It was my birthday. But it wound up being more of a bird-day.
My husband, an avid hiker and nature geek, decided to take me to Kōkeʻe on Kaua‘i for my 40th birthday this past weekend. He had plans to hike several of the many trails that snake through the state park north of Waimea Canyon. And he was sure to pack two things: our sleeping bags and our binoculars.
Sleeping bags because he booked one of the state cabins at the Lodge at Kōkeʻe, which are notoriously cold and dingy. And binoculars because we were going to bird. Hard.
Now, I wouldn’t call myself a full-on birder. I’m not a member of the Hawai‘i Audubon Society and I don’t book trips specifically to find birds.
But I do enjoy catching a glimpse of one of the Islands’ native birds on the rare occasion we’re hiking in areas where they’re still fluttering around.
This was going to be that occasion. And the binoculars were definitely coming.
Here’s what our weekend on Kaua‘i of hiking and birding — and yes, eating, too! — looked like:
We arrived on Friday — my birthday! — on Kaua‘i (above), geologically the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Kōkeʻe State Park, where we were staying, is located on the island’s west side — about a 45-minute drive from the nearest town, Waimea.
First things first, though: we need to eat.
My husband had raved about this bento shop he went to the last time he was on Kaua‘i. It’s called Po’s Kitchen (above) and it’s located in a strip mall just a few minutes from the airport in Līhuʻe.
There’s nothing glamorous about this spot. But that’s the appeal. The owner, Mrs. Po, will ask you what you want and you really have three choices for a box lunch: small, regular or deluxe.
As we found out from talking with some of the regulars, the box lunches contain okazu-ya staples: white rice, hot dog, egg, luncheon meat, fried chicken, a piece beef teriyaki, and a lūʻau tray of noodles and old-school macaroni salad (with spaghetti noodles instead of macaroni). The deluxe comes with two pieces of shrimp tempura.
While you can order ala carte, why bother? You don’t have to think with the box sets — and the price ($6.25 for the small, $7.35 for the regular, $8.65 for the deluxe) is just right.
For me, this was just about as perfect as a local-style lunch can get. No fuss, nothing fancy, just honest local food.
And it was going to tide us over until dinner.
After picking up some groceries — namely, wine, Diet Coke and poke — from Times Supermarket, we stopped at the Taro Ko Chip Factory in the small plantation town of Hanapepe for some freshly cooked taro and sweet potato chips.
You can’t drive past Hanapepe and not stop here. The chips are that good.
After talking to owner Dale Nagamine — OK, so I did most of the talking; he just smiled and kept cooking — we headed toward Waimea.
Before reaching Kōkeʻe State Park, we pulled into the Waimea Canyon Lookout, a popular stop for visitors to the area.
And rightfully so.
Waimea Canyon, often called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is grand, alright. It stretches 14 miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep. Here, you get panoramic views of crested buttes, rugged crags and deep valley gorges as far as you can see. From here, you can see Waipo‘o Falls in the distance, too. The canyon was formed by a deep incision of the Waimea River rising from the intense rainfall from Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, one of the wettest places on earth. It’s breathtaking, to say the least.
My husband booked a cabin at the Lodge at Kōkeʻe, right in the state park. We got the Olopua cabin, which is actually connected to another cabin by an inside door. You could have probably fit 10 of us in here.
Don’t confuse this with the Lodge at Kōʻele on Lānaʻi! The state cabins are rundown and dirty — and with hardly any insulation, very, very cool.
But they’re cheap — maybe about $65 a night — and better than camping if you consider we had a stove, refrigerator, hot water, private toilet, a wood-burning oven and a roof to keep us dry during rainstorms. I wasn’t complaining!
After picking up a map of the trail system from the Kōkeʻe Museum — yes, there is one — we figured we had enough time to hit at least one trail: the Waipo‘o Falls Trail.
Waipo‘o Falls is an 800-foot cascading waterfall in Waimea Canyon, and this moderate hike takes you to a swimming hole just above it.
You start from a trail just off the Kōkeʻe State Park sign and walk along the rim of Halemanu Canyon. While you won’t come face-to-face with the waterfalls — you actually end up above yet — you will get a unique look at the canyon itself and the pools of water that feed the falls.
It’s a pretty spectacular hike, to be honest, as it takes you through the Kōkeʻe rainforest and along an ‘awapuhi ginger-lined stream.
It tools us about an hour to get to the swimming pool — we didn’t jump in — but 20 minutes to hike back to the trailhead. The trail is very up-and-down, with the hardest uphill sections on the way back. It was a great introduction to the hiking trails that we were about to hit over the weekend.
The next morning we set up at daybreak to hike to Pihea Summit, then along the popular Alaka‘i Swamp Trail to a lookout where you can see Hanalei Bay.
You want to start early for two reasons: less people on the trail — we saw no one on the way to the lookout — and less clouds ruining the view.
The trail starts at the Pu‘u O Kila Lookout at the end of Kōkeʻe Road. From here, you can see the gorgeous Nāpali cliffs and the lush, amphitheater-headed Kalalau Valley below.
The Pihea Trail is about 3.7 miles long through ʻōhiʻa montane wet forest along the rim of Kalalau Valley. Park of the trail is a plank boardwalk (above) covered with rusted chicken wire to provide traction.
It’s very scenic and wet and peaceful, with lots of native birds — like this endangered ‘apapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper, above) — flittering about.
You get to a fork in the road where you can either keep heading toward the Pihea Summit — or you can continue to the Alaka‘i Swamp, which is what we did.
The Alaka‘i Swamp Trail is about 3.5 miles long through native wet forest to the rim of Wainiha Pali with sweeping views of Kauai‘i north shore — including Hanalei Bay and Waipā Valley. The majority of this trail is the same plank boardwalk from the other trail. Much of it, though, is damaged or destroyed.
The swamp is interesting in and of itself.
It’s a montane wet forest — more like a bog than a swamp — located on a plateau near Mount Wai‘ale‘ale. It’s often shrouded in mist, though we went early enough to catch it on a clear morning.
From the junction at Pihea Summit, you’ll walk downhill for about half a mile before hitting a stream crossing (that, according to some hikers, can be impassable at times). After some rock-hopping, the trail ascends into the Alaka‘i Wilderness Preserve lined with stunted ʻōhiʻa trees and fluttering lapalapa trees. This part is relatively flat and windy.
Then, at the end, if you’re lucky and the clouds decide to part for you, you’ll get to Kilohana Overlook (above) at stunning views of Wainiha Valley and the horseshoe-shaped Hanalei Bay.
Here, we stopped for a bit — the hike took us five hours, but we were birding most of the way — and eat the lunch we packed before heading back through the bog, now encircled by clouds, giving it that true bog feel.
We even caught an ‘elepaio (monarch flycatcher, above) sighting, too!
It took us about two hours to trek back to the Pu‘u O Kila Lookout — we ran into about a dozen people on the trail heading out, including Hi‘ilei Kawelo from Paepae o He‘eia! — to make it an even 7-hour hike. Our legs were tired, but we ventured on several more smaller trails before heading to Waimea for dinner.
We saw a few more birds — the ‘amakihi (Hawaiian honeycreeper) and some kolea (Pacific golden plover) — on the other trails, which took us through more forests filled with native trees like this majestic koa (above).
Then we called it a day after nine total hours of hiking. I think we earned dinner!
We drove down to Waimea to eat at Wrangler’s Restaurant, an old-school paniolo steakhouse right off Kaumuali‘i Highway. We ordered the pulehu and kiawe-grilled steaks — both perfectly cooked — and came with full access to a salad bar with some of the freshest lettuce I’ve ever seen and an endless supply of pickled onions that were so good, we ordered two pounds of it to go. (Seriously!)
And if I thought the weekend wasn’t magical enough, on the drive back to Kōkeʻe, we spotted an endangered pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl), endemic to the Islands and not an easy bird to spot. But there it was, just sitting on a tree branch, with the sun setting behind Ni‘ihau in the background.
Thanks to the people, the birds and the spirit of Kōkeʻe for making my birthday weekend such an incredible experience. (Husband played a big role, too!)