Originally Published in Pique Newsmagazine
It is well known as one of the most gruelling hikes in the entire Hawaiian islands. The almost 18-kilometre journey from Ke’e beach to Kalalau Valley traverses the northwest side of Kauai on a coastline known as the Na Pali Coast. Translated into English, “Na Pali” simply means “the cliffs.”
What the moniker underscores is the fact that these cliffs rise 1,100 metres straight up from the ocean to the weather-carved, razor-edge peaks above. As you navigate this rugged coastline, you find how steep the trek really is — as the cutout trail is the only big enough for single-file navigation.
Other than by sea, which is impossible half the year due to massive waves, the trail is the only way to reach the remote beaches and valleys interspersed between the steep mountainsides. Hiking beyond the initial three kilometres of the trail requires a permit, and only a small number of these are given out every year. It is highly advised to acquire a permit as soon as you know your travel dates to avoid disappointment.
The trek begins at Ke’e, a family-friendly beach surrounded by an offshore reef that creates a sheltered lagoon appearing as if straight out of a movie. In fact, this beach has graced the silver screen on more than one occasion, having had such films as The Thorn Birds and Lord of the Flies, among others, filmed there.
Rising steadily above Ke’e for several hundred metres, the trail showcases unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean and the Na Pali range. If in season, you might find an abundance of wild guava ready for picking and enjoyment right alongside your walk.
Three kilometres into the hike is Hanakapi’ai beach. This breathtaking setting entices many to go for a swim, but the vicious undercurrents and waves here are incredibly dangerous. From the surface the water sometimes seems calm and inviting, but underneath the water displays a wildly different personality. A tally board at the entrance to the beach is the only advice needed, as each year several marks add to the count of the lives the ocean has claimed here. The beach is far from any communication to a rescue outfit; so taking the warnings seriously might be the difference between life and death.
From the beach you have the option to continue down the trail toward Kalalau Valley, or to take a six-kilometre round-trip journey inland toward Hanakapi’ai falls. If you head to the falls, be sure that you have enough time to make the trip, or plan on setting up camp at the campsite about halfway to the falls. The hike is well worth the strain — navigating through massive 10-metre bamboo groves, over creeks and hearing the call of various native birds you are immersed in the vast biodiversity of the Kauai jungle. Finally reaching the falls, the reward is a postcard-esque view and a refreshing dip.
After returning from the falls and linking up with the main trail at Hanakapi’ai Beach the true adventure begins. Ninety-per cent of the traffic drops off, and the reality of the remoteness begins to set in. Yet there is still 14 kilometres to go, and depending on the time of day you might need to assess your pace, so you can reach a safe camp at a reasonable hour.
Each turn and subsequent new canyon or valley provides an almost entirely new landscape from the one before it. The once lush, green jungle gives way to an arid, red-orange rocky terrain, ever changing as you make your way further down the coast. Perhaps it is a good thing that you cannot see further than the next horseshoe bend in the trail, for if you could see the entire distance ahead to Kalalau, it might feel overwhelming.
There is a campsite about 12 kilometres in, but you should only camp there if you are behind schedule and hiking in the dark. The mosquitoes around the campsite are enough to make you wish you had continued on. You may as well finish the journey in one long trek, as the campsite is only about 1.5 hours from the final destination.
The final five kilometres of the trail is arguably some of the most spectacular scenery on planet earth. When you round the final bend and the valley opens up, the peaks surrounding Kalalau valley welcome a well-deserved moment to relax and marvel at the sights that were earned over a gruelling hike. The descent into the valley is gradual, and with each step downward, you gain greater satisfaction for having arrived here without the aid of a vehicle.
If it were easy to get to Kalalau, the magic of this place would be obscured in development, crowds, and hype.
Take a deep breath and relax.
Part two of the Kalalau Trail journey will be in next week’s Pique.