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Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail

If you find yourself on the south side of Kauaʻi and are up for some moderate exercise with a view, this hike is for you.  The 4-mile (round-trip) cliffside Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail in Poʻipū follows the south shore coastline from Shipwreck’s Beach to Mahaʻulepu. With stunning lookouts and a diverse spattering of endemic plants and animals, this trail is one that captures Kauaʻi’s geological and cultural history. 

As the last remaining undeveloped stretch of coast on the southside, Mahaʻulepu is an incredibly special place. An archaeological dream as well as a significant refuge for endangered wildlife and flora, the effort to preserve the land surrounding the Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail has been an ongoing effort since the 1980s. Local nonprofit and community preservation group Malama Mahaʻulepu describes the area as “a collection of irreplaceable natural, cultural, historic, agricultural, scientific, scenic and recreational resources” calling the trail’s location a “significant heritage landscape, revealing five million years of natural and human history.” A cultural landmark and symbol of tenacity, Mahaʻulepu is named after a 1300s battle where native Kauaʻians fought off invaders from the Big Island. Evidence of ancient Hawaiians and since extinct animals can still be found along the trail today.

Along the trail, you’ll see lime and sandstone cliffs that have eroded over time. The result is dramatic and gorgeous rock formations of volcanic sediment, millions of years in the making. We recommend an early-morning hike, as the trail has some spots with little shade and can get hot pretty quickly. However, the breeze along the cliffs and the option to jump in the water on either end of the trail make it doable any time of day (remember your water!) 

Beginning with a viewpoint high above Shipwreck’s Beach, a mix of rock, sand, and tree roots form a winding path along the coast. On the trail, you’ll find several vantage points to take in the view…and likely some sea turtles bobbing in the water. The first leg is sandy with views of crashing waves and often opihi clinging to the rocks below. Local fishermen set up on the cliffs regularly, and as you gain elevation, the wind off the water will offer a welcome spray.

Further down, you’ll reach a section of the trail reddened with the bright red dirt Kauaʻi is known for. Volcanic rock formations mark a sacred area called Waiopili Heiau, an ancient Hawaiian stone structure. You may see signs to remain on the trail as this area is rich in mana and is home to several Hawaiian burial grounds. In an ironic nod to the colliding of ancient and modern Hawaiʻi, the beautifully kept Poʻipū Bay Golf Course runs alongside the rugged Heritage Trail. Along with golfers, you will often see nēnē geese making their way across the green on that part of the hike.

The trail “ends” past CJM stables with a view of Gillin’s Beach and the backdrop of Mt. Hāʻupu. If you choose to continue down the trail to the beach, you may share the trail with some horseback riders on tour. Down the sand trail, you can dip your toes in where the Waiopili Stream meets the Pacific Ocean and enjoy the views from Mauka to Makai.

Kauaʻi hiking trails

Still have some stamina? Follow the signs for the Makauwahi Cave, the state’s largest open-topped limestone cave. The Cave Reserve volunteers provides history of the cave, and work tirelessly on preservation and restoration projects within the area. Ancient petroglyphs and Polynesian artifacts have been found, perfectly preserved in time within limestone walls, which makes this a really unique pit stop if you’re in the area.

In addition to endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal, blind cave spider, and countless native plants, tortoises also call Mahaʻulepu home. Just a short walk from Makauwahi Cave is Kauaiʻi’s own tortoise sanctuary! The enjoy-at-your-leisure fenced-in area hosts a handful of giant tortoises shaded by native Hawaiian trees and plants.  Fun fact: These modern dinosaurs can live up to 100 years!

mahaulepu turtles

Since the Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail is not a loop,  you can enjoy all of your favorite parts on the hike back. Take your time, watch your step, and enjoy the journey.

Want to learn more about how to help preserve this magical place? Check out Malama Mahaʻulepu

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