Kaua’i is awesome, no doubt about that. It’s appropriately nicknamed the Garden Island and has many great things to offer: lush tropical forests, minimal tourists, smooth white sand beaches, JoJo’s shaved ice, and those damn roosters crowing at all hours (okay, not so great, but they are everywhere).
After an action-packed year full of racing and running ourselves into the ground, my boyfriend and I decided to take a little trip to Kaua’i to ring in the New Year. Naturally we shied away from relaxing on the beach (for suckers!) and instead took to the jungle for some trail running. Or so we thought. Turns out when a trail in Hawaii is labeled as strenuous, it actually IS really freakin’ hard. Usually I scoff at “hard” trails knowing that it means a little elevation gain or some technical terrain. Well not here. Strenuous means scrambling up and down rocks on all fours, slick-as-ice red mud, using tree roots as railings so you don’t tumble off a cliff, and trying not to let your sneakers get sucked into the ever present mud pits. Good stuff. Makes me really appreciate the Marin Headlands. Below I’ll highlight the more exciting trails we ran/hiked.
The Nualolo trail runs 3.8 miles from Waimea Canyon out to a NaPali coast overlook and the Nualolo Cliff trail, which connects to the 3 mile Awa’awapuhi trail to return to the canyon. The Cliff trail was closed due to dangerous conditions so we had to do an out-and-back. The way out to the coast is pretty much all downhill, dropping close to 2,000 ft. Fun, except for the totally unrunnable parts, which was almost all of it. The mud was really slick and the downhills were super steep, so I was on my butt a lot. Some of the sections have nice tree root railings to hold onto, but most don’t.
Once you make it out of the forest you arrive on a martian-looking landscape of red mud hills. The trail here smooths out but in return you get the added danger of falling to your death with one clumsy step. Right around here is when you get the first views of the NaPali coast. I instantly forgot all the cursing I was doing 10 minutes prior. The trail ends at a small guardrail with spectacular views of the coast. Who needs a helicopter tour when you can earn those views the hard way? The return trip was just as hard, but for different reasons. The steep hills were easier to climb, but you’ve got 2,000 feet of upness to conquer. Less fearing injury, and more “oh god when is this hill going to end??” Overall, a pretty good hiking trail but forget any chance of keeping a good running pace.
Rating: 3.5/5- difficult trail with turnaround-point views to make you cry
Pro tip #1: Bring water. I didn’t, thinking “pssh, less than 8 miles, I’ll be fine.” Wrong. So wrong.
Pro tip #2: Bring a camera/phone. Instagram gold out there.
The Powerline trail runs 11 miles (or 13, depending on who you ask) from Princeville to Wailua, following the large power lines that cut across the island. It’s unmaintained, which means that unless you brought your machete, your shins will be clearing those stabby plants out of the way. It’s rough-going, with few clear sections of trail. But it may be better in the summer months when more people are out hiking and clearing the brush.
We did this trail twice, first starting from Wailua and going in 2.5 miles and up 900 feet (which took an hour!) and a few days later we started from Princeville and went in 4 miles and up 1,000 feet (also an hour). The Princeville side has the benefit of starting with 1.5 miles of clear fire road, but after that it gets dense quickly. The hardest part for me, besides the insane amount of thorns discovered in my shins, was not being able to see the trail thanks to the thick brush. There were lots of potholes and mini crevasses ripe for twisting an ankle. It was quite wet thanks to a recent storm, so we encountered some fun knee-deep swampy mud pits. Much of this trail is exposed, so it can get super hot.
Rating: 2.5/5- bushwhacking with some decent views of the interior of the island
Pro tip: wear pants, or your shins will look like you lost a fight with a very angry cat.
The most runnable of all the trails we tackled, Sleeping Giant, or the Nounou trail, is a short 1.5 mile jaunt to the “chest” of the fabled Giant. 1,000 feet of upness and a few scrambly sections, but generally smooth sailing both ways. We went late afternoon and it wasn’t too crowded. Picnic tables at the top, decent views on a clear day. There are definitely better trails to be had on Kaua’i, but if you are in Kapa’a and want a fast workout (took me just over 20 minutes to reach the top) it’s a nice way to earn that shaved ice. And by shaved ice, I obviously mean the ice cream they hide at the bottom.
Rating: 2/5- short, easy run with okay views at the top
Pro tip: coming down it’s easy to take the wrong trail and end up on the other side of the Giant. Pay more attention than I did.
The famed Kalalau trail… We ran in 3 miles, came back 1 mile to the junction with the Hanakapi’ai Falls trail, and took that out two more miles to check out the large waterfall. All in all, 10 miles with close to 4,000 feet of climbing. Not a bad day’s work. There’s not much I can say about this trail that hasn’t been said in every Kauai guidebook out there, but it really is something you need to experience if you are on the island. Recent storms made conditions pretty sketchy in some areas so we had to slow waaaay down (average pace ended up being around 24:00/mile).
There are also a few river crossings which can get pretty hairy if there’s been any recent rain and you aren’t wearing appropriate footwear (ahem: everyone in Nike Frees). Apparently a whole bunch of people had to get rescued by helicopter in December because of flash flooding. I guess they put all those warning signs up for a reason. Just be smart, yo.
Rating: 4.5/5- challenging trail with mind blowing views of the Na’Pali coastline. Minus ½ point for the crowds.
Pro tip #1: get there EARLY. We got to the parking lot by 8:30am and it was almost full. It turns into a complete shitshow in the afternoon. On our return trip from the falls we were fighting for trail space with people in flip flops, selfie-takers, and dummies carrying babies up the slick rocks. It really kills any running groove you manage to get going.
Pro tip #2: do not use the bathroom at the Hanakapi’ai Falls trail split. Just trust me on this one.
Did I miss any amazing Kaua’i trails that I must do next time I’m there? Let me know! ‘Cause I’m definitely going back.