Kauai County Highpoint Trip Report

Kawaikini (5,243 ft)

Date: May 17, 2005
Author: Don Nelsen

failed attempt

I made my way from Oahu to Kauai for the "Big Dog" of Hawaii legend: Kawaikini, the 5,243-foot ultra prominence, county highpoint, and summit of the island of Kauai.

To be sure, I was awed and impressed by the lore surrounding this formidable peak. The tales of more men going in than ever came out of the legendary Alakai Swamp, the only possible arguably doable way in, and the high point on the crater rim of Mount Waialeale - both the wettest spot on planet Earth and the mountain at the center of the ancient island of Kauai. The stories of the giant boars that could kill both man and beast who dare to venture into their realm; the stories of people stepping one foot off the path and falling two hundred feet to their deaths; stories of getting lost and then having the search party getting lost; stories of boot-sucking mud and rain all-day, nearly every day, for the past 5 million years [sic] at least - well, you get the picture - I had to go see this place for myself!

On the 16th, I drove Waimea Canyon road to check out my planned starting point, the end-of-day weather conditions, and general starting trail conditions. Satisfied that at least the start was not impossible, I drove back and got to bed early for the big day.

There is a dirt road leading to campsites that could have shortened the trip by from 9 to 14 miles round trip but not wanting to face the ugly scenario of returning a rental car with missing or damaged undercarriage parts or worse, having to explain why the car was stuck on an unimproved dirt forest road up to itís door handles in mud, I opted for the longer route. The pouring rain as I drove in on the day of the hike would have dissuaded me from even trying that road, 4x4 or not! I'd seen Kauai rain on a couple of earlier trips and knew how bad the roads could get and how fast the water could rise over un-bridged stream crossings!

It turned out that the paved road to the chosen trailhead was gated about a mile from my intended starting point but an extra couple of miles on the round trip was not going to deter me. The planned route was somewhere between 36 and 38 miles round-trip but I had at least 12 hours available daylight and plenty more time if I needed to reach my goal since I had an excellent light with me if needed. I left my rented condo at Poipu Beach in the pre-dawn darkness and a driving rain for the hour-long drive to the trailhead.

By daylight, the rain started to let up and I started on my trek at 6:58 am. By the time Iíd gone just a few miles, my spirits were buoyed by the great weather and clearing skies. I started to wonder whether I should have brought that extra gallon of water. By the time Iíd reached the 6 mile mark, I knew I was going to have a tough time on this trek - I was consuming water at nearly twice the planned rate due partly to the arduous ups and downs in the trail but especially due to the fact that I had a searing sun burning down on me instead of the expected mist and rain usually present as the day progressed.

For 345 days out of 365 the summit swamp of Kawaikini, the Alakai, is wreathed in swirling mists, clouds and rain. However, on this day, not a cloud could be seen and I was paying a heavy price as a result. Not that I didnít have what I thought was more than enough fluids: 48 ounces consumed on the drive to the trailhead; 176 ounces carried with me plus the usual trail mix, a couple of candy bars, etc.... Iíve done a lot of long distance treks and pretty much have my fluid consumption dialed: in the 60 to 65 degree mist and rain I was expecting, about 10/12 ounces/hour. Not so today: I was burning through it at double that pace and now needed to recalculate and start to conserve if I was going to reach my goal.

10:09 AM. I cached about 40 ounces of water at the 9-mile mark for the trip back, taking careful note of the location both via GPS and lay-of-the-land. As it was, that was the very end of the trail that could be called "trail": Everything beyond was simply ribbon-tagged path-of-least-resistance through the swamp. To call the Alakai a swamp is misleading: Yes, itís a swamp, but not anything like youíve seen before. It is an ancient old-growth tropical rain forest riven by ridge after ridge of bog-infested, vegetation-choked wilderness and (usually) grey, wet, dreary skies, with mist-laden, wind-driven drizzle. A gentle but constant rain falls here at an average rate of 451 inches per year: The wettest spot on planet earth!

Hiking through this area, even on the "trail", requires considerable care due to the frequent bogs and mud holes, often concealed by vegetation or leaf-litter, that will suck your boots right off and leave you on your belly fishing out the errant footwear from a two foot deep shaft in the mud. Most of the rest of the time you will only be ankle deep in mud and bog, marveling at the twenty foot tree ferns, rare and often unique plants, and wondering just how close to you are the wild boars you hear bellowing in the distance. If you step off the trail more than a few feet, you may not find it again: Even with an excellent GPS, I made numerous errant detours and most of those times, only with the GPS did I find my way back to where I should be. Much of the trail is on ridgelines and often I would encounter sheer cliffs of a hundred feet or more less than one step from the trail, dropping down into impossibly green, vegetation-choked canyons.

All the information I had indicated that there was no trail leading to either Waialeale or the summit point of Kawaikini: The original trail across the Alakai, built to service the rain gauge at Waialeale (now serviced by helicopter) had been allegedly abandoned years ago and was long ago swallowed by the jungle.

The other way in, up the Great Ridge of Kane, from the opposite side, reportedly hadnít been scaled in over a hundred years and, due to time and subsequent landslides, was hopelessly overgrown and impossible to access. In any event, that path, used by the ancient Hawaiians to reach their Heiau (altar) at Waialeale - up a wet, knife-edged ridge with crumbly rock and 3,000 feet of exposure - didnít sound like anything I wanted to tackle - so the Alakai route it was.

Iíd carefully traced the known part of the route into my GPS and it turned out to be surprisingly accurate, as far as it went. Beyond that, I traced what I suspected was the route of the old rain gauge path into the unit: It wasnít even close! The result was that I overshot the junction by nearly a mile before I was sure I was on the wrong path and lost a lot of time backtracking. Retracing my way, I found an arrow carved into a downed tree. The arrow simply pointed the way Iíd already gone but my hunch was that this was a junction and exploring behind the mark, sure enough, the trail I was seeking resumed a few dozen yards behind! By now, I made the decision that I had one hour to go before turning back: Lack of water but also knowing Iíd never follow the way Iíd come in the dark dictated that I had to get back to at least the 7-mile mark by total darkness, 7:30 pm.

2:27 PM. At 4,600 feet elevation and still about 3 miles to go. Most of the vegetation was no more than head high and I knew I was close to the nearly barren area surrounding the summit. Once there, the going would be relatively easy but I was simply out of time! I was following a line of blue tags through the brush but it was slow and difficult going. Each step had to be considered to avoid sinking in boggy ground; no effort had been made to cut or clear brush so considerable energy was needed to push through the brush. I was barely making one mile/hour! If I continued on, I could make the summit but I'd be treated to a forced bivy and swamp water for breakfast. There would be no way to find those ribbons in the dark and rain plus, once the rain started in earnest, as it surely would, it would be supremely difficult to navigate the steep ridge lines and traverses. I had to go back, now!

5:06 PM. Finally found the water I'd cached at the 9-mile mark. Overshot the point by about a quarter mile so that cost me some time. Boy, that was the best tasting water I'd ever had! Difficult to avoid swilling it all down: I knew I still needed to conserve.

6:30 PM. The rain has been falling for about a half hour and the clouds have come down and engulfed me in swirling mist. Finished the last of the water. My GPS can't get any signal at all: Wet leaves above, clouds and rain block out any signal from getting to me - I miss a junction and go nearly a half mile before I realize it.

7:38 PM. Just 24 minutes past sunset and it's totally dark so I pull out my light. Still 2.5 miles to go. I'm on a ridge now and the wind is roaring, rain coming down in sheets, and total darkness. Still, the ups and downs in the trail keep me working so hard I don't need the coat, hat or gloves I'd brought: Even with the wind and rain, it's about 65 degrees so just a polypro t-shirt and I'm completely comfortable!

8:20 PM. Back at the car, finally! Total time: 13 hours 23 minutes; 6,670 vertical feet; 31.5 miles. I believe that to do this summit thoroughly, take in the ancient Heiau, and rain gauge route and walk the summit rim would be another 8 miles round trip from the point I reached and another 1,100 vertical feet round trip.

Deducting my miss-cues on route and starting at Sugi Grove Camp. A normal 4x4 should be able to reach this spot - mud holes were pretty bad farther on. This would be a much more possible jaunt of only about 28 miles round trip and only about 5,500 vertical feet so a strong hiker should be able to do it in one long day.

Note to self for next time: Rent a 4x4 (and opt for the "walk-away" insurance); take an extra gallon of water; start at first light.

Specific directions: From Lihue, drive west on Highway 50 for 23 miles to Waimea and turn right, (north) on Route 550. Drive about 15 miles up into Kokee State Park and turn right on the dirt road to Sugi Camp. In about 3.3 miles park at Sugi Camp or, if you have the car and courage for it, continue on this road for another 2.3 miles to its end. There are two very deep mud holes you will have to navigate on this last section. Take the trail downhill and cross a wooden bridge and pass the sign that says "THERE IS NO TRAIL TO WAIALEALE" (someone has scratched out the "NO"). This is the Mohihi-Waialae Trail but is not marked. Be careful, follow the (mostly) blue ribbons, have your affairs in order and your will made out, have fun!

Please note: I don't recommend this hike for anyone but the most fit and prepared. If something goes wrong with your equipment or with you, you will be in real trouble. It's a long distance and the ups and downs in the trail are tiring to say the least, not to mention crouching under downed trees, climbing over them, hopping around and over mud pits and bogs, tripping vines - well, the list goes on! This is an extremely strenuous hike and if you get lost you are really lost! Cell phones don't work here, search parties won't be able to find you in the jungle, the rain and clouds and mist, and the wild boars are bigger than you are - so be aware! Also, once you get to this point, the farthest I reached, you are really on your own.