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On Walkabout On: Kauai’s Pihea Trail

Basic Information

Narrative

One of the things my wife and I had on our itinerary while visiting the Hawaiian Island of Kauai was to drive to the end of Highway 550 and see the Kalalau Valley from the Pu’uo Kila Lookout.  The lookout is located in the expansive Koke’e State Park which encompasses much of Kauai’s thickly forested highlands:


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The view of the Kalalau Valley is one of the most photographed in all of Hawaii. Besides the great view the lookout is also a key trailhead to access a variety of great trails that allow visitors to explore the interior of the island. We decided to take a short walk along the Pihea Trail that follows the rim of the valley before heading to a lookout in the interior of the island:

We wanted to hike into the Alakai Swamp just to experience what the wild interior of Kauai is like.  According to the sign at the trailhead the hike into the Alakai Swamp would only be around 3-miles round-trip:

From the trailhead we had some really good views of the interior of the island:

The start of the trail believe it or not is actually the hardest part of the hike. The trail descends down a highly eroded hill side that when wet becomes muddy and very slippery:

Both my wife and I slipped one time or another on this stretch of the hike:

After the muddy and slippery section of the hike the trail begins the follow the edge of the Kalalau Valley:

The view was spectacular from the rim because we were over 4,000 feet in altitude looking out towards the ocean.  These isolated valleys are where the first Hawaiians that traveled here from the Marquesas Islands about a 1,700 years ago are believed to have lived.  Over time each clan populated their own valley which provided them protection from each other.  Eventually these ancient Hawaiians would be conquered and subjugated by new arrivals from Tahiti about a thousand years ago that are the ancestors of today’s Hawaiian people.  Some evidence of the ancient Hawaiians can still be seen today on Kauai:

Additionally as we continued down the trail we could see what seemed like countless waterfalls flowing down the side of the valley:

We could also occasionally see a helicopter coming swooping into to the valley to look at the waterfalls.  I have never done a helicopter tour on Kauai, but it sure looks like a fun way to see these incredible waterfalls:

Looking back down the trail from the rim of the valley we could see the steep slippery section that we had to descend to start our hike:

Here is a closer look at this section of the trail where we could see other people having difficulty getting down it like we did:

We could also see this prominent radar dome up on hill used by the nearby Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) that is run by the US Navy:

As we looked back down into the valley below we could see rain clouds forming which was our cue to push on down the trail:

As we continued down the trail we also had a few nice views looking across the interior of the island which just shows what a large wilderness the middle of Kauai is:

I could not imagine trying to bushwhack through that terrain without a trail to follow:

Eventually the trail enters into the Alakai Swamp which really gave us a taste of how dense the foliage is that covers the central terrain of the island:

Despite all the moisture the swamp sees, the trees do not grow very large simply because the ground is too moist to support large trees that the wind would just blow down if they grew too tall:

The Alakai Swamp is basically a giant spring that feeds all the rivers on the island.  Since this high-altitude swamp sits at an elevation of 4,000-5,000 feet it collects a huge amount of rain water that sits up on the plateau and eventually works its way down into the various valleys of the island that forms its rivers.  All this water can make sections of the trail very muddy. Despite our best efforts we could not avoid the mud on some of these sections and had to walk right through it:

Some sections though had a boardwalk to cross the mud, but why the State Parks Department did not install the boardwalk over other muddy areas is a mystery:

Occasionally the foliage would open up and we could see views across the interior of the island again:

The interior of Kauai really is an incredible wilderness.  However, as we pushed into the swamp it began to drizzle which was our cue to now turn around and head back to the trailhead.  The drizzle eventually turned into a downpour and I had to put my camera in a Ziplock bag I brought to keep it dry.  My wife and I actually brought ponchos and umbrellas with us.  The rain was coming down so hard and from every direction it did not matter; we were absolutely soaked as well as our legs and feet covered in the increasing mud.  As we slogged our way back to the trailhead we could actually see the rain cloud pass away from us and views down into the valley opened up again momentarily:

Conclusion

This respite from the rain lasted only a few minutes before the clouds covered us again and the rain restarted.  This made for an awful climb up the slippery slopes of the trail back to the trailhead.  We preserved and made it back up the slippery slope.  Due to all the slipping and sliding to get back up the hill our entire bodies were now covered in mud.  The remaining tourists at the trailhead who had come to see the Kalalau Valley from the lookout were disappointed that they could not see anything except gray clouds and rain, but they did get a kick out of seeing the few hikers like us coming up the trail covered in mud.  Despite the muddy mess we found ourselves in, the hike was still quite fun.  I would like to do a hike sometime deeper into the heart of Kauai, but would definitely have to be better equipped to deal with the elements.  Our short 3-mile round-trip hike up the Pihea Trail made for good a good introduction to the wilds of Kauai’s interior.

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