Backpacking in Kauai
Start at Kokee Ranger Station, where you sign in at the check station on the front porch. The station is seldom staffed, but there is a bulletin board where notices about trail closures, etc., may be posted. Turn south (right) at the highway and walk a very few steps to the Nualolo Trail, which leaves from the north (right) side of the highway. You walk uphill past some ape, koa, and elderberry, and immediately start switchbacking moderately to steeply uphill. Soon you're contouring around a slope under eucalyptus, koa, and karaka nut interspersed with the occasional mountain naupaka and manono. You top the ridge near the 1/4-mile point and soon begin a steep descent that can be very slippery when wet. As you near 1/2 mile, the trail levels out amid ohia, koa, ferns, and a great deal of karaka nut-at times it may seem that the trail has been hacked through karaka nut thickets. Listen and watch for birds in the ohia and koa canopy; you're almost certain to hear the rusty-hinge call of the red iiwi, perhaps even to see the bird.
A Steep Drop
The trail's pattern is to drop steeply, level out, perhaps climb a little, and then repeat the process by dropping again. Around the 1-mile point, you dip through a pair of grassy swales separated by an avenue of ferns. Beyond here, you'll find pukiawe to please your eye and mokihana to tease your nose. Nearing the 2-mile point, there's a marked change to a drier climate, and the appearance of the scrubbier koa and ohia reflects that fact. Out to sea, there's a view of Niihau and the uninhabited islet of Lehua. You bear north at 2 miles, cross a narrow saddle, and enjoy good views until you begin descending through a series of deep, steep, clay "slots." You cross another narrow saddle, ascend steeply but briefly, and soon traverse a narrow ridge with good views through the vegetation.
At 3 miles, you reach a junction with the Anaki Hunter's Route and bear right in order to continue on the Nualolo Trail. Just after this, there's an appallingly steep slot to descend before you reach the next junction, this one with the Nualolo Cliff Trail, which connects with the Awaawapuhi Trail. From here, it's a 3/4-mile round trip out to windy Lolo Vista Point, and the narrow, crumbly track out to it is almost continuously exposed above steep cliffs. Please do not attempt it if it's wet. The views from Lolo Vista Point are breathtaking, but you can get fine views around the junction without all that exposure.
You return the way you came.
A few rainy-day choices: The Nualolo Trail contains a number of very steep places and a few very exposed places. Since these are dangerous when the trail is wet, please don't take this trip on a rainy day. You wouldn't get any views for all your trouble, anyway. If you want to walk out toward the coast on a rainy day, the Awaawapuhi Trail is a better choice and offers the bonus of its marked plants. It is shorter, less precipitous, and less overgrown. However, it won't offer views on a rainy day, either. Another rainy-day possibility is Milolii Ridge if you're up to it. It loses so much elevation that it's possible to literally walk out from under the rain-but no guarantees. It's very steep in places, but none of them expose you to a fatal fall. However, it is unwise to go down to the Milolii Valley overlook in the event of rain; you would be running the risk of a fatal fall.
If you're really anxious to see Nualolo Valley but the weather is unsettled, your best bet is to get an early start. Take the Awaawapuhi Trail. The rain and fog may not start until midmorning, so you will have a good chance of getting to the viewpoints at the end of the trail at a safe pace before the fog closes in.
Getting There by Car
Take Highway 55 or Highway 550 from Waimea or Kekaha town to the highways' junction above Waimea Canyon. Continue up the hill toward Kokee State Park, bypassing Mahaka Ridge and Halemanu Valley roads. Continue up the highway 1 1/3 miles past Halemanu Valley Road to the marked turnoff for Kokee State Park Headquarters, a short paved road that leads off to the west (left) between Kokee Ranger Station and a broad meadow. Drive into the parking lots for Kokee Lodge and Kokee Museum. Park here to begin your hike. The trailhead for the Nualolo Trail is so close to Kokee Lodge and Kokee Museum that you may as well park there.
View: Trail Map
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication