HIKE: Pihea and Alaka‘i Swamp Trail, Kōkeʻe, Kaua‘i
WHEN: March 2015
LENGTH: 8 miles (total), roundtrip
FEATURES: Birding, native plants, canyon views, native rainforest, bog environment
When my husband told me we were hiking through a swamp, I envisioned a boggy wasteland near the ocean.
I didn’t expect this landscape at 4,500 feet above sea level.
But that’s exactly where the Alaka‘i Swamp on Kaua‘i is located.
It’s part of a wilderness preserve accessible through Kōkeʻe State Park. This swamp is a montane wet forest — not so much a true swamp — located on the plateau near Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, one of the wettest spots on the planet.
The swamp trail meanders 3.5 miles along a boardwalk and is often shrouded in mist (above). And the view at the end — a lookout on Kilohana over the picturesque Hanalei Bay — is usually blocked by the clouds that roll in in the morning.
So we got up super early and hit the trail before anyone else.
There’s no guarantee that starting before the sun rises will ensure a clear view at the lookout. But your chances are definitely increased.
The Alaka‘i Trail is connected to the Pihea Summit Trail, which starts at the Pu‘u o Kila Lookout (elevation 4,176 feet) at the end of Kōkeʻe Road. The first part of the trail is an easy stroll along the rim of Kalalau Valley, through a native ʻōhiʻa forest with ‘a‘ali‘i shrubs with views of the lush, amphitheater-headed Kalalau Valley below. (That’s another hike!)
Park of the trail is a plank boardwalk (above) mostly covered with rusted chicken wire to provide traction. It’s very scenic and peaceful here, the only noise coming from the chattering — and endangered — ‘apapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper) and other native birds that we spotted along the way.
Actually, this state-designated wilderness preserve boasts several endangered native birds, including the curious ‘elepaio (monarch flycatcher) and the green ‘amakihi (Hawaiian honeycreeper). The swamp’s most recent loss has been the the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō (Hawaiian honeyeater).
The critically endangered puaiohi (small Kaua‘i thrush) can be found here — and only here — in the central and southern parts of the preserve. In fact, 75 percent of the breeding population occurs in only 4 square miles of forest. We weren’t lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this rare bird — not even its song.
There are more than 50 different species of native plants along this trail, all of which prefer the wet mountain habitat, including the native ʻōlapa trees, which flutter in the wind. (It’s my husband’s favorite forest tree.)
After a few miles, you’ll get to a fork in the trail where you can either keep heading toward the summit of Pihea (elevation 4,284 feet) surrounded by ʻōlapa and pūʻahanui shrubs and views of Kalalau Valley or continue on for another 3.5 miles through the Alaka‘i Swamp.
Take that one.
The first part of the trail follows this predator fence and through native wet forest to the rim of Wainiha Pali. Most of the trail follows the wooden boardwalk that was placed here specifically for hikers to provide easier access to the swamp. Before construction started in 1991, hikers trampled through the area and bogs, further endangering the native wildlife.
About halfway to the swamp, you’ll approach a series of about 200 steep wooden stairs (above) that take you lower and lower into the forest, down to a stream — Kawai Koi — that you’ll need to cross (below).
Then we reached the swamp.
It’s a magical place, a bit other worldly and extraordinary. It doesn’t seem like this eerie landscape could ever be found on a tropical island like Kaua‘i. But here it was, in all of its boggy glory, and it was awesome.
And after about a half an hour of walking along the boardwalk here, we reached our destination: Kilohana Overlook (below) at stunning views of Wainiha Valley and the horseshoe-shaped Hanalei Bay. We gazed down nearly 4,000 feet into the deep, lush valleys and across a deep blue ocean dotted with whitecaps.
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 — that consisted of Lunchables and Snickers — with a quick visit by a friendly ‘elepaio before heading back through the bog, now encircled by clouds.
We lucked out. The clouds rolled in just as we were leaving the lookout. And we didn’t encounter a single person on the hike out. (We saw about a dozen people on our way back, though.)
So getting up early was well worth it.
Plus, now we had lots of time to head back to the cabin for a nap.
VERDICT: Best hike in Kōkeʻe, hands down. It’s long and tiring — lots of ups and downs on the Alaka‘i Swamp Trail — but the uniqueness of the bog and the view at the lookout, if you can catch it clear, are breathtaking. Go early, bring lots of water, and don’t forget your binoculars. Lots of native birds to spock!
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