Lured by the promise of a beach only accessible by hiking, my husband and I decided to hike the Kalalau Trail as part of our trip to the island of Kauai in Hawaii. The Kalalau Trail is located on the rugged Na Pali coast, along which there are no roads of any kind. There are four ways to see the Kalalau Valley and beach, but only hiking actually allows you to not only see the beach, but be on the beach. The valley can be viewed from the top lookout after a driving trip along the edge of Waimea Canyon, it can be seen from the air by helicopter tour or viewed from the water by boat tour.
The trail winds 11 miles up and down through tropical vegetation, arid spots, over streams, around the edge of cliffs, through ancient Hawaiian ruins and finally down to Kalalau Beach. The actual ascents and descents reminded me of a day on the Long Trail. According to Backpacker Magazine, it is considered one of the top ten most dangerous trails (so are the ones on Mt. Washington, by the way). For a variety of reasons, including weather, terrain, stream crossings, and dangerous surf to name a few, this is true. The Kalalau Trail deserves respect, careful planning and careful decision making while hiking it. Due to the terrain and climate, most people who are backpacking, hike in, camp out and then return to the trailhead the next day or spend a few extra days at Kalalau. To camp beyond the 3 mile mark at one of the two designated camping areas requires a permit. Getting a permit is easier than it used to be, with an online system. We went in the off season, but I’ve heard that during the summer the spots fill quickly, much like trying to get a reservation in Baxter State Park in August. We got a permit for two nights so that we’d have a little flexibility with the weather.
We had heard that parking at the trail head at Ke’e Beach was probably not the best idea due to break-ins, so we parked a mile away at Haena Beach Park and did the one mile road walk to the trail head. Haena Beach Park is a little better as camping is allowed there, and there is almost always someone camping out so there is less chance of a car being bothered. When we finished the trail, another group who had just finished as well, said they saw glass in the parking lot when they started out a few days prior.
We ate breakfast in Hanalei, then parked the car at Haena Beach Park and did the one mile road walk to the end of the road, Ke’e beach and the beginning of the Kalalau Trail. The trail starts uphill right away and continues upward past two outlooks, one back to Ke’e beach and one ahead to the Na Pali coastline. After the outlooks, the trail continued the same character for the pretty much the rest of the way to Kalalau: rolling terrain with a few larger switch-backed climbs interspersed. For the first six or so miles, the trail was in the tropical foliage, with occasional viewpoints ahead and down. The trail was made of mostly of red clay, which when wet was very slick. It had rained the day before, as we found out from other backpackers on the trail, so we had to carefully chose our footing in some wet sections. I’d described the wet sections as being wet on the surface, as the clay doesn’t allow the water to sink in. Of course, my perspective on mud has been forever changed after hiking the Long Trail in Vermont, so to me, this wasn’t nearly as bad. It wasn’t like we were about to lose a shoe, or two!
After two miles, we came to Hanakapiai Stream and Beach. The beach was beautiful, but unfortunately dangerous to swim at, as 82 people have drowned due to the rip currents and other water conditions at this beach. This is also the point where most of the dayhikers turn around. We crossed the stream (low enough, even with the rain – like any stream, these streams can be deadly if the water is too high and fast), and then started the climb on the other side. After that, we saw fewer people, mainly backpackers, heading to or from Kalalau.
The morning progressed nicely and around lunchtime, we arrived at Hanakoa Valley which is around the 6 mile mark on the trail. This was one of the two designated camping spots, complete with picnic table in a rain shelter and privy. It can be a stop over point or a destination, depending on how your hike is progressing. We ate lunch, got water, crossed the stream and continue on the trail. At this point, we climbed out of the valley and into the next valley. This point also marked a change in the terrain as it became suddenly drier and more arid, with less plant life. As we headed into the next valley we saw wild goats nimbly moving along the sides of the cliffs. Because of this, we started calling this area “The Valley of the Goats”. It is also here, between mile markers 7 and 8, where you will find “Crawler’s Ledge”, so called by the locals because of the exposure and drop off on one side. Many parts of the trail has a similar drop off, although most people don’t realize it because of the dense vegetation. Strip off that vegetation and you have a dizzying cliff drop off into the ocean. The trail along here is wide enough for one person, about 18-24″ wide, maybe less in spots. You can also lean into the cliff side and use it as a hand hold if necessary. Many people find this section difficult due to the exposure and wind. Not all people will have trouble with this section, as with many things in hiking, experience and perspective play a role in how someone reacts to it. I didn’t have a problem with it; I faced it like anything else, just kept walking, staying steady and not thinking too much about what was below. Ethan doesn’t care much for heights, but had no problem with the crossing the cliff area. We were fortunate that the trail was dry; if it had been wet and slick, this would have been extremely treacherous.
Once past that, we were on our way again, up and down, over the rolling hills. We saw a beach and thought we were close, but then realized we hadn’t come far enough nor crossed over Red Hill, the last major hill before descending into the Kalalau Valley and down to the beach. Red Hill is so named because there is very little vegetation on it and it is composed of dark red, packed dirt. Once we crested Red Hill, the walk was much easier to the campsites. We were happy to descend as it was hot and nearing the end of long day!
We found the campsites, picked one and set up our home for the night. While Ethan relaxed, I did my usual camp chores of exploring the area to find the privy and water source and then collecting water. After chatting with a couple of other campers, I found the water source: a waterfall falling into a pool. With water all set, we got some dinner and headed out to the beach to eat it and take photos of the sun setting. Once it was dark, we headed back for a good night’s rest. Due to still being a bit jet-lagged, we woke up at 2:00am, and with nothing else to do, we went back down to the beach to look at the stars. The stars were amazing. Being on a remote beach, with no light pollution, we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars. Once done, we headed back to the tent for another nap before morning.
Our plan for the next day was to pack up early and hike as far as possible before the sun came over the cliffs and made everything too hot and humid. We were packed up and on the trail right at sunrise. In fact, we started packing up by headlamp and by the time we were done, didn’t need the headlamps anymore. We set out in the cool morning and made excellent progress, getting back to Hanakoa Valley and into the more vegetated section before lunch. After lunch, we knew we only had six miles left, but we also knew that they wouldn’t be easy as the sun was overhead now overhead and the temperature was rising. Thankfully, we crossed many streams and water sources along way, allowing us to stay hydrated. The last few climbs were hard in the heat, but we were rewarded with great views and nice breezes when we’d come near a viewpoint near the edge of a cliff. Soon we were back at Hanakapiai Beach and surrounded by many people just hiking the first two miles of the trail. That was the two mile mark and with one more big climb to go, we knew the end was near. The trail was still muddy and slick and the half mile marker didn’t come as soon as we wanted it to, but once we saw it, we picked up the pace and headed downhill to the trailhead to complete our journey. We refilled our water and started the road walk back to the car. We got to less than a half mile to the car, and a really nice couple pulled over and gave us a ride back. Yes, there are even trail angels in Hawaii!
The next day, we drove around the island to Waimea Canyon (there is hiking there too, and it is like the Grand Canyon, except smaller and has greener plants) to view the valley and beach from above. It was a bit surreal to realize that we had just been down there the day before and to listen to the other vacationers talk about the view. We just looked at each other and smiled. A few days after that, we had one more look at Kalalau Valley and Beach, this time from the water. We took a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast, and got yet another perspective on the trail and landscape that it winds around.
As a bonus, Ethan asked me about patches and I wasn’t sure there were any and would research them later. We decided to go snorkeling a few days later and stopped at an outfitter in Hanalei to rent gear and to get advice. Although we didn’t end up snorkeling on the north side of the island due to ocean conditions that day (we did end up snorkeling twice, eventually), Ethan spied a basket near the cash register. Sure enough, it had Kalalau Trail patches in it, so we purchased two!
The Kalalau Trail was a great adventure, and we were extremely blessed and grateful to have just about perfect weather, safety the whole way and a happy, if a bit, muddy trail ending. If you’re ever in Kauai, and want a true backpacking challenge, and can get a permit, hiking the entire Kalalau trail is worth the effort.