Hiking Kauai Along The Makawehi Sand Dunes

One of my favorite things to do in Kauai during the Koloa Plantation Days celebration is to attend events that require hiking. When I can exercise and combine that with interesting ‘in the field’ lectures by recognized experts, it doesn’t get much better than that for me. Experts like Dr. David Burney, a paleoenvironmentalist and the Director of Conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), and others who have dedicated their professional lives to the academic research of native Hawaiian plants.

The past two hundred thousand years has created a majestic and breathtaking view of the southern shore of Kauai

The Makawehi Sand Dunes of Kauai

The Makawehi Sand Dunes hike fits the bill perfectly. It’s is easily accessible from Keoneloa Bay or Shipwreck’s Beach in front of the Grand Hyatt Kauai and it’s a moderately easy 2 hour walk. Area locals refer to the sand dunes generically as part of the Mahaulepu Trail, and they are, but they are filled with so many interesting cultural gems that they deserve their own event in this years celebrations.

In pre contact days this area, known as Makawehi, meaning Calm Face, sheltered the Hawaiians and their fishing village from the constant strong currents that sometimes caught unsuspecting seafarers. The deep water just off the shore break where the surfers now play form steep beaches that are treacherous to but the most experienced seaman.

Limestone Formations Along The Coast of Kauai

The limestone formations which are photogenic pock marked craggy monuments, and the sand dunes are approximately one hundred thousand years old and were formed during the last ice age. As the island of Kauai slowly, in archeological terms, sinks into the ocean. The violent wave action combined with wind blown sand which was composed of plant based coral, created dunes and outcroppings that later stuck together and formed these sculptures. Of note are that most reefs around the world are composed of coral animal life. However, most of the reef here on Kauai’s south shore is created by seaweed that captured coral to form solid material.


Tread lightly and enjoy the sites and sounds of the Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Puffinus pacificus who use these dunes as a nesting ground. Burrowing into the sand under ironwood brush, often using the same nest as the previous year to lay their eggs. Pairs tend to mate for life and will leave the newly hatched chicks for up to seven days as they search for food over the ocean.

It’s not uncommon to find fossilized bones of extinct species of Hawaiian birds breaking through the surface of the ever shifting sand. Bones of the ‘Turtle Jawed’ flightless bird known to the Hawaiians’ as Moa Nalo and the blind and flightless duck, Talpanas lippa are steps off the trail if you look closely. Scattered about you will find Rhizoliths, fossilized roots of plants known to thrive in the low lying coastal region of southern Kauai.

Look closely at the ocean’s edge and you will see a green plant flourishing along the limestone rocks intermittently being submerged by the salt water. In Hawaiian it is known as ‘aukuli’, it stands only one half inch tall and has a slight bitter taste, but it could spice up an otherwise bland ancient Hawaiian diet of root crops and fish.

Edible Hawaiian Plants

Continuing on the path, below the 15th fairway of the Grand Hyatt Kauai’s Poipu Bay Golf Course is one of the treasures of this hike. The ancient fishing temple or heiau, called ho’o’ ulu’ia. It is believed to have been a fishing temple in pre contact days to the sea god, Keoniloa, unfortunately it’s true name has been lost. From other heiau around the state it is believed this temple held two structures, one for praying and ceremonials, and another for the caretaker. Poles would have been erected in the corners where tapa cloth would have been unfurled to please the gods.

I imagined fishermen bringing in a catch along this rocky shoreline, sharing with the caretakers of the heiau, giving thanks for a safe and abundant trip and receiving a warm welcome from their village.

The brutal sun awoke me from my dream and reminded me that the group had moved off a few paces and Dr. Burney was thanking everyone for their participation in this Koloa Days event.

If you have a favorite story about your hike along the Trail or a comment we would love to hear from you. Drop us a line or visit us on our Facebook site.

About Joe Sylvester

Aloha! I have lived on Kauai for 33 years where I have worked as an Agronomist for 17 years, owned an art gallery for 11 years and own a vacation rental for 17 years in the town of Poipu. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and have been married since 1985.
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  1. This is a must do hike. For all the reasons contained within this post and if you go during whale season, there are whales to spot along the way as well. One of our favorite hikes and we recommend it highly. Plus you finish at one of the best beaches anywhere.

    • Thank you Marck for the great comments. This is a fun hike for all ages, great paths and views for people who want a mild walk that is not strenuous. Great stops along the way, the fisherman’s heiau, followed by the Makauwahi Cave and finally the ocean and Mahalepu Beach. You can make it a two hour hike or all day with a swim and exploration of the Cave. The best time to view the Cave is on Sunday from noon till 3 pm when there are guides. Admission is free but donations are greatly appreciated. The guides are all volunteers.

    • Aloha Marck Thank you for the comment… How did I miss this? We had so much fun that afternoon.

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