When I Initially booked a weekend layover in Kauai to break up the long commute to New Zealand, it was partially inspired by the opportunity to hike the Kalalau Trail. I had recently become obsessed with Kalalau after seeing it on a few must hike lists (some of which also happened to be most dangerous trails lists, but let’s not dwell on that) and hearing about it on some hiking blogs where it was discussed in hushed tones like some mythic bit of American trail lore.
Roundtrip, the trail is 22 miles (and 5,000 feet of elevation gain) of treacherous sea cliffs, winding canyons and towering waterfalls perched along Kauai’s Na Pali coast. Kalalau’s hazards can be traced to its angry coastal tides, sketchy stream crossings, flash floods, narrow sea cliff paths with dangerously distracting views, unpredictable weather, and a transient community that once threw a tourist off a cliff (the varying hazards are documented in exaggerated fashion in the guilty pleasure, one too many twists for its own good 2009 thriller A Perfect Getaway).
The Kalalau Trail is the very definition of a bad warmup. Especially when you are about to embark on a long hiking trip. Kalalau is a blister producer. Shoe obliterator. Eater of gear (my trail running bag and camera stabilizer were amongst my trail casualties on the hike). It is the trail you hike when you want to swear off physical activity and wear sweatpants for the rest of the month. Don't get me wrong. Kalalau is still a stunning once in a lifetime experience that I would recommend to anyone without a moment's hesitation, but it’s not a great way to start a three week hiking tour of New Zealand from a wear and tear perspective.
Most rational people hike the eleven miles to the trail’s conclusion (which dead ends in the Kalalau beach), camp for a few days and then hike back out along the same eleven miles they came in by. Splitting it into two eleven mile stretches is still challenging with a heavy pack, but incrementally it's a more reasonable commute. Some sage souls even stop at one of the earlier campsites along the way and cut the initial eleven miles into even smaller chunks. Then there is a special brand of crazy who run/walk in and run/walk out all in the same day. Of course, not having the time to camp in this short weekend visit, I found myself reluctantly vying to be part of the exclusive 1-day club.
The main problem with the 1-day club is that all the accounts of the feat come from ultra runners, trail crazies, iron men, crossfit junkies, track superstars who can't let their glory days go, and people who look suspiciously like they are sponsored by redbull. Some of which have even reported sub five hours times for completing all twenty two miles of the trail, which to me is madness. I know this is only mini marathon length, but you still have to contend with the elevation gain (see below) and whole stretches of the trail that are far too narrow and dangerous to run in good conscience.
The common misconception is that Kalalau is a flat, low elevation trail since it is hemmed in by the coast. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. The reality of the situation is that you are often going to find yourself climbing, winding and diving through the numerous coastal canyons (I've read that the elevation gain ends up being similar to doing a rim to crater roundtrip jaunt in the Grand Canyon to give you some perspective). I jogged five or six miles on the way in, but the rest of the trail just seemed too unsafe to navigate on the run. Skidding or slipping can be bad news on Kalalau. I had one slip where I was momentarily distracted by what I thought were falling rocks above me, got my feet tangled as a result, and the subsequent skid toward the sea cliff ledge in front of me was accompanied by a fair bit of internal profanity and thankfully a quick stop to my forward momentum. There is no confusion as to why this trail claims lives (the video below gives you an idea of the generally sketchiness of the trail).
Either way, after reading about the one day feat of completing the whole trail, I knew it was possible. Maybe not the endorsed way of experiencing Kalalau, but it was still possible. So I started training a few months before my trip to at least give the Na Pali mini marathon a shot. I am by no means an ultra runner, but I do have a few things going for me. I have a decent conditioning base from hiking at home in Washington. I have long legs, which mean long strides. I am stubborn to a fault (I know, these reasons are getting progressively flimsier. This is clearly devolving into an attempt to justify a series of poor decisions. Stay with me). And I also told a few people that I was going to attempt to finish it in a day. I'm sure we all know the completely irrational pressure to finish something once we've voiced it aloud to the world and it materializes as common knowledge. Was all this going to be enough to hike Kalalau in one day though? Well, there was only way to find out.
It is encouraged that you get to the trailhead before 9:00am to find parking. I got there a little after 10:00am on Sunday and while the main lot was full, I was still able to find parking in an overflow lot less than a quarter mile from the trail head. So, parking was still available in the late morning, but it was also Super Bowl Sunday which might have skewed the turnout, especially with the broadcast time in Hawaii listed at a fairly early 1:30pm.
Departing from the trailhead, the path was clogged with bikini clad day hikers, feet sheathed in cheap dollar stores flip flops, enviously burdened only with the weight of disposable plastic water bottles and 10-quart coolers rattling with beer for the beach (there are painfully few opportunities to pass the glacial foot traffic in the first mile, courtesy of the narrow paths and sheer drop offs on the shoulders of the trail, so more than likely you will not set your best split times on the first mile if you're running this gauntlet). This pedestrian logjam continues until you reach the two mile mark at Hanakapi’ai Beach, where permits are required to hike beyond (I had purchased a permit for the day even though I didn't intend to camp. If you don't have a permit or lose it, fines can be hefty, reaching up to $500 with a mandatory court appearance).
After the two mile mark, traffic thins out and you are left only with the serious backpackers and the long-term Kalalau super chill beach bum camper/squatter types with names like Koko Moco (actual name encountered on the trail) who sometimes carry nothing more than library totes, gas station aviators and scraggily unkempt Jim Morrison looks. Everyone I encountered on the trail was disarmingly pleasant though, and I found this was really true of all my time in Kauai. People are generally very warm and welcoming.
I had to skip the Hanakapi’ai Falls detour (a popular two mile diversion to a secluded but beautiful 800 foot waterfall) due to time constrains and an unwillingness to stack another four miles on top of the bloated twenty two mile sandwich of a hike I was already in store for. I hear Hanakapai'ai is absolutely worth the trip if you have the time and energy for it though. Pushing past the falls turnoff you really start to see the scope of what you are about to take on. You catch glimpses of the Na Pali coast in the first two miles, but it really starts to open up once you leave the crowds behind.
Mile three is also the steepest climb you’ll have on your way to Kalalau beach, gaining almost 1,000 feet during that stretch, but you will be quickly rewarded with the best views yet. Lush canyons, turbulent seas and Point Break waves slide into view, betraying the coast's unforgiving reputation. It's not long before the towering Hanakoa waterfall appears in your periphery and goats stumble from the jungle brush to challenge you for trail grazing rights on the path. Thankfully these goats seem less aggressive than the gore happy mountain goats I've encountered back home in the Olympic Mountains, so the Kalalau goats tend to scatter if you shoo them down the trail.
Continuing down the coast, the middle stretch of the trail tends to be relatively innocuous until you run into Kalalau's sketchiest section at mile 7, the aptly named Crawler’s Ledge. This is the most extreme example of the narrow paths you will encounter as you are forced to shuffle precisely along a sea ledge that if mismanaged will eject you into the sea with great ease (again, not the world's safest trail).
Once you've successfully navigated Crawler’s Ledge and a few subsequent precarious pathways, you will enter the home stretch. This is where you really get your second wind. You plunge downward, cutting through the slack of a few crimson colored coastal dunes.
And after a few minutes navigating the dunes, you finally glimpse the reward for all your hard work. The elusive Kalalau Beach.
I sprinted down to the beach and arrived at 2:35pm, clocking a respectable four and a half hour trip in through a selective combination of running/power hiking. The beach was gorgeous, but it was also surprisingly barren. And in a place this scenic and well known, it's troubling to you find yourself as the lone attendee. I began to worry that all the campers had cleared out with the knowledge of some ominous tidal event heading toward the Na Pali coast (or were just watching the Superbowl on portable tvs in a cave somewhere). Thankfully a pair of scantily clad campers told me that the ghost town look of Kalalau was a recent development stemming from a raid two days ago by park rangers. They had booted whole communities of squatters and cracked down on a few illegal side businesses that had popped up (including a guy on a jet ski who was charging $125 to take people back to the trailhead, which as crazy as it sounds, is an offer I might have considered if he was still in business when I got there).
I thanked them for the info, snapped some pictures to memorialize/prove I was dumb enough to do this in a day and turned around to head back at 2:50pm, racing the fading daylight. The way back was obviously more difficult, but I still felt pretty good, even ignorantly cocky about the whole affair until about mile fifteen. That was the breakdown stretch, where huge blisters magically appeared on both my feet. Those last six or seven miles were honestly pretty miserable. It was a near repeat of coming down Mt. Saint Helens in ninety degree heat, but just slightly less miserable. Even though Kalalau is twice as long and as steep, Helens remains the misery king. Undefeated in all competitions.
I felt a bit dead by the time I finally stumbled back to the car at 8:50pm. It was easily one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, but it was apparent that this trail was not designed to be hiked in a day (at least not comfortably). It's not a safe trail to begin with, but especially not when your legs are tired and your strides start getting sloppy. Everyone on the trail told me I was crazy to attempt the one day loop, and in the end, they were right. Especially as a solo hiker. So, if you're going to attempt Kalalau, take your time, get permits to camp and cut the trail up into comfortable, leisurely sections. If you do, it will be the hike of a lifetime. It still was for me, but I could have done without the last couple of delirious, mumble filled hours.
22 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain in the books. On to Auckland! Bring on the Kiwis!
Kalalau Trailhead location: Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, HI 96714
Trail info: Kalalau Trail official site
Trip stats: 22 miles roundtrip, 5,000 feet of elevation gain, 10 hours 50 minutes travel time.
Level of difficulty: Scenically difficult/Supremely sketchy/Highly memorable
Stray observations from the Kalalau Trail:
This should not be done in a day. Seriously, people are crazy. I don't understand people and I am one.
Everyone I met on the trail was very friendly, helpful and often naked.
Water on the Kalalau trail is found in its numerous stream crossings including the two, four, six, eight and ten mile markers (consult this handy map for specific water source locations). Make sure to bring some form of filtration or water treatment supplies if you are heading out for more than a quick day hike. Not treating or filtering your water can lead to sickness.
Composting toilets are found at the two, six and eleven mile markers on the Kalalau trail. Remember to pack out any trash that you accumulate while you are enjoying the Na Pali Coast. Consult the Kalalau trail website to learn more helpful Faqs for your trip.
I’m honestly surprised there isn’t an orientation of sorts for people who hike the trail, just to cut down on accidents. I'm not necessarily advocating for more hand holding or supervision. I like the adventurous element to the hike, but it does seem like there are a lot of people underestimating the difficulty of the hike and the dangers of getting caught out on the trail after dark.
Speaking of being caught out after dark, headlamps should be in all packs regardless of how long you plan to be on the trail. Having hiked back in the dark for an hour or so, it would have been a disaster without a headlamp. I can’t stress this enough. But this is really my rule for hiking on any trail. Headlamps should always be in packs.
Trail running pack
Backup Vapur water bottle
GoPro Hero 4
Dried Mango, dried peas
Lifestraw (water filter)
Headlamp and extra batteries
Emergency kit and blister pads
Para cord aka backup laces
Gear I really should have had in my pack: Other than a Jetski? Duct Tape. The zipper on my bag popped at the trail head and Duct Tape would have been huge. I was carefully finessing things out of my bag the whole trip. It was not my favorite thing.