The rockstar Kalalau Trail might be the gem on Kauai, leading to the spectacular cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, but the Nualolo and Awaawapuhi trails are pretty close since they approach the same area from above, dropping from the 4000 foot high Kaunuohua Ridge to about 2500 feet above the coast with scenic cliffs that drop to the amazing valleys and Pacific Coast below.
I had read many things about this loop, which links the Nualolo and Awaawapuhi ridge trails with the Nualolo Cliff Trail and a portion of road walking to connect the trailheads in a ~12 mile loop. Upon arriving however, it became apparent that this loop is no longer possible as signage clearly indicated that the connecting Nualolo Cliff trail is closed due to a landslide. Upon returning home I learned it has been closed since 2014. Prior to that it was closed from time-to-time as conditions changed and was always marked as dangerous.
So my plans had to change, and I set off on the Awaawapuhi Trail planning on an out and back. It was raining as I started, but descending off the mountain, the rain stopped and the clouds cleared within the first mile or so. This trail is in excellent condition. It is wide and the slope is moderate. Eventually the forest canopy opens and I could see the cliffs of Na Pali as well as back up to the still cloudy, rainy forest where the trail begins. The trail ends after 3.25 miles at a signed view point where it forks to two separate views. The right fork ends at a sheer cliff looking down into the Awaawapuhi Valley and the ocean below. The left fork continues beyond the viewpoint fence down the ridge, becoming ever steeper and narrower. I did not go as far as some others have gone here. It's a 2-foot wide ridge with 1500-2000 foot cliffs on either side. The exposure here is not for the faint of heart!
I turned around and began my climb back up. At the junction for the Nualolo Cliff Trail, I contemplated the signs and decided to explore the trail, content to turn around if I found myself in uncomfortable terrain. Much of this trail is still in fine shape, though it is evident it hasn't seen regular travel in over two years. There were sections of thick overgrowth, and three drainage crossings that were all but completely lost to nature. From time to time I would see a ribbon tied to a tree or a small cairn, indicating that others have made the traverse, or at least the same investigation I was embarking upon. The first drainage had an odd fence that seemed to serve no purpose except to hamper my travel. I figured out later that the Park Service had installed it for that very purpose!
About 1.75 miles in, I reached the area of the landslide and erosion. Signs still stand from before the closure indicating the danger. I investigated, and it didn't look too bad, so I continued on. There wasn't much tread and there's not much of anything below the trail. A slip here would certainly be your last. But it was dry and I felt that crossing wouldn't be terribly risky, so I carefully shuffled across until reaching the old warning signs for those approaching from the other side. From here it was less than a quarter mile back to the Nualolo Trail (and another one of those odd fences
It's half a mile down on Nualolo to the Lolo Viewpoint, which is spectacular. The Awaawapuhi view is stunning, but Lolo extends farther toward the coast and has views up the Na Pali Coast that can't be seen from Awaawapuhi. Clouds dropped in and out, and showers and rainbows surrounded me. I waited 15 or 20 minutes hoping for the coastal views to open up, but it seemed to be pretty socked in toward Haena so eventually I just started my way up again.
The lower section of the Nualolo Trail is near vertical. It climbs directly up the ridge with no switchbacks. It's slippery and difficult. There are a couple of 200+ foot climbs in under 1/10th of a mile. The slope moderates later on but I was tired. About a mile from the end, I reached the forest, and it started raining. Apparently that's the way it had been up here all day. There's a final climb to a ridge before dropping down to the trailhead just below the Koke'e State Park Lodge where I met up with 9L and Claire who had done a couple of other hikes during the day.
If you're going to attempt this loop -- which for the record I absolutely do NOT recommend to ANYBODY not named BobP or JJ -- I would do it the opposite way I did. Down Nualolo, across, and up Awaawapuhi. For the smarter out-n-back, choose Awaawapuhi for the more pleasant trail and outstanding views. For the more difficult trail and spectacular
views choose Nualolo.