Hiking the Most Beautiful Trail in the Pacific-Kalalau Trail Along the Nāpali Coast, Kauai

Map of Trail

January 2020: The Nāpali Coast is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world and the Kalalau Trail that hugs the towering, fluted sea cliffs of the Nāpali wilderness, maybe on of America’s best trails. It is a very challenging hike-round trip being 22 miles through 5 valleys and an elevation gain of 10,000 feet.

Why is it so great?

  • Twenty two mile round trip hike through verdant, towering, volcanic sea cliffs that stand thousands of feet tall.
  • Only access is by trail-there are no roads
  • Visitor numbers are kept low by a permit system, extreme difficulty of hike, and rough ocean making it hard for visitors to land on beaches
  • Endemic trees, plants, birdlife
  • Waterfalls, pristine beaches, coves with hardly a soul
  • The park is a designated wilderness area with no bridges and lots of river crossings. Hikers have to handle narrow trails precariously clinging to cliffs with dramatic drops of hundreds of feet.
  • Camping on remote beaches
  • A sacred valley steeped in Hawaiian history and folklore
  • Naked Hippy community living at the end of the trail in the Kalalau Valley

I have wanted to complete the trail for decades. I first tried almost 10 years ago, but was forced to turn back at Hanakapiai River because of flash floods. Instead of hiking the trail, I helped rescue hikers crossing the raging river and watched while others had to be evacuated by helicopter from the other side. It was winter, the riskiest time of the year due to increased storm activity when I first attempted the trail. I vowed to to never try again in the winter. Fast forward ten years, I came back with three friends in the winter to try the trail again.

 

 

 

Getting Ready

We purchased our overnight camping and parking permits in advance. These sell out fast and hikers who procrastinate will find themselves disappointed.  

Even if you are lucky enough to obtain a permit, weather is a huge factor in whether you will succeed in reaching Kalalau Beach. Any rain the mountains can easily translate into flash floods in the many river crossings of the trail. This will result is trail closures. I knew from my own experience that this was a possibility as it happened to me already. My friends and I checked the weather forecast every day leading up to the trip and became overnight meteorologists translating weather maps. We were going in winter, a time when storms are common with trail closures lasting weeks sometimes. Before our trip the trail was washed out and closed for a few weeks during a huge storm. We hoped for the best, but the final forecast showed rain during our hike and lots of it. With this in mind, we packed lots of rain gear, and hiking poles to stabilize our footing. 

 

Ke’e Beach,  Haena State Park to Hanakapiai River

The hike starts at Ke’e Beach. My recommendation is to take an uber and get dropped off at the trailhead, so you do not need to worry about parking. Overnight parking permits are needed and are hard to get. I was able to secure one by a lot of advanced planning. Parking your vehicle at Ke’e beach also presents break-in risks. Break-ins are common in at night, and this was evident by the broken glass across the parking lot.

 

My friends and I at the trailhead

We made sure to leave only clean clothes in the car so that we wouldn’t have to carry them on the hike and would have something to change into after the hike. We started the hike an hour before sunrise to get a jumpstart on the day and hopefully arrive at Kalalau Valley before dark. 

The first part of the trail, a 2 mile stretch from Ke-e Beach to Hanakapiai River, is the most maintained part of the trail. it is also the only part of the trail that doesn’t require a permit. For this reason, this section of the trail is the most crowded. If you leave early in the morning however, there will be no one out but a few other early risers enroute to the Kalalau Trail. 

 

Trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapiai River

Crossing the Dangerous Hanakapiai River

The Hanakapiai crossing is no joke. When the water is high from rain in the mountains, the river can change from peaceful to darn right deadly. When the river is high, it is impossible to cross. The rapids can bash you into rocks or even wash you out into the ocean into the notoriously deadly rip currents and high surf of the open ocean.

Every year inevitable there will be some people that will drown while trying to cross the river.  Last time I attempted the trail, the Hanakapiai River was as far as I got. It was absolutely raging and too dangerous to cross. Dozens of hikers were trapped on the other side and while some were able to cross, most had to be evacuated by helicopter.  Hawaii

Luckily despite the forecast of rain, the weather seemed to be clear. I still wasn’t convinced that the river would be crossable until I could verify with my own eyes just in case there was rain up in the mountains.

Currently there are no bridges in the park. There have been discussions for decades about building a bridge to help alleviate the costs of emergency evacuations from hikers stranded on the other side of a flash flood.   The cost would be in the millions and the logistics of building one would be extremely challenging. Then there is the added threat that the bridge would just be washed out eventually by a flashflood anyways. The current consensus is to leave the park natural and not build a bridge since one of the main appeals of the park is it rugged and challenging appeal. The lack of bridges also helps keep the number of visitors down in the park. It is a kind of filter that prevents unprepared hikers from entering.

 

Crossing the Hanakapiai River when it is low

A memorial of someone that drowned from the strong undertow of the river crossing

Hanakāpīʻai to Hanakoa

The crew on the trail

Volcanic Cliffs

The 4-mile-long trail becomes remarkably wilder after the Hanakapiai crossing. The trail wasn’t well groomed anymore, and it became far steeper and muddier. The scenery became more impressive the deeper into the trail you go. It was very challenging to pay attention to the trail and avoid tripping while being mesmerized by the beauty of the valleys. In some areas there are remains of taro terraces that the older generations of Hawaiians once used when they lived in the valleys.

We didn’t have time to hike to the Hanakoa falls. We might have tried if the weather was nicer, but we still had the most dangerous part of the hike left along the steep unstable sea cliffs and the clouds kept threatening to rain and we wanted to get across the cliffs before the rain.

My Buddy Miguel and I

Crawlers Ledge and Unstable Cliffs

We were worried about rain during our crossing of the crawler’s ledge, the infamous trail that has many terrifying looking photos posted on the internet. The trail was intimidating but not slippery with firm volcanic rock and lots of hand holds. At the end of the crawler’s ledge, you need to scale a 20′-foot cliff up a few hand holds. 

The crawler’s ledge was nothing compared to the upcoming sections of the trail. The cliffs beyond were just as steep, the trail just as narrow but instead of volcanic rock, the trail consisted of red clay that was muddy and slippery. One wrong step or slip and fall could send you plummeting hundreds of feet to your death. Unfortunately, there have been a few people that have met this demise. 

Oscar struggling on the Crawlers ledge

Hanakoa To Kalalau Valley

Amazing Lush Native Vegetation Endemic to the Isolated Valleys

Tim admiring the view

This 5-mile section was the most difficult part of the trail, and the difficulty mostly began at Crawlers ledge and only became more challenging afterwards because of the steep and slippery conditions.

We only saw a few people on the trail all day. Most of the time, we were along with the exception of the occasional tourist helicopter whizzing by. Luckily the weather was too cloudy for too many helicopter tours. One advantage to hiking in the winter is there are fewer helicopter tours and other hikers. Of course, the tradeoff is you get bad weather.

Descent into kalalau Valley

The view of the Kalalau Valley is incredible. The slippery red clay on the descent is not. This is where the hiking poles become very valuable. Once we reached the valley, we struggled to find the path to the campsite, and we ended up splitting up into two groups and becoming separated by accident. Both groups did a little bushwhacking through the jungle before finding the right trail and re-convening at the campground. 

Hike through vegetation in Kalalau Valley

Camping on the Kalalau Beach

The trail came to an abrupt end at a cliff wall at the end of the beach. The inland area is where you can pitch a tent. There are no designated campsites. You camp wherever there is a flat spot. We pitched our tents near the waterfall so that we had convenient easy access to water.

Where we camped near the waterfall

Where we camped near the waterfall

Filtering drinking water

Grave or memorial of someone who died at the Kalalau Beach from falling off of a cliff

The Return Hike in Bad Weather

We hiked the full 11 hours in one day, camped and planned to hike the same 11 miles back the next day.  In the morning our bodies were still protesting the hike and the whiskey from the day and night before. But luckily the morning weather appeared to be sunny and beautiful and maybe we would have a nice and easy hike back. The weather had other ideas. Within an hour of starting our hike we were surrounded by dark storm clouds, and it began to downpour and gusty. Wind and hard rain were the worst combination to have before reaching the sea cliffs. The next 4 miles were on completely exposed cliffs with nothing to obstruct the winds that were blowing all the way from Alaska. We estimated gusts were 30 miles per hour. The rain was freezing too. We walked slowly and carefully across the slippery clay cliffs at times crawling on our knees especially when the gusts picked up in the really muddy and exposed parts of the trail. At times we were pelted by pellet rain in the face that was actually painful to our eyes. Additionally, the salt from the ocean being picked up by the wind and carried up the cliffs towards us would sting my eyes. It was a miserable hike back and the misery culminated with being stranded at the Hanakapiai River. We had a feeling the river would be too high. We were barely able to cross other rivers along the way and when we reached the final river-Hanakapiai River, it was too late. The river was cresting and too dangerous to cross. We stayed one night under the shelters in our tents and luckily the rain relented overnight, and the water level of the river lowered enough to cross safely in the morning.

Calm before the storm

Calm before the storm

The storm rolling in

Brunt of the storm

Makeshift shelter where we camped at the Hanakapiai River because the river was too high to cross. We shared some of our food with other campers who didn’t pack enough for the unexpected delay. 

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