairpin turn on the Pali Highway all the way to Waimanalo. It’s fairly reasonable, with moderate inclines, and minor stream crossings. If you intend to hike the entire trail you will need to park a car or arrange for a ride at the outlet in Waimanalo. However, the trail is just as beautiful going in as it is going out, you can surely have a great time doing just a portion of the trail and turning around to return to the trailhead.

Seeking something special? Join HILT's free guided hikes

Hawaiian Islands Land Trust hosts free guided hikes on Hawaii, Kauai, Maui and Oahu through our Talk Story on the Land program. These hikes have the added benefit of being led by one of our Island Directors who will provide intriguing information and stories about the area you are experiencing. Sign up for our next Talk Story on the Land.

Contributed by Angie Britten, Development Director, Hawaiian Islands Land Trust

* Hawaii State Department of Health Death Certificate Database

** Hawaii Health Information Corporation