The Nā Pali Coast’s Kalalau Trail is a stunning 18-kilometre there-and-back hike on the north coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
Often topping Greatest-Hikes-in-the-World lists, along with Most-Dangerous-Hikes-in-the-World, it promises a rugged trek along incredibly steep rain-forest mountain-sides, long side trails to massive waterfalls, deep blue water and crashing waves, and an opportunity to sleep on a world-famous secluded beach.
Camping permits are required for anyone going past the first three kms, with two places to set up your tent: a forested streamside campsite at Hanakoa Valley (9.5km) and the beautiful Kalalau Beach (trail terminus; 18 km).
My friend and I first heard about the trail while researching “things to do in Hawaii,” as we were heading there for a conference in Honolulu.
I arrived in Kauai in the morning in early May, where my co-worker, Mike, and his partner, Christa, picked me up in a rental car. First thing I really noticed about Kauai was all the chickens. How did I not know that Kauai is littered with chickens? Supposedly, a combination of all birds being protected, and a freak tornado in the ’90s that set the chickens free, has resulted in this hilarious problem.
After running some errands and checking into our hotel, we ate lunch at the hotel restaurant, which is right on the beach. Of course, I ordered fish tacos. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans; when in Hawaii, eat fish tacos.
Then it began to rain. We hung out in the hotel for a while: Mike and I packed for our hike, while Christa, who did not obtain a permit in time (let this be a lesson to you, Dear Reader), perused the guidebook for things to do later.
When the rain stopped and the sun came out, we drove out to a nearby 25-metre waterfall, Wailua Falls, which you can see from a vantage point at the top of the cliff.
I wanted to hike down to the bottom, but Mike and Christa were not too psyched.
We made plans to separate, leaving me to my reckless behaviour, and letting them drive off and explore some more of the area.
I ended up following the wrong way down, which was a little scary because the mud made it very possible to slip and slide an alarming amount. I went down barefoot and dug my toes in while grabbing tree trunks and roots on the descent.
“Hopefully I can find the right way up later,” I thought to myself.
Once at the bottom, I was still a distance from the falls, so I had to wade and bushwhack for a while. All worth it for the waterfall I had all to myself.
After taking some pictures from various angles, I decided to take a dip. The mist and waves, combined with the cold, sort of made it a little intense… also, seeing Jaws in my youth has forever ruined swimming in any body of water for me.
I swam out to the middle and just floated on my back to take the whole thing in. This is the true and proper way to experience a raging 25-metre waterfall.
After looking around for a bit, I managed to find the proper way out via a nice trail, with portions of it led by a rooster caught on the same trail. After I met back up with Mike and Christa, we went out for fish tacos (for those keeping count that’s my second fish taco meal of the day) and called it a night.
A 5 a.m. wake-up. We ate and left around 6, and were at the trailhead by 7. Christa joined us for the first 6.5 kms. The first 3.2 kms are gorgeous and take in these incredible short views with violently crashing waves, intensely steep and jagged cliffs covered in green.
The path itself seemed threatened to be choked off by the dense foliage all around. Giant ferns, coconut trees, green things growing on green things growing on green things. A veritable Russian nesting doll of vegetation.
Every now and then you would catch a songbird’s tune.
At one viewpoint, where we could see the coastline in front of us, we couldn’t imagine where the trail could be, as the cliffs seemed so steep and jagged and too close to the coast.
We would later discover we were looking at the trail, but it was hidden deep within the thick greenery.
As we started early in the morning, I found it odd to see many hikers coming the other way. Since this is a there-and-back trail, this meant either that they had awoken at a god-forsaken hour in order to be coming back now… or they had slept overnight.
The former seemed strange, but the latter was downright crazy, as these people did not look like they were equipped for sleeping, as they had tiny daypacks.
They were also all wearing identical cheap rain ponchos… and looked miserable. We later found out that the rain from the day before had created flash floods at the first creek crossing, which stranded what seemed like several dozen individuals and forced them to stay the night, in the rain, unprepared.
At the 3.2km mark, we crossed our first of several creeks. There is a beach here, infamous for its breaking surf and undertow that has taken many lives (somewhere in the high 80s).
Inexplicably, there were also four cats and a rooster that seemed to live here. The next 3.2 kilometres were off trail, to check out a waterfall. I think there were up to six crossings, mostly within the last kilometre.
The falls themselves are huge and intense. Best of all, there was a black kitten waiting there for us. Very friendly; my senses were overwhelmed with cuteness and nature’s grandeur.
The falls were raging due to the rain from the day before. Although it was cold near the mist and wind, I went for a swim. It was hard to get into because the rocks were jagged and uneven. I swam out halfway and took in the glory.
On the way back, I got lost on a side trail. Back at the beach, we said goodbye to Christa and were off for the final 16 kms of our journey.
Kilometres 3.2 to 4.8 are up a steep mountain face, then down towards kilometre 9.6. This is a campsite, and another waterfall opportunity. This waterfall is only 0.8 kms off the trail, and involves only one creek crossing.
The falls were once again massive; I think bigger than the first. No cats, but also no people. Once again braving the freezing cold, I took a dip, and waded with a giant. The final 11 to 13 kilometres head steeply up again, then around this treacherous area called Crawler’s Cove. Luckily, the mud was drying up, making this reasonable.
The most exposed region is on narrow lava rock, which at least makes for good purchase.
After we passed this section it began to rain. Nothing too intense, just enough to annoy.
We stepped it into high-gear for the final stretch. Luckily, we were treated to a break in the weather once we reached the beach.
What a superb way to end a trail. This thing is super pretty and remote, with only a smattering of people visible. We found a beautiful place to set up camp on the beach, but still in some trees.
After the tarp went up (in an effort to shed weight, we had brought along a lightweight tarp instead of a tent), it began to rain again. Just in time. Now the rain fell hard. We ducked in underneath our shelter and secured our belongings.
We made dinner under our shelter… and who decides to pay us a visit on this hard-to-get-to paradise? A hungry kitten. Who knew there were so many cats here on this trail?
I did my best not to feed her, but I did give her some love scratches. After dinner we did dishes, secured our food, and passed out.
We awoke without an alarm, sometime in the early morning, with the rising sun. With plenty of time to make it back, and beautiful weather greeting us, we explored the beach: swam in the Pacific Ocean blue, took panorama pictures with our phones, and laid out on the beach.
Our hike back to the start of the trail was absolutely splendid, surprisingly affording us views we had neglected to see the day before, as we were not always looking over our shoulders.
I was surprised to find that hiking back the way we came provided us with a sense of ease, as we had no anxiety about anything we were about to encounter, and an opportunity to sort of shut off and just take it all in. What bliss.
If You Want to Go
If this piques your interest, and you’re thinking of going, I highly suggest you book waaaaaaaaaaaay in advance, as permits get snatched up quickly and months ahead of time. Contact these people: Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources.
In addition, please do your research.
There are multiple sources online that warn of the dangers of the hike; hikers have lost their lives exploring the beauty of this trail.
The website KalalauTrail.com describes these dangers, and ways to stay safe. Happy hiking 🙂