A trail as bold (and at times saturated) as the color of the sea below. The rain and mist is magical as it settles in the deep valleys and over the jutting green and wind-molded cliffs. The trail winds out of the jungle and onto ledges that curve with the rock – where a misstep could be fatal. The oasis at the end makes the 11 miles worth every step: a beach that can only be reached by those whose feet take them there.
Get Ready: This hike is on the Napali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii. You need a permit to hike (or kayak/boat) all the way to the beach. Print this and put it in a plastic baggy. Rangers are sometimes on the trail. There is also an 8 mile hike to a waterfall that you do not need a permit for. This hike will take preparation and fortitude. It’s 11 miles in and 11 miles back out. To get ready for this hike you’ll want to make sure you have the essentials for at least an overnight on the beach. You will also want to train. The total elevation gain is near 5,000 ft. That’s over an extended period of time. Don’t let that discourage you. The challenge will exceed expectations.
Get Set: Take Highway 56 to Kee Beach. This road will end at the beach. You’ll want to get there as early as possible as the parking lot fills to the brim and overflows later in the day. Some say not to leave cars overnight. It’s up to you. I left it empty and locked and it was fine. Once parked, head towards the beach. The trailhead is on your left.
Go: The trail begins climbing up, up, up. Large slick stones pave the way and turn to clay as you reach the first lookout. The trail then descends to Hanakapi’ai Beach, the two mile marker. This section of the trail gets busy later in the day as it’s a popular day hike. The beach is an excellent spot for a quick water and snack break. (Somewhat) feral cats might try to nibble on your breakfast.
The water is beautiful to look at but can be extremely dangerous. You’ll see a sign showing how many people die in the riptides lurking here.
From Hanakapi’ai the trail climbs again. It’s rarely ever level. You’ll traverse nearly 800 feet up and walk through the Hono O NaPali Natural Area Reserve. Suddenly you’ll be greeted by breathtaking views of Ho’olulu and Waiahaukua Valleys.
This section of the trail can be rainy. Thick soled shoes will protect your feet from small smooth pebbles that scatter this section. Hanakoa Valley is the six mile marker. There is a spot to camp here but it can be mosquito-ridden.
Next up is the mentally taxing mile 7, otherwise known as ‘crawler’s ledge.’ Mile 7 of Kalalau trail is the most dreaded by hikers and those afraid of heights.
This mile switches back and forth near the edges of pebbled cliffs. The actual ledge itself is not a mile long. It’s more like 20-40 steps, but a misstep could be fatal. You’re sandwiched by cliff and air, the ocean hundreds of feet below. Mile 8, 9, 10 and 11 are a series of ups and downs. The views never end. Once you reach the beach you’ll be greeted by other campers, which quickly become a sort of family of humans who all know what it takes to get there. There’s a freezing cold waterfall at the end to refill your supply – just be sure to bring something to purify it.
Effort: The Kalalau Trail is for an experienced hiker. It’s out and back 22 miles of walking up and down, where flat spots are non-existent. It can take 6 to 10 hours to hike one way. There’s a possibility of flash flooding. It’s essential to be prepared and choose safety over anything else.
Takeaway: I went to Kauai hoping to hike the trail a few years ago. I simply wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a permit, didn’t do enough research and didn’t train hard enough. This is not a trail you can jump on, hike and appreciate with minimal effort. I ended up doing the 8 mile in and out day hike to the waterfall instead. Two years later I knew I was going back to Kauai. I got a permit, packed my backpack and trained for it. I didn’t let my lack of preparedness discourage me the first time. The views, the challenge and the peace at the end was worth it. You can do this hike – just be ready – it could change your life.