Adventure Vacations in the U.S.: Best Hikes in Hawaii
From remote and grandiose vistas atop ridgelines to short paths leading to plunging waterfalls in tropical gorges, Hawaii presents an experience of a lifetime for families who share a passion for hiking vacations. With hundreds of miles of trails in state and national parks throughout the island chain, there is a lot of terrain to explore. Here are the best hikes you can take once you’re on island time.
How to Get to the Hawaiian Islands
- Big Island: Fly into Hilo International Airport.
- Maui: Fly into Kahului Airport.
- Kauai: Fly into Lihue Airport.
Best Hikes on the Big Island
‘Akaka Falls Loop Trail
Distance: 0.4 miles — loop
Difficulty: Easy — great for families with kids of all ages
Stretch your legs after your flight by hiking to two waterfalls at ‘Akaka Falls, about 20 miles north of Hilo International Airport. A pleasant path at ‘Akaka Falls State Park winds through dense tropical foliage to big views of a lush, green gorge and both the cascading Kahuna Falls and the 442-foot grand finale of the hike: ‘Akaka Falls. Despite the short mileage, this hike will get your blood pumping with a staircase climb out of the gorge.
Distance: 12 miles — out and back
Difficulty: Difficult — because of high elevation, it’s not recommended for kids younger than 13
About 45 miles west of Hilo International Airport is a place that looks nothing like the tropical Hawaii that you commonly think of. In fact, you might see snow there, thanks to the alpine climate. Maunakea is the highest point in Hawaii, a towering dormant volcano sitting 13,796 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Hiking it is a strenuous task — the adventure will take your breath away not only with its high elevation, but also with its stunning views of a sea of clouds below. The hiking trail to the summit of Maunakea is 6 miles and climbs about 4,600 feet, although going to the true summit is discouraged because it’s considered a sacred site. A sign on the trail advises hikers where to stop, and the views from this vantage point are some of the most picturesque on the mountain.
Best Hikes in Maui
Distance: 17.6 miles — out and back
Difficulty: Difficult — because of long mileage
At just over 10,000 feet, the summit area of Haleakalā National Park in Maui is a playground for volcano seekers. The national park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails that are suited for both perusing Hawaii’s high-desert terrain and mapping out a multiday backpacking trip through the Aeolian cinder desert. Hiking all 17.6 miles of the Keonehe’ehe’e Trail (round trip) makes for a long day but can also lead to a memorable adventure vacation for families. You’ll find yourself among the elements that created the earth, such as ancient lava flows and pu‘u (hills made from volcanic eruptions). Be sure to have your camera ready for Pele’s Paint Pot about 6 miles from the trailhead — the lava-encrusted hills are awash with bright red and orange oxides, giving them a painted look. Also, bring a hat and plenty of water, as the trail is exposed for the entirety of the hike. To get to the trailhead, fly into Kahului Airport, pick up your rental car and drive about 35 miles southeast.
Distance: 3.4 miles — out and back
Difficulty: Easy — great for families
Without a doubt, one of the top tropical hikes to tick off your list in Maui is the Pīpīwai Trail to Waimoku Falls, about 55 miles southeast from Kahului Airport. The 3.4-mile out-and-back trail ascends through a dense and enchanting bamboo forest — look out for a banyan tree about the size of a house. The path is lined with a magical string of natural pools and ends at the feet of Waimoku Falls, which freefalls straight down from 400-foot cliffs. Beyond beautiful, it’s well worth every step uphill to get there (an elevation gain of 800 feet).
Best Hikes in Kauai
Kuilau Ridge Trail
Distance: 3.6 miles — out and back
Difficulty: Easy — great for families
Kauai is known for hikes that tiptoe along sheer cliffs and knife-edge ridges, but not all hikes on this island come with such risk. The Kuilau Ridge Trail is safe for individuals and families to enjoy the sweeping, tropical vistas that do justice to Kauai’s “Garden Isle” nickname. The 3.6-mile out-and-back hike winds through the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve and ends at the trailhead for the Moalepe Trail — so you have an option to keep going if you haven’t gotten enough green yet. From the Lihue Airport, it’s a 12-mile drive to the trailhead.
Distance: 22 miles — out and back
Difficulty: Difficult — recommended for experienced hikers
The Kalalau Trail is about 40 miles northwest around Kauai island from Lihue Airport. The 11-mile trek out (one way) includes a challenging climb up a wet gulch through tropical forests. For all of the technical demands, it pays back hikers tenfold in Kauai’s natural beauty, including a stunning ridgeline with views of the awe-inspiring Nāpali Coast. If you have the energy (and a camping permit, which is required for anyone going past Hanakapi’ai Beach), the 22-mile total hike allows you and your fellow backpackers to visit the remote Hanakoa Falls, Crawler’s Ledge and Kalalau Beach. For a shorter day hike, turn back at Hanakapi’ai Beach about 2 miles from the trailhead at Hā’ena State Park. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for wild goats and native birds.
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