The Kalalau trail winds and climbs along the Na Pali coast on the north shore of Kauai and is often described as, and is completely justified as being, one of the best hikes in the world. These kinds of statements seem to pop up more and more on internet lists, but a reasonably extensive level of personal experience, (feel free to browse the rest of the blog via the little 3-bar icon in the top/right corner,) combined with a plethora of other people who eagerly support the claim, suggest that there might just be something to it. My lovely travel partner and I followed the trend of advice and committed 4 days out of our 10 day trip to exploring the wilderness of Na Pali and hoped that the temperamental winter weather would cooperate.
The Kalalau trail is 11 miles (18 km) of steep, winding, muddy, and root-infested adventure, surrounded by the greenest mountains and bluest oceans Hawai’i has to offer. Na Pali means “the cliffs” in Hawaiian and the name is apt. At times, the trail clings to crumbling slopes while trundling rocks cascade hundreds of feet before free-falling in the roiling ocean below. It often feels like the only thing holding the trail in place is the roots of the abundant vegetation, but fresh landslides strewn with debris strip away trees and confidence alike. Considering America’s propensity for zealous litigation, it’s frankly quite amazing that the trail is allowed to exist due to the seemingly ever-present risk of landslides and liability.
The first two miles of the trail leads you up and over a headland and down into the Hanakapi’ai Valley. At this point, the trail is 4-6 feet wide and well manicured, and is over-run by an even distribution of every possible demographic. Parents herding teams of unruly children, frat boys in flip-flops and elderly couples out for a morning hike all stare at us and our 50L bags with confusion and fear… What do these people know that we don’t? It turns out that the hike into Hanakapi’ai and the waterfall another two miles up the valley is an extremely popular day trip, (8 miles roundtrip,) that still claims many victims due to heat stroke/exhaustion and the blisters that inevitably arise when hiking in flip-flops.
I had hiked into Hanakapi’ai on my previous trip to the island and was amazed by the natural beauty: I knew that I had to spend more time exploring this landscape. This trip provided that opportunity, with the weather cooperating fully and a solid swell for our viewing enjoyment. Some local groms actually paddled all the way from Ke’e to Hanakapi’ai to score some empty lefts, with their parents waiting on the beach with snacks and bottle of water. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to grow up living in the ocean paradise of Hawai’i.
The trail climbs steeply out of Hanakapi’ai and before you know it, you’re 300m above the water and looking out to a jagged coastline and whales breaching on the horizon. The path becomes narrow and overgrown with brush and the scenery is so spectacular that it’s not uncommon to step off the trail in distraction. Cliff bands impose above and below the trail at various times and you quickly realize that staying on the trail is in your best interest. The safer option is to just stop walking altogether and stare out over the scene unfolding in front of you.
The trail consists of a grueling and seemingly never-ending series of steep climbs and descents and our 10:30 start to the day didn’t leave us with enough time or energy to make it to Kalalau. As we approached Hanakoa Valley at the 6-mile mark with aching shoulders and sore legs, we decided that this nice little valley would be an appropriate home the evening. The creek at Hanakoa is a series of perfect bathing pools separated by boulders and waterfalls, so after a quick dip we went out to enjoy the fading light.
The next day arrived soon after a relaxing and rooster-free sleep, with our hunger to get out to Kalalau driving us out of camp early. The trail past Hanakoa is still steep and rugged, but there are more level sections to ease tired legs. Everything from natural arches to feral goats keep the camera snapping and the mind from wandering, celebrating each mile marker as we close in on the goal: paradise.
Shortly after leaving Hanakoa, you arrive at a section of the trail called “Crawler’s Ledge”. As you would expect, the ledge is only 1.5 feet wide and it’s precipitous height above the crashing surf means that most people proceed slowly with one or both hands on the cliff face for support. We navigated the ledge during ideal weather conditions, and I can only imagine the terror of attempting it in the wet with water cascading down off the cliffs above and washing off the ledge and down off the cliffs below into the ocean. Hopefully I’ll never have to find out first hand.
As the trail approaches Kalalau, it climbs up and over a final headland before revealing the view below. The landscape is surreal and the jagged coastline fades off into the distance. The valley is in the shape of a giant clamshell, with a semi-circle of steep, thin spines plunging down to the valley bottom or right into the ocean. The contrast between the super-green vegetation, the bright red volcanic soil and the deep blue ocean and sky gives the scene a dramatic flare that sends your eyes scanning around and around until you feel dizzy with awesomeness. This is what we came for.
Kalalau is the the magical kind of place where anything is possible and can or will happen. For me, that “anything” was proposing to my lovely, smart and awesome girlfriend of six years on top of red dirt mini-peak high above the pounding Pacific surf and well below the tower cliffs of Na Pali. With a no-brainer of a setting and some unnecessarily complicated metaphors delivered alongside an heirloom ring, we eventually stammered through the confusion and some surprisingly vulgar language to an enthusiastic YES! Mission accomplished, and the beauty of this plan was that we had literally days of time to let the news sink in before having to relate it to family, friends and loved ones.
Once the initial shock started to wear off, we realized that we still had a full day of exploration in the Kalalau before having to make the grudging trek out of paradise. The habitation history of the valley extends back through generations of local farmers working a range of terraced slopes and living off what they grew and traded. With the development of the islands and valleys around them, these isolated farmers packed up and moved to the more established towns and ports leaving the idyllic Kalalau to the influx of adventurous tourists and vagabond hippies. The tourists still come and go with the seasons, but the hippies have been there since the trail was established and have no intentions of leaving (other than the occasional resupply with basic foodstuffs). Over the last 40 years, the hippies have been busy creating a vast network of trails through the thick brush and have even taken to re-cultivating crops on the abandoned terraces.
Once you arrive and start to see the lay of the land, it becomes readily apparent why some people refuse to leave. Life is easy in Kalalau; the soil is fertile and the rainfall is almost as consistent as the sunshine, the surrounding landscape is just as beautiful as the oceanscape, and perhaps most importantly, the valley is shrouded in a thick, enveloping fog of isolation that makes you forget about whatever stresses occupy the outside world. Assuming the outside world still exists, because it might not. After only a day or two, you start to get the sense that you could just drift away forever on this easy paradise of a beach, surrounded by friendly (and sometimes weird/naked) people without a single care in the world. There’s a waterfall that pours right down to a pool above the beach for post-swim showers. There are ideal hammock trees, tree swings and camping areas with stone kitchens wherever you look. There are creeks that seem to exist for the sole purpose of providing perfect bathing pools and fresh, delicious water. The air and water temperatures are comfortable. Rain is warm. Sand is hot. Forest is cool. But above all, there exists endless opportunity for exploration and relaxation. I’m sorry if this is starting to get repetitive, but I cannot stress this enough… Paradise.
During our time at Kalalau, we spent hours of delight making comparisons to the outside world… “It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson without the Tigers!” “It’s like The Beach without the mean-spirited drug dealers!” “It’s Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs!” The tropical analogies are endless, but they all imply that same sensation of a wilderness utopia. Bliss!
At some point, you realize that you’re at the end of your last day in paradise. The realization is tough, and you may reject it initially, but the truth is that you’ve already run out of beer and the food isn’t far behind. With heavy hearts and light backpacks we loaded up and set out back towards civilization, but not before promising without a doubt that we will return. With more food. And beer.
The lightweight packs and a reasonably early start time had us covering ground quickly compared to the hike in and before we knew it, we were back to Crawler’s Ledge. Fresh legs and a healthy motivation to get back in time for happy hour pushed us along the ledge and up the steep slopes of the other side without a second thought. Between the scenes of paradise and the proposal we were both lost in our own heads for long periods of time, only to snap out thanks to a waterfall, whale breaching, or some other immediately awesome scene. After a quick refreshing dip in Hanakoa Creek, and another two hours later in Hanakapi’ai, we were again surrounded by throngs of people, chattering and splashing around in another version of paradise.
I suppose it’s good to be able to ease back into society this way, as a direct transition from Kalalau to Hanalei, or heaven forbid, Lihue, could be enough to permanently damage someone… likely sending them running back to Kalalau at fast as possible. Which, as it turns out, is why so many people call that specific beach home. Our gradual transition back to “reality” was slowed again somewhat by returning to the car and finding the rental cars’ battery dead after four days of who-only-knows-what. Fortunately, we managed to borrow some jumper cables from a random Westy van and convince a nice family parked beside us to provide the jump. With that awkwardness out of the way we sped across the island to our previously booked luxury 4-star resort, dreaming of cold beer, fine wine, steak dinner, hot showers and clean sheets. The resort did not disappoint, but after a single night of resort life, we were both happy to pack up the bags once again and set off in search of our next camp spot… the next unknown paradise.
Aloha for now, and Mahalo for reading!