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Awaawapuhi Trail, Kauai, HI

2005-04-29 8 min read Great Hikes marco

Reading up on Kauai you get easily turned on by descriptions of its marvelous natural beauty. They call it ‘the Garden Isle’, and it is so special that even Hawaiians will trek out there to visit. Kauai is the backdrop for innumerable movies as well as the scenery behind a great many honeymoon pictures.

{moszoomimglink:21 Kalalau Valley from high above} There are plenty wonderful hikes in Kauai, from short paths to a lighthouse to multi-day excursions to Kalalau Valley, a miracle of inaccessible beauty. A great many wonderful hikes are concentrated around Koke’e state park, on the West side of the island, up on the mountain that forms the core of Kauai.

Of all the hikes in Koke’e, then, the most spectacular is the hike on the Nualolo / Awaawapuhi trails. You’ll get to see scenery and colors you won’t find anywhere else; you’ll walk on a razor’s edge with nothing on your side for a thousand feet; you’ll walk under a gentle waterfall; you’ll be standing on top of a vertical cliff so scary, it will make you think twice before you follow my advice again!

Getting There

Kauai is roughly a big, weathered, flat cone sitting at the North-West corner of the Hawaiian island chain. Its East side is home to some of the most torrential rains in the world, while its West side is quite dry. The rain causes heavy erosion, carving deep valleys that radiate from the summit to the coast, separated by razor sharp ridges.

The relative dryness of the West side caused erosion to be limited to the immediate coast and to one huge canyon carved by the Waimea river. To get to Koke’e, you have to follow the South coast highway (HI-50) until you hit either highway 550 or 55 (55 is farther away but more scenic). From there, you follow the road until you hit Koke’e state park. Get a map at the Visitors’ Center, and head towards the Nualolo trail head.

{moszoomimglink:23 Starting on the Nualolo trail} As usual, the Hawai’i State Park system does an excellent job at keeping up the trail and signage. You get out of your car at an ample parking lot, walk a few paces to the trail head and off you go!

Down to Lolo Flat

Initially, the trail is just a nice hiking trail on a tropical island. It is drier than you’d expect, which means you are not likely to get rained out, but you won’t see tropical rain forest, either. Indeed, the trail starts by leading through just a wooded area that could be anywhere. Frequent hunter spur trails indicate you want to leave this section of the park quickly, lest you risk someone mistaking you for a feral pig.

{moszoomimglink:28 The ditch gets deeper, the soil redder} After a while, the forest thins out and the trail turns the deep dark red of… well… red dirt shirts. Rains and heavy use have created a ditch that makes it pretty hard to lose the trail, and soon the descent becomes steep. Soon you start seeing first the ocean, then Lolo flat and nearby Nualolo valley, the trail’s namesake.

The flat looms in the distance. Lolo is like a finger of dirt left untouched by the rains of winter storms, protruding like a tower barely joined to the main ridge by a tiny bridge. You slide down a chute that end in the bridge, without being able to pretend you are not scared to fall a few thousand feet to the bottom of the valley, and then you look at the trail.

{moszoomimglink:38 The trail is on the top of the pali, one foot wide, nothing to the side} Maybe it was a bad day, maybe I am a chicken, but walking across the trail was like being on a tightrope. To either side nothing, one foot under your feet and the spectaular beauty of nature beckoning.

As I reached the end of the trail, I met a man in his fourties, trying to bring himself to leave. He had a big bag around his shoulders, and I asked what he was carrying. He smiled proudly and told me he was carrying 40 rolls of film for his camera, which he planned to fill up by the end of the day. I showed him my digital and showed him the compact flash cards that were more than his 1600 pictures.

Lolo flat is even scarier than the trail. It is a vertical, sometimes overhanging drop with nobody around you that could help or at least show when you are being crazy. I inched towards the edge, gave up, then crawled over again, trying to give my best, ending up in an imitation of an alligator crawling on all fours to see the end of the world.

After Lolo Flat

{moszoomimglink:50 Light shining on the valley floor} Once you turn back and walk towards the trail, things are normal again. You cross the chasm more easily if you know there is firm land on the other side. And once you reach the spur trail to Awaawapuhi trail, you feel fine again. You walk through a forest, then an open meadow, with the most incredible vistas of Nualolo valley. The vertical cliff is black in the midday light, and the bottom of the valley with its marvelous green looks like a jewel encased by the blue ocean and the red soil.

{moszoomimglink:51 Na Pali constantly tops itself} The meadow provided a nice picnic shelter, overlooking nothing but a few beautiful lantanas. I stopped to drink and eat a protein bar, while taking off my shirt, then my shorts in the intense heat. I started walking again, and soon I was enveloped by forest again. I missed the waterfall, which was dry in the summer heat, and had to make do with a look at the picture in a hiking guide.

At least the shade provided some relief from the heat. Flowers appeared all of sudden, while I started hearing voices. Should I be so lucky as to meet another human being? And indeed there they were, a couple were coming down the path, she short and blonde and very pretty, he with two huge chunks of pecs that said: “Don’t mess with me!” They were soon past me, and I finally got to the overlook of Awaawapuhi valley.

{moszoomimglink:58 Rooster at the end of Awaawapuhi trail} Frankly, after Lolo, there was little that this other valley could do to trump the first. I shot a picture of a rooster, moved on to greater things and left the valleys behind. It started being really late, and I had to walk all the way back to the car at the visitor center.

The forest walking up is much more interesting than the one walking down, and the grade of the path is much lower. I had a fun time ascending, tired by the hike, but still able to carry on a conversation with myself… I became a little bored and started taking pictures of myself. My Nikon was in a good mood and convinced me to take it all (almost) off. My form of complaining about the lack of humankind on the trail.

The Visitors Center

{moszoomimglink:70 Hiking back on Koke’e road} The trail markers were revealing it was about time the trail ended. I was not happy at all, because the hike itself hadn’t been to painful, and because I knew I would end up having to hike on the road back to the parking lot.

Still, it started getting dark and I was happy when I saw the lot, then the car, then the concession kiosk. I entered, bought water and a snack bar, when a young kid entered the kiosk, shouting a man was dying on the trail. We asked for a description and I immediately knew it was the man with his bag of rolls. The lady behind the counter asked what he looked like, and decided then it was just a mild case of hyperventilation. The kid and his girlfriend were totally scared and wanted to run back, to make sure he was ok.

{moszoomimglink:19 The sign pointing to Waialeale} We let them go, smiling to ourselves. She started telling me the stories of Koke’e, like the one of the man that had hiked from Ke’e beach along the coast, with the intention of climbing up the cliffs to the park. He told his wife to drive to the Center and to wait for him around 4 PM. She did so, patiently waiting for an hour, until she finally asked how long it took to get up. She was told it was impossible to climb up to the park, and she got real scared. She drove up to the rim of the valley and looked out for him, then back to the center, cursing herself (and probably him).

By the time she had told me this story and sold me another map of the island, the young couple was back with the middle aged man between them. The lady behind the counter (and I swear it was Madame Pele) looked at the trio, stopped a little too long on the boy’s naked chest for any of the four to feel really at ease, and then handed the man a bottle of warm water. “Drink,” she would say, “you are too old for adventure.”

All images in this section from my own Picture Album.