Hiking in Koke’e State Park | Pihea Trail | August 2018
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of our trip to Kauai was the lack of time spent exploring the impressive Napali coast. Of course we knew all about the dramatic coast and the various ways one can experience it — it’s impossible to search for attractions, hikes, or recommendations for Kauai without coming across all of these. We could start from the North shore and hike the Kalalau Trail, or hike one of the many ridge trails in Koke’e State Park. We could also take one of many boat tours, or take it all in from above with any of the helicopter tour companies. However, with the goal of this trip being a budget friendly, do-it-yourself kind of adventure, the second two were off the table. Because of severe flooding last spring on the North shore, the Kalalau Trail is closed until further notice and we couldn’t get to it even if we tried because of closed roads. Therefore, our only option was to hike one of the trails in Koke’e State Park, at the end of Koke’e/Waimea Canyon Road.
Looking out towards the highest peaks on Kauai, obscured by clouds
This area was also a victim of timing on this trip. We had just completed our hike up Waimea Canyon and were exhausted. The day was already heating up, with not a cloud in the sky to shield us from the harsh sun. As a result, we decided to take a trail that stayed up on the mountain rather than heading down to the coast. That led us to the Pihea Trail. While it was definitely worth our time and we enjoyed our hike, I feel that we missed on the most dramatic landscapes that the coast has to offer. If we were to return, seeing more of the coast would probably be our priority. However, when I look back at this trip my personal favorite moments were spent on the trails I hadn’t heard about, in areas where I had no idea what to expect, and away from the crowds.
The beginning of the trail — it was dry today but can be muddy after it rains
We arrived at the Pihea trailhead at the end of the road around 8:30 that morning. There were several cars in all the lots we passed including this one, but we still had a good head start for the day. We did, however, realize some disadvantages to coming to see this area in the morning: since it’s North facing, the accordion ridges of the coast aren’t as defined, and they sort of blend together. Thankfully the longer we were there, the better the views became. I knew from much research that we were honestly lucky to have such clear vistas because it’s common for clouds to obscure or completely fill the valleys and hide the views.
As I mentioned, the Pihea Trail is the easiest one in Koke’e State Park. It’s 1.2 miles one-way and while it has several ups and downs, the elevation difference is less than 300 feet (Check out the trail profile on our AllTrails recording — note that Curtis only recorded it one-way though to conserve phone battery). There are plenty of clear vistas along the way mostly facing the coast, but we also enjoyed the South-facing views over the Waimea Valley. The trail dips down and goes through a bog-like area, and there is boardwalk over the trail where it would normally get muddy after it rains. The Pihea Vista Trail has a rather anti-climatic ending with a fence and a “Do not go beyond sign” sign, but if it’s any consolation, you can still bag the peak if that’s your kind of thing. We considered and even briefly began continuing on the Alaka’i Swamp Trail, but soon decided against it. It would have had more elevation change and a longer trail that goes inland before coming upon another view of another valley. Instead, we returned the way we came and made it back to the parking lot around 11:30.
Photo bombed by a dragon fly
We finished our time in Koke’e State Park by visiting the Koke’e Natural History Museum. The museum is free to tour and has exhibits on everything from native birds and creatures, to the record rainfall totals this area gets, to the CCC’s involvement on Kauai. There’s also a large campsite, cabins, and a small cafe here at the end of the road. There are at least 5 other ridge trails that begin in this area, so if we ever return to Kauai we’d definitely come back to hike some more!