Kauai’s Nā Pali Coast: The Kalalau Trail
It has been three months (exactly) since we finished this backpacking trip. It was – hands-down – the hardest physical challenge we’ve ever endured. But the experience was worth every minute of the 18.5 hours we spent hiking over two days. And as I spent today editing the photos, my heart raced as I relived the whole trek. It was that good. I think that’s why it took me so long to write about it – I really needed to do it justice. Finally, FINALLY, I think I’m ready.
A month ago, I wrote about our trip to Kaua’i. It was a getaway sans children, and our main focus was this trail. It was one of those things we saw online somewhere, and the seed planted itself in our brains. When our friends brought up the idea of swapping kids so we could each take a little mini vacation, we started to think this adventure might be a real possibility. So the research began.
It turns out that the Kalalau has been named one of the most dangerous trails in America, and it’s also one of the most beautiful. The 22-mile (round-trip) trail follows the Nā Pali Coast along the north shore of Kaua’i and it leads to the secluded Kalalau Beach. This beach is only accessible by trail or kayak legally. And once you reach your destination, you’ll need a permit to camp overnight. And yes, the DLNR checks in periodically. We used this website to learn everything we could about the trail, and I highly recommend you do the same if you decide you’d like to hike the Kalalau. I’m here to tell you our Kalalau story and to give you pretty pictures, but you’ll want to do your own research before you decide to backpack along this beautiful coast.
Okay, so here we go. Monday, July 27th, we flew into Līhuʻe and did some sightseeing around Kaua’i. That night, we laid everything out in our hotel room to prepare for our big hiking trip. We decided to go ahead and pay for a hotel room for our whole stay just in case there was a weather issue and we had to cancel our trail trip. That made things easier because we were able to leave our baggage and any unnecessary items behind so our rental car would be completely empty at the trailhead.
I didn’t take pictures of our backpacks ahead of time, but we didn’t buy anything too fancy. I got my North Face Terra Hiking Backpack at Sports Authority, and James picked up a similar backpack at Costco. We used our Camelbak Reservoirs inside of them, and we made sure we packed our usual hiking essentials: first aid kit, emergency blankets, headlamps, and MICROspikes. We also brought along one set of hiking poles.
But then came all of the extra stuff.
Again, I didn’t take a photo, but water was one of our main issues. There was no way we could carry enough to last us, and although water is plentiful, leptospirosis is a real danger along the trail (and as far as I know, all of the islands.) Our research led us to the SteriPEN. We used the UV tool and a wide-mouthed water bottle to filter all of our water and we didn’t have any problems. However, please do your own research and see if it’s the right tool for your own adventure.
Next, we made sure we had all of our food loaded up and ready to go. It turns out that this was way more food than we needed for two days. But we’ve decided it’s pretty much always better to be over-prepared, because you never know if you might get stranded.
We then checked our 2-man lightweight tent, our tarp, and our inflatable sleeping pads. All good. This might have been a luxury we didn’t need, but we decided to purchase a PocketRocket Stove and a can of fuel at the Sports Authority in Līhuʻe. Please be aware that most airlines will not let you fly with these in your baggage. It was a good expense for us because it allowed us to have a warm dinner, mostly-palatable coffee, and hot oatmeal for breakfast.
We packed our clothes in Ziploc baggies to make sure they stayed dry. And they’re not pictured, but we also brought along Teva sandals for any stream crossings.
Then we tried to get some sleep. It wasn’t too hard because we’d barely gotten any the night before.
The next morning, we filled our reservoirs, re-packed our bags, and headed toward the car. But before we left the lobby, I checked in at the desk to see if they had a luggage scale. Sure enough, they did. So we weighed our packs, and somehow we’d evenly distributed our weight. Including my DSLR, we each were carrying 30 pounds. That isn’t a lot in the backpacking world, but for two day hikers? It was heavy.
We headed up north to Hā’ena State Park and left our vehicle in the parking lot near Kē’ē Beach. My stomach was in absolute knots. Everything we’d been preparing for was right there. It was time to get started.
That sign looks so innocent. And we were off! Normally, you’d think the first few miles of a trail would be fairly calm – a nice way to ease you into the hike. This trail is not like that. It was brutal from the get-go. We looked back often to see how far we had come. At this point, it wasn’t far. That’s Kē’ē Beach right there. This section had me a little worried, but it was no big deal. And it was nothing compared to what lie ahead for us! Our first real view forward. A little mud. But honestly, it was the most we encountered during the whole trail. We had worried so much about rain, but it ended up being insanely hot. And dry. The first two miles of the trail are pretty popular, and you can see why. Look at this view of the Nā Pali Coast. Wow! And because it’s so busy, there was a nice woman who offered to take our picture together. Thanks, Lady! Prepare yourself for many similar pictures. In my mind, they all look very different! We could see we were quickly approaching the 2-mile mark, otherwise known as Hanakāpīʻai Beach. As you can see from this sign, swimming is not recommended here. It’s not known as one of the most dangerous trails in the country for nothing.
Oh, look how pretty this little stream is! Gorgeous, really. But I learned a very valuable lesson quickly. Well, two actually. First, I have to trust myself and my ability (or inability as was the case) to hop across rocks. Second, those water shoes we packed? They’re meant to be used.
So how did I learn these lessons? Well, I’ll tell you. James thought we could cross this stream without changing our shoes. There were people everywhere, and they were doing it. But I’m short, and anything but graceful. So while James had no problem crossing, I wasn’t so lucky. I hesitated a few feet before we reached the other side, and I slipped on a rock. And fell INTO the stream which was at least 2-3 feet deep. With my DSLR hanging on the front of me. I freaked, but not because I was humiliated or hurt. I was so worried about my camera. Thankfully, it was fine. I was completely soaked, my ego was a little bruised, but my camera was fine.
And from then on out, we stopped to change our shoes. Here is that infamous beach that has taken so many lives. We didn’t go any closer to the water though because we were ready to keep going. One of the few outhouses placed along the trail. They smelled, but I was thankful for their presence! A look back toward Hanakāpīʻai Beach. We were really doing this thing. At this point, we barely encountered anyone. The normal people turned back and headed home after those initial 2 miles. Look at that smile! I’m still not sure what this area was other than the obvious – a natural area reserve. The mountains here – so overwhelming and majestic. So I don’t know where we were at this point. Three or four hours in? My shoulders were killing me and the straps were scraping away at my skin. So James took my pack from me and gave me a few minutes of relief. The way this trail works is that you wind around each pali (cliff) and then you climb down, down down until you reach the bottom which often has a little water. Then you climb up, up, up, and wind around another pali. The entire trail is like this. And for some reason, we missed pretty much all of the mile markers on our way in. So all we knew was that we weren’t there yet, we were exhausted already, and the hours kept counting.
But man, it was pretty. One of the little valleys. And then back up top. This was the point where we sat down, ate some lunch and took a break. We knew we were halfway in, and that brought both relief and concern. We were taking a really long time to hike this trail. I believe we were at the 5-hour point by now, and that was not boding well for us to finish before sunset.
Hikers can stop and camp one night at Hanakoa which is just past this stream. It’s the six-mile point, and many do choose this option. But we only had a permit for one night total, and our timeline required us to get in, stay overnight, and get back out. So we gave ourselves time to rest, and then we kept going. See the little boat down there? There are many charters that take people to sightsee along the coast all throughout the day. They saw us up there and pointed and yelled. We kind of felt like rockstars.
So if you Google this trail, you will see lots of information about “Crawler’s Ledge”. I made the mistake of watching multiple videos, so I was properly frightened about this 1-mile stretch of the trail. But as it turned out, we found the areas before and after the so-called “ledge” to be much more dangerous. (Or maybe it’s all considered Crawler’s Ledge? I’m not sure.) Regardless, the danger began here, at about the 6.5 mile mark. You see that path? That’s the trail. And let me tell you, there might be boats going past constantly, but they will not be able to save you if you go tumbling down the cliff. No. They seriously won’t. But we were thankful to have clear weather, dry soil, and we were totally fine because we took our time and paid very close attention. This photo was taken after we made it through everything you see in the above picture. It was just as we were rounding the bend on the right (front) side of the cliff. This part did scare me a bit – I won’t lie. The funny thing is that I’ve always been terrified of heights. But as long as I feel like I’m in complete control, I can handle it. And I did. And honestly, you could handle it too. As long as you don’t freak out!
As we were walking, we saw wild mountain goats! They’re tough to make out, but there are at least two in this picture. And there were more down there below us! So as we were going along, we finally came across this sign. And we realized we were past the danger zone. It honestly wasn’t as bad as I had built it up to be. And for that, I was pretty grateful! There’s another look back at the ledge.
So between this last picture and the next, we accidentally went off-trail and got lost. It was a simple mistake, but it’s one I feel I need to mention. Mostly because I became sort of hysterical and I cried a lot. But that part’s not helpful to you. The thing is, this trail is clear and if you find you’re having to push brush out of the way, turn around. You’re going the wrong way. We only encountered this once, and it was because the trail required a short climb up and over some rocks. Instead of checking it out to be sure, we decided it wasn’t the right way. Well, it was. And we lost about 30 minutes discovering that fact. But I recovered, and we even found some lilikoi that hadn’t been eaten already. So it wasn’t a total loss.
And then…THEN! We could see it. The Kalalau Beach. It still felt like a million miles away, but we could see it. And I was hoping we might actually make it there before sunset. The sign! So much happiness is contained in this one little picture! But we weren’t quite there yet. But man, we were getting close. And then we came to the Kalalau Stream. And it was much higher than the others we’d crossed. So we were nervous we’d gotten lost again. Thankfully, we saw some camp sites around the area and a woman came up to us with her two little girls. She told us we could cross here, although most people cross a little farther back by the signs. (Oops.) Because the water was moving quickly, James took everything across for us and then he came back to help me. So I didn’t fall again. Because he likes it when I’m not angry and soaking wet. Do you see it? The little stretch of beach? We made it! It took us ten hours, but we did it. We were completely unsure about how the camping worked, but there were plenty of open sites available. We picked the closest one and James set up the tent while I went to capture the sunset.
You can walk in front of the campsites or through them to reach the beach. I chose the path closer to the ocean. And then my toes felt sand. And it was glorious.
I turned around and saw this beautiful waterfall that emptied right onto the beach. It’s where campers clean dishes, shower, and refill water bottles.
As I walked around, I realized we had made a huge mistake by attempting to cram this experience into two days. I wish we could have spent at least a day or two exploring the Kalalau Valley and I would have loved to taken more pictures just around the beach and cave.
But still, I’m thankful we got to experience it at all.
I didn’t even touch the water. I had read too many warnings about the current and I took them seriously. I can be a big ol’ scaredy cat sometimes. (But hey, I’m still alive after 33 years, so I’m doing something right.) Just as the sun was setting, James came down to the beach to fill our water bottle for dinner.
He had that handled, so I went back to the sunset. I’ve seen some pretty amazing pictures taken at this beach, so I feel safe in saying I didn’t do this sunset justice. But at least I got to see it!
Then we headed back to our campsite and got dinner going. This tiny camp stove is a powerhouse! It had that water boiling in no time.
Dinner prep was quite complicated: Boil water. Dump it in the bag. Wait five minutes.
We chose Pasta Primavera for our hot meal. I gotta say, it was pretty delicious!
Then we aired up our little inflatable bed rolls, crammed our bodies (and every single other thing we brought) into our tiny tent, and went to sleep.
The next morning, we got up way earlier than we wanted to, filled up our water bottle for coffee and oatmeal, and had some breakfast. We used the same coffee and creamer we’d bought for camping, and it worked out great. However, we tried to use both a few weeks later when we ran out of coffee at the house. Baaaad idea. Instant coffee apparently only tastes good when you’re roughing it. Noted.
But we enjoyed our little breakfast, and we were kind of totally dreading the hike back. The night before, we’d been offered a boat ride out for $100 each. There are quite a few people who make their home down there at the beach (that’s definitely illegal btw), and at least one of them makes money by taking advantage of exhausted (lazy?) hikers. I knew I’d be writing this post, and there was no way I was wimping out and taking that boat ride. No. Never. So we packed up, and headed down to the beach for one last picture. And then just like that, we were on our way back. The stream was much lower that morning, and we crossed by the signs. We kept looking back longingly. Just another day! One more day to explore! But no. We had to go. Although it hadn’t rained the day before, it had been fairly cloudy. But not this day. Clear, blue skies. It was incredible. Before we knew it, we reached the scary part again. But there was one area in particular that felt like there was no solid ground. I hadn’t remembered it from the night before, and it wasn’t a huge section. But it did frighten us a bit for sure. We weren’t sure if we would encounter more heavily eroded parts. (We didn’t!) I tend to look at the pictures of the coast first as the ones most representative of the trail, but then I see a shot like this. And I’m reminded of its beauty. The Kalalau Trail is so much more than just ocean views. It’s the mountains and the trees and majesty that lies in the danger. Because it was so hot, we were sucking water faster than ever before. So I used that SteriPEN constantly on our way back. If we saw running water, we stopped to refill. And you see that Nutella pack? I could only eat half of it. It was so hot I couldn’t stomach Nutella! That should tell you something right there.
Every time we rounded another cliff, we got another glance toward our goal. It felt like we were getting closer, but it was so hard to tell. And although we were moving faster, I cannot possibly put into words how difficult this hike was. The pack was no longer an issue for me, because I’d finally figured out how to wear it properly so the weight was on my core and not my shoulders. But the up and down, up and down was exhausting. And like I’ve said so many times, it was hot. So very hot.
Thankfully, we started seeing the mile markers (they were imprinted into rocks), and we were able to gauge our speed and remaining distance. That was both a blessing and a curse. We kept thinking we’d made it much farther than we really had. But we kept moving forward. And finally, we made it back to Hanakāpīʻai Stream. And I didn’t fall in! But James was so hot that he just sat right down in it. He was not feeling well at all. We think we were drinking too much water and not eating enough. A nearby guy had an extra Emergen-C packet, and he generously offered it to us. James mixed that in with some water, and it made a HUGE difference. We’ll know that for next time! But while we waited for those electrolytes to kick in, I helped out some hikers who hadn’t packed enough water. I sterilized bottle after bottle of water. It was nice to feel useful! Especially because we still had two miles left, and we were feeling totally done with the whole thing. But we got going finally, and when we had 0.25 miles left, we could once again see Kē’ē Beach. And then just like that, we had completed the longest trail of our lives. And although we had moaned, and complained, and hated nearly every mobile minute of those 22 miles, we were absolutely on top of the world. We. Did. It.