The Kalalau Trail: Hiking the Nā Pali Coast of Kaua'i

1:25 AM

Of all the hikes I’ve done in Hawaii, this hike is by far the most dangerous, the most difficult, and the most beautiful. 


Warning: Wall of text following

Trail Info. and Risks
The Kalalau Trail is the only way to access the the stunning Na Pali Coast by land. This area is inaccessible by vehicle, the only other way to see it is by helicopter or boat.

The trail is only 11 miles from trail head to campsite and crosses five valleys before ending at the Kalalau Beach nestled at the bottom of the Kalalau Valley.  You may think that 11 miles is nothing (I sure did), but this hike is considered one of the most DANGEROUS hikes in the world. It is not a hike for beginners.

There are always risks when backpacking so please exercise caution and use good judgement.

Planning
You do need a camping permit after the first two miles on the trail. We ordered ours online a few months in advance because it books up fast. There are only two spots you are legally allowed to camp which is at the beginning of the trail and at the end.

This hike required some planning and research. Our group of six was in pretty good shape, we worked out together several days a week and did hikes regularly. However, after reading more about the hike we gave ourselves four days and three nights on Kaua’i to complete the trail and still have time to hang out at the beach and do the shorter hikes that branch off the main trail, before hiking back out to catch our plane.

We divided who would carry what. I was in charge of the first aid kit, three of the six of us carried a small tent to share, and one person had our water filtration system.

Packing

I bought a 75 liter pack from REI for my gear and later realized I could have probably used a 50 liter as I ended up over packing (better to be safe than sorry!). 

Upon arriving at the airport we all weighed our packs which were about 50-60 pounds each and we moved all dangerous items (several knives, the fire starting tools, and a machete) to one bag that we decided to check.






Beginning at Ke’e Beach

We left Oahu and landed on Kaua’i at about 6AM, grabbed our checked bag and hurried to get our rental car. In the end, I think we could have done without the rental car as we probably could have hitched a ride to the trail head or found another way. We were nervous to leave the car in the parking lot at the trail and it definitely was not cheap to rent.

We stopped at Walmart to get some perishable food items and tequila (very important for any camping trip).

The drive from the airport to the trail was pretty, it was a perfect day to hike. We got there, parked at Ke’e Beach and did not waste any time getting started.

The beginning of the trail was not too bad, we passed quite a few day hikers and families. With our packs on, we were moving a little slower than others and we took more frequent breaks. There are some steep areas and parts where we were climbing up rocks and trekking through mud.

The Perilous Hanakapi’ai Beach
Do not attempt to get in the water here.


 Coming up on this beach from the trail the first thing you see is a sign tallying the death toll of people who attempted to swim in the treacherous water.

Strong undercurrents have been known to sweep people out in mere seconds, pulling westward along the coastline for miles of jagged rocks and strong waves. We had already read about some sad stories of people who thought they could out swim the currents getting lost at sea.

If you feel the need to cool off in water or wash the mud from your body, there is a stream just before you get to the beach that leads to a waterfall and this is a much safer option. Always remember that flash 
floods are common and are named “flash flood” for a reason because they do come out of nowhere and can be quite strong. People have perished at some of the streams on this trail from this exact thing so stay alert.

Onward

From here on, the trail gets significantly more difficult. The terrain can be rough and some areas were pretty steep. It ranges from being under a canopy of trees to being out in the open on the side of a cliff. We crossed several streams and stopped to filter water a few times, which was time consuming for the six of us. We did come across one bathroom at a small campsite early on (only camping area on the trail). It smelled awful and we opted to take our potty break in the bushes. As we hiked we came across lots of fruit trees. I ate a couple dozen of the sweet, mountain apples that could fit in my pockets. We also picked a lot of lilikoi, papaya, tomatoes, and strawberry guava for snacking.






Mile 8: Unnerving
The 8th mile took us over an hour to complete and is the reason we did not make it to the end of the trail until the next morning. This part of the hike was not easy, physically or mentally.

Loose rocks and dry, slippery dirt would have meant a terrifying plummet onto ragged rocks in the ocean far below. The trail was just wide enough that your feet could fit if your pressed them against the rock face and gripped the cliff in front of you as the 60 lbs. on your back threatened to pull you backwards. We had gone from talking and laughing to complete silence as we all concentrated on our footing.

 Unfortunately, one of our group was terrified of heights and it took quite a bit of coaxing to get them across and prevent them from panicking. We had to use trekking poles of point out to each other where to place our feet because a lot of the rocks were too loose to put weight on. There were several moments where my breath stopped as I expected to watch a friend plunge to their death. My adrenaline was at an all-time high.

Once we had all safely crossed this area, we stopped for a much needed break at a stream. By this time, the sun was beginning to set and we still had about three miles to go.


Camping on the Trail: A Big No-No

We knew that if we got caught camping before reaching the designated campsite that we could be fined and/or arrested. But after what we had just gone through in mile eight and watching the sun get lower, we decided to risk it and stop for the night. 

We came across a helicopter pad around the ninth mile and chose to stop there. So we set our camp up within the tree line so that we were hidden from the helicopter pad but still near the trail. 

The others started setting up the tents, filtering water, and chopping up some wood. I was in charge of fire and after scoping out the area I found a rock-lined fire pit that had obviously been used by previous campers. I also found a book whose pages ended up being perfect to use as kindling.

We sat around the fire talking about the day and scarfing down food when we saw what looked like a flashlight bobbing up and down in the darkness. We quickly put out the fire and retreated from visibility, fearing it was a park ranger and not wanting to get caught camping.
It turned out to be a man and his dog on their way to the beach at the end. We thought he was crazy to be doing it alone and in the dark. 

As the night went on, we saw a few boats with bright lights sweeping up and down the coast.



Naked Hippies
 Early the next morning we packed up and started off. We were moving much faster, anxious to finish. This part of the hike was stunning, we could see the end and had a perfect view of the ocean the rest of the way, and it was pretty easygoing compared to the day before. Around 10AM we came to a wide stream and waterfall where a large, naked man was hanging out. He greeted us and introduced himself as one of the people who lived here and told us to come to him if we needed anything.

We passed some more naked people as we made our way to the campsite. The people living here had a pretty good setup. They had furniture, coolers filled with food, hammocks, and a big ol’ grill for barbecuing.

I want to say that there were maybe ten other small groups of hikers in addition to the dozen naked people we had seen. So there really were not that many people there.

We had barely dropped our heavy packs from our shoulders when one of our group pulled out a jar of Nutella and we began cutting up the apples we picked to eat. We sat there on boulders and killed the whole jar along with a few large bags of potato chips. It was truly the perfect way to end the strenuous hike.

The Campsite at Kalalau Beach

After getting our gear set up, we wondered through the area and realized we had picked the perfect spot for ourselves. We were near the end of the camping area, the last campsite before the waterfall that everyone would use to shower, wash dishes and gear, and get drinking water. After crossing through the small waterfall, the beach expanded for what seemed like miles, with barely a soul on it.

Us girls decided to lay in the sand and rest while the guys kept walking further down the beach. After seeing the guys disappear a ways down from us, we stripped off all of our muddy clothes and dove into the waves butt naked to wash and cool off. It was glorious.

Later on, after we had decided to put on our swimsuits we spent the rest of the day burying each other in the warm sand. The guys told us they had found a cave at the end of the beach so we decided to explore it.

The cave was not very deep but it was wide and we saw someone had set up camp inside. Near the cave’s entrance a Hawaiian Monk Seal was taking a nap and we found a large log that must have washed ashore and that is where we sat to watch the sunset.

We did not end up exploring past the cave but after talking to people we learned that there was a small “island” of rocks in the water a short swim around the corner. People would jump off the rocks into the water and there was supposedly a nice little reef to check out. At this point, I regretted not bringing my snorkeling gear.





The Decision to Stay
We found out that the people living at this location were brought supplies and food by people on jet skis or boats every couple days or so. As a group, we decided that going back the way we had come would be difficult because of the traumatic flashbacks we had of mile 8 on the trail. It was settled with one of the jet ski operators that he would take us back two at a time on our last day on the island, for a small fee. This gave us an extra day and a half to enjoy all the campsite and small hiking paths had to offer. I am really glad we chose this route.

Throughout the day a couple of boats hosting tourists would anchor right off the beach so their visitors could come up on land and chill for a few hours before heading back out.

First night on the Beach & Goats

That night, we brought our sleeping bags out onto the sand and sat under the star listening to the waves crash just meters from us. We passed around the tequila and ate by the light of our headlamps. Sometime into our drunken laughter we heard weird noises coming from the mountain at our backs. We shined our lights up and could see dozens of goats scaling the cliff face and hanging out in the stream above what became our waterfall. The goats were having a jolly time bleating (is that the right word?) and peeing in the water. Later, we would see other campers drinking straight from the falls. Remember to use your filter folks!

Kalalau Valley Trail and Falls

We set out to explore with our camelbacks. It was so nice to be able to hike without having 60 pounds strapped to my body. We followed some paths the locals pointed out to us and saw some awesome scenery. The waterfalls were beautiful and we found more fruit. We came across some more people living deeper in the mountains, they did not seem too fond of having us around. We asked for directions and they were a little aggressive in asking us to leave and go back the way we had come. The guys in our group decided they must be growing something illegal and wanted to protect it, but who knows? 





Rotisserie Chicken & the Memorial


When we came back to the campsite, one of the guys in our group had made friends with two dudes who had started on the Kalalau Trail that morning with only a rotisserie chicken from Safeway and had made it to the campsite in just a few hours. Apparently, these two dudes made this trip quite often just to stay the night on the sand. They shared some chicken which was a nice break from the MREs and trail mix.

They showed us  a small memorial which had been made for a girl that died at the campsite just a couple weeks prior. In fact, she had fallen off the little cliff our tent was perched on. Nobody was sure how she fell but they had left flowers and art as a reminder. It made us think twice about letting one of our own get too far from the group.

Jet Ski to the Trail Head

The next morning we packed and waited for our knight in shining armor to take us back to the trail head by water. He took the first two in our group, strapped their bags to a makeshift sleigh behind the jet ski, and told us he would be back in half an hour.

We definitely had our doubts about this guy and his intentions, but the locals at the camp had nothing but good words to say. 

When it was my turn to go I was sandwiched between the strange dude and another from our group. The ride was rough as we held on to each other. We were not wearing life vests so that was a little scary. As we rode along the coast I could make out several caves that would be easily accessible by boat. I could not believe how breathtaking the view was from down on the water. We could see all those miles we had hiked from a new perspective. The lush, green forest gave way to bright red cliffs.

Back in Civilization

The rental car was just how we had left it—thank goodness. We still had time before we needed to be at the airport so we decided to get a bite to eat. We spotted a pizza joint, called Hanalei Pizza in a small shopping center on the side of the road. That first bite was like heaven, I mean, you can only eat so much dried fruit and granola bars. We had ourselves a few, well deserved, Lime-a-ritas and slept in the car on the way to the airport.

I would like to inform any readers to remember that if you try to bring pineapple beer or large knives on an airplane in your hiking pack, that TSA will pull you to the side and confiscate it, and your friends will take photos and laugh.

Conclusion


This was a great trip, I loved every moment of it. The only thing I regret about it is not taking more photos. The plan was to hike back out as we had come so I did not take as many as I should have on the hike in. I believe the amount of time we spent at the campsite was perfect and taking a jets or a boat back to the beginning is the way to do it. I would most definitely do this hike again.

Mahalos, Alecia <3


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