Kauai’s Alaka’i Swamp Trail: Raw, Native Nature

When discussing Hawaii’s geographical features, “Alaka’i swamp trail” is probably not the first thing to come to mind.

But just as the islands are home to most of the planet’s climate zones, Hawaii is also home to a wide range of Earth’s ecosystems. From barren deserts to grasslands to tropical rain forests, Hawaii is home to a staggering variety of natural environments.

Among them is the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve, known commonly as Alaka’i Swamp, high in the Kauai mountains that tower over its coastal areas. Located in Kokee State Park, it is technically a bog rather than a swamp as it is not fed by a river or lake. At an altitude of well over 4000ft, the Alaka’i “Swamp” is the highest in all of Hawaii and considered by many to be the highest bog (or swamp) in the world.

In the Hawaiian language, “alaka’i” translates to “guide” in English. A guide is precisely what you would have needed to traverse the area before a boardwalk was installed in the 1990’s. More than $500,000 was allocated for improvements to the trail in 2016. Since its pre-contact beginning, the trail was made easier with fern logs and tree branches that inevitably succumbed to the swamp.

A staggering view from the Alaka'i Swamp Trail

The first major improvements to the trail were made to accommodate Queen Emma in 1871, who traveled it with an entourage of over 200 courtesans, hula dancers, and musicians. Even with modern improvements, the trail remains difficult, and straying from the boardwalk could mean ending up waist-deep in the swamp’s muck.

The trail offers the chance to find rare native bird and plant species. It is the habitat for the endangered Kauai O’o bird (Moho braccatus), among others. The Alaka’i Swamp Trail has long been a favorite journey of birding and botany enthusiasts from around the world.

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To find the head of the Alaka’i Swamp Trail, you’ll take the Waimea Valley Road to its end. There you’ll find the beginning of the Pihea Lookout Trail. The swamp trail breaks off from the Pihea trail about a quarter-mile before the Pihea Lookout (which offers spectacular views when not socked in by clouds).

The Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve and the various trails within it reward intrepid trekkers with stupefying views that include fabled Hanalei Bay, (of Puff the Magic Dragon fame), Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast and the Pacific Ocean stretching, seemingly forever, to the north. Mount Wai’ale’ale, among the rainiest spots on the planet, is visible on clear days.

The Alaka’i Swamp Trail is challenging. It’s a 7-mile round trip, with its difficulty changing with weather conditions. Hikers are well-advised to bring proper rain gear, including boots, plenty of snacks, and ample drinking water.

Cloud cover is common on the Alaka'i Swamp trail.

Kokee State Park and the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve are among the most cherished and protected natural environments in all of Hawaii. There are campgrounds and comfort facilities within Kokee State Park, but not within the Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve. It is truly a raw experience of Hawaii’s natural beauty, far from the resorts and beach houses of nearby Poipu.

While Kokee State Park offers many trails for novice hikers, the Alaka’i Swamp Trail is for experienced hikers prepared to handle 400 feet of elevation change. Because of the remote location and challenging terrain, traffic on the trail is most often light. Hikers exchange smiles and greetings as they pass, enjoying a shared experience among seekers of Hawaii’s hidden beauty.