Alakai Swamp Trail: hiking to one of the wettest areas in the world
Located within the perimeter of Kokee State Park on the island of Kauai, the Alakai Swamp Trail is a unique hike in Hawaii! It will take you through the swamps in one of the wettest places in the world! And after all that effort, you may be rewarded with one of the few vistas of Kauai that open up from the central ridges of the island to Halanei Bay.
After two failed attempts in 2017 and 2018, we finally had the opportunity to go all the way to the end of the Alakai Swamp Trail in 2019! So to know everything about this unusual hike, follow the guide!
1The Alakai Swamp Trail: an atypical hike!
The Alakai Swamp Trail is one of the most atypical hikes in Hawaii because it winds through the swamps of the central part of the island, which is made up of a large high plateau. To make their way through the large muddy puddles, wooden and more recently composite boards have been installed to allow walkers to reach the Kilohana Lookout, a viewpoint on Hanalei Bay located at the very end of the trail.
Here it is not so much the view at the end of the trail that we will come to look for, but above all the worrying atmosphere of the swamps that could be confused with the Lord of the Rings' Swamps of the Dead, as long as the fog invites itself at that moment!
This strange atmosphere is also home to a few species that live only in this small and special ecosystem. You will notably be able to cross several small birds endemic to Hawaii.
This is why the Alakai Swamp Trail attracted our curiosity on our first visit to Hawaii. It was really a hike that we wanted to do, but it is worth it because the access is not the easiest.
2How to get to the Alakai Swamp Trail
Please note that the Alakai Swamp Trail is not easily accessible from the road. As the trail is located in the wooded area of the plateau north of the Waimea Canyon and east of Nā Pali Coast, you will either have to join it from the main road via the famous Pihea Trail or take a secondary road in the park, followed by a 4x4 track that will lead to the actual trailhead.
Access from the Pihea Trail
This is the solution we chose because it is the easiest to access and also the one that offers the nicest views with many panoramas on the Nā Pali coast during the first part on the ridge. It is also the most popular option and therefore the most used (even if very few people venture beyond the Pihea Trail).
It is also important to know that the Pihea Trail has the particularity of being VERY VERY muddy! In fact, it was the mud that made us give up in 2018 on our second attempt.
The Pihea Trail starts from the Pu'u O Kila Lookout at the very end of Kokee State Park. To get there, just follow Highway 550 to the end and park in the parking lot which is now paying ( $5 per day to be paid at the terminals, ticket valid for all the parking lots of Kokee State Park and Waimea Canyon).
From the parking lot follow the wide reddish dirt road that juts out along the ridge above the Nā Pali Coast until you reach the Pihea Trail Junction. At this point you will have to turn right to descend and join the plateau.
If you wish, you can make the short round trip of a few minutes to the top of the Pihea to get a panoramic view of the surroundings.
This will be followed by a slightly slippery descent in case of mud, before reaching the beginning of the plateau where the boards will help us to advance quickly through the forest until we reach the intersection of the 4 trails, where we finally reach the Alakai Swamp Trail.
If you opt for this solution, count a total of 12.5 km round trip from the car park for a height difference of 500 metres. The quickest ones will be able to cover the whole in 5 hours. As far as we are concerned, it took us 7 hours to do this complete hike including a 1h00 lunch break at the end of the trail, that is to say 6 hours of walking knowing that the mud really slowed down our progress on the first part of the Pihea Trail.
This itinerary is indicated by the orange then red trails on the map at the bottom of the article.
Access from the 4x4 trail
The second access allows you to reach the very beginning of the Alakai Swamp Trail but will ideally require a 4x4. The difficulty of access via the trail makes it a relatively uncrowded route.
To get there, it is necessary to take Highway 550 to the Kokee campground. You will then have to turn onto Mohihi Road, which intersects in front of the campground (Google maps will mislead you by showing you a road at the Cabins at Kokee Park, the one we are interested in is 800 meters away). The Mohihi Road is a track that will preferably require a 4WD vehicle or you may not be able to go all the way to the end.
Once on the Mohihi Road, you will have to reach GPS point 22.130055, -159.627731 to park (see map at the bottom of the article). Then take the dirt road on the left for 600 meters which will take you to the start of the Alakai Swamp Trail. It will then take 1.6 km almost all the way uphill to reach the intersection of the 4 trails with the Pihea Trail.
The round trip is 11.3 km if you choose this option, as the difference in altitude is 400 metres (Alltrails data). This route is indicated by the red lines (dotted then continuous line) on the map at the bottom of the article.
Which route to choose?
If this is your first visit to Kokee State Park we recommend that you combine the Pihea Trail and then the Alakai Swamp Trail so that you can enjoy the views on the Nā Pali Coast on the first part.
If you are already familiar with the area, you are free to choose between the two approaches knowing that the first part of the Alakai Swamp Trail can also be very muddy.
If you have two vehicles, we think it's best to start with the Pihea Trail and then come back on the Alakai Swamp Trail where the last section will be downhill (combination of orange, red and dotted red trails).
3The Alakai Swamp Trail hike step by step
We will now see the different stages of the Alakai Swamp Trail from the intersection of the 4 trails to Kilohana Lookout (or Vista) which marks the end of the trail. This area is common to the two routes whose approach has been described above.
From the junction, take the path that starts on the left in the photo above, and that will lead us to Kilohana Vista. The first few meters continue on the new composite boards, which is not to displease us as they allow us to move forward at a good pace. But soon the old wooden boards come back.
It is necessary to know that the replacement of the boards takes a lot of time (and we understand given the difficulty of access to the place). So there are still many boards to replace knowing that the most damaged ones have almost all been replaced. The others will be replaced as time goes by and are sometimes already stored on the sides in places.
Quickly we go down through the humid forest thanks to a rather rough wooden stairs on which one or two steps are missing.
Then once down the boards stop to give way to a classic hiking trail a bit muddy in places. So the progress will again be a little slower depending on the condition of the path. We then reach a small river to cross on rocks, the opportunity to wash a little mud on the shoes.
After the river, the boards come back for only a few dozen meters before giving way again to a classic trail. This part of the trail is the least pleasant as it only goes along the park fences for a while without offering any views. It's a bit tiring but after about 20-30 minutes of walking, the boards come back and this time they will not leave us until the end of the trail.
Thanks to them, we cross a new humid tropical zone before reaching the famous swamps.
Beware of old boards, some of which are no longer very well fixed and which can play tricks on you if you are not careful.
Flo has suffered the consequences by sinking into the water up to her ankle after stepping on a piece of board that didn't resist!
Some places will also require a bit of agility as the boards are sometimes very damaged, but fortunately, the most dangerous parts have been secured with the new composite boards. So we alternate between old rotten boards and new composite boards until the end of the trail.
We thus cross these strange swamps perched on our boards while being careful not to slip and not to get caught with our feet in the non-slip grids of the wooden boards. The stagnant water does not inspire confidence and the vision of the Swamp of the Dead in the second chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy gives us even less the desire to put a foot in it even though we have not seen any dead body ;-)
After crossing the swamps, which can be Dantesque in foggy weather, the path enters again a wooded area where small shrubs are completely covered with moss! It is really very surprising!
The last few meters of the trail weave their way through this amazing vegetation before reaching Kilohana Vista where the trail stops sharply at the edge of the cliff.
Be careful on the last metres which are very slippery as the area is very wet in the undergrowth.
If you're lucky (quite lucky!!), you'll see a beautiful panorama of the central ridges up to Hanalei Bay. But alas, we won't be able to show it to you here because we faced... a grey wall! The fog had fallen on the area about 30 minutes before we reached the final viewpoint. So we leave you the surprise of the view and hope you are luckier than us!
4When to do the Alakai Swamp Trail
On a beautiful day! At least we warmly recommend that you try this hike on a clear day if you want to see a little bit of the panorama at Kilohana Vista, the panorama at the end of the trail. Because unfortunately, and this is also the attraction of this hike, the Alakai Swamp Trail is in one of the wettest places on earth, which means that a great day of good weather does not mean great weather in Kilohana Vista!
Due to its almost permanent humidity, this area is a real sponge, which condenses very quickly at the slightest ray of sunshine. Low clouds form almost daily in the first warm hours of the day and will stagnate on the swamps. Fog is the first reason for our failure in 2017 when the clouds were already enveloping us at the beginning of the Pihea Trail (we started this hike far too late!).
So there is no secret, if you absolutely want to have a clear view at the end of the Alakai Swamp Trail, you will have to reach it at dawn. This means starting the expedition at first light and/or feeling in Olympic shape and walking very fast to cover the 6 kilometers that separate you from it, all while having targeted a sunny day (which we just missed because we reached the panorama at 10:00 am but the clouds were barely 30 minutes ahead of us).
But I can reassure you, walking the Swamp Trail is not just a long way to a foggy panorama. When we arrived, the clouds that invaded the swamps gave it a Dantesque and mysterious side, a crazy atmosphere that we never felt during a hike! It is to be done at least once!
5How to equip yourself to do the Alakai Swamp Trail
We strongly advise you to take good walking shoes, and if possible waterproof, with the intention of covering them with mud. You will then have no apprehension to put your feet in the mud puddles rather than looking for a makeshift route in the middle of the roots which are real traps once wet.
If you are afraid to cover your shoes with mud, go on your way, as the trail is relatively unlikely to be dry.
Also bring a raincoat in case the weather is rainy, and even if the sun is expected to be shining all day, keep in mind that this is one of the wettest places in the world and a local cloud nursery.
Don't skimp on food: water and snacks. Although the trail only has a difference in altitude of 500 meters it remains physically intense. The length coupled with the humidity, the changes of pace due to the boards or steps, the ascents and descents, the acrobatic passages and the muddy areas will make the energy expenditure relatively high.
Finally, plan a good sun protection which will not be a luxury because even if you alternate between open areas and forest areas, we are here in the tropics, it hits hard! And the clouds are not our friends in these latitudes either because they let all the bad rays pass through, so be careful!
Now that you're ready, all you have to do is try your hand at adventure! And don't hesitate to share your experience with us in comments :-)
I have personally LO-VED this hike which alternates a little bit of everything: passages a little bit technical, walking on boards, alternation of clear and undergrowth parts with a unique vegetation, the Dantesque landscapes of the swamps, etc. ... What happiness if you love hikes that are out of the ordinary!