The Kalalau Trail
We hiked the Kalalau trail in March. The hike is widely known for being brutal and dangerous - it winds along the cliff-strewn Na'Pali coast of Kauai.
Ke'e to Hanakapie
The first 2 miles of the trail are very easy - signs mark the initial section as a good way for tourists to get a taste of the trail and as a result the trail is wide, fairly easy going and busy. We hit it first thing in the morning, so we only ran into a few people on this section. There's a couple of nice views along the coast before the trail drops down to Hanakapie Beach, where a series of signs are quite explicit in warning of the dangers of the water.
Hanakapie to Hanakoa
After Hanakapie, the real Kalalau trail begins. The trail narrows to a foot or less furrow between thorny bushes and winds steeply into the furrows of the coast. This part of the trail seems to take forever, because although you can see along the coast when you round a Pali, the trail must make circuitous detours into each valley, with a corresponding descent and ascent, to get to the other side. Ke'e beach sticks out at the end of the coast, reminding you how little ground you have covered.
We made a pact to not eat lunch until we reached Hanakoa. This was really dumb. We were super sugar low by the time we got there, and Hanakoa itself is a mosquito infested swamp. Far better to pick one of the gorgeous viewpoints at the tip of the Pali and eat there, letting the cool sea breeze blow away the muggy valley sweat.
Hanakoa to Kalalau Beach
Many people say that the last 5 miles of the trail are the worst, but we both quite liked them. The scenery changes, so there is far less time in the swampy woods, and more time on relatively flat rocky paths that cut through the eroded coast. There is one part where there is less than a foot wide ledge that is cut into a cliff with surf pounding beneath you. This part has a lot of loose rocks. It's easy to see why this is known as the most deadly trail in the world. It's easy to see how a good rain could just wash the trail away - theres several sections where you are walking on top of an old mudslide.
About a mile from Kalalau Beach, you get your first glimpse. Kalalau Valley opens up to your right and ahead are the most spectacular cliffs. This precedes one of the steepest descents, so watch your tired knees on the red dirt.
The official campsites are in a grove of trees, but it's dark and muggy in there. We followed the advice of some hikers we met and set up camp at the end of the beach near the waterfall which was far nicer. There's a ranger station in there, but it's not often occupied - we saw a Hawaii ranger get a ride out on a helicopter.
We were told that the locals drink straight from the waterfall, but we used a UV purifier to make sure the water was safe. A lot of people warn about leptospirosis on the trail, but we had no problem with the waterfall, and showered in it.
I mentioned locals. There's a bunch of hippies that live illegally on the beach or up in the valley, every now and then the rangers try to round them up and evict them but they are pretty dug in and hide. You'll see a lot of permanent looking campsites along the beach. The beach was pretty quiet when we were there, but apparently it's not unknown for wild hippie parties to happen with campfires on the beach.
Wild mangoes grow up in the valley, and it's not hard to imagine that a resourceful person could subsist quite happily on the land here.
Until sundown, there's a constant buzz of helicopters flying past the beach, which does take away from the solitude a little bit, but as the sun goes down silence returns and it feels like wilderness.
We watched the sunset from the beach and as it dipped below the horizon, a pod of humpback whales started breaching off the shore. We'd seen them from the trail all day, and apparently they were as relieved as us that the tourists had gone.
Up on the cliffs, wild mountain goats climb, and we saw a couple of wild cats.
The way back
In winter, when we hiked, you can almost guarantee rain on the trail. We were lucky to have dry weather on the way to the beach, and overnight, but the next morning, rainbows off the coast signaled the rain was approaching. This is no real surprise as the wettest place on earth is above the cliffs, but the rain makes the mud quite slippery.
We only camped one night, but I would recommend giving yourself more of a rest than we did. We hurt a lot on the way back, the wetness of the trail almost guarantees blisters. I was quite sunburnt, and my shoulders were bleeding from the pack by the end. The trail is just so rough that your joints will be hurting a lot, especially if you're carrying a tent and other camping gear. We met a few locals who were barely carrying anything - if you were willing to rough it on the beach you could have a far easier time.
We talked to some locals afterwards - although the surf at the beach is pretty rough, apparently it's possible to get a small boat in, which would be another way to get to or from the beach. If I were to do the trail again, I'd almost certainly pay someone to wait with a boat while I swam out from the beach to avoid walking back.
Things to Know
- Check park announcements before you go to see the status of the trail - it's often washed away by heavy storms, but the rangers do a good job of reopening it quickly.
- You can leave bags at Kayak Kauai in Hanalei for $6 a night - they're open from 7am to 8pm.
- You can buy camping gas and other last minute camping gear at Pedal and Paddle in Hanalei.
- There's no drinking water at the trailhead, so leave extra in the car for when you get back.