Take a Hike in the World's Highest Swamp
The Alakai Swamp on the Hawaii island of Kauai is known as the highest swamp in the world (technically it is a montane wet forest). The swamp is located on a plateau near Mt. Waialeale, known as one of the wettest places in the world.
You can visit the Alakai Swamp with a hike on a series of raised boardwalks known as the Alakai Swamp Trail.
The trail begins where the Pihea Trail ends. If wet and muddy, expect a much more difficult time, especially near where the Pihea Trail ends and the Alakai Swamp Trail begins.
On the first part of the trail you will be treated to peace and solitude in a rain forest filled with ferns and greens.
After about a mile you will encounter a four-way juncture. Take a left to continue on the Alakai Swamp Trail that will eventually lead you to the Kilohana Lookout.
After taking the left at the juncture, you will descend boardwalk stairs to a stream. Ascend on the other side of the stream to continue your trek to the lookout.
Do not attempt to cross the stream if the water is flowing too fast or the area is flooded. This happens often.
The boardwalk picks up again after you make the climb from the stream. The trail continues through an open area plateau with little overhead vegetation. This is the true swamp area of the Alakai Swamp Trail. If not for the boardwalk, you would be slogging through knee deep mud. Exercise caution while walking along the boardwalk as there are portions that are damaged.
At the very end of the Alakai Swamp Trail you will find one of the most jaw-dropping vistas you will ever see – the Kilohana Lookout. Words, nor the photos here, can adequately portray the almost unbelievable scene that opens up like a window at the end of the trail. This window, seemingly “on top of the world,” offers breathtaking views of the beautiful Wainiha Valley and Kauai’s North Shore. On a clear day you can see all the way to Wainiha, Hanalei Bay and the Kilauea Lighthouse from the lookout! Numerous waterfalls can usually be seen on the opposite cliffs of the Wainiha Valley.
A crude wood platform and bench provide a nice viewing spot as well as the best place you will ever visit for a picnic lunch. On our last visit we were somewhat lucky that the clouds were intermittent (clouds often obscure the entire view). We could see Wainiha Valley but not Hanalei Bay. The passing clouds made the view even more dramatic on our visit.
In addition to the views, this is also a popular spot for bird watching. If you’re lucky, you may see or hear species of birds not usually found on other parts of Kauai.
Overall, a hike to the Kilohana Lookout and back is approximately a seven-and-a-half to eight-mile round trip. The hike can be relatively easy or exceedingly arduous depending on trail conditions.
This is a very wet area with the potential for rains and mud. Clear days will offer a much easier trek, and rainy days will offer a much more difficult time slogging through the slippery trail and mud. Bring rain gear and a true waterproof backpack nevertheless because you can never be sure which you will get.
Alakai Swamp Telephone Poles
At the four-way juncture on the trail you may be surprised to see telephone poles out in the middle of nowhere, and you figure there’s a story behind the poles. Perhaps they were part of the project to build a road across northern Kauai, the remnants which became the Pihea Trail.
But the story behind the Alakai Swamp Telephone poles is actually much more interesting. The poles are actually from a top secret World War 2 Army Signal Corps project in late 1943 to provide an alternative communications link for the U.S. Military radar station at Koke’e in case of Japanese attack at the airfield.
The arduous job of constructing the link fell to Robert Oelrich, a member of the 443 Signal Construction and Aviation Battalion, a unit of the 7th Army Air Force Bomber unit. Oelrich, a former telephone man, was provided 5,000 wood stakes to mark the path, hundreds of poles, miles of telephone cable, 30 mules and the approximately 50 men of Company B.
(Above information at the Kokee Natural History Museum.)
Many people thought it was an impossible task, but Oelrich was convinced it could be done. The unit moved into the nearby Kokee Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) camp. Oelrich negotiated with local Japanese farmers for vegetables to supplement the K-Rations to make sure his men had the extra fuel needed to work in the extreme environment. A road, that still exists today, was built to the swamp. The swamp was not the best place to plant poles and work was slow-going. A steady convoy of heavily-laden mules transported equipment until the bogs became too deep. The men had to carry 65-pound bundles of wire and drag the remaining telephone poles for the last segment.
While the work was ongoing in the Alakai Swamp, another group was working from the Haena side. A company of men, stationed at Camp Naue, worked their way up the Wainiha Valley. The two sides linked up when Oelrich and his men dropped wire almost straight down from Kilohana, now the famous lookout at the end of the Alakai Swamp Trail.
Today, just a few poles remain. The poles that are no longer there were not lost due to rot, but were cut down by collectors seeking the glass insulators.