Kauai, the oldest of Hawaii’s major islands, beholds one of the earth’s true treasures: the Kalalau Valley. Located in the center of the Napali Coast, the Kalalau Valley beckons adventure along the cliff-carved Kalalau Trail that leads to its heart.
- Length: 11 miles (one way)
- Difficulty: Very difficult with some exposure
- Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 5,000′
Trip Report (February 2012)
About four days before embarking on our vacation to Kauai, I started to feel some trepidation about journeying out on the Kalalau Trail. The weather discussion from NOAA sounded bleak. Two pressure ridges were aligning to bring trade showers to the islands and possibly some snow to higher elevations on the Big Island. Our hiking permit, which is required to hike beyond Hanakoa Valley (6 miles into the trail), was only valid for three days. We had a very short window to make it out to Kalalau and back. The only silver lining in the forecast was that the pressure ridges weren’t going to collide. Otherwise, the precipitation would have been severe, and the hike too treacherous.
We flew from Denver to Lihue on February 18 and stepped off the plane to beautiful weather. We rented a car and bombed up to Hanalei Bay looking for a place to stay. There was no vacancy anywhere, so we headed back towards Lihue. Kapaa had a cute hotel with one room available; we snatched it up in a hurry.
We threw back a couple Malibu and pineapples – yeah, I know, totally a girly drink. Give me a break, I was on Kauai. With our second drink in hand, we moseyed down to the beach to enjoy the sunset when the rain commenced. Steadily, the rain fell throughout the night.
We set out for the trailhead at 7:30 am and arrived about 9 (we had a couple of errands to run in between). It rained the entire way from Kapaa to the trailhead. At this point, hope of hiking the trail was rapidly fleeting. There are plenty of guidebooks and websites out there that describe how the streams turn to deadly rivers, the trail turns into a flow of mud, and how “crawler’s ledge” is scary enough when dry. News stories confirm this. We reluctantly grabbed our packs with a strong suspicion we would be forced to turn around at the first major stream crossing above Hanakapi’ai Beach.
From the trailhead, the trail quickly climbs from sea level to around 600′. It then drops back down to sea level at Hanakapi’ai Beach. Although the rain was still coming down, it wasn’t pouring when we approached the beach at 2 miles into the hike. There was a sign posted at the side of the trail to warn hikers of the dangerous surf. Stay out of the water at Hanakapi’ai Beach! The waves were gnarly and crash into the cliffs.
The creek in Hanakapi’ai Valley was swollen but passable. Water came up to Liz’s waist and hit the bottom of my shorts. I heard the rule of thumb is that if the water is murky you should avoid crossing. While not exactly clear, it wasn’t a turbid brown. You could still make out most of the creek’s floor.
Onward! Miles 2 through 9 are all treacherous. Most of the numerous trip reports I read fixated on crawler’s ledge (aka “the scary part”). Honestly, I think that if you stripped the vegetation from the remainder of the trail, much of it would feel similar to crawler’s ledge. After Hanakapi’ai Beach, the trail never touches the ocean again until you get to Kalalau Beach. It does, however, undulate like a serpent. You will gain over 5,000′, and drop the same, before you get to Kalalau.
Here are a few notable things in miles 2 through 9:
1. water is abundant (being from Colorado, I’m not used to seeing water flowing from every depression/channel in the ground);
2. Hanakoa Valley is a nice place to rest or camp (this valley is located 6 miles into the hike and offers good, well-established camping if you need to break your trip up or if you’re tired);
3. waterfalls and cliffs are monstrous (I mentioned water, but the dramatic waterfalls and towering cliffs are really what capture the eye and imagination. I’ve never seen anything so stunning); and
4. the trail is a real challenge for someone with an extreme fear of heights (I don’t like heights, but it’s a moderate fear. I actually thought a couple parts of the trail were worse than crawler’s ledge, which is really only 100′ or so in length. Crawler’s ledge has some nice handholds in the rock. Just take your time and find the holds if you’re struggling to make it through).
Miles 9 through 11 are simply breathtaking. After passing crawler’s ledge, you’ll quickly arrive at Red Hill. It’s here that I caught my first glimpse of Kalalau Beach. I hope to have that vision forever cemented in my memory. Crashing ocean to the right, stretching cliffs to the left, an amazing emerald shelf immediately below, unbroken sand just beyond that, and spiny outgrowths of land in the distant horizon. Liz and I took it all in and headed down the final mile into the valley.
When we entered, we were greeted – more like serenaded – by a gentleman flutist. I said hello, and he casually dropped the woodwind instrument to quietly welcome us to Kalalau. Our next gentleman greeter discovered a profound use for a fanny pack; instead of shorts, he adorned the pack in front of his nether region in runway fashion. If you’re uncomfortable with nudity, Kalalau might not be the place for you. While there is no pressure to let it all hang out, it’s likely that you’ll be exposed to someone else’s bare essentials. Not in a Lord of the Flies way, but the valley is the kind of place where just about anything goes. When we were there, everyone wore a gaping grin, inspired by one of the most stupendous places on earth.
After unfolding camp in the established camping area, Liz and I hiked to the end of the beach where there is a cascading waterfall. We bathed, treated our water, and returned to camp. The sunset, thundering surf, and dizzying stars put on quite the show. I even made a wish on one of the best shooting stars I’ve ever seen.
I sprung out of bed thirty minutes before sunrise, strolled down to the beach about thirty yards away, and waded out in the cool ocean water before anyone else heard the rooster’s call. Actually, the Kalalau Trail is probably the only place on Kauai where you won’t hear roosters in the morning. The weather started in unmistakably gorgeous fashion that wouldn’t change during the day.
Kalalau Stream is about 1/2 a mile away from camp. I grabbed some empty water bottles and took off for a refill. On the jaunt I met some folks enjoying the morning sun. A couple had been there a month, others two, and many longer than that.
Liz and I swam in the beautiful Pacific, practiced yoga, and shot photos for most of the day. I noted a couple of things worth mentioning. First, the camping area is busy. Don’t expect to find solitude in or around the camping area. You’ll find peace, but solitude…. Second, there is a perfect green bench just below Red Hill. If you didn’t absorb the views from near the bench on your hike in, take some time to enjoy the views while you’re in Kalalau or on your hike out. It’s a nice place for meditation, yoga, and reflection.
Our day concluded with watching the sun sink into the horizon. My senses grew more acute to the subtle details Kalalau offered. The magnitude of the place previously muted the unbroken beach sand, aromatic air, gentle breeze, ocean mist, and brilliant flora. Liz and I started joking, but in a serious manner, how we could maybe stay there just a little bit longer than planned.
We roused at 8 am to break camp and within an hour struck out on the trail. We got back to the trailhead (11 miles out) around 4 pm. I recommend giving yourself anywhere from 6 to 10 hours to backpack the 11-mile trail each direction. You should also count – yes, you can literally count – on hearing anywhere from thirty to fifty helicopter tours buzz overhead each day you’re on the trail or in Kalalau Valley.
The hike out was exhaustingly hot at times, and we encountered a number of beleaguered hikers and backpackers both on our hike in and out. The trail feels longer than 11 miles because you have to really hone in on every step you take. One wrong step in some places could bring severe consequences. We encountered a man on our exodus who had hiked the trail five times before in previous years. He had never seen it in that bad of condition.
By the end of the hike out, the rain really started coming down. We were covered head-to-toe in mud. A steady stream of people flowed like ants between the trailhead and Hanakapi’ai Beach. Many tried to avoid getting muddy, but gravity dictated otherwise. Just one look at the back of people’s shorts told the whole story. We showered off at the beach shower at the trailhead at Ke’e Beach. Most of the folks at the beach stared at us in envy when they found out we were returning from the “end of the trail.”
Directions to Trailhead
The Kalalau Trail trailhead is on the north side of Kauai, adjacent to Ke’e Beach. From Lihue, it’s about 40 miles (1 hour). Just drive to the end of the Kuhio Highway (Route 56). There is parking at the trailhead. There are restrooms, beach showers, trash receptacles, and potable water at the trailhead.
Other Things to Note
- You need a permit from Hawaii State Parks to hike beyond the 6-mile point or if you’re camping. Permits are limited, so get them well in advance.
- TSA hassled me about carrying on my MSR Pocket Rocket stove and tent stakes, despite the fact that I wasn’t carrying any fuel for my stove. If possible, check luggage that contains any sharp items or items with any fuel residue. TSA did eventually let me through without confiscating anything. Here’s a list of TSA’s prohibited items.
- Most water filters are not certified to filter out leptospirosis. Use water purification tablets with iodine.
- You can purchase stove fuel in Hanalei at either Kayak Kauai or Pedal ‘N Paddle. We purchased our fuel at Kayak Kauai and were also able to store luggage there for $6 a day per bag. The trailhead is notorious for break-ins and other vehicle vandalism.
- Begin the hike hydrated and stay hydrated. The combination of sun and humidity can really catch up with you quickly.
- Trekking poles were worth their weight in gold.
The following will take you outside of The Colorado Hiker, but they provide valuable information: