Hike Above Hanalei to the Summit of Kauai’s Okolehao Trail
A challenging climb rewards hikers with stunning views and a sense of peace.
As the wheels of my car pound the wooden planks of the one-way bridge into Hanalei Valley, all signs of modernity seem to fall away.
No crowds, no traffic lights, no foreign noise. Just a carpet of shock-green kalo (taro) and the Hanalei River, wide and placid, gently gliding toward the sea. Traveling down the dirt road that divides the taro fields from the river, I forget about all the emails awaiting response in my inbox. Ahead, the raw Hawaiian jungle beckons me.
My destination on this humid day is the Okolehao Trail. The 2.3-mile hiking path ascends 1,232 feet up Hihimanu Ridge to the majestic twin peaks that punctuates this quaint north shore surf town’s skyline. Perched atop Hanalei’s mountainous crown, the world is bound to look a bit greener. My agenda: Go there and, along the way, clear my mind.
Driving into the valley, I’m the only soul in sight, save for a family of nene, the endangered Hawaiian goose, waddling across the road. I brake for the honking bird quartet and take a moment to appreciate the encounter with some of the world’s rarest geese. When the path is clear, the largest nene lengthens its neck and sounds a final honk. I take it as a signal to continue rolling toward the mountains, spread wide and jagged across the plain like a jaw of sharpened teeth.
Okolehao is a moderate trail—easier in dry conditions and more difficult when goopy with mud, which is most often the case in this verdant valley. Rainfall is 99 percent more plentiful in Hanalei than anywhere else in the United States. After periods of heavy showers, a walking stick is a must.
The hike is not as grueling as the Kalalau Trail, another north shore hike that famously teeters its trekkers on a narrow ledge, high above crashing seas. But it’s certainly no walk in the park. In some sections, sharp, foot-wide inclines necessitate a system of ropes to aid hikers in their climb up Hihimanu’s spine.
The steep, sometimes slick trek is worth the sweat. Okolehao rewards hikers with sweeping, 180-degree views extending from the Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse to the unspoiled Na Pali Coast. Hanalei Bay, crescent-shaped and sparkling, can be glimpsed through tree branches throughout most of the four-hour, 4.6-mile roundtrip hike.
From my stance in the small, dirt parking lot adjacent to the trailhead, I can trace only the first quarter of the hiking path before it vanishes into an overcast sky. Dressed in cotton shorts and a quick-dry tank top, with a backpack of bottled water and mosquito repellent, I skip over the footbridge and begin my ascent. I’m invigorated that the trail will lead me to a point that can’t yet be seen.
The trail starts off flat, and then abruptly rises to a 30-degree incline. My step is quick and my calf muscles grow warm. The air is heavy with moisture but the dirt beneath me is dry.
“Hello!” gloats a 30-something man, descending the trail with a young golden retriever. Then—“Whoa!”
The man slips on mud and nearly falls to his knees not far from the direction of my next stride. We both laugh at our near-collision as he steadies his gait. He’s the only hiker I’ll pass on the trail that day. But the patch of mud is the first of many.
At the half-mile marker, there’s a plateau with panoramic views of Hanalei Bay. I spend a few minutes here calming my heart rate and watching the surf roll in to a shoreline skirted by bungalow-style homes and patches of heart-shaped taro leaves. Nearly 60 percent of Hawaii’s taro is farmed in this valley, each plant a glowing fleck of green, like brush strokes in a Monet painting.
For some hikers, Okolehao’s half-mile lookout is the pinnacle of their adventure. This truncated climb is enough to make you huff and the culminating view is a mesmerizing delight. For those forging ahead, the trail continues to rise up the ridgeline through a gap in the foliage. It’s another shaded, uphill mile to the next plateau.
When I arrive there slightly winded, an empty wooden bench is there to greet me. I happily take a seat, swig from my water bottle and gawk at another round of incomparable views of the ocean and valley landscape.
The Okolehao Trail is named after the potent Hawaiian moonshine made from the roots of ti plants, which are copious along the trail. Translated literally, okolehao means “iron bottom.” The name is derived from the iron tools that were once commonly used by Hawaiians to distill the potent spirit. The drink was a favorite of King David Kalakaua, the Kingdom of Hawaii’s last reigning king.
For reasons beyond the brandy-colored liquor it produces, the ti plant is sacred in Hawaiian culture. Introduced to the Islands by the early Polynesian settlers, the ti plant is a token of divinity and prestige. Ti leaves are often used to ward off evil spirits and they are believed by many to have healing capabilities.
The area is abundant with canoe plants brought to Hawaii by the Polynesian voyagers, such as the fragrant hala (pandanus) tree, famous for its pineapple-shaped fruit. There are also invasive species, such as the java plum, which produces a purplish berry that drops when ripe and stains the dirt. Java plum has grown rampant since it was introduced into Hawaii during the 19th century. Along the trail and across the Islands, native plants are in constant competition with invasives that threaten to choke them out.
As I traverse Okolehao’s final half mile, my focus shifts from the greenery to my mud-splattered sneakers. Weighed down with muck, my feet start to lag. Yet the tail end of the trail continues to steepen. Panting, I push forward.
The scramble to the top is messy and difficult, but the payoff is huge: A flat clearing in the clouds with views of Hanalei and Hihimanu’s famous twin peaks. I lounge here in the grass for half an hour, straining my eyes through the cloud cover to spy a few of the valley’s delicate waterfalls. All is quiet. A light rain starts to fall, but I don’t let it disturb my peace of mind.
Okolehao Trail • From Hanalei, turn onto Ohiki Road, drive about a mile to a small pedestrian bridge, which marks the trailhead on the right.