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Rugged trail and boardwalk leads through tropical swamps and forests to spectacular views in Hawaii.

arrow From the Fall 2010 issue of American Trails Magazine


Kauai’s Most Scenic Trail: the Pihea-Alaka’i Swamp Trail

One hour. Nine miles. Determined to reach the once-in-a-lifetime view at Kilohana Lookout, my father and I scrambled up muddy ridges and over slippery boardwalks, running when we could. An hour into the hike, we’d only slogged two miles from the trailhead. Unprepared and short on time, we turned around halfway and promised each other we’d someday return and finish the trail.

photo of view from steep green hills down to sea

Early-evening light on Kalalau Valley

Last June, we did.

As my father and I discovered, the infamously strenuous Kalalau Trail is not the only way to experience breathtaking panoramas of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. Day-trippers and families with older children can enjoy spectacular Na Pali views on Koke’e State Park’s nine-mile Pihea-Alaka’i Swamp Trail.

This easy-to-difficult trail begins at the Pu’u o Kila Lookout, atop the U-shaped Kalalau Valley, which plunges 4,000 dizzying feet and sweeps two miles to the Pacific. About halfway along the trail, the muddy, rugged earth gives way to bogland and a timber boardwalk. The trail twists through a dense jungle of tropical tree ferns and the world’s highest swamp, ending in a sublime North Coast vista from the mountaintop Kilohana Lookout.

For centuries, only boar-hunters, biologists, and botanists willing to wade through swamp water ever saw the Kilohana view. Undaunted by the bog, Hawaii’s Queen Emma valiantly rode into the muggy rainforest on horseback in 1871. Servants laid fern logs through the wetlands ahead of the monarch. Dismounting at the bog’s edge, Queen Emma trekked the makeshift boardwalk to the vista point— which is now Kilohana Lookout— her traditional holoku dress unsullied.

hiker on old road

The trail along the abandoned road

Seventy years later, the U. S. Signal Corps built a road and telephone line through the bog to connect Koke’e and Waimea during World War II. Further attempts to construct a road along the Kalalau Valley’s mouth and through Alaka’i Swamp in the 1950s produced a crude road—the uneven, dirt Pihea Trail. This remains the most practical route to the bog. In 1991, assembly finally began on a boardwalk and stairs across the mire.

Today, instead of slogging through the mud, hikers can stroll along wood planks as Queen Emma did more than a century ago. Although the Signal Corps’ telephone lines have long since sunk into the mire, the upright poles still rise from Alaka’i Swamp like megaliths from moorland. To arrive at the boardwalk, hikers must conquer both the trail’s easiest and most difficult stretches along the abandoned road.

Near Pu’u o Kila Lookout, countless visitors in flip-flops stroll about the wide, flat old road, snapping photos of Kalalau Valley to the west and the Alaka’i Swamp’s ohia tree canopy to the east. A few hundred feet farther, the trail narrows and becomes more rugged as it hugs the Kalalau Valley rim. A mile in, the old road turns away from the valley, threading up vertical escarpments and down into ravines, forcing hikers to feel out footholds and cling to tree roots to scramble up or down a ridge.

The slippery, mostly-sturdy boardwalk begins at about the two-mile point, shortly before the Pihea-Alaka’i Swamp Trail junction. Hikers headed for the Kilohana Lookout turn left, tramping north-west into the mountain rainforest, pungent with wet earth smell and the mokihana shrub’s anise scent. Crowding the trail are endemic ohia trees with gnarled branches and bright red flowers and olapa trees with yellow bark and distinctive hand-shaped leaves.

photo of valley and ocean

Wainiha Valley and Hanalei Bay from the Kilohana Lookout

Two miles from the Kilohana Lookout, the boardwalk abandons the ohia and gradually climbs over the Alaka’i Swamp’s springy, mossy turf. Water runoff from Mt. Waialeale, the earth’s rainiest spot, seeps into the swamp’s igneous soul and stagnates as clammy, knee-deep grey pools. Here, high winds and unstable ground have felled several longsuffering telephone poles.

At long last, the trail reaches Wainiha Pali’s blustery cliffs, curving north-east through ohia trees and abruptly halting at Kilohana Lookout—a wooden platform, sufficiently large for six people, overlooking a 4,030 foot precipice.

On a clear day, one can see not only the verdant Wainiha Valley below and Hanalei Bay and Princeville Resort beyond, but also Kilauea Lighthouse at the North Shore’s eastern edge. At least six shades of green carpet the mountains and valleys, flecked by clouds’ shadows. The same cold wind that propels a dozen sail boats on Hanalei whips up from the bay, obliterating all traces of swamp smell with the sea’s salty, invigorating air.

photo of rocks with far view of trees

View over the Alakai Swamp


To reach the trailhead, drive west on Highway 550 out of Waimea towards Waimea Canyon. At the Waimea Canyon Lookout, enjoy fantastic views of “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and fresh pineapple and mango. Stop at the rustic Koke’e State Park Lodge and Museum to grab lunch, snap photos of Springer spaniel-sized roosters, buy a Koke’e State Park map and chocolate chip macadamia cookies for the trail, and use the last restrooms before Highway 550 dead-ends at the Pu’u o Kila Lookout.

Be prepared for fog, rain, or hot sunshine on the trail; wear water-resistant hiking boots and bring a rain jacket and plenty of sunscreen, water, and snacks.



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