Hiking the Kuilau Ridge Trail in Kauai

Hawaii, Tours & Experiences, United States / Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Trudging through the muddy path along the edge of a steep descent, I gazed out at the layers upon layers of mountains in the distance. The sun rays peaked through the predominantly cloud filled sky and shone on the Waimea River glistening in the valley below. It was peacefully calm, the occasional bird chirping or rustle of wind through the trees was the only sound to break the silence. The wild beauty of inland Kaua’i was incredible to see from such height. This hike left me charmed and fulfilled…

As I was deciding which of the Hawaiian Islands to visit, I couldn’t go past the breath-taking views of Kaua’i and the Napali Coast. I instantly knew I had to get on the trails and hike through this uncanny island myself. There’s something about the landscape that draws you in and makes you want to explore every inch.

With the recent flooding in the north shore of the island, and being a solo traveler unfamiliar to the terrain, I didn’t feel confident tackling the routes myself. Many of the trails I had planned to trek were now closed temporarily and I was left unsure where to go. I needed a local’s knowledge on the paths for this time of year and was also keen to learn about the history and culture of this little place they call Hawaii.

Kaua’i is a fascinating island, originally formed by a volcano now known as Mount Wai’ale’ale. 5 million years ago during the final eruption of the volcano, one side collapsed which caused a divide in the island. The north side resulted in incredibly wet weather, the summit of Wai’ale’ale is one of the wettest places on earth, and the south is much dryer in comparison.

For years hiking in Kaua’i has become a must-do activity for visitors. Almost every sightseers’ itinerary will include the Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast then other waterfalls and beaches scattered in between. While these are great and definitely on my list, it’s always worth making the effort to see the sites off the beaten path for a more authentic experience.

I had organized my tour to Kuilau Ridge with Kaua’i Hiking Tours, one of the only hiking companies on the island certified as a Sustainable Tour Operator by the Hawaiʻi Ecotourism Association. As I hadn’t been hiking for a while and felt my fitness had slipped a little, I was relieved to see the choice of varied difficulties. After booking through their website a confirmation email is sent with all the information required to be prepared for the day.

The night before I received a call from Jess who was my assigned guide. She went through the checklist and confirmed the pickup time and location. Jess forewarned me that the hiking destination would be weather dependent with all the recent storms but would keep me updated of any changes. As much as I wanted to see what the Kuilau Ridge Trail was about, it was good to see Kaua’i Hiking Tours taking their duty of care and customer safety seriously.

The grey clouds were threatening from above as we met at the hotel. The ride to the starting point was short but beautiful, passing landmarks along the way including the roaring Opaeka’a Falls. This was a good time to get acquainted with my guide and fellow hiking partners for the trip.

We arrived at our starting point and commenced the ascent, as we were already so high the views from the beginning were magnificent from the first step. I couldn’t wait to see what else was to come. The path was muddy but gradual, the perfect incline. We passed a couple coming the other way who gave us advice on how to get around the fallen tree up ahead. I thought it would be a breeze but little did I know it was a Swamp Mahogany tree, nearly as tall as me as it was wide and the canopy so far down the mountain you could barely see it. With a little guidance from Jess and a few attempts, we maneuvered our way around it.


What was waiting on the other side was well worth all the effort. The views of the Makaleha Mountains and glimpses of Kawaikini and Mt. Wai’ale’ale were simply stunning. We stopped for a moment to absorb the serene view and our immediate surroundings. Home to towering ferns, oversized vines and unusual flora such as the Guava and the Hala Tree. It felt like we had stepped straight into a scene from Jurassic Park.

About a mile in we approached an open area with a sheltered park bench and I feared we had reached the turning point much sooner than I had hoped. We took the time to rest our feet and have a bite to eat before exploring the grassy space to find the best views of the valley. The layer of vines covering the canopy of trees below was astonishing. Jess showed us some of the plants below our feet including the “Hilo Hilo”, or Mimosa Pudica, the “sensitive plant”. As you touched it lightly with your finger it began to close just like a sea anemone.

After the shelter, the path continues down around the grass-lined hills and through a shady canopy. One of the group spotted a smaller waterfall just off the path which we all ventured down to. The water was sky blue and just out of reach were thimbleberries, so red and shiny they were perfect for eating. As our guide had taken a great interest in Hawaiian botany and knew an incredible amount about the local flora including the species you can eat and ones you can use for natural healing.

We hiked on past the wooden footbridge which crosses the Opaeka’a Stream. This bridge signifies the end of the Kuilau Ridge trail and the beginning of the Moalepe Trail. Soon enough we unexpectedly found ourselves in the middle of a rainbow gum forest, with trees reaching over 150 feet tall. Occasionally a delicate wild orchid peaked through the foliage on the forest floor.

Three hours later with the back of our legs and our boots caked in mud, we returned to the car with a smile on our faces. The conveniently located stream allowed us to freshen up before finishing the day back at the hotel.

Jess, our guide, had been hiking the trails of Kaua’i with Kaua’i Hiking Tours for several years before joining the team. She has a keen understanding of many of the trails. Her approach to life and the environment was refreshing and made me reconsider cutting corners in my big boots.

Although I’m a capable hiker, I did have hesitations about being alone in a foreign land. Kaua’i Hiking Tours isn’t just for the experienced, joining a guided tour is beneficial to anyone who wants to have a taste of the outdoors. They host a range of private tours for those of all levels, with durations of 2 – 10+ hours. Kauai Hiking Tours also offer group tours which are a great way to save money and make like-minded friends on the island.

If you have something specific you want to see, Kaua’i Hiking Tours can custom design your private hike to offer something unique to you. Don’t waste time searching for perfect scenes, this team knows where the gorgeous views, pristine beaches, cold running streams and the best of everything around. They’re passionate about the land, practicing ways of “leave no trace”, and spend their spare time exploring to find the greatest routes.

It was so nice to get outdoors and connect in nature with other humans, tasting the wild plants and experiencing the beauty of the island.

Would you hike this trail? Find Kaua'i Hiking Tours via their website, Instagram or Facebook.

Have any questions about the experience? Leave a question below!

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