Hiking one of the world’s great trails was either the most beautiful, or the most dangerous thing we’ve ever done. Or both at the same time. It all depended on the weather.
The Kalalau Trail has become pretty famous in serious hiking circles for many reasons. Through 11 miles out to it’s terminus at Kalalau Beach, hikers experience from the ground what makes Kaua’i’s Nā Pali Coast one of the most uniquely beautiful and rugged places in the world.
The thick jungle, coastal cliffs with incredible views, deep valleys, and the coast’s most iconic natural wonder, the Pali; fluted, razor-edge cliffs. There’s nowhere else like it.
Because of this, securing a permit is notoriously difficult, as we experienced, being up at 2am on consecutive nights, just as the 90-day window for permits opened for the dates we wanted. Roughly 60 permits, per hiker, per day, are available. We were lucky enough to secure 2 on our second try, but they were gone within minutes.
The island’s ring road stops at Ke’e Beach in Hā’ena State Park, at the northwest end of Kūhiō Highway (Route 56). In order to go further, you need to grab a day pass for the park, or wilderness permit, then get your boots on and start hiking. Nā Pali Coast’s cliffs, valleys and steep, narrow ridges make the coastline impassible – except on foot. Even then, this is a trail that, at times, can have you wonder how it even still exists; barely carved into the red dirt along the coastal cliffs, and being slowly consumed by the jungle in the valleys.
Native Hawaiians have been using this trail for hundreds of years to access villages that were nestled along the Coast’s many valleys. Portions of the trail were rebuilt in the 1930’s to move livestock. A robust population of feral hogs, goats, and Kau’ai’s official bird, the rooster, are evidence of this.
Ke’e Beach to Hanakāpīʻai Stream (2 miles)
We started early in the morning, the sky clear, the sun barely awake, and a cool breeze off the water. Ideal conditions really. We wanted to give ourselves a good cushion of time to make it the full trip out to Kalalau Beach, but also to avoid the mid-morning swarms of day hikers making their way through the first 2 miles out to Hanakāpīʻai Beach.
The hardest thing up to that point was finding gas for our backcountry camp stove. No hardware store or big box retailer had them. Partly supply chain issues due to the pandemic, part demand. We lucked out that the hotel we stayed at the night before had a small shelf of rotating half-used containers of isobutane and other supplies campers had to ditch before flying out.
This first mile was a fairly steep and rocky climb through some dense jungle, but not before long do you break out and get your first big views down the coast. Several breaching humpback whales played the surf.
Statistically the Kalalau doesn’t seem too difficult compared to other trails we’ve hiked. 11 mi/17.5 km at 800 ft of elevation gain was not intimidating at first, but, we knew it was going to hike much harder then that. Rugged coastal trails are they’re own beast, as we discovered hiking the Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island.
The trail is rarely level. You are constantly going up to a ridge, then down to sea level to cross another stream, then back up again to pass another ridge. This constant up and down wears hard on you over the course of a day of hiking.
Seeing or hearing a stream is a double-edged sword. A chance to fill up water! The lovely sound and fresh damp breeze. But also, gotta hike all the way down into the valley just to hike back up again. Hikers with GPS watches have said the Kalalau hikes a combined elevation gain/loss of around 5000 ft over the course of the full 22 mile return trip. Most hikers we talked with felt the hike was harder then they had anticipated. We were much slower then we thought we’d be. We anticipated hiking 1.5-2 miles an hour, but our pace was closer to 1 mile/hr because of weather.
Speaking of the weather, it can turn the difficulty dial up significantly in an instant. Thanks to the numerous signs warning of potential flash flooding, we were very aware that streams and rivers can swell to dangerous levels in an instant if the weather starts to turn. Hikers occasionally get stranded on the wrong side of swollen streams after storms hit and need to be airlifted out, which can cost in the thousands to the unlucky hiker.
Hanakāpīʻai Stream to Hanakoa Valley (4 miles)
After crossing the stream, the more strenuous hiking begins. The trail switchbacks 800ft out of Hanakāpīʻai Valley. Moving out of the well-trafficked day-use zone was evident right away. The jungle starts to encroach on the trail, and this is the point we were glad we wore convertible pants. Understandably, most people hike this trail in shorts because of the heat, but through this bushwhack section, we were glad for the protection of full pants.
The dried leaves from the Hala trees are sharp, almost toothlike when dry, and they slap at your ankles. The trail levels off and opens up for occasional big views in both directions down the coast, but as it hugs the cliff side, it starts to feel more precarious.
The highlights along this stretch of the trail are the (relatively) small hanging valleys of Ho’olulu and Waiahuakua within the Hono o Na Pali Natural Area Reserve.
The ridged slopes and impossibly tall waterfalls that drape down their flanks are beautiful sights. You start to feel like you’ve entered a wild place and are experiencing something uniquely special.
They give you a teasing sample of what’s to come in the Hanakoa Valley.
Our only concern was that it had started to really rain. What had started as on and off had become steady. We don’t mind being wet, we’re from Vancouver after all, but we knew the stretch along the cliffs was still ahead of us.
As you enter the Hanakoa Valley, you switchback down deep into the jungle. Hanakoa is a hanging valley without a beach – the stream empties over cliffs at the ocean’s edge.
Even through your set well back from the coast, there’s plenty to hold your interest. The forests through this stretch feel magical. Nearing the mid-way point of the trail, we decided to break and reassess once we got to the camp area in Hanakoa Valley. It’s a great place to refill and treat water, have a snack, and talk to fellow hikers.
The valley was dramatically shrouded in mist, and the rain continued, but hikers we intersected with said they had been through the cliff section and that they hadn’t had many issues. That the rain let up and it was fairly dry beyond this valley. With Hanakoa being the only other place to legally camp along the trail, some encouragement from fellow hikers, and the isolated nature of the weather on Kaua’i, we decided to push on.
Hanakoa Valley to Kalalau Beach (5 miles)
It’s a very steep climb out of Hanakoa Valley, but once you level off, you get some tremendous views down the coast to the northwest. The Pali mixed in with the dramatic cloud was quite an intimidating sight. We got to the point we (mostly I) was worried about; Crawler’s Ledge.
I’m afraid of heights, and I had been mildly obsessing about this section for weeks leading up to our hike. The bad news is that it was still raining as we got to mile 7 and the ledge. The good news is that the path through here has a lot of exposed rock, so the grip on our boots was manageable. With one pole in our seaward hand, we very carefully made our way around the ledge. It’s wider then you think it’s going to be, save for a 1 metre span where you can’t put two boots side by side.
It was tense, but we slowly made it through, me not chancing to look towards the ocean to my right. I breathed a sigh of relief, before I realized the trail actually got narrower afterwards. The rock around Crawler’s is replaced by eroding red dirt for the next mile.
The rain had continued to follow us, and now the dirt paths were very slippery; the red mud caking into the grooves of our boots and making the grip worse. We took a wrong turn and almost got caught in a gully because the mud was so slick we couldn’t backtrack up the hill. Thank goodness we had a rope with us to help pull ourselves out.
By the time we had made it through mile 7, we started to feel like we should’ve stayed at Hanakoa.
It was late afternoon and we were going to loose light in a couple hours. Our problem was that we were caught in the middle of the 2 mile stretch, and there was no place we could safely set up camp. So, do we turn back, and do mile 7, including Crawler’s Ledge, again? Or continue on, and, well, who knows if mile 8 was worse. No good options. So, we decided to keep going and take it even slower.
Well, mile 8 got worse. The trail was as narrow and slippery as it gets. We were, no joke, holding ourselves up using the roots coming out of the eroding mud, as well as netting put up to contain a recent mudslide. I took no photos and shot no video because I was just trying to stay upright, but this video captures the way these conditions felt. By the time we had reached the marker for mile 9, we wondered what else the trail had in store for us.
The Kalalau Valley
What you see next though, as if to let you exhale, was a sign saying we’d finally reached the Kalalau Valley.
As if on cue, the rain started to subside, the clouds burning off as the sun got lower in the sky.
What we were treated to next was, can I say, profoundly moving after what we’d endured? It was nearing 6pm, and the Kalalau Valley, from our high viewpoint at the top of the Red Hill, was drenched in the warm, low light of sunset.
It was a steep downward descent across the Red Hill, still muddy and slick after the rain, but far less threatening. When it’s dry, this part of the trail is solid and you enjoy what are arguably the best views of the entire hike. We took it slow, and soaked it all in. The plank steps felt like they were more there to contain erosion then provide solid footing. But our boots were still caked in mud, so who knows.
At the base of the Red Hill, you reach the last major stream crossing, the Kalalau Stream. The water level was manageable, so it felt downright refreshing as some of the mud washed away.
Once across the stream, the trail exits the jungle for the last time. The remaining half mile to Kalalau Beach hugs the sea and it’s spectacular.
Once we got to the camp area at dusk, we found plenty of campsites to choose from. Having read that the best sites are near the far end, we kept walking until we found a great spot right next to the beach. We were glad we kept walking. Not only were these further sites more picturesque and right on the beach, but much closer to the main water source. We set up camp, hung up our muddy, wet clothes, made dinner, and not too long after, had zero problem falling asleep.
Waking up ‘early’ in Hawa’i is never a problem. With our internal clocks still mostly in PST, a 6am wake up was the norm. And almost every time, it’s worth it, but especially on this day. Walking out of the tent in the morning, we got our first full glimpse of Kalalau Beach.
What do you do after a day like that? In one of the most beautiful, remote places in the world? You chill. Hard. Watch whales play, goats roam, and wander. It was perfect.
Later in the day, we hiked along the coast and did a small section of the 2 mile trail into the Kalalau Valley. The trail passes through extensive agricultural terraces where Hawaiians once grew taro, from ancient times until about 1920. These terraces are now overgrown, but you can still get a sense of what this valley once was.
The waves had continued to build through the day, and now were in a hypnotic cycle of swell and sound that was pretty mesmerizing.
Eventually the sun sets. As it does every day. But, like everything else on this trail, it has to be dramatic.
We got up really early the next morning. Intimidated the prospect of more bad weather, we set our alarms for 5am, wanting to get as much of the back half of the trail over and done with before the afternoon. Head down, power through, and just get through it. Try to enjoy the view.
We met up with some other hikers leaving the beach as we headed back up the Red Hill. We got into some pleasant morning banter. They were from Montreal; fellow Canadians! On their first trip to the Hawaiian Islands! Before we knew it, we were half way through the stretch that had been so sketchy and cruel on the way out.
The last 24 hrs had largely dried out the cliffs, and the trail was grippy and felt twice as wide. It lifted our spirits instead of draining them.
Crawler’s Ledge still got our full respect. We were careful not to let our guard down. But it was so much better in the dry conditions.
We started laughing at how different the trail felt when dry. Miles 7-9 had taken us 2 hours on the way out. It took us 45 minutes on the way back.
We developed a new hiking habit on this trail. We’ve always been great at communicating, and like to constantly check in with each other, and talk about whatever comes to mind to check in and keep ourselves alert. But, to keep our attention through sketchier sections of the trail, we started saying “Just concentrating!” to let the other know we were alright even when not talking much. It helped a lot.
The weather kept getting better as the day progressed. Hanakoa Valley was now drenched in warm sunlight instead of cold rain. Spectacular.
The biggest foe on the way back ended up being the heat. We went through twice as much water on the way back, but that’s easy to manage, as we knew the water sources by then. And it still took us almost 8 hrs, in good conditions, to go the 11 miles. But, we could really relax and enjoy it. The colour of the ocean was unreal. The jungle every shade of green. Paradise.
After nearly 8 hours, we finally saw Ke’e Beach again. For the last mile, all we could talk about was what food we wanted to stuff in our mouths that evening. Oh, and a hot shower. A wonderful hot shower.
Mile after mile, in the beautiful sun, the Kalalau Trail continued to remind us why a world of adventurous hikers flock to it. It deserves its reputation. Simultaneously the best best and worst experiences we’ve ever had on a trail. We made some bad decisions and some good ones, and are much stronger now. It’s unforgettable, really.