If you ask Holden which hiking trail is his favorite, he’ll answer Tuafanua Trail, every time! It’s one of my favorites, too. It blends the perfect amounts of adventure, beauty, and serenity into one fantastic hike. The more challenging ropes and ladders will have even the toughest hikers enjoying the high of climbing the side of a mountain, while the tranquil sounds of waves crashing against the beach can stir of feelings of peace and renewal when you reach the backside.
Tuafanua Trail Basics
Distance: 2.2 miles (3.54 km) roundtrip
Hiking Time: 2-3 hours
Island: Tutuila/ National Park of American Samoa
Start Point: The trailhead is located to the left of the “Old Hotel”, just before the Mount Alava Elementary School, at the far end of Vatia. Currently, there is only a small sign identifying the trailhead and even that is ambiguous, more of a signal for parking, than pointing out the actual trailhead.
End Point: Same as the start.
Parking: You can park by the above-mentioned sign. We usually just park anywhere along the left side of the land in front of the “Old Hotel”. I honestly didn’t notice any sign our first couple times hiking the trail. Once I did notice the sign, I’ve just continued parking where I always had. No one has suggested any different.
Hiking the Tuafanua Trail
Our first time hiking the Tuafanua Trail began with me finding someone local, who could point us in the right direction. The trailhead tends to be overgrown and hidden, making it impossible to find if you don’t know right where to look. Luckily for us, a couple local teenage girls volunteered to help us out, with one of them continuing on, to complete the entire trail with us. How’s that for helpful, respectful local teens?!
The first half of the trail snake up one side of the mountain, along a series of well-maintained switchbacks. Even with the slower elevation gain, the trail is still a good, challenging hike that gets our hearts pumping, until we’re dripping with sweat in the tropical climate of American Samoa.
At the summit, we always take a little break, allowing slower hikers to catch up with the faster ones and allowing us all the refreshments of water and a little snack, to keep us going. The view from the top is largely impeded and almost impossible to capture, but with the muted roar of waves down below, it’s the perfect place to take a break in the shade, before continuing down the backside.
The backside is mostly a collection of ropes and ladders, with a little more gradual descent nearer the bottom. These ropes and ladders are well maintained by the National Park’s Service and are extremely helpful in the steep descent (and ascent on your way back). I don’t have a lot of confidence in the crumbly, basalt mountainsides, when it comes to providing sturdy footing and handholds, making the ropes and ladders invaluable.
There is one particularly difficult section, with narrow steps carved into the rock along a short (10ish feet tall), but steep drop. The kids love pretending to be mountain climbers here, usually opting for the greater challenge of scaling the sheer rock face, rather than climb the easier stairs. There are ropes through this section, as well.
The roar of the ocean grows as you approach the beach, where the trees clear and you’re left with nothing but a violent ocean before you. This pebble beach is not safe for swimming. This side of the island has strong currents that could sweep even strong, confident swimmers out to open ocean. It is, however, incredibly cathartic to rest here after the long, hot hike, listening to the crashing waves in an almost trance-like relaxed state.
And there’s plenty to keep the kids busy too. Our kids love hunting for hermit crabs (which there are a ton of here). They love climbing over the bigger boulders, climbing trees, and just general jungle imaginative play. You know, Swiss Family Robinson type.
Once, we walked down along the length of the beach, until Pola Island loomed above us. This is the closest you can get to the iconic island (that I know of because of the rough ocean), making it a chance not to be missed.
The way back always seems to go faster, whether because we’re actually walking faster or maybe just not taking as many breaks. The kids love to flex their muscles of independence by running ahead and beating me to the car. For our family, we use the buddy-system while hiking. As long as everyone has a hiking partner and it’s a trail we’re familiar with, I give the kids the chance to exercise their independence.
For this particular trail, we stay together until we get through the extra challenging (dangerous) steep section, and from there I let them go. Which somehow leaves me with a new hiking buddy each time. These are some of my favorite times, as I get one-on-one time with each of my kids. We climb together, descend along the switchbacks together, and celebrate together when we see the car and Vatia Bay.
–DO NOT SWIM AT THE PEBBLE BEACH ON THE BACKSIDE! If you want to cool off from the hot, sweaty hike, wait until you’re back at Vatia Bay. On the backside, the currents are strong and even the best swimmers could be pulled out to the open ocean.
-Tuafanua Trail is closed on Sundays.
-The trail-head can be almost impossible to find. Don’t hesitate to ask for directions from the local villagers. Our interactions with people in Vatia have been nothing but friendly and incredibly helpful.
-The switchbacks are there for a reason. When hikers stray from the trail, this speeds up erosion and leads to mud slides. Please respect the island and follow the trail.
-The ropes and ladders are helpful, but still practice caution, especially with younger children or inexperienced hikers. These sections are steep and could lead to serious injuries if not traversed carefully.
Tuafanua Trail Wrap-Up
While not for everyone, Tuafanua Trail is a challenging, but fun adventure for anyone looking for a good hike.
Be smart, be safe, and have an awesome time!