If you’re looking for a fun and moderate hike in Kauai, the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail may just be the perfect option, with stunning coastal views, lots of wildlife, and opportunities to learn about Hawaiian history and culture along the way. Here’s everything you need to know about hiking the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, the best hike on Kauai’s southern shore.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission, for which we are extremely grateful, at no extra cost to you.
About the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation gain: 400 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate. You’ll be walking up sand dunes at times, which can be a bit of a butt-kicker, but, generally, I’d say this trail is on the easier side of moderate.
Dog-friendly? Your furry best friend is welcome, but must be kept on a leash.
Do you need a pass or permit? Nope, this trail is totally free to enjoy!
How to Get to the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
The trailhead for the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is located here, on the southside of the island at the popular Shipwreck Beach.
The lot is pretty small, only holding about 15 or so cars, with another half a dozen or so cars fitting in the nearby overflow lot, up the hill. It feels especially small, given that people park here both to enjoy the beach and to hike along the fairly popular Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. So if you’re visiting during a particularly busy time on the island (e.g., weekends in the summertime), I’d suggest getting here early to ensure you snag a spot.
The trailhead is near the grassy picnic area, between the left side of the beach and the parking lot. It’s not particularly clear at the outset where the trail is (i.e., don’t expect signage), which is a theme which will continue throughout the hike. Accordingly, I’d strongly recommend following along with the trail map on AllTrails.
It’s also worth noting that you can theoretically park at the end of the trail, located here near the CJM Stables, and hike the trail “backwards”, if that suits your itinerary better. Given that the vast majority of hikers start at Shipwreck Beach and I personally think the best views are found in the first mile when you depart from Shipwreck Beach, I’m going to describe the hike starting from Shipwreck.
What to Expect Along the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
The trail departs from Shipwreck Beach, a beautiful stretch of sand surrounded by large rocky cliffs. This is an excellent beach to see wildlife, like sea turtles and monk seals, and, when the waves allow (which they definitely weren’t when we visited!), it’s one of the best places to snorkel in Kauai.
From the trailhead, the path climbs along sand dunes and skirts along the coastline, with several opportunities to step out onto the cliffs overlooking Shipwreck and the small, secluded beaches, hidden between the surrounding coastal cliffs.
As mentioned above, there’s tons of social trails that cut through the tall grass here, so it can be confusing, at best, to know where to go. When in doubt, follow the trail along the coastline—this trail has the best views and it’ll be impossible to get lost!
However, there are definitely some places along the coastal trail, where the path seemingly disappears, narrows, or becomes incredibly (and dangerously) steep. In these sections, my husband, Justin, and I would backtrack a bit until we found another branch of the trail that was further inland (and looked less likely to cause us to plummet to our deaths)—or, as suggested above, follow a trail map on the free AllTrails app. Either way, find a portion of the trail that you feel comfortable walking on!
This sandy section will give way to the Makawehi and Pa’a Dunes, which are ancient sand dunes that have hardened over the centuries into limestone (also called “lithified sand dunes”). Along this stretch of the shoreline, we saw probably about a dozen sea turtles swimming through the turquoise water, right alongside the cliffs—so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for some cute little reptilian friends in the water!
From here, you’ll notice the ground beneath your feet will become quite a bit redder, with lots of volcanic rocks strewn about. Here, you’ll find the Waiopili Heiau, a Hawaiian shrine from hundreds and hundreds of years ago that was used in religious ceremonies and practices. While hopefully this goes without saying throughout the trail, please treat this place with respect—take only photos, leave only footprints; pack it in, pack it out—basically, everything you learned in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts!
From here, the trail will wind along the red cliffs, next to the Poipu Bay Golf Course. While the golf course is impeccably manicured and actually a great place to spot wildlife, like the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose), this portion of the trail kind of detracted a bit from the experience for me—it’s hard to feel like you’re one with nature when you’re vaguely worried about golf balls flying at your head.
The trail will end on a headland, with lots of green shrubs, overlooking Maha’ulepu Beach. This is the official endpoint of the trail, so simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Alternatively, if you want to keep exploring, there’s a few ways that you can extend your hike, outlined in the section below.
Extensions to the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
If you’re up for a little bit more adventure, there’s some additional options that you can add on to either endpoint.
Near the Maha’ulepu Beach Endpoint
Makauwahi Cave Trail
The Makauwahi Cave Trail leads to the largest limestone cave in the entire state and one of the richest fossil sites on the island, boasting fossils of more than 40 species of ancient birds alone! Additionally, the area around the cave, the Makauwahi Cave Reserve, acts as an ecological reserve for over 100 native plant species, including several kinds that are endangered, and serve as a habitat for native animals, including several species of endangered waterbirds.
You can either view the cave from its exterior or explore inside its spectacular cavern, from 10 AM to 4 PM every day. While there’s technically no admission fee, a donation of $10 is requested if you crawl inside the cave—bring cash!
To get here, you’ll finish the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, walk past CJM Stables and head through a tunnel of trees along the coastline. Once you’re through the tree tunnel, turn left to walk uphill and follow the signage for the Foot Trail, which will take you directly to a viewpoint, overlooking the Makauwahi Cave.
If you want to actually crawl into the cave itself, follow along the Foot Trail, which will follow along the Waiopili Stream. Along the trail, you’ll see a wooden bridge over the stream on the right hand side, but continue along the limestone wall, until you reach the cave opening on your left.
If you’re looking for a secluded beach, Maha’ulepu Beach (also known as Gillin’s Beach) is definitely off-the-beaten-path and, given the gnarly waves, is most popular with surfers.
To get here, you can either continue past the CJM Stables and follow along the social trails along the coastline until you reach the beach. Alternatively, if you decide to hike to the beach from the Makauwahi Cave Trail, you’ll cross the wooden bridge over the Waiopili Stream and continue towards the coastline for a few minutes.
Near Shipwreck Beach
Koloa Heritage Trail
The Koloa Heritage Trail is a 10-mile walk and bicycle trail, which passes by 14 historical, geological, and cultural sites around the historic Koloa town, ranging from ancient heiaus to the Koloa Missionary Church from the early 1800s.
The eastern portion of the Koloa Heritage Trail actually overlaps with the western portion of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, near the Makawehi and Pa’a Dunes, and continues to stretch westward for about four miles, all the way to the Spouting Horn, an ancient (and really cool!) blowhole.
To reach the Koloa Heritage Trail, you’ll continue walking westward past Shipwreck Beach and onto the paved walkway in front of the Grand Hyatt Resort, a very lovely place to stay if you’re looking for something on the bougier side. Follow this path as far as you want along the Koloa Heritage Trail—I’d recommend downloading this helpful map that includes a ton of interesting history and facts about the sites you’ll pass along the way.
Tips for the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
The trail alternates between being shaded by grasses, trees, or shrubs and totally exposed coastline. So you’ll definitely get a fair amount of sun on the trail—come prepared with sunscreen (I LOVE this reef-friendly kind, which smells like Hawaii in a bottle), sunglasses, and a hat.
As mentioned above, the trail is exposed for a good portion of it and can get pretty hot and humid in the afternoon. Not only will you have an easier time finding parking and encounter less people on the trail, but you’re more likely to not be a hot, sweaty mess if you leave earlier in the day.
Still, regardless of what time you start, always remember to bring along plenty of water. Justin and I both have these comically giant Nalgene bottles and LOVE them.
Consider the tide charts.
If you’re planning on hanging out at any of the beaches along the way, be sure to check the tide charts (here’s Shipwreck Beach’s tide chart and here’s Maha’ulepu Beach’s chart). When the tide is high, the portion of the sand you can relax or walk on is usually pretty narrow—not the best for chilling on the beach, so I’d try to time your visit with low tide.
Wear hiking sandals.
This trail has all kinds of interesting terrain- sand dunes, limestone cliffs, and uneven dirt pathways.
There probably isn’t a need to wear full blown hiking boots, but, given the dynamic terrain, I’d suggest wearing hiking sandals, like my beloved Tevas (here’s the kind that Justin has and here is the kind that I have). They’ll provide you a bit more traction on some of the tree roots and rocks that you’ll have to climb over along the way and not fall off your feet, like flip-flops, when you’re in the sand.
What are you waiting for—go hit up the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail! Let me know if you have any questions about the hike in the comments below!