With its 750 miles of total coastline presenting idyllic beaches, clear, warm waters, and some of the best surfing, fishing, diving, and snorkeling spots on earth, of course, many people associate Hawaii’s opportunities for outdoor recreation with the water. But if you fail to look inland, you’re missing out.
Like the biggest mountain on earth, if you measure Mauna Kea from its base under the ocean to its summit at 13,803 feet above sea level. Like Hi’ilawe Falls, a waterfall with a main drop some 1,200 feet in height. Like miles of perfectly pristine beaches completely devoid of human development.
You can get to the summit of Mauna Kea by car, you can see Hi’ilawe falls by helicopter, and you can reach spots like Kauai’s Kauapea Beach, AKA Secret Beach, by boat, but what ties these and dozens of other spots together? They are best reached by hiking. Sure, surfing is great and all, but Hawaii is just as much of a paradise for the hiker who loves logging miles afoot.
Hiking on Oahu
You are all but certainly going to fly into Honolulu, so you might as well get right to it and start your Hawaiian hiking adventures on this most populous and third largest of the eight main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago.
Convenient to Honolulu and easy for the fit hiker, hiking up Diamond Head is a good way to stretch your legs and take in some quick city and ocean views. The route to the summit from the parking lot is slightly shorter than a mile and ascends about 560 feet on a well-maintained trail. People in good shape can complete a walk up and down in just over an hour, while a trail runner can do a loop in well under an hour.
The Ka’au Crater trail is just a stone’s throw from Honolulu but a world apart. This vigorous day hike will take between four and six hours depending on fitness levels and pacing, and it’s a great outing for the adventurous folks out there. The trail cuts through dense forest, up steep grades where ropes are tied off to steady you, past brisk streams and waterfalls, and finally into the expansive crater for which the route is named. FYI, you will get muddy. Very muddy.
If you’re a glutton for punishment who also enjoys stunning views and only has about an hour to spare, this hike is for you. The route involves nearly 1,050 steps via a disused inclined railway built by the military during World War II. Though only about .7 miles in length, the trail will have your thighs aflame by the time you reach the old army pillbox bunkers at the summit.
Unlike so many of the hikes on Oahu, this one isn’t short and steep, but long and meandering and challenging only for its distance, not its elevation. The full route is nearly 10 miles one way, so start early and plan to be on the go all day — a better way to spend a day being hard to imagine, of course. The Maunawili Trail is often shaded, offers plenty of open and expansive views as well, and features plenty of water where you can cool off. (Just don’t confuse this route with the much shorter Maunawili Falls route.)
Hiking on the Big Island
The island of Hawaii, AKA the Big Island, offers superlative trekking, including a ramble up the state high point. Just note that a lot of this massive island is protected land and is off-limits.
Looming 13,803 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is about as different as the beaches ringing the Big Island could be. Many days out of the year, this Hawaiian peak gets enough snow for skiers to get in runs. And while you can drive all the way to the top of Mauna Kea, the mountain is better appreciated on foot. The Mauna Kea Trail (also called the Humuʻula Trail) leads from the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy all the way to the summit of Mauna Kea. The six-mile trail ascends 9,200 feet vertically, so pace yourself and bring energy foods and lots of water. Fit hikers can do the round trip in less than eight hours.
If you only have an hour or so to spare, this 2.5-mile round trip Big Island hike will do. The route leads through the lush Pololu Valley which cuts through verdant forest and steep cliffs. And at the end of the trail, you emerge onto a stunning volcanic black sand beach. Watch for whales.
For the intrepid hiker, this nearly 40-mile loop could be the day hike challenge of a lifetime. For most folks, it’s a great two-day hike with a one-night campout. Hiking from the trailhead to the summit of the semi-active Mauna Loa volcano sees a 7,000-foot elevation gain over largely barren landscape. There’s little shade, but the rugged volcanic landscape is gorgeous in its own way. Bring lots of water, sunblock, and food. And check with National Park Service to make sure no eruptions are predicted.
Hiking on Kauai
Kauai is home to plenty of great hikes to the lush interior, but it’s the island’s secluded beaches that offer the best rewards after a good trek.
The Kalalau Trail is 11 miles long one way, so plan to spend all day on this trek or even to camp out on Kalalau Beach, a stretch of pristine sand that looks all but untouched by humans. The route wends through five valleys and near the edges of many sheer cliffs (not too near…) until finally dropping down to the ocean. If you do plan to camp, make sure you get a permit.
Rather than the 11-mile slog needed to reach Kalalau Beach, you only need to hike about a half-mile to reach this secluded beach. You can extend the hike by trekking along a dirt road otherwise used for car traffic, but it’s also a pleasure to stroll along the 3,000 foot stretch of sand also known simply as Secret Beach.
Hiking on Maui
Maui has a few unique gems that make exploring the island on foot the best way to experience it, and that goes for beaches, valleys, and mountains as well.
Also and appropriately named Red Sand Beach, Kaihalulu Beach is one of the few beaches on earth that truly does have red sand, and that alone makes it worth a visit. The cobalt blue water there is almost equally as dramatic. And the hike in to this unique and secluded beach is short but can be challenging, with a few sections presenting significant fall danger to the inexperienced or inattentive hiker.
The trail through the Kaupo Gap starts off with a descent toward the ocean, so save yourself some stamina for the way back through proper pacing. But the trail, which is about eight miles one way and sees more than a mile of elevation gain, affords some stunning vistas — you can even see the Big Island on clear days. You will also walk through lush valleys, past towering cliffs, and can make it a two-day camping trip if you’d like.
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