The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is a 2-mile coastal trail on south Kauai. It’s easy to get to, easy to walk, and offers beautiful views of the coastline along its entire distance. To make it even more worthwhile, there are a few places you can add on to the trail.
I first learned of this walk in The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook by Andrew Doughty. While planning our trip, it kept popping up on the internet…on Trip Advisor, on the Kauai tourism website, and as one of the top hikes in Kauai on All Trails.
It’s not often that a trail this short that offers so much in the way of different scenery. It seems like there is a new and better view around every turn.
You’ll walk past a few beaches, up and over sandy cliffs, walk along a former PGA grand slam golf course, and get to see cliff divers. Pop into the Grand Hyatt for a cool drink, explore the Makauwahi Cave, and say hello to the tortoises near Gillin’s Beach.
If you plan to spend some time exploring south Kauai, this walk belongs at the top of your list. Here’s how to do it.
What is the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail?
The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is a 2-mile coastal trail that runs along some of the most dramatic cliffs on south Kauai. It starts at Shipwreck Beach and ends on Punahoa Point.
This is also the location of a heiau, which is an ancient Hawaiian sacred site.
How to Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Distance: 4 miles out-and-back
Length of Time: 2 hours
This trail is 2 miles point-to-point. If you do the full hike, you will hike 4 miles round trip. This distance does not take into account any additional detours.
There is parking at both endpoints of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. There is a small parking lot next to Shipwreck Beach. On the other end of the trail, you can park near CJM Country Stables (Mahaelupa Beach Parking on Google Maps).
You can start at either end. It really doesn’t matter which way you go. However, if you just want a short walk with great coastal views, park near Shipwreck Beach and hike the first mile of the trail.
While walking the Maha’ulepu Coastal Trail, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
On the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Here are photos and a trail description, starting at Shipwreck Beach and ending at Punaloa Point.
Shipwreck Beach sits right next to the Grand Hyatt. This public beach is a good spot for experienced surfers. When the surf is mild, you can also go boogie boarding here.
From here, keep an eye out for cliff jumpers on the limestone cliffs next to the beach. There is a sign up there warning that cliff jumping is dangerous and to be avoided, but it seems that many people disregard the warning.
Along the Coast
From Shipwreck Beach, the trail heads east. It starts at grassy picnic area between the parking lot and the beach and heads into the trees. Beyond the beach, the trail heads uphill.
The trail splits but both branches go in the same general direction. The trail to the left stays inland. Occasionally you will get views of the coast but for the most part you will be stuck in the trees. If you take the trail to the right, you end up on a trail that heads right along the coast. For the best views, this is the trail to take.
Here are the first views of the limestone cliffs.
Since this trail hugs the coastline, there are a few places with drop-offs and where it gets very narrow. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can detour inland, hike up the coast a little ways, and then walk back out to the coast. This area is a network of hiking trails so you can easily avoid the narrower sections of the trail on the cliff edges.
Makawehi & Pa’a Dunes
These cliffs are ancient sand dunes that have hardened into limestone. Within these cliffs are the fossils of coral and algae. These cliffs are called lithified sand dunes.
Past the limestone cliffs, the trail goes down to a rocky beach and then passes the Waiopili Heiau, a sacred Hawaiian site. Please respect this area, stay on the trail, and do not remove any artifacts from the heiau.
Poipu Bay Golf Course
Next, the trail enters the Poipu Bay Golf Course, which is a former PGA grand slam golf course. The trail heads right along the edge of the golf course, next to the coast.
On the trail in Poipu Bay Golf Course, looking back towards the limestone cliffs.
Another view of the trail and the Poipu Bay Golf Course.
You will hike through a small area of small, shrubby trees and once you come out the other side, you have a great view of Maha’ulepu Beach. As you descend towards the beach, you will walk past CJM Stables. This is the endpoint of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail.
View of Maha’ulepu Beach
From here, you can retrace your steps back to the start or add on several other cool spots in this area.
Places to Add on to the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Near Punaloa Point
Makauwahi Cave Reserve
This is Hawaii’s largest limestone cave and a very important archaeological site.
The cave is a living museum where you can learn about the native animals and plants that live on the Polynesian islands. In and around this site, you can see over 100 native plant and animal species, some of which are endangered.
The cave can be viewed from the hiking trail. If you want to visit the cave, it is open from 10 am to 4 pm. It is free to visit but donations are appreciated.
A short walk east of the cave is a fenced in area where you can see native tortoises.
How to Get Here: From Punaloa Point, continue on the Heritage Trail past CJM Stables. There is a sign pointing to the Makauwahi Cave Trail. Do not take this. Continue along the coast and head towards the tree tunnel.
Don’t follow the sign to Makauwahi Cave Trail. Instead, go through the tree tunnel.
Walk through the tree tunnel below.
Once through the tunnel, you will walk uphill. It’s a short walk to the viewpoint of the cave. Follow the sign to the Foot Trail.
Here is the viewpoint of the cave.
To get to the cave entrance, follow the Foot Trail downhill. You will walk through a forest and along a stream. There will be a bridge to your right. Don’t walk over the bridge. Continue to follow the trail around the limestone wall and then the cave opening will be on your left. Here is what you will have to crawl through to get into the cave.
If you want to see the tortoises, walk back to the bridge, cross the bridge, and walk straight. To the left is a fence. The tortoises are in here. If you walk about 100 feet along the fence, there will be individual pens and this is the easiest place to see a tortoise.
Gillin’s Beach (Maha’ulepu Beach)
This beach is a good spot to see seals and sea turtles, or so I have heard. The morning that I was here I wasn’t so lucky, but I did have the beach all to myself, and that was pretty sweet.
To get here, it is less than a 5-minute walk from the cave. Cross the bridge and it’s impossible to miss the beach.
Grand Hyatt Resort
If you head west from Shipwreck Beach, you will be on the Grand Hyatt Resort property. This is a gorgeous resort and one of the nicest places we have stayed in all of our travels. The pools are reserved for resort guests, but if you aren’t staying here, there is a market/restaurant called Hale Nalu where you can get drinks and sandwiches.
Koloa Heritage Trail
This is a 10-mile trail that includes 14 places to visit on the south coast of Kauai, such as Spouting Horn Park and Koloa Missionary Church. It also includes the Makawehi and Pa’a Dunes, which are part of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail.
From the Grand Hyatt, follow the paved trail along the coast, away from Shipwreck Beach. The views from the point are beautiful. It takes a total of 15 minutes (out-and-back) to add this short walk onto the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail.
What We Did
We walked/hiked/ran the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail several times. Since we stayed at the Grand Hyatt, this trail was right on our doorstep. It’s very nice in the morning and evening, when temperatures are lower and the lighting is great for photography.
If you are staying at the Grand Hyatt, this also is a great morning trail run. Just be prepared to get your shoes muddy.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
The trail alternates between being sandy, rocky, and even muddy, as you get out to Punaloa Point and Makauwahi Cave Reserve. You can get by with flip flops but walking shoes or hiking sandals are better. If you go past Punaloa Point, your shoes might get muddy if it has recently rained. The trails around the Makauwahi Cave Reserve are dirt trails which can turn to mud if it has been wet.
There is little shade on the trail so wear sunscreen.
If you plan to visit Makauwahi Cave Reserve, bring some cash to leave a donation.
If you have any questions about how to walk the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Hawaii
KAUAI: Doors Off Helicopter Tour of Kauai: Everything You Need to Know
MAUI: Maui Bucket List: 20 Amazing Things to Do in Maui
MAUI: 13 Amazing Things to Do in Haleakala National Park
MAUI: How to Hike the Sliding Sands and Halemau’u Loop in Haleakala National Park
MAUI: Pipiwai Trail & the Bamboo Forest: The Complete Hiking Guide
HAWAI’I: Top 10 Things to Do in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
OAHU: Complete Guide to Pearl Harbor: How to Plan Your Visit
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