Great Hikes: The Kalalau Trail on Kauai

[Brooke Pudar lives in an old house, where she alternately tends and neglects her garden. She’s our new staff writer. Give her a round of applause, folks.]

The Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s North Shore is a legendary hike that snakes along the rugged Napali Coast, which is passable only on foot. There is no road through these parts, and if you aren’t tough enough to hike it (the Sierra Club rates this hike 9 out of 10 in terms of difficulty), then you have to see it from the air or by sea.

We had toured the entire coast by zodiac raft a few days prior. But hiking is the most up-close and personal way to experience this terrain, so while we weren’t prepared to backpack twenty-two miles round trip and camp out, we did hike an eight-mile stretch of the trail.

We got an early start as dawn broke in order to ensure that solitude we crave on the trail. We were greeted at the trailhead only by a handful of Kauai’s many roosters and a lone returning backpacker who had probably spent the night at the nearby Ke’e beach waiting to bum a ride back to Hanalei.

The trail was pretty tough right from the get-go. It winds up and down the edge of the cliff that drops into the ocean below, so you are constantly gaining elevation only to lose it  again. But you have stunning views down the coast for much of the first two miles.

It’s near the two-mile mark where you reach Hanakapi’ai Beach. This is a good point to turn around if you’re day hiking. We had other plans, though, and took the two-mile spur trail straight up Napali’s cliffs to the three-hundred-foot Hanakapi’ai Falls.

Let me pause here and explain that I am an avid researcher and have a pretty good success rate in choosing awesome trails. I knew this trail would be tough, but I knew it would have a payoff at the end. Not many people tackle the spur up to the falls, so we had a good chance of having the place to ourselves. However, the choice to trek up to Hanakapi’ai Falls ranks as my biggest error. You see, the trail is unmaintained. No ranger comes through to remove brush that has grown over the trail, obscuring your path. No one removes rocks or boulders that have tumbled down the cliffs to block your way. No one has strategically placed a dead log across the accidental turn-offs created by the trampling feet of other lost hikers to prevent you from making a wrong turn. Crossing a stream? Good luck finding the trail on the other side, because it’s not marked with a blaze.

There were only a few times we struggled to identify the trail. The larger obstacle was the uphill climb, picking our way through the rocks and tree roots that targeted our ankles for sprains and breaks. The climate was tropical—hot, humid, and buggy. We had seen no other hikers on the trail to bolster us. I barely had the guts to turn around and check on John because the pained look on his face hadn’t changed since we left the beach. At least, I thought, we’ll have the falls to ourselves when we get there.

Finally we could hear them. We were close! Just one more stream crossing slick boulders, and we’d be there. But suddenly from behind us came a cacophony of voices. Six teen boys darted up the trail and, like gazelles, danced across the wet rocks as we stood unsteadily to the side. Behind them, four dads, a little slower but no less graceful, followed.

When we reached the falls moments later, this manly crew was whooping and hollering as some jumped into the pool and the others stripped off their shoes and got comfortable on the rocks. Dejected, we sat to the side and ate our sandwiches in silence. We were so tired. And the payoff for all our work was stolen at the last moment by this happy group of guys. And we still had to backtrack four miles to our car.

We learned a couple valuable things that day, though. Hiking in the heat is not our thing. And hiking the toughest trail we’d ever done (one of the toughest trails most people have ever done) after two other days of rigorous hiking is not a good idea. The cliffs of Napali are not to be treated flippantly.

Regardless of the challenge, I refuse to let our struggles detract from the beauty of the Kalalau. This is an awe-inducing trail, and I would hike it again, continuing along the shore where I could respect Napali’s cliffs from below, instead of turning inland and tangling with them face to face.

Or maybe next time we’ll try a little Napali kayak adventure. How hard can that be?

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