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The 5 Top Hawaii Hiking Adventures: Hawaii’s Most Outrageous Trails
Adventure hiking in Hawaii is a treat that most visitors simply don’t get to experience – they come to relax on the beach, enjoy a higher level of amenities, and only walk a short distance (eg from their vehicles or on a beach walk). But there is another “side” of Hawaii – and that is adventure sports in this beautiful natural environment. One of the oldest axioms about adventure insists that you have to be outside your “comfort level” for real adventure to happen! So, some of the top 5 hiking trails listed here are pretty tough and might push even the most avid backpacker out of their comfort zone – but they’ll get to witness incredible parts of Hawaii that few see.
Because the islands are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they have a unique history and are quite large in area – the terrain is exotic, exciting and often unique even to an experienced world hiker. Hiking conditions can be strange and dangerous—from actively eroding windswept trails in Tahiti-like green jungle—to active lava conditions on the Big Island where you can get up close to a “river of lava.” So… among the thousands of hikes to choose from, which are the top five in terms of inspiration, sheer outrageousness, beauty and adventure? The opinion of one author, who is a 30-year veteran of hiking adventures in Hawaii, is presented below.
Number 5: Alakai Swamp Trail. Waimea Canyon in West Kaua’i is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” As you drive along the dramatic highway that runs along its side, it seems quite similar to the Grand Canyon – with carved, reddish canyon walls and waterfalls sprinkled here and there. Its dimensions are much smaller, but the resemblance is real. The upper part of the canyon contributes to the uniqueness of the canyon, because inside the canyon there is a large plain that does not flow down the canyon. It is a 4-5 million year old collapsed crater, and due to “drainage problems” contains unusual plants and topography in an isolated high marsh. As you hike through the amazing, unique plants and scenery, you can see Mount Wailaelae, often cited by climatologists as the rainiest piece of land on planet Earth (on the windward side). The beauty, unique life forms and unusual features of the Alakai Swamp area make it a world-class destination. Length: 8.0 miles Difficulty: mild to moderate Elevation change: approx. 50 meters
Number 4: Haleakala Crater to the Pacific Ocean. Maui’s most famous hike begins at the eerie and very inspiring crater on top of the mountain, called Haleakala. It is full of cinder cones and old lava flows. Many visitors go here for the awe-inspiring sunrise – but very few consider hiking all the way to the ocean! It’s one wild hike with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. The good news is that it’s all downhill, but those with bad knees are best not to attempt it. As the trail twists and turns uphill and downhill, hikers are treated to indescribable views of places like Koolau Gap, all the while looking down on the Pacific coast. Some experts have rated this as one of the top 5 hikes in the United States. The views, distance, elevation changes and diverse tropical landscapes deserve it! Length: 22 miles (one way) Difficulty: Very Difficult Elevation Change: +10,000 feet (but all downhill)
Number 3: The summit of Mauna Loa, Hawaii’s Big Island is twice the size of the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined. It has 2 mountains above 13,600 feet above sea level. Both – Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea – are wide and varied – with green rain forests on the windward side and literal deserts on the leeward side. You can drive to the amazing array of astronomical observatories at the top of Mauna Kea, but there are only strenuous hikes to the summit of Mauna Loa (and the Mauna Loa volcano is classified by geologists as still very “active”). There are actually three trails to the top of Mauna Loa – so I’d argue that if you take the shortest route, it’s still pretty tough! Due to the high altitude, even this shorter route is difficult at 12 miles. However, there is a cabin at the top of the crater that has beds, blankets, and often even water (you must check with NPS rangers). Length: 12 miles Difficulty: Extreme Elevation Change: 1000 meters
Number 2: Kalalau Trail The coast of Na Pali is often called the most beautiful place in the world among the most beautiful islands in the world! The world famous Kalalau Trail begins and ends on the Na Pali Coast. It starts where the road ends on Kaua’i’s north shore, and then it’s 17 miles to Kalalau Valley. The trail follows the Na Pali cliffs at varying elevations – sometimes right at ocean level and sometimes up to 300 feet above the ocean. Within the first 20 minutes the vistas are as beautiful as any in the world. The valley was eventually inhabited by several thousand Polynesians before the arrival of Europeans. It is full of old fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wild goats, wild pigs and even coffee trees, Length: 22 miles. Difficulty: Difficult climb: 300 meters
Number 1: Big Island Active Lava Hike Hiking near hot lava can be dangerous, but it can also be one of the most adventurous experiences of your life. Since 2011, active lava can erupt from several constantly changing locations on the Big Island. About thirty miles from Hilo, Kilauea Caldera has a smaller crater called Halemaumau Crater. It has been bubbling for several years, but the national park only allows you to see it from a distance (about 1 kilometer), so you can’t really see the lava. During the day, you can see billows of smoke, and during the night, you can see a red hot glow emanating from a lava lake that is out of place and usually hundreds of feet below the rim. More active and accessible lava flows, which you can walk to, have been in different places many times on the eastern half of the island over the last 100 years. If you go when there is an accessible active stream, and you can get to it – you can walk as far as you dare (be careful not to burn your eyelashes). Other times there are active flows or craters as far as 6 miles, a wilderness hike – and many visitors over the years have ended up lost. Length: 100 yards to 12 miles Difficulty: mild-extreme Elevation change: 0-200 meters
Logistics: Where to get to base camp and get supplies it is not easy or simple for a first-time visitor to each of these adventure locations. There are of course many options, and it’s hard not to believe that it can be done for just a small fortune for a first-time or second-time visitor. However, for Kauai’s Alakai Swamp at the YWCA’s Camp Sloggett, you can rent a room, rent a bed, or camp at Kokee State Park. Camp Sloggett is within easy reach of some of the most impressive day hikes on the planet. It is best to get most of your supplies in Lihue, although the town of Waimea at the base of the canyon has some small shops. To hike Maui extensively from its highest peak (Haleakala) down to the ocean, you need to backpack the entire trip. You can get a taxi, a shuttle or a friend for a ride – or hitchhiking with backpacks to the trailheads is pretty accepted on the islands. And for the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s North Shore, there is another hostel just one mile before the trailhead operated by the YMCA (on the beach side of the highway in Haena Beach 5 miles past Hanalei). It’s just basic beds or camping, but it’s on an amazing beach! Two hikes away on the Big Island, there’s actually a budget Volcano Hawaii hotel centrally located there. I recommend base camp on the Big Island at Volcano Village (within 1 mile of the only entrance to the national park) as you can do two of the five most outrageous hikes in Hawaii here! National park staff and some localities can advise you on conditions and permits. Then, if I were you, I’d fly to Kauai and do two more… since it’s the only other island with two of these five awesome hikes.
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