The Kalalau Trail traverses the famous Napali coast of Kauai. This spectacular coastline first become widely known after being featured in the Jurassic Park movies and has since become one of the hottest attractions in all of Kauai. You can hike it, backpack it, kayak it, ride a boat past it, and ride on a helicopter up and over it. No matter how you experience it, the place seems quite adept at leaving an impression.
Distance: 8 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1200′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Critters: A solitary house cat
The north coast of Kauai, better known as the Napali Coast, features a succession of spectacularly carved, dramatic valleys, through which rivers run and waterfalls tumble. The Kalalau Trail, which traverses the coast from the road’s end to Kalalau Valley, runs 11 miles and gains 5,500′ feet while crossing the coast. This roller coaster of a hike is the crown jewel in the Hawaiian hiking system, which says quite a bit when one considers Volcanoes National Park and the Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala National Park.
Whether this is the best hiking experience in Hawaii is likely subjective (I prefer Sliding Sands). What is unquestionable is that this is a memorable place that features a wide variety of attractions both grand and subtle. I only took the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail, plus the trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls, and I saw a bewildering array of sights.
The trail quickly climbs through dense rain forest along the side of a steep cliff. At the top of this cliff, the first noteworthy view of Ke’e Beach opens up to the east. After contouring around a ridge, the first view of the coast emerges, and one can see green, velvet-colored cliffs marching to infinity. All the while, waves roar against the rocky coast and the deep blue pacific merges into the horizon.
The trail winds into the first valley, which is more of a gulch than a proper valley. The gulch is lined with ferns, screwpines, and ironwood trees, and a creek tumbles down over the rocks. This little valley gives a taste of the jungle to come.
Eventually, the trail yo-yos its way out of this valley and then up and down the next cliff. After a mile and a half of subtle rises and falls, the trail turns a corner on a cliff 600 feet straight up from the ocean and reveals Hanakapi’ai beach, where the valley terminates at an idyllic sandbar with deceptively violent surf.
At the beach, the option to continue on with the Kalalau Trail or head into Hanakapi’ai Valley presents itself. After a stream crossing (don’t try it when it’s wet), the junction appears near a small campground. I was surprised to find some pretty elaborate tent set-ups here, complete with grills, propane stoves, and a portable toilet. I didn’t want to think how they managed to lug all that crap up and over the first two miles of coast. A boat, perhaps?
After the campground, the trail makes its way through a dense rain forest that is as variable as it is lush. Some pockets of bamboo alternated with trees I did not know. All around were a variety of ferns, wildflowers, orchids, trickling streams, and minor waterfalls. In many areas, the creek would collect into large pools that seemed to beg for swimming.
This is the Hawaii that many people imagine exists yet rarely see. Sure, the beaches and the cloud-topped mountains are beautiful and iconic examples of the islands, yet the interiors with the mind-numbing profusion of plant life, rivers, streams, waterfalls, and steamy mysteries are every bit as intriguing as anything else on the island.
1.5 miles into this dense jungle, a clearing appears and opens up this view of the falls. Normally, I find waterfalls anticlimatic and prefer having a view or summit as a destination on a hike. This was not an exception, although it really is a lovely waterfall. It’s basically everything you would expect a Hawaiian waterfall to be. I enjoyed it while it was relatively quiet, but as multitudes of hikers began arriving and splashing around, I made my exit.
The hike back may have been one of the funnest parts of this whole experience, although it was not the most beautiful. The trail is a rugged creation full of rock steps, stream crossings, branches crossing into the trail, and all kinds of unevenness. While these types of conditions generally beg caution, I had a blast using my entire body in ways I don’t usually enjoy on hikes. I used branches to lower myself down, almost swinging like a monkey. I moved fluidly over obstacles and enjoyed a nearly complete focus on what I was doing. This focus allowed me to feel more integrated into the landscape than normal, and I enjoyed the sensation quite a bit.
Finally, the creek-side trail re-merges with Kalalau, and the roller coaster is ridden in reverse. I reached this point around noon, and by now the heat was up, the humidity was rising, the trail was packed, and I was sweating like a mule. This may be the least enjoyable part as you climb back from sea level over the roller-coaster you initially climbed on the way in. Not a terrible ordeal or anything like that; just exhausting.
All in all, this is a tremendously enjoyable hiking experience that will probably go down as a top-ten hike for the year. While my preference remains cold, barren Haleakala, this hike comes in as a memorable second for the trails I’ve hiked in Hawaii.