Most people associate Hawaii with a very beach-y, boozy, horizontal sort of vacation. But if you’re looking to leave the mainland and are aiming for a little bit more adventure, the islands also offer some spectacular hiking, tons of beach camping, and some of the easiest hitchhiking imaginable.
On Kauai, the backpacking trip of choice is the Kalalau Trail, which I’ve completed twice now. The Kalalau trail is probably what started my backpacking addiction back when I hiked it in 2012 with very limited gear and next to no backcountry knowledge (not recommended). It’s the perfect vacation thru-hike, especially if you find yourself on vacation with fellow outdoor enthusiasts who have yet to go off the deep end and hike over 2,200 miles in one continuous go; non-hikertrash, if you will. For me, that was my mom, who hiked the trail with me both times.
The Kalalau Trail is a 22 mile trail on the northwestern edge of the island of Kauai. It runs through Na Pali state park, a rugged, lush, and forbidding coastline that is unique to the island. If you’ve ever seen Jurassic Park, that might give you some idea of what the nature over there looks like; the movie was filmed on Kauai.
Yes, the entire trail is only 22 miles long, but those measly 22 miles pack a pretty good punch, and take you to some mindblowingly beautiful places. You’ll want to take your time, your camera, visit some waterfalls, and explore the remote end of the trail; the lush, mythical Kalalau Valley and the remote beaches within. Intrigued? Read on.
The Kalalau Trail is an in-and-out trail, meaning you have to return the way you came. This is because the valley and beach are literally surrounded by steep rock walls, so unless you feel inspired to do some lead climbing, or swim back (not recommended– see the hazards section), you pretty much have to enter and leave the way you came. I’ve heard kayaking out is a possibility in the summer time when the surf isn’t high, but don’t know much more than that; if you’re interested in that sort of thing, the folks at Kayak Kauai are your best bet for some local advice. Otherwise, the valley is really only accessible via the trail, which is sort of the beauty of the thing. Imagine a typical crowded beach. Now imagine a beach that is basically only for you, your hiking partners, and a couple easy-going hippieish locals who live there (more on that later). That’s Kalalau.
The trail can easily be done in two days; one in to the valley, one out, 11 miles each way. I would, however, recommend taking a few extra days in between to explore the valley, and basically live da life under some palm trees in the middle of nowhere, while you have the chance.
Yep, the state requires a permit to hike the trail. Apply earlier than later, especially at peak season (June through September). You just need to specify the dates you’ll be on the trail, not which campsites you’ll stay at. A LOT of people (dare I say most?) hike this trail without a permit, and I’ve never seen a ranger on the trail, but ya know, just get one, ok? Think of it as a donation to the upkeep of the trail and the beautiful land that is being preserved.
The easiest way to get there is to rent a car, park it at Haena Beach Park about a mile up the road from the trailhead, and hitch or walk to the trail. Extra points if you can get your non-hikertrash parent to hitchhike (which is exactly what I did). You can also park overnight at Ke’e Beach, where the trail starts, but unlike Haena, where people often camp over night, Ke’e is usually deserted at nighttime, and is allegedly plagued by break-ins.
If you’re not renting a car, Kauai does have a bus system that’ll take you as far as Hanalei. From there, you’ll have to hitch, or get a taxi. As mentioned earlier, hitchhiking in Kauai is easy, so if you’re comfortable with it, go for it.
Water sources are plentiful along the trail, especially at the beginning. I carried a liter and a half at a time for the hike, and that was probably overkill. The second half of the trail is definitely drier, though, so make sure you get water at Hanakoa.
It’s not a bad idea to have some sort of helicopter evacuation insurance if you go on this hike. If you’re seriously injured, or get stuck behind a flash flooded river, which does happen on occasion, that’s probably the only way you’re getting out, and that don’t come cheap.
The weather on the trail is generally warm and mild. You may start in rain, but the latter half of the trail is arid, and it rarely rains. Bring sunscreen, or wear a hat, but aside from your hiking clothes and maybe a warmer long-sleeved shirt, you really don’t need all that much with you on the trail in terms of clothing. A summer sleeping bag or quilt will suffice just fine, and an ultralight poncho won’t hurt, though you probably won’t use it. Some people recommend bringing sandals or shoes to ford in, but my recommendation is to just wear breathable trail runners (ditch that gore-tex), keep them on during the river crossings, and let them dry out on your feet as you walk. Whatever you end up bringing with you, do yourself a favor and pack light. It’ll also help with your balance and make the trek that much better.
Exposed, Eroded Trail
You just kind of get used to it.
The trail hugs the side of the island, hundreds of feet above the ocean. Some areas feel more exposed than others, but honestly if you’re particularly afraid of heights or falling, this trail will only provide fodder for your nightmares. The first six miles up to Hanakoa are protected by lush tree and undergrowth, and then at just about the 7 mile mark the trail dips down into a foot and a half wide canyon path that is literally chipped out of the rock wall. The first time we hiked this particular stretch, imaginatively called Crawler’s Ledge, I was pretty shaky, and I’m not even afraid of heights. Once you’re past that section, the trail takes on a decidedly arid air, and remains exposed and eroded. There’s a section after Crawler’s Ledge which is actually much more dangerous, because it’s made up of loose sand, shows evidence of land-slides, and has lots of exciting warning signs about how the ground could give out under your feet. Obviously, it doesn’t happen often, but people have died on this trail, and it’s listed as one of the more dangerous hikes in the world partially for this reason.
When the water turns brown, get out of the river.
If you’ve made it through Maine on the AT, the three fords on this hike should not be particularly scary. The water will go up to your waist at points, but is usually very doable. The caveat is that the rivers can and do flash flood, when the rain up on Mount Wa’ialeale is particularly heavy. I got to see this first hand — it poured the day and night before we were supposed to start the trail, and we weren’t even able to make it to the trailhead in the morning, because there was a river flowing over the road. We ended up turning around and doing a day hike instead, and trying our luck again the next day. The day hike also required a ford over what is usually a measly little stream, but had swollen to a wide river of fast moving brown water, that threatened to sweep us away. I can’t even imagine what the rivers on Kalalau were like that day.
Unless it’s the summer, and the ocean is really really really mild, you’ll probably want to skip swimming in the ocean, as tempting as it is. The surf is often high, and the currents are deadly. There’s even a sign at Hanakapia’i Beach that keeps count of the people who have died there. Kalalau beach is almost never swimmable, because it faces the open ocean. You have been warned.
Feral goats abound. You don’t want to drink in whatever they’re putting out. Treat your water!
The water sources on Hawaii are usually crystal clear and taste amazing, but the presence of feral goats and pigs (and also some domestic cows) means that you need to treat your water for viral leptospirosis, in addition to giardia and cryptosporidium. Only chemical treatment will work on the virus, so ditch your Sawyer and pack your AquaMira. If you’re a pump filter aficionado, just ditch that in general, man. Ain’t nobody got time for all that weight.
While Hawai’i has very few creepy crawly or dangerous animals, the Kalalau trail does have mosquitoes, which are more of an annoyance than a real hazard. Recent discovery of Dengue Fever on the islands means that a mosquito net, or at least some old fashioned follow-up research may be worthwhile before you commit to cowboy camping.
Ok, ok. So this isn’t really a hazard, per se, but you’ll swear it’s one once you’ve experienced it firsthand. The Na Pali coast is beautiful, but few are willing to brave the dirt and the mud and the heat to see it. As a result, helicopter rides are a huge business on Kauai. Unfortunately, that also means that as a hiker, you’ll hear more helicopters than birds. You’ll also see lots and LOTS of boats in the ocean, and people gawking at you as you do handstands on Crawler’s Ledge. I mean really. You’ll have the urge to flip off that tourist with the huge DSLR as they zoom right above you. Try not to.
The Pay Off
Getting into Kalalau Valley is a magical experience. You’ll see tall walls of stone rising on all sides around you, and luxuriate in the long, almost deserted beach next to the campsite. Passion fruit, guava, and cherry tomatoes abound in the valley, and are cultivated by locals, some of whom have lived there continuously for up to ten years (!!). The spirit of aloha does abound here, so just be friendly and respectful (i.e. don’t go nosing around the heiaus or ancient temples of the Hawaiians), and you’ll be treated the same.
If you’re spending more than one night at Kalalau, which I highly recommend, there are caves all along the coast to explore during low tide, and if the ocean is calm and you’re feeling very, very lucky (and maybe have flippers), you can swim from Kalalau beach to Honopu Beach, which is entirely surrounded by steep canyon walls. You can also hike up to a waterfall/natural pool by following the river you crossed on the way to the campsite. Whatever you do in Kalalau, enjoy the peace and remoteness of where your feet have taken you. And when the night comes, make sure you look up for a spectacular show of stars.