What if we told you that Kauai has a swamp connected to one of the wettest spots on earth – and that you can hike through it? Kauai is mostly known for sunshine and balmy breezes, but deep in the Kokee State Park forest is the Alaka’i Swamp, the world’s highest rainforest and swampland.
Mount Waialeale on Kauai, which is known for record amounts of precipitation, drains directly into the Alaka’i swamp, filling it with mud and water. The Alaka’i Swamp Trail is roughly 3.5 miles (7 miles roundtrip) through the swampy wetlands, and is one of the only accessible bogs in Hawaii.
A hike through the Alaka’i Swamp Trail does not mean trudging knee deep in mud and ruining your shoes. The State of Hawaii Parks Division has built an boardwalk that travels along most of the trail and is elevated above the swamp. Once upon a time, State Park workers used part of this trail as part of their trek by foot to the top of Mount Waialeale to check its rain gauges. Not only does staying on the boardwalk make the hike much easier, it also helps to preserve the swamp’s delicate ecosystem.
For the eyes and ears
That being said, the Alaka’i Swamp Trail is not an easy hike, nor is it for the novice hiker. Throughout the trail, there are significant elevation gains and declines. Hikers will traverse flowing mountain streams, even climb approximately 200 stairs in a short distance. The trail and boardwalk can be slippery, requiring the need for good footwear (preferably hiking shoes) and good balance. The trail through the forest is incredibly fascinating, with interesting moss formations growing on tree branches and stumps, unusual fungi and wide spanning views towards Waialeale. It is known as being one of the best trails in Kokee for rare Hawaiian bird sightings and while you may not see the birds, when you stop and listen closely you will likely hear them chirping from somewhere in the trees above. The trail ends at Kilohana Lookout, a scenic ridgeline overlooking Wainiha Valley and on a clear day, the entire north shore all the way to Hanalei.
Even royalty loved to vacation on Kauai in the old days. In 1871, Hawaii’s Queen Emma rode by horseback from her Lawai Beach House to Kilohana Vista with over 100 companions where she offered oli, or chants, to the gods in appreciation of the region. The trek took so long, Queen Emma spent the night in the swamp in the cold January weather. Queen Emma’s trek is memorialized every fall through the Eo e Emalani i Alaka’i festival at Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow in Kokee State Park (Queen Emma Festival), a day of history, music, hula, and culture.
How to get there
There are two ways to get to the Alaka’i Swamp Trail. The first way is by taking the Pihea Trail, which begins at the Pu’u o Kila overlook at the end of Highway 550. Yes, you will have reached the end of the road on Kauai. Pihea Trail intersects with the Alaka’i Swamp Trail and the Kawaikoi Stream Trail after two miles. Make sure to head left at the junction to continue your hike on the Alaka’i Swamp Trail.
The Alaka’i trail begins going downhill. This view is hikers ending the hike, thankful it’s done.
The second way is off the beaten path through the Na Pali Forest Reserve by vehicle for about two miles. This is the first road on the left after passing the Kokee Lodge and Museum. The road to get there is a bumpy old dirt road and it is best to have a vehicle with 4-wheel drive in case some areas are muddy or difficult to traverse. If you have a car, you may want to consider parking at the State park and walking the two miles to the trail head.
There are a few essentials for the hike that you will want to pack and we can’t stress enough how important they are.
- Water (at least a liter and a half)
- Food and snacks (trail mix, dried fruit, health bars, a bento lunch from Ishihara Market in Waimea Town are great sustenance for a difficult hike)
- Bug spray and sunscreen
- Light jacket, preferably waterproof in case it rains
- Small towel
- First aid kit
Checking the weather before hiking the Alakai Swamp Trail is a must. The trail is usually dryer and a little easier to manage during the summertime, when Kauai receives less rain than winter or spring.
There is no guarantee that you will be able to see the view at Kilohana Vista if it is socked in with clouds, but the views along the way still make it worth it. Sometimes it just takes a little patience and waiting, preferably with some lunch, for the clouds to clear and expose one of the most magnificent views on Kauai. Even if it is too cloudy to see anything at the lookout, the beauty that you experience along the hike is worth every step.