OUR FIRST HIKE ON KAUAI began innocently enough: we crossed a small wooden bridge onto the Okolehao Trail, which led to a 1,250-foot peak on the north shore of the island. In just an hour’s time, we’d reached the log bench that presided over a stunning view of the north shore.
Technically, this was the end of the hike. But considering that my longtime friend Birch and I had just flown five hours from Los Angeles for a week away from the urban grind, we weren’t ready to end our excursion.
We’d heard about an extension trail that led from here to the 2,400-foot-tall Hihimanu, one of the peaks that towers over the surf hamlet of Hanalei. We followed the red-clay path west through wispy lilyturf grass and sharp-leafed laua’e fern, native flora that helped obscure the fact that the trail traced a knifelike ridge with a stomach-flipping 300-foot drop on each side. Using a series of knotted ropes tied to trees, we eventually hauled ourselves up a slick, nearly vertical stretch of earth, grunting and sweating our way through exclamations such as “I feel like Indiana Jones!” After three hours, we stood—muddy, exhausted, elated—on top of Mount Hihimanu. From there we could see a third of Kauai’s 553 square miles. To the north was Hanalei Valley, blanketed in ancient taro paddies (the tubular plant that forms the backbone of the traditional Hawaiian diet), and to the south, on the back side of Hihimanu, an expansive rain forest extended all the way to the Pacific.
Hollywood comes here when it needs a fantastical island backdrop.
Kauai is the most spectacular and rugged of Hawaii’s main islands and remains relatively untouched by high-rise hotels and the frozen-umbrella-drink set. This is largely because its vertiginous mountains make 90 percent of the island inaccessible by car. The coast is dotted with just a handful of towns, and only around 60,000 people live on the island full-time (compare this to Oahu’s 876,000). The island’s relative emptiness and freedom from mass development have allowed Kauaians to protect its primordial forests, ubiquitous waterfalls, fifty miles of beaches, one hundred miles of red-clay hiking trails, and Waimea Canyon, 3,600 feet deep. All this is lucky for Hollywood location scouts, who often rely on Kauai for its fantastical backdrop: Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 1976’s King Kong were all filmed here.
When Kauai isn’t doubling as a playground for velociraptors or gorillas, “It’s the island where people come for adventures,” says Boreas Van Nouhuys, a thirty-six-year-old San Francisco transplant and volunteer guide for the Sierra Club, who, on the following day, led me, Birch, and five others on an East Shore hike of the Makaleha Trail. I noticed the locals in our group were wearing hoof-shaped rubber slippers with tiny spikes on the soles, called tabis. As we hiked from the green shade of a bamboo forest across a river, I felt my tabi-lessness acutely: my sneakers failed to grip the river rocks and I slipped waist deep into the chilly water.