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Kauai, Hawaii (Day 5): Hiking the Pihea Trail to Alakai Swamp in Koke'e State Park

Summary: Pihea Trail to Alakai Swamp in Koke'e State Park, Kauai, is an 8-mile out-and-back trail that follows a ridge-line on the Nāpali Coast. While some have rated this as "moderate," we found the muddy conditions made it more difficult. That being said, this was definitely the best hike of the trip and up there on the all-time best hikes list. The landscape varies from breathtaking views of the Coast to walking on planks through swamp land. With breaks for photos and a snack stop at the turn-around, it took us approximately 5 hours in total. This will be a hike you will remember and we highly recommend taking on this challenge when visiting Kauai. This blog post is part of 7-part series related to our time in Kauai. See our itinerary page and additional blog posts for more information about the Garden Island.

What Gear You Should Bring. Kauai is called the Garden Island because of its lush, green landscape. What comes with that, of course, is a ton of rain. The day we hiked Pihea Trail to Alakai Swamp started out nice but we did get some rain on the way back. We recommend bringing, in addition to the usual water and snacks:

(1) A rain poncho that can fit over your day pack. When it pouring rain, you will appreciate that the contents of your bag stayed dry;

(2) A lightweight rain jacket. Intermittent light rain is common and may not require breaking out the full jacket;

(3) Hiking sandals. Depending on the weather, the trail, like during our visit, may be SUPER muddy. We all use Keen hiking sandals and they're a lifesaver for trails like this.

(4) Bug Repellent. The bugs will get you here so think about dousing yourself with some quality eco-friendly bug repellent.

Getting there. From Waimea, the drive is approximately 45 minutes up Highway 550. The trail head is well-marked and will be on your left when you arrive. There is parking available at the trail head with a $10 fee. We arrived at the trail head at 7:45 a.m. and were the first to arrive. This is a heavily trafficked out and back trail with parts of the trail being rather narrow. It was not until about 90 minutes into the hike back that we ran into our first group of hikers and the number of people increased from there. Having the entire trail to ourselves for the first few hours made navigating the trail easier and more enjoyable.

Begin with Jaw-Dropping Views. The beginning of the trail starts with amazing views of the Nāpali Coast. We were lucky that the fog did not come in until later in the hike, giving us the opportunity to snap some photos early in the hike. While the photos are great, they really don't do the view justice. It's hard to describe the enormity of what you are seeing. A passing helicopter, for example, would be merely a spec on the photo.

Climbing the Clay Mud Stairs. The next section of the hike consists of slippery clay mud, which wouldn't sound fun at first blush, but it was, in fact, fun. Sections of trail require you to nearly scale boulders, while carefully planting each foot to avoid slippery sections. Again, it sounds terrible but the difficulty and uniqueness of the trail added to the fun.

Thick Rain Forest Brush. Next, the trail veers straight into a rain forest. It is, well, wet. The trail is super muddy so expect your feet to get covered in mud and possibly your legs too. There is shoulder high brush in places as you cross through the rainforest. This is where you'll appreciate the bug repellent. There are sections where you look the trees and see the horizon filled with miles of rain forest. It's is awe-inspiring to say the least.

Walk the Planks in the Swamp. When you are almost to the Alakai Swamp Trail, the trail turns into a series of wooden planks (both natural and composite) to help you get through the swampy ground. It is particularly wet here and the Koke'e Park has smartly added planks for hikers. In some sections it turns into a long stretch of stairs as you climb in and out of canyons.

Vista with no Vista. The only disappointment of the day was that when we got to the Vista turn around point at the end of Swamp Trail, it was completely socked-in with fog. We think that it is similar to other views of Nāpali Coast, but we can only guess.

Mud Like No Other. Now for a story about mud like no other. This writer was walking along the Swamp Trail and had a little mishap. The mud on this stretch looks nearly the same in all places, whether it is a few inches deep or, as I discovered, several feet deep. I took one step into the mud and was instantly up to my right hip in thick, black, soul-sucking mud (you can avoid this by always staying on the planks). My heart-rate jumped sky high immediately as I felt the mud suck me down. It quite literally felt like how I imagined the mud that took down Artax in The NeverEnding Story. I was freaked out that the mud would suck my hiking sandal down with it too as I tried in vain to lift myself out of the mud. With the help of my husband, I ever-so-slowly inched my leg out of the mud while still somehow curling my toes in such a way that kept my shoe on. Holy cow, I was completely out-of-breach with adrenaline scorching through my veins when I got out. Don't ask me why my body reacted that way, but I'm telling you, it was a freaky experience. So, again, you can avoid this experience by simply staying on the planks. Geesh!

Rain is Okay. After rinsing off in the convenient stream about a mile further on the trail, the clouds came in and gave us a light shower for the remainder of the hike. We expected it - it's a rain forest after all. Like many things, if you know it's coming, it's no big deal.

Alltrails rates this hike as "moderate," but we respectfully disagree. Perhaps it's because we came during the rains, but the mud on the trail, while fun, definitely added a degree of difficulty that should raise the rating to "difficult." Even so, this hike was so incredibly fun, notwithstanding the aforementioned mud mishap. We highly recommend this hike.

1 Comment

Rob Frank
Rob Frank
Mar 05, 2022

Ha! I, too, tried hopping off the boards to what looked like a little wet earth and sank right up to my chest!!!! After passing my backpack to my sister, we struggled to pull me out, and some of that mud on my ankle didn't fully wash off for almost 2 weeks! Shoes and clothes never eashed clean. I had the same adrenaline-rush... wow. Best adventure EVER!!!?? Thanks for posting this!

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