Look to Hawaii's hikes for socially distanced fun

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The Pihea Trail in Kokee State Park on Kaui leads to Alakai Swamp, the highest swamp in the world.
The Pihea Trail in Kokee State Park on Kaui leads to Alakai Swamp, the highest swamp in the world. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson

As social distancing mandates remain in place while Hawaii gradually reopens to tourism, visitors to the Islands will have limited activity options, and many will turn to the outdoors for fun with added peace of mind.

With fewer indoor, nightlife and foodie attractions demanding attention, there is more time than ever to explore Hawaii's natural gifts, and it is an especially good time to plan alternatives to the always popular beaches.

While Hawaii offers a range of trails for all levels, now is the time to put in the extra time it takes to tackle one of the tougher treks. Here's one hike on each of the four most populated islands that will test your fitness, treat your senses and reveal off-the-beaten-path wonders.

Currently, hikers are required to maintain a distance of not less than 20 feet from each other and hike only with members of their own household on all Hawaii trails.

OAHU

Who needs the StairMaster at the hotel gym when you have Koko Crater Tramway? Once an old Army rail line, now the steep ascent is a popular but calf-burning hike that rewards trekkers with panoramic views of East Honolulu. Today there are some 800 railroad ties in varying condition, down from more than 1,000 thanks to erosion and damage. The steps wind up the 1,208-foot Puu Mai summit of Kohelepelepe, climbing 1,000 feet in less than a mile. About halfway along, the slope increases. First-timers should pace themselves and bring plenty of water. There is also a rickety bridge along the way acrophobes are best off avoiding. A path to the right circumvents it. At the crater summit, hikers will find an old observation deck, the gasoline-powered winch house and radar bunkers. For more experienced hikers, for whom the short but steep climb is a mere appetizer, the Koko Crater Rim Trail, a 2.5-mile loop accessed at Koko Botanical Gardens, is an alternative path to the summit with its own spectacular views, and can be linked with the stairs for a loop.  

KAUAI

Hawaii is known for a lot of things, from hula and surfing to its own cuisine derived from the melting pot of cultures brought together on the Islands. One of its lesser-known superlatives is Alakai, the world's highest swamp. The Pihea Trail, starting in Kokee State Park on the west side of the island, snakes through rainforest and offers vistas of Wainiha and Hanalei valleys. The nearly 4-mile hike can take four to five hours with treacherous terrain that is often slippery and muddy. The adventurous are rewarded with fantastic birding along the way and the Puu o Kila Lookout with views down the Kalalau Valley. There is an option to take a short detour to Pihea Peak, with sweeping ocean views. Once at the swamp, there is a boardwalk to make exploring easier, but this is a hike calling for sturdy shoes with good grip. Dense rainforest shrouds much of the path, but thins out as the boardwalk progresses to a postcard-perfect view (on a clear day) of Kauai's North Shore including Hanalei Bay.

MAUI

Taking in sunrise at Haleakala National Park is on many a Maui to-do list, but visitors can avoid crowds and experience much more of what the park offers by strapping on their hiking boots and hitting the 27 miles of trails. Start the Sliding Sands Trail from the visitor center, then take the Ku luu o ka Oo Spur Trail from the crater rim at roughly 9,800 feet down 1,000 feet to the floor. The 5.5-mile loop navigates through colorful sands, which change along the way, and offers scenic vistas such as the view of the crater floor from Naenae Overlook a mile into the hike. As you near the end of the loop, you will find additional overlooks of the Koolau Gap and Kalahaku Pali, two more cinder cones within the volcano. While it can be cool at the crater rim, temperatures can rise dramatically as you descend into the crater, and it is wise to dress in layers.

HAWAII ISLAND

Topping out at 13,803 feet, the peak of the Aloha State's tallest mountain (and the highest in the world measured from the sea floor), reaches above the clouds. The Mauna Kea Trail, also called Humuula Trail, leads from the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy all the way to the summit. Over the course of six miles, hikers climb 9,200 feet in elevation. The full day hike (roughly eight hours) includes bird-watching opportunities and a one-mile roundtrip detour to Lake Waiau. From the peak you can see Mauna Loa, the state's second tallest mountain, and, if the weather cooperates, views of Maui and beyond. Much of the hike is exposed through lava fields and sandy terrain. Bring plenty of water and snacks, and be prepared to slow down as the altitude increases.

For more on hiking in Hawaii, visit Hawaii State Parks or the Na Ala Hele Hawaii Trail Access System.

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