When we decided to plan a Memorial Day weekend trip to Kauai, one of the first things we knew we wanted to do was find at least one of their famous Garden Island hikes. Since we were going to be in Hawaii for 5 short days (really, 4.5 if you take travel time into account), there was only really time to choose one hike to fit in with all the other things we wanted to do on the island. In the end, despite all our research on the varying levels of difficulty, the best hikes for different weather conditions, and the easiest trails to get to from where we were staying in Kapa’a, we ended up choosing Kuilau Ridge Trail. We opted to leave Kapa’a around 7:00am and arrived at the trailhead around thirty minutes later. The trailhead is clearly marked, but comes up fast on the right side of the highway, if you’re coming from Kapa’a. There’s only room for perhaps 5-6 small cars at the trailhead lot, and there were already at least 3 when we arrived.
The start of the trail was very muddy and slippery, made worse by the 80% humidity the day we decided to go hiking. There is a sign near the beginning calling for hikers to look out for miconia, an invasive plant species that has been introduced to Hawaii from Tahiti in the mid-1900s. Miconia leaves are large, with green tops, purple undersides and a velvety texture. According to the sign, the plant can cause (and has caused) massive destruction to rainforests, because it blocks out sunlight to smaller pants and its shallow root system causes landslides and erosion. Be sure to follow the instructions and use the provided shoe brush at the base of the sign to wipe off your boots after your hike, which will help to keep any miconia seeds from spreading to other parts the island.
The first thing we noticed on this hike was just how different everything felt compared to any of the hikes we encounter in the Pacific Northwest. The trees, the smells, the bird calls (including the constant cock-a-doodle-do’s of Kauai’s seemingly endless supply of chickens) and the humidity all gave us a sense of the grandeur of being in a tropical rainforest. The trail never gets too steep, which was great for us to be able to enjoy the panoramic canyon views, with layers upon layers of trees and rolling hills in the distance. The short, fat trees with fern-like branches bunched at the top made me feel like I might see dinosaurs roaming around with us, and the tall, skinny trees with flat sections of leaves almost seemed as if they belonged in the Sahara.
The trail eventually levels off to a flat, grassy area where you’ll find a cluster of benches under a hut. Here, we ran into a gentleman who tipped us off to a hidden pathway with the best views of this hike. It was a short 5-minute detour and was 100% worth it (we ended up helping another group of hikers find the viewpoint on our way back). After taking our fill of pictures, we returned to the grassy landing and headed down the real trail to the end of this out-and-back hike. This part of the path slopes downwards and into the forest, but there are neat sections here too–clusters of trees covered in ivy-like vines lined the trail. It took us perhaps 15-20 minutes from the hut to make it down to the bridge, which marks the end of the Kuilau trail. If you would like to continue on, the trail immediately becomes the Moalepe Trail–completing the second trail as well would bring your round-trip mileage to approximately 8 miles.
We arrived back at the trailhead around 10:00am–round trip the hike only took us around 2.5 hours, despite stopping often for pictures. I can’t stress enough how great this hike was–it was both the perfect length for an early morning hike (we had the whole rest of the day left!) and a great introduction to the Kauai rainforest landscape. If we ever go back to the Garden Island, I definitely want to explore longer trails with ocean or waterfall views.