April 11, 2011
Location: Kauai, HI
Length: 22 miles (up to 31 miles with side trips)
Recommended Hiking Time: 2-4 days
The Kalalau Trail is the ultimate Kauai hiking experience. The coastline here is like no other place I’ve ever been — lush rain forest enveloping narrow, knife carved valleys. From a distance these valleys look like giant, vertical folds in a green and brown blanket. The 11-mile trail follows the rugged Na Pali Coast, which is only accessible by foot or by boat. Along the way you pass fruit trees, ancient sites, steep sea cliffs, and waterfalls that cascade 100’s of feet. Before you head out, though, be sure to read the permissions and precautions at the bottom of this post.
Trailhead to Hanakapi’ai Beach
The Kalalau Trail begins at Ke’e Beach at the very end of Kuhio Highway (Route 56). The first 2-mile section to Hanakapi’ai Beach is a very popular day hike. Even if you do just the first half mile, you’ll get excellent views of the coastline, pretty water features, and maybe even some humpback whales. We saw lots of tourists here, many wearing brand new sneakers and white clothing, and quite obviously unprepared for the rocky, slippery, red mud path. Footing is difficult along the entire trail and this section is no exception even though it is the most maintained. Hiking boots or solid hiking sandals are strongly recommended and you should expect to get your feet wet.
Along the trail, you’ll be introduced to trees that are common in this area. The guava has delicious, edible fruits, which are one of the main ingredients in POG (Passion-Orange-Guava juice). The kukui nut (or candle nut) tree is well known for its flammable oil, which Hawaiians used to use as a source of light. The hala tree is also quite prevalent. It is known as the tourist pineapple because its fruit closely resembles a pineapple (true pineapples actually grow on the ground). If you are hiking in sandals, watch out for the hala’s serrated leaves, which cover the trail densely in sections.
The first mile is a steady climb up and the second mile descends down to the beach with continuous views along the way. Hanakapi’ai Beach is picturesque, but swimming is dangerous, particularly in the winter when heavy surf and undertow make it formidable. To continue hiking, you must cross the stream here. This is no small task when the water level is high. Use a hiking pole or sturdy bamboo stick to support yourself and do not attempt to ford if the current is too strong or the water level is above your waist. I definitely had the old adrenaline pumping when I crossed. In the deepest spot the bottom of my pack took a dip in the river, which was a little unsettling. (Fortunately, my sleeping bag cover is waterproof.)
Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakapi’ai Valley
Once you’ve tested your balance crossing the stream, you can continue west along the main path or make a left towards the peaceful and captivating Hanakapi’ai Valley. This trail leads two miles into the valley and ends at the spectacular, 300 foot Hanakapi’ai Falls. Along the first part of the trail you pass an old coffee mill and walk through a grove of old mango trees. (The biggest of these is 23 feet in circumference!) The path has numerous stream crossings depending on the amount of rainfall and is more strenuous and less maintained than the first section. The last half mile is the most difficult part with areas of exposure where the trail has been cut into the canyon walls. Once you reach the end of the trail, relax and enjoy the majestic falls and swimming pools. However, due to the risk of falling rocks, you should avoid the pool at the base of the falls. Hiking from the trailhead to the falls and back is a popular (but full) day trip for hardy visitors.
Hanakapi’ai Beach to Hanakoa Valley
After the stream crossing at Hanakapi’ai Beach, the serious hiking on the Kalalau Trail begins. The path climbs steeply for about a mile and doesn’t return to sea level again until Kalalau Beach. After the climb, you’ll hike another 4 miles through Ho’olulu and Waiahuakua Valleys. Each valley crossing generally follows the same pattern: a descent to the middle of the valley and an ascent to go up and around the corner to the next valley. In this section you’ll enjoy views of long, vertical waterfalls, enchanting rainforest, and even a wild orchid or two along the path. If you are visiting from June to August you might also be lucky enough to find ohia ai (or mountain apples), which are similar to regular apples except for the single, brown seed in the center. You can also sometimes find ripe bananas. We had the unique experience of finding some just a few feet off trail and snacking on them while we walked. “Where else in the world does that happen?” I thought at the time.
Eventually you’ll reach broad, Hanakoa Valley with its extensive, abandoned terraces that were once heavily farmed. You can still find coffee, guava, kukui, and mango trees here. In the middle of the valley, you’ll see the camping shelter just after a major stream crossing. We camped just east of the shelter and had our own private pool for bathing and easy access to the .4 mile trail leading to Hanakoa Falls. The path to the falls passes through overgrown, terraced taro gardens and when we walked it there wasn’t a soul around. I just sat and enjoyed the view of the natural amphitheater here. The falls is so tall that the water doesn’t seem to quite reach the bottom, but just turn into vapor. The powerful spray, though, had me soaked in a matter of minutes.
Heavy rain is common along the Kalalau Trail, particularly in Hanakoa Valley. If you plan to camp here (or really anywhere along the trail), make sure you have a solid, waterproof tent and rain coat. The night we camped here literally pounding rain kept me up for a good portion of the night and the drips off the trees were somewhat maddening.
Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Beach
After reaching Hanakoa Valley you’ll continue an additional 4.8 miles to the end of the trail. This brings you to what I like to call the “fun part,” which is actually no fun at all if you are even a little afraid of heights and not very surefooted (i.e. me). A lot of sections here are really exposed and in the particularly “fun part” the trail is just muddy, clay switchbacks cut into the hillside above precipitous sea cliffs dropping 100’s of feet into the ocean. You do not want to slip here. However, once you are through this part, the trail continues as before, in and out of numerous, small valleys and becomes slightly more arid with blossoming lantana flowers.
At 8 mile camp you get a great view of a green bluff and a sense that you are getting close. Eventually, you’ll reach a bare, red slope known as Red Hill where you get your first real view of the wide-open Kalalau Valley before descending a steep, snaking path towards another stream crossing. After the ford, you’ll walk mere minutes to reach camp. The path terminates at gorgeous Kalalau Beach, which is backdropped by the Na Pali’s signature cliffs, yet another lovely waterfall, and bordered by an enormous volcanic rock where you can actually see the way lava flowed and cooled in layers year after year. While the whole trail is extremely beautiful, this is the highlight. I was so euphoric when we finally reached the beach, I was practically delirious!
After rinsing off my muddy body in the crashing waves, I just sat and enjoyed the scenery. I took long, careful mental images for the memory bank because, of course, my camera battery died as soon as we entered the valley. It is probably for the best, though, because now I have to go back and you’ll have to see it for yourself!
Exploring Kalalau Valley
If you can pull yourself away from the scenery at the beach, I recommend hiking to the knoll overlooking the beach on the west side of the stream. From here you’ll get a nice view and — as one of my fellow hippie hikers said — “feel the intense energy” amidst the rocky remains of a sacred heiau. From here you can descend back to the main trail and follow a 2-mile side trail that parallels the west side of stream. It ascends an eroded rise and follows in and out of the forest with two stream crossings before eventually reaching Big Pool. Here two large pools are divided by a natural water slide! I found the trail somewhat difficult to follow, but even if you don’t quite make it all the way to Big Pool you won’t have any regrets. The trail leads through beautiful woods and passes numerous small, cascading waterfalls and other good places to swim along the way.
Permissions and Precautions
Overnight permits are required along the Na Pali Coast and are available online from Hawaii State Parks. However, when I visited permits didn’t seem to be strictly enforced. The valley has some semi-permanent residents who have set up shop under tarp shelters on the beach and deeper in the valley. It’s common to see these folks walking the rugged trail barefoot or in flip flops and wearing just a swim suit (or birthday suit). If you ever hike this trail, you’ll understand why some people just can’t leave.
There are also a few things to be aware of before you head out anywhere in Hawaii. While the obvious inclination at fresh water streams is to jump in and play, you need to exercise some caution. When swimming in fresh water, there is always a remote risk of contracting a bacterial infection known as Leptospirosis. While this infection is rare and its symptoms are similar to the flu, it can be fatal and the microbes that cause it are present in nearly all surface water sources on the Hawaiian Islands. To reduce your risk of being exposed, avoid swimming if you have any open wounds and NEVER drink untreated stream water.
Another more common sense thing to be aware of is that while the islands’ wilderness is very beautiful and inviting, it is still wilderness. You shouldn’t forget all about the typical safety precautions you would take back home just because the dangers don’t seem as high at face value. Wear appropriate clothing and take adequate water, food, and supplies. Don’t stand under waterfalls. Don’t dive into pools when you don’t know the depth. Don’t play in waves or attempt to cross streams with overpowering currents. In general, if something seems risky or sort of stupid (even if you see a local doing it!), use your better judgment and avoid it.
In reference to the Kalalau Trail, this hike is rated as tough, not because of extreme elevation gain (though there is definitely gain), but because of the hazards along the way. When rainfall is heavy, the stream crossings and sketchy, slippery mud paths can be incredibly risky. A slip or fall at an inopportune time along a sea cliff or in a stream can mean serious injury or worse. While I would never tell anyone with their heart set on the trail to avoid it, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.