Great Trails: Hiking to Kalalau on Kauai’s Napali Coast

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On the northwest corner of the island of Kauai in Hawaii is a coastline that has inspired artists, adventurers, and anyone with an appreciation for out-of-this-world beauty.  You cannot drive the coastline – it is protected as a state park.  This is a very good thing, as it allows nature to be at center stage in a world of mega-resorts and tourist traps.

The Na Pali coast is one of the most spectacular coastlines that you will ever lay your eyes on.  Razor-sharp mountainsides jut straight out of the ocean to over 4,000 feet above.  Waterfalls are as common as the numerous peaks and valleys that are prevalent throughout.  A diverse geography shows the transition from the wet north to the dry west – each successive peak looking completely different than the next.

About halfway down the coastline is Kalalau Valley.  Once a thriving town for native Hawaiians, the valley is now uninhabited except for a few hermits squatting in self-built camps throughout.  The remnants of Hawaiian farm life are still present – as you walk through the valley you will find terraced plots that were used for farming.

The trail to Kalalau is not for the faint of heart.  It is 11 miles each way, traversing steep mountainsides and climbing/descending with every step forward.  Many guidebooks rate it as one of the toughest hikes in the Hawaiian Islands.  But those that do complete the journey often say that it is one of the best hikes they have ever accomplished.  The fact that no roads lead here leaves the place free from tourists who are there to just take a picture and leave.  The people who make it to the valley have earned it, and everyone camped out there shares a camaraderie of having made it to an area that so few people ever venture toward.

The hike is possible to do in a day, but perhaps is best done broken up into two days.  the 11 miles takes a very long time to accomplish due to the terrain and weather conditions.  A good stopping point is Hanakapi’ai beach, only 2 miles in from the trailhead at Ke’e Beach.  From the beach you can hike inland to a massive 200+ foot waterfall that is definitely well worth the detour.  The only drawback to camping at Hanakapi’ai is that you will still have 9 miles to go the next day – but if you are healthy the trip can be accomplished in half a day.

Along the way is plenty of wild fruit that is abundant in the right season.  When we traveled there we found wild guava, mango, avocado, and Jackfruit.  Each season brings new edible treasures to find.

When you make it to Kalalau your trip end is rewarded with an amazing mile-long beach that gives you a westward view of the Pacific ocean.  During the summer months you can see the sun setting right over the ocean, an amazing delight that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.  At the end of the beach is a massive waterfall that can serve as a refreshing shower and reward for long journey’s end.

When you return you will feel the sense of accomplishment for having traversed such an intense trail, one that not many visitors to Kauai ever experience.  The fact that no roads lead here or any buildings have been erected adds to the reward; you will be part of a very small group that has had the privilege to feel the energy of such an amazing place.

By Steve Andrews

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