#Kauai: Kalalau Trail

On the northwest side of the island, where the highway ends at Ha’ena State Park, lies Makana (‘the gift’), better known as Bali Hai from the movie South Pacific. The Kalalau Trail, which skirts the mountain, begins here as well. The trail continues for 11 breathtaking miles through the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park to a campground at Kalalau Beach. NOTE: Hiking beyond Hanakapi’ai Beach and/or Hanakapi’ai Falls, a combined eight mile round trip, requires a permit from the Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR) because of the many hazards, especially in the last five miles. Since my daughters and I did not obtain a permit, and the fact that I found the first two miles more than sufficiently challenging, this article only covers the four-mile hike to that first beach and back.

Two things that cannot be overemphasized when hiking the Kalalau are water and timing. There is NO DRINKING WATER on the trail, and you should carry (camelbak, canteen, and/or bottles) at least a liter (more than 32 oz.) of drinking water for every two miles on the trail. Also, arrive early because parking is limited due to the variety of attractions at the end of the road, including Limahuli Garden and Ke’e Beach. Unfortunately, we arrived about 10:30 a.m., and parked nearly a mile from the trailhead, so our hike to the Hanakapi’ai Stream and back was about six miles; that is, just over one mile per hour with a half hour for lunch at the stream. In hindsight, 7:00 a.m. would have been a good time to arrive whether hiking four miles or eight—all the way to Hanakapi’ai Falls and back—or planning to overnight it and do the full 22 mile trek.

Ke'e Beach from .25 Mile Marker
Ke’e Beach from .25 Mile Marker

The elevation gain in the first two miles is either only 575 feet or nearly 2,000 feet, depending on whether or not you count the repeated ascents from ravines. That said, the climb over the next quarter mile takes you up to 600 feet above sea level before going down and up again.

Climbing from .25 mile marker to the first summit at .5 mile marker

We were delayed by several blinding downpours on our way north, and we still encountered showers for the first mile or so of the hike. The first half mile or so is rocky and as shown above, more than a little wet. Although I didn’t realize it while taking the next photograph, you can actually see Hanakapi’ai Beach, that little speck of white near the center of the photo, from the lookout at the half mile marker.

Na Pali Coast from .5 Mile Marker
Na Pali Coast from .5 Mile Marker

Due to the morning’s heavy rainfall, several intermittent streams overflowed into the graded trail creating all the mud you could eat, and then some.

Notice tree hump rising above the mud
Notice tree hump rising above the mud

In spite of all this mud, there was much beauty to be seen, both on the trail and out to sea. With all the microclimates along the way I encountered considerable seasonal variability.

Some pay big bucks to have this blue indoors
Some would pay mightily to have this Robin’s Egg blue indoors

This lovely tree has a list of common names that stretch across the Pacific, from Malay rose-apple to mountain apple in Hawaii.

Ohi'a ~ Mountain Apple blooming
Ohi’a’ai ~ mountain apple just beginning to blossom

With three small stream crossings, I reached Hanakapi’ai Stream in just under two hours, and sat down among the boulders by the stream for lunch. Then I waded through the stream and rock hopped down to the beach. Fresh water (NOT safe for drinking!) oozed from the cliff wall above the little salt cave, and filled the little inlet at left.

Hanakapi'ai Beach
Hanakapi’ai Beach

The surf was choppy, aided by the wind, and of course it really is not safe to enter the ocean here. An old rusty, out-of-date sign just above the beach warned that at least 83 have died up here, and a local kayaker died just off the Na Pali Coast during High Surf Warnings in the week following my hike.

Looking back across the strand from the cave
Looking back across the strand from the cave

Rock hopping back up from the beach, I made a friend… an Orange Sulphur butterfly.

Lunch with a butterfly
A butterfly I met at the beach

All of the midday mud turned to hard, hot, red clay by late afternoon. Nevertheless, my return trek took nearly two-and-a-half hours, and twice as much water as the temperature appeared to be following the elevation. People I saw on the beach from three quarters of a mile upslope, passed me before I got this far.

Only a half mile more mud to go.
The morning sluice packed dry on the return trip

All things considered, I doubt I will ever attempt the 22 mile version of this hike. Fortunately there is an alternative, driving around the island and up Waimea Canyon Road to the Kalalau Lookout, which offers a view of the Kalalau Valley featured in the movie “The Descendants,” which is breathtaking no matter how you get there!

7 thoughts on “#Kauai: Kalalau Trail

    1. They did. They and one of their friends were the people who passed me on the return lap, to enjoy about an hour at Ke’e Beach awaiting my return.


    1. Perhaps that contrast is precisely what drew my eye. The views themseves were refreshing like cool water!


  1. Great pictures. Looks like a very difficult trail. Not sure I could make it very far.


    1. It was difficult, especially since I hadn’t hiked much in about 6 months, but positively worth the sweat. Various (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalalau_Trail) sources ranked Kalalau Trail among the 10 most dangerous in the U.S.; the 20 most dangerous in the world. However, those rankings refer to those sections for which you must obtain a permit, beyond Hanakapi’ai Beach/Falls.

      The phrase on the high surf/strong current warnings “If in doubt; Don’t go out” applies to this trail as well. Try the day hikes, 4- or 8-mile, and then decide whether or not you’re ready for the whole deal. Oh, and you could also get the permit, but only go to Hanakoa, camp overnight, and return, a 12-mile round trip < that's on my "when I get a round to it" list.

      Another trial 12-mile hike would be hiking in from Kuamo'o-Nounou trailhead on Sleeping Giant, to the summit, then back down to the East (House Lots) trailhead and back over to the West (Lokelani) trailhead, and return to Kuamo'o-Nounou trailhead via Kamalu Road and Kuamo'o Road.


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