The Best Hikes In Hawaii

July 31, 2017

 

When you think about Hawaii, I bet that the first image that comes to mind is that of a pristine tropical beach. The good news is that Hawaii indeed has plenty of those, but to fully appreciate the unique beauty of the islands, one must put on those hiking shoes and hit the trails. I spent four months exploring the major Hawaiian Islands, hopping from one to another and covering hundreds of miles on a quest to find the top trails. Though it was a very sweaty task, here are some of the best hikes in Hawaii!

Visiting Hawaii? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five island are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

Hawaii Travel Guide - Cover Image

Best Hikes On The Big Island

The Island of Hawaii, better known as the Big Island, is bigger than the rest of the islands in the chain put together. It is one of the most diverse islands in the world, a place where you could theoretically ski in the morning, hike in a tropical rainforest in the afternoon, and go for a dip in the ocean before sunset >> See how to spend 5 days or less on the Big Island

Mauna Kea Summit Hike

At a height of 13,800 feet (4,207m), Mauna Kea is the highest peak in Hawaii. In fact, if the height mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world! A sacred place to native Hawaiians way above the cloud line, the air at the summit is so clean and free from light pollution, that it is the perfect location for the largest array of high-powered telescopes in the world. The summit trail is an uphill battle from the start, but the pain in your legs, shortness of breath, and often cold conditions (maybe even snow) are constantly rewarded with superb Mars-like views. Along the way, you’ll reach Lake Wai’au – the third highest lake in the US and a peculiar site amid the desert landscape. Once at the summit, you’ll feel extra tiny amid the giant telescopes and enjoy miles of unobstructed views. The hike can be combined with sunset viewing and stargazing at the visitors center. For a similar experience devoid of any man-made “interruptions”, hike to the summit of Mauna Loa.

Mauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii - red boulders

Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea Hike Big Island Hawaii

Mauna Kea Hike - summit view - Big Island Hawaii

Total distance: 16 miles (26 km)
Degree of difficulty: very (very) challenging
Time: 8-10 hours

Hi’ilawe Falls – Waipio Valley

The majestic Waipio Valley is the most impressive in a series of deep valleys on the Big Island’s remote northeastern coast. Slicing inland for over 10 km of thick jungle, freshwater streams, and giant waterfalls, Waipio Valley is also known as “The Valley of the Kings” and holds significant importance in native Hawaiian culture. The valley is the setting for a number of great hikes, such as the multi-day Muliwai Trail. But for the ultimate adventure, hike to the spectacular Hi’ilawe Falls and be one of the few that get to experience this pristine side of Hawaii. Why? Because hiking on this unmarked trail is not encouraged by locals living in the valley, but it is perfectly doable if you follow this handwritten “secret map” given to me by my host family. After crossing the Hi’ilawe Stream at several points (sometimes in neck-deep water), you’ll reach the base of the falls (1450 ft, 442m) and likely be the only ones there!

Waipio Valley - the mother of all valleys - post cover

Hi'ilawe Waterfalls - Waipio Valley Big Island Hawaii

Hi'ilawe Falls 2 - Waipio Valley - Big Island Hawaii

Total distance: ~4.5 miles (7 km) starting from Waipio Valley Lookout
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: ~5 hours including a return visit to Waipio Beach

Green Sand Beach

Officially known as Papakolea Beach, the Green Sand Beach owes its fame to the unique composition of its eroded soil. Located “way out there” in the South Point Peninsula – the southernmost point in the 50 states – you can technically drive to the beach with a 4WD or hitch a paid ride with the locals, but what’s the fun in that? The more enjoyable way is to hike along the beautiful coastline on one of the makeshift paths that were formed in the sand until eventually spotting the gem from a distance. Though swimming is sometimes dangerous, I managed to visit on a clear day when the water was perfectly clear and calm.

hike to Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

The Green Sand Beach - Big Island Hawaii

Total distance: ~5.6 miles (9 km)
Degree of difficulty: very easy
Time: ~3-4 hours including beach time

Kilauea Iki Trail

If there’s only enough time for one activity during your visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it surely must be the Kilauea Iki hike. Basically taking you to “the moon and back”, the hike traverses a diverse landscape, starting from a misty rainforest and heading down to a steamy crater floor before climbing back to the top via a different section of the same forest. The highlight is without a doubt the time spent on the crater floor. You feel absolutely tiny and awestruck at the sight of steam vents popping out of the ash-covered ground from every corner, a stark reminder, in case you forgot, that the Kilauea Volcano is alive and kicking.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island - Kilauea Iki Crater

Crater Hike - Kilauea Iki Trail - Volcano National Park - Big Island Hawaii

 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island - Kilauea Iti Trail steam vents

Total distance: 4 miles (6.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~2.5 hours

Kalapana Lava Viewing

At present time, there is no way to get close to the current lava eruption from within the national park. So for an unforgettable experience of meeting the Fire Goddess Pele from up close, you must drive to the very end of scenic Highway 137 in Kalapana and… start walking (or cycling). It’s best to start hiking about 90 minutes before the sun sets to witness the incredible change of color as the lava trickles down from the hilltop like a waterfall. Once you reach the current flow, you can walk along “the banks” of the lava river and feel the intense heat as liquid-rock oozes in mesmerizing fashion. Before heading back and leaving “the gateway to hell”, turn to the seaside and witness the flow of the Kilauea Volcano cascading into the Pacific Ocean in a battle of the elements. It’s not exactly clear who is the winner at any given moment, but this experience will last in your memory for a lifetime!

Kilauea Lava Flow - Lava viewing area Big Island Hawaii

Kilauea lava viewing area at night - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Live lava flow from Kilauea - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Big Island

Total distance: ~5 miles (8km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~3 hours

Best Hikes In Kauai  

Kauai is perhaps the most stunning island in Hawaii, an island famous for its eroded emerald peaks and fertile valleys. A visit to “The Garden Isle” is all about the outdoors so it isn’t surprising to find some of the best hikes in Hawaii right here in Kauai >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Kauai

Kalalau Trail

Hailed as the “most incredible hike in America”, the Kalalau Trail leads hikers atop the Na Pali Coast – Kauai’s signature feature of eroded cliffs which rise out of the ocean like the jagged teeth of a deadly shark. Requiring a precious permit for hiking its entire length, shorter options do exist for hikers of any fitness level. The first section of the trail is also its busiest, stretching from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi`ai Beach via a series of wet gulches and awesome coastal views. After a picnic lunch at the rugged beach, permit holders continue “all the way” to Kalalau Beach via the trail’s most challenging section and those without either detour inland to the Hanakapiai Falls, or call it a day and head back. As beautiful as the scenery is, the trail’s fame comes with a price, as it feels like a “human highway” at times not to mention the constant barrage of scenic helicopter flights makes it difficult to hear the crashing waves and the song birds.

Na Pali Cliffs from Kalalau Trail - Hiking in Kauai - Hawaii

Kalalau Trail Na Pali Coast - Kauau Hawaii - steep trai

Hanakapi'ai Falls - Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Total distance: 22 miles (35km) or 4-8 miles (6-13km) options
Degree of difficulty: moderate to difficult
Time: 5+ hours

Awa’awapuhi Trail

For the “best seat in the house” head to Koke’e State Park high above the Na Pali coast. The Awa’awapuhi Trail has a modest beginning, with nothing too fancy to report until you reach the scenic overlook. Some hikers are fooled into thinking this is it, but others “who know” (or who have read these lines) take a few more steps and grab a seat on a perfectly positioned rocky ledge –  by far the best seat in Kauai. Sitting up here makes you feel like the master of the universe with the entire valley beneath your feet. The views keep getting better and better as the sun fully rises over the valley, revealing its beautiful colors and the unique contours of the eroded cliffs. Take note of the incredible acoustics of this spot. You can clearly hear people chatting on the boats nearing the cliffs and even animals in the valley below.

Na Pali Cliffs Canyon - Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Total distance: ~6 miles (9.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: 3-4 hours

Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail

In an island so frequented by visitors, it’s nice to know there’s one trail where you might have nature all to yourself. Running along the rugged coastline between Shipwreck and Ha’ula Beaches, the Mahaulepu Coastal Trail rewards hikers with stunning views of the south shore. Along the way, you’ll pass hidden coves that are protected by sharp limestone pinnacles, ancient Hawaiian stone structures, and maybe even schools of sea turtles coming up for air. Those who at least make it to Mahaulepu Beach can enjoy the beautiful off-the-beaten-track beach and also check out Makauwahi Cave – one of the richest fossil sites in Hawaii.

Eroded sharp limestone sea cliffs - Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Total distance: ~4 miles (6.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: 3-4 hours

Cliff & Canyon Trails – Waimea Canyon

It’s hard to believe a natural wonder like Waimea Canyon can exist on such a small island like Kauai and it is certainly worthy of its nickname “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. Formed in ancient times by the collapse of Kauai’s shield volcano and subsequent millennia of rainfall and erosion, the red canyon follows the bending contours of the Waimea River for over 10 miles and, in certain sections, at a depth of over 3,500 feet (over 1,000m). A relatively short hike that can be combined with the scenic Waimea Canyon Drive for a full day of fun, the Cliff and Canyon Trails lead hikers 400 feet down into the canyon. From an exposed red-soil hill, a unique vantage point awards hikers and a further few steps bring you to the very top of Waipo’o Falls which can usually only be seen from distant overlooks.

Waimea Canyon from Cliff and canyon hiking trail - Kauai Hawaii_2

Total distance: ~2 miles (3.2 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~2 hours

Best Hikes In Molokai

Molokai is one of the least visited of the main Hawaiian Islands, a sparsely populated gem where over 50% of its residents possess native Hawaiian heritage. Home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world and nature that is often all yours, Molokai is a top choice for nature-lovers >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Molokai

Kalaupapa Peninsula Hike

The Kalaupapa Peninsula is the most isolated section of Hawaii’s isolated island. It is a place of dramatic natural beauty and the site of a tragic episode in modern Hawaiian history. In an effort to curb the spread of the leprosy virus, Kalaupapa was designated as a (forced) quarantine zone between 1866 to 1969. When a cure was discovered, patients were free to leave but some stayed in the only home they’ve ever known. These days, only a dozen or so residents live in Kalaupapa National Historical Park but this is no ordinary park, as visitors must obtain a special permit to enter the former leper colony ($60 including guided tour)! The hike (or mule ride) down from “the topside” involves a descent of 1,664 feet (~500m) via 1,400 steps and 26 switchbacks. What’s on the menu? Uncover the remarkable story of Kalaupapa as you visit key sites, maybe meet a resident, and visit Kalawao – on the rugged windward side of the peninsula – where spectacular views of Molokai’s Pali Coast are simply the best!

Kalaupapa Overlook - Molokai - Hawaii

St Philomena Father Damien Church - Cemetery - Kalaupapa - Molokai - Hawaii

View of Pali Cliffs from Kalaupapa - Molokai Hawaii

Total distance: 7 miles (11 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderately challenging
Time: ~60 mins down, 90 mins up (not including 4-5-hour tour)

Halawa Valley Hike

Fertile Halawa Valley was once home to over a 1,000 residents who lived off the lush land and mainly grew taro. Following a 1946 tsunami, very few off-the-grid dwellers stuck around in the most isolated of Molokai’s “neighborhoods”. The guided hike in Halawa Valley ($60) brings you as close as possible to sampling life in “old Hawaii”. As you hike atop the banks of the Halawa Stream, your guide points out to the valley’s endless supply of food, from river shrimp to papaya, jackfruit, medicinal plants and even coffee. With every step you take, the sacred mana is also felt, as ancient sacrifice temples lurk from just about everywhere. The hike ends with a refreshing dip at the source of Moa’ula and Hipuapua Falls, which you reach in a mad dash after spotting them from a distance as if you’ve just discovered the final piece of a treasure map. Once out of the valley, grab a picnic lunch and spend the rest of the day at Halawa Beach Park.

Halawa Valley Molokai Hawaii

Halawa Valley Hike Molokai Hawaii - ancient stone structures

Hipuapua Waterfall Halawa Valley Hike - Molokai Hawaii 2

Total distance: ~3.5 miles (~5.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~2-3 hours

PepeOpae Trail

Like stepping into the set of a Lord of the Rings sequel, hiking in the cloud forest of the Kamakou Preserve is a fairytale experience. Requiring a proper 4WD to reach the trailhead, PepeOpae leads you on a metal-covered wooden boardwalk over who-knows-how-many centuries of rotting vegetation and rainfall. Along the way, spongy moss-covered ohia lehua trees are arching over your head, their sweet red flowers a magnet for apapane songbirds who cheer you on. A few more surprises later, you reach the jaw-dropping Pelekunu Valley Overlook. Across the valley are Molokai’s highest peaks, often covered in cloud. To your left, the deep chasms of the valley meeting the blue of the Pacific Ocean. If it has been raining lately, you’ll be treated to a symphony of cascading waterfalls but, in any case, this is a pretty good spot to park it for a couple of hours, have a picnic lunch, and count your blessings.

Pepeopae bog hike - Kamakou Preserve - Molokai Hawaii

Pelekunu Valley Overlook - Pepeopae Trail - Molokai Hawaii 2

Pepeopae bog hike - Kamakou Preserve - Molokai Hawaii 3

Total distance: 3 miles (~5 km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~4-5 hours (including scenic drive)

Best Hikes In Maui

One of the most visited islands in Hawaii, Maui enjoys exceptional global fame as one of the top tropical destinations. Though its beaches are surprisingly nothing to write home about, “The Valley Isle” does reward those who work up a bit of a sweat  >> See how to spend 5 days or less in Maui

“The Needle” in Iao Valley

Though Maui’s central valley is the reason behind the island’s nickname – the “Valley Isle” – it is the Iao Valley in East Maui that is the most impressive. Carved over the course of millennia by the eroding forces of water, the home of one of the wettest spots on Earth is where you’ll find “The Needle” – the crown jewel of Iao Valley State Park. Rising to a height of 2250 ft (696m), this pinnacle is the unofficial icon of Maui and the subject of millions of photos. More of a walk rather than a hike, viewing areas of the “The Needle” are reached via a short walk from the parking lot. UPDATE: access to Iao Valley is prohibited as of September 2016 due to severe storm damage. Check the park’s official website for a reopening update.

Iao Valley Needle - By Michael Oswald, Mikeo

Total distance: 0.5 miles (~1 km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~30 mins

Sliding Sands Trail

The crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, it is hard to imagine that such a place can exist on a tropical island… but we’ve already said that about Waimea Canyon in Kauai. Haleakala is the volcano that created East Maui, so immense that it is roughly the size of Manhattan! Known as “the world’s largest dormant volcano”, Haleakala reaches a height of 10,023 ft (3,055m) and is responsible for much of the bizarre weather on the island. Its accessible summit is a magnet for early risers, space scientists, and ferocious winds, while its crater is a heaven for hikers. The best way to experience Haleakala is by hiking all or part of the Sliding Sands Trail. The challenging hike leads you down to the crater floor and offers a unique look at Haleakala’s magnificent red shades, unique flora, and bizarre cinder cones.

Sliding Sands Hike - Haleakala Crater - Maui Hawaii - red shades

Sliding Sands Hike - Haleakala Crater - Maui Hawaii - hikers

Sliding Sands Hike - Haleakala Crater - Maui Hawaii - Wild Desert Flower

Total distance: ~18 miles (29 km) but short day hikes possible
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: ~5+ hours

Pipiwai Trail

Part of the Kipahulu section of Haleakala National Park, the Pipiwai Trail has many tricks up its sleeve. After a brief climb amidst guava and banyan trees, enter the magic of the bamboo forest as you walk along a raised wooden boardwalk to the tune of thousands of giant bamboo trees cracking in the gentle wind. Visibility into the interior of the forest is impossible, not the kind of place you want to get lost in. The density of the giant bamboo is extreme and their uniform structure and color play tricks on the eyes. It’s a bizarre scene, further amplified when you have the trail all to yourself. But that’s just the beginning… The Pipiwai Trail reaches a climax when you exit the bamboo forest and reach the 400-foot Waimoku Falls. Once more, you feel tiny when staring up at the column of water which violently splashes into a pool. It’s a waterfall that has claimed the lives of a number of hikers who did not adhere to the warning signs asking to “look but stay dry”.  

Giant Banyan Tree - Pipiwai Trail - Maui - Hawaii

Pipiwai Trail Hike Bamboo Forest - Road to Hana - Maui Hawaii

Pipiwai Trail Hike Waimoku Falls - Road to Hana - Maui Hawaii

Total distance: 4 miles (6.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~1.5-2 hours

Waihe’e Ridge Trail

Reminiscent of the exceptional Mount Aorai hike on the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia, the Waihe’e Ridge Trail rewards hikers with diverse landscapes throughout the journey. Traversing through pristine rainforest and narrow ridgelines, enjoy sweeping views of Maui’s Central Valley and the windswept north coast. Be on the lookout for waterfalls in the distance and watch out for falling fruit!

Waihe’e Ridge Trail - Maui - Hawaii By Forest & Kim Starr

Total distance: 5 miles (8 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~5 hours

Best Hikes In Oahu

Oahu is indeed the most populated island in Hawaii, but it is also one of the prettiest in the chain. A good way to block out the traffic and all the people is by heading into nature to explore Oahu’s rain forests and jagged peaks >> See how to spend 4 days or less in Oahu

Manoa Falls Trail

In an island chain that is home to so many dreamy waterfalls, Manoa Falls may not be the most impressive (100ft, 30m), but since they’re just a few minutes from downtown Honolulu, you kind of have to check them out with your own eyes if you won’t be venturing to some of the other islands.

Hike to Manoa Falls - Oahu - Hawaii

Manoa Waterfall - Oahu - Hawaii

Total distance: ~1.5 miles (2.4 km)
Degree of difficulty: easy
Time: ~1 hour

Diamond Head Crater

Overlooking Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head is the symbol of Oahu and the most recognized landmark of Hawaii. The crater was formed by blasted ash, coral, and other debris, from an underwater volcanic eruption, and was given its name by early Western explorers who mistook its calcite crystals for diamonds. Later on, U.S. forces erected artillery firing stations on the crater’s slopes and summit as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system. Hiking to the summit of Diamond Head is an absolute must, though you’ll have to share the trail with hundreds of other folks who have the same genius idea. The unobstructed views of Waikiki Beach from its summit are the hallmark of any visit to the island and from up here, you can’t help but wonder what this area may have looked like before all those high rises “sprung to life”.

Hiking Diamond Head - Honolulu -Oahu- Hawaii

Waikiki Beach from Diamond Head - Honolulu Hawaii

Total distance: ~1.5 miles (2.4 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderate
Time: ~2 hours (including the views)

Koko Crater Trail

The Koko Crater Trail is definitely one of the more challenging and rewarding hikes in Oahu. I’m talking about a steep mile-long climb over 1,000 “overgrown steps” that are actually the remains of an old railway built during WWII to construct and supply a lookout tower atop the summit of this tuff cone – Diamond Head’s little sibling. The more you climb, the finer the views get, even if you don’t make it to the summit. On a good day, you’ll enjoy exclusive views of Hanauma Bay and the coastline.

Koko Head Trail - Oahu Hawaii

Total distance: ~1 miles (1.5km)
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: ~2 hours

Maunawili Trail

This trail is one of the most popular in Oahu, though you must be prepared to get your shoes super muddy. Extending from the Pali Lookout down to Waimanalo (awesome beach), the trail also branches off to the shorter Maunawili Falls Trail which eventually reaches the modest-looking falls and its swimming pool. Along the way, enjoy views of Kailua and the signature eroded cliffs of the Koolau Mountain Range – better known as the Pali Coast.

Pali Lookout - Oahu - Hawaii

Total distance: 19 miles (30 km) or 3 miles (5 km) to Maunawili Falls
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: 2+ hours

Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail

Exposed to the elements (mostly wind) and commanding a breathtakingly beautiful spot overlooking the Pali Coast, hiking to the old lighthouse on Makapu‘u Point is a worthy stop on your road trip up the windward coast. The short and paved trail starts with awesome views back to Koko Head, before rising to the lighthouse overlooking Makapuu Beach and the island’s Pali Coast. Along the way, pause for a look down at the deep blue from atop the sea cliffs and you might even spot a family of sea turtles cruising up the coast. Makapu‘u Point has to be one of the prettiest spots in Oahu.

Pali Coast from Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail - Oahu - Hawaii

Old Lighthouse - Makapu‘u Point Lighthouse Trail - Oahu - Hawaii

 

Total distance: ~3.5 miles (5.5 km)
Degree of difficulty: moderately easy
Time: ~1.5-2 hours

Stairway to Heaven

Officially known as the Haiku Stairs, I’ll start by stressing that hiking here is illegal and can result in a $1,000 fine. That said, just from its name – the Stairway to Heaven – you can understand why so many Instagrammers risk it and sneak up here. The trail is basically comprised of roughly 3,900 steps which lead up a ridgeline. Needless to say the views along the way and from the top are surreal but, if you decide to risk it, you either have to start very early (middle of the night early) or better yet, attempt the hike with two cars which are to be parked at each end. Just in case you’re wondering, the steps were built in 1940’s by the U.S. Navy for easy access to a secret radio transmission station. Due to land disputes, access to the steps – though recently renovated – is unfortunately prohibited.

Haiku Stairs by Kirinwizard

Total distance: 3,922 steps
Degree of difficulty: challenging
Time: ~4-5 hours

More from Hawaii

With this list of the best hikes in Hawaii, fill your days with a mix of fun in the sun and get closely acquainted with Mother Nature. Want to see more of paradise or planning a visit the islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five island are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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